Efficiency vs. Resilience

Rick SklarOn November 9, 1965, around 5:21pm in the afternoon, WABC listeners heard something unusual coming through the speakers on their battery powered transistor radios. WABC was playing Jonathan King’s “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” but it sounded different. It sounded like it needed a shot of Geritol, as the recording turned slower and slower. Even WABC’s famous chime was off key, and popular afternoon personality Dan Ingram tried to make fun of what was happening. You can hear that moment by clicking HERE.

The 1965 Northeast Blackout

As it was happening what no one knew, was that the power grid was collapsing. Inside Dan Ingram’s studio, the lights were flickering, the music cartridges were playing at slower and slower speeds and the journalists in the WABC newsroom were beginning to see the wire services report that city after city along the Eastern seaboard were going dark.dan ingram 1965

From Maine to New Jersey, America was experiencing a regional power grid failure. Many radio stations without emergency generators were silenced, but WABC was still on the air due to the station’s transmitter facility being located in Lodi, New Jersey. New Jersey was on a different power grid than New York City.

WABC would rush Dan Ingram to Lodi with a stack of records and have him continue his show from there.

Rick Sklar & Building Resilience

Rocking AmericaRick Sklar wrote in his book “Rocking America” that the blackout helped him to focus his attention on technical reliability. “A station can have the best mix of music and the top jingles, but if the tapes break, the cartridges jam, or the music fidelity is off, the ratings (aka audience) begin to evaporate,” Sklar wrote.

Early in his tenure as the program director at WABC, Sklar would be frustrated by the technical obstacles that got in the way of his building Music Radio 77 into the #1 radio station in The Big Apple.

Lessons Learned at NASA

When America was ready to put a man on the moon, Sklar decided he wanted to be there for that significant moment in history.

He was fascinated by the confidence of NASA that they would land men on the moon and bring them back home safely. He was envious of their certainty and of their equipment and systems to get the job done. He wanted to attain that same kind of certainty for WABC when he returned home to New York.

In drilling down mission control’s engineering confidence, he learned that NASA used triple measurement and triple backup on everything. Sklar would learn from Walter Häusermann, the man who designed the guidance systems for the V-2 rockets, and those of the Apollo command module, “If two of the three readings on any measurement agree, we assume that it is the third meter and not our readout that is at fault.”

WABC Builds Resilience

When Rick Sklar got back home, he began to implement what he had learned at NASA, in the operations at WABC. He built two identical main control rooms and made sure a production studio could act as an air studio if needed. He built the studios with eight cart machines, instead of the previous five, three being ready in case of a failure of any of the primary five machines. He had every one of the two thousand-odd cartridges that made up the WABC sound, duplicated for each studio. The studio to transmitter broadcast land lines were broken into a northern and southern route from the main studios to the transmitter site in Lodi, with a microwave link as the third method for delivering programming to the transmitter.

George Michael WABC in NASA inspired studio

George Michael at WABC in NASA inspired air studio (photo by Frank D’Elia)

Rick Sklar had thoroughly reviewed every element of the operation and implemented ample redundancy to insure a consistent and reliable delivery system for his programming.

Resiliency in People

There’s only so much repetition in equipment that can protect you from disruptions, in order to truly have a “fail-safe” operation, you must have good backup people.

And there’s the real rub in today’s radio world. Where are the people?

As I wrote in last week’s blog, Good Money After Bad, the need to build efficiency in my Sussex, New Jersey radio property saw the elimination of not only full-time employees but the backup people so critical in providing the over-the-air and online services so necessary during times of winter storms.

Global Pandemic

COVID19 is revealing the tradeoffs between building operating systems for efficiency, versus resiliency. These tradeoffs have been occurring in all areas of corporate America, not just broadcasting. This pandemic presents us all with opportunities to rethink of how prepared we are to handle a Black Swan Event. It also has shown us ,simply doing things the way they’ve always been done, isn’t necessarily how they can be done or should be done going forward.

Resiliency and efficiency are polar opposites and every business needs to mind its bottom line and deliver a profit to stay in business. The leaders will learn to invest in resilience efficiently.

Look for that to be the in demand skill in all companies as we digest the lessons of this global event.

