The Life and Times of Radio Engineering

Paul Thurst’s blog, Engineering Radio, is great new addition to the interwebs. Thurst is a working broadcast engineer. From personal experience, I’ve found that engineers are typically the most intelligent, grounded (no pun intended) and and eccentric folks at any radio station.
Today, many stations don’t even have their own engineers, and those still employed in the business often find themselves busting tail working for multiple employers, multiple stations, and without much respect.
I’ve never understood the latter: most radio station management and air talent are pretty clueless technologically, except for memorizing which buttons they need to push in the studio. If something goes awry, it’s a “crisis” – for which the engineer has to play counselor, diplomat, and technician. Broadcast engineers are the unseen and unheard heart of any radio station – without them, there would be dead air (or static).
I first got interested in Engineering Radio for the tales told about traveling to difficult transmitter sites, and the tricky and sometimes quirky problems Paul’s faced in the past. For the geeks, there’s posts about transmitters and antenna systems – how they work in the real world and how to keep them happy (gear needs love, too).
Unlike many radio engineers I’ve known, Paul also knows how to communicate. His blog is both funny and informative.
Lately, Engineering Radio’s gotten quite critical of the notion that HD Radio is the medium’s salvation. He’s written posts debunking proponents’ claims that the technology is still in “growth mode”; questioned the proprietary nature of iBiquity’s system and, most recently, lampooned the company’s announcement of HD’s newest feature: “image support.” That’s just a fancy way of saying “radio with still pictures.”
That particular concept is nothing new: shortwave pirates often begin and end broadcasts with slow-scan television images. Just because the resolution of still images and the speed with which they are broadcast will be higher in HD doesn’t make the feature all that revolutionary.
One thing most critics of HD Radio fail to take into consideration is the big-picture perspective of the technology in our 21st century media environment. The policy and marketplace development of HD Radio is not a story of evil people doing stupid things, or stupid people doing evil things: characterizing the saga in such a manner fails to indict the system of policymaking which ignorantly allowed the radio industry to facilitate its self-immolation.
This process began with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which fundamentally transformed the radio industry, giving a minority of players an inordinate amount of political and economic leverage to promulgate a digital audio broadcast standard simply not capable of competing in a convergent media environment.
The fight for – and incipient failure of – HD Radio in the United States will most likely be the lasting legacy of a wrongheaded law which unleashed consolidation and cost-cutting, turning radio away from its traditional strengths of localism and diversity, and transforming it into what is now a hollow husk of a mass medium.
The HD Radio policy proceeding also represents the capstone in a long history of the FCC ignoring or avoiding substantive questions of who and what represents ‘the public interest,” and clearly illustrates the agency’s move away from basing policy on firm technical information toward purely economic rationales.
Having more sites like Engineering Radio online can only help to thicken the very justifiable criticism of HD Radio; it’s easy to dismiss hyperbole, but less so to ignore facts and real-world observations compellingly documented by people who understand how the system actually works.