 

12 Comments

Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio

12 responses to “Efficiency vs. Resilience

  1. I am honestly shocked at the almost seamless way, so many in the broadcast media have been able to use today’s technology to adapt to broadcasting in a pandemic! So many radio friends are now sitting in their homes and apartments, doing their daily shows on local stations or satellite radio like it’s the most normal thing in the world. Folks in TV are using IPhones and other easy technology to provide news inserts, and indeed entire news programs from their basements, laundry rooms, or back yard barns! Even shows like Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives or My Lottery Dream Home on the Discovery Networks, have been able to film episodes with GoPros and similar equipment, and in the process save the network almost $300,000 per hour in production costs!

    The time we’ve spent under the stay at home orders during this pandemic has changed the way our world operates, and I doubt it will ever be the same again. All over our country, companies have learned that what was always assumed to be fact, when push came to shove, turned out not to be true. Everybody didn’t have to be under the same roof to get the job done. Being at a desk, feet from others you are working with, isn’t the only way to work. Being creative, thinking outside the box, and giving new meaning to the word resilient has shown that the words “you can’t do that” should be stricken from our lexicon of work phrases!

    Back in the late 70s, when I was sitting in WABC’s Studio 8A, running that Rubert Neve custom board for the George Michael Show, there was no way I could predict that Broadcast Technology would find us where we are today. 40+ years from when I took that picture, the world has changed so much, and our ability to adapt to different situations has so gone through the roof. To my mind, however, the one element that hasn’t changed is good people! Spending a little more to get the best person in the job, is a better investment than all the technology in the world, because without the right folks to use that technology, we might as well return to the dark ages.

    Resilience is the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. With the right people in place, everything is possible! Your employees are NOT a unnecessary drain on your bottom line. Your employees ARE the reason your business functions, in good times, bad times, and in a pandemic!

    Frank

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dick,
    Great blog.
    We were off the air last week when our exciter went out. We had two backups, but both wouldn’t fire up. Lesson: check your backup frequently.
    I was amazed how many stations were not set up for remote voicetracking or access capabilites and had to scramble to put pieces in place for this crisis.

    This blog is a good reminder, to test your backups, and review your checklist.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Randy Kabrich

    Why go back to 1965?

    On May 19, about a month ago, as CBS TV Affiliates In the East and Central Time Zones switched to their feed of the CBS Evening News at 6:30PM, they were in for a rude awaking.

    The color bars stayed up. And the seconds started counting past the :30:00 mark.

    After what seemed like an agonizing amount of time, though only seconds, CBS Promos started airing for their TV Series. Problem was, these were only 10-15 second promos for CBS Programming and after 90 seconds they started repeating themselves.

    Worse yet, the regular season had just ended and most of these shows were no longer in day/time slot promoted.

    Even worse, Hawaii 5-0 had ended its Series several weeks earlier and would never be seen again on Friday at 9.

    Mercifully after about 8 minutes of this disaster, CBS Master Control Switched to a local CBSN Feed for the rest of the Broadcast. Not that it had much better content, but at least it was in the right category.

    I know the Engineering Team at CBS very well as I have worked with them on several network distribution issues. They are top notch and known for their redundancy.

    But it seems that’s something has changed. Is it the Viacom take over? The numerous cutbacks? Or is it just the attitude of those who now manage the Programming?

    Most likely a little of all of it.

    10 years ago I worked with a Company who decided to loosen Corporate oversight of their Radio Properties. Those higher up the Corporate Structure who were used to seeing the 8 and 9 figure revenue from Newspapers looked at the “small” million or two from a Radio Property and stated at the top level “Let the local people do what the want. It’s only a Radio Station What’s the worst that can happen.” In Newspaper, a Publisher was God. Give that to the local market manager.

    The power was given to the bean counters who then just told market manager how much revenue they were expected to deliver. No care was given to how it got there.

    Today no one at the highest levels thinks about “what can happen”. If they have a redundant site, great. But what is airing on that redundant site if an emergency happens?

    It’s only a Station. What’s the worse that can happen?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Randy, when you and I got into the radio business, it was a calling. People were dedicated to producing great radio and super serving their communities of license. Sadly, those days gave way to venture capitalists and Wall Street, whose only interest in the business was growing their money for a few years and getting out to invest in a newer growth area. Consolidation also produced ownership by people who often couldn’t find the radio stations they now owned on a map. Best Practices replaced common sense and the realities on the ground.

      Your story cuts deep to those of us who spent our careers in the broadcasting business. Thank You for taking the time to share it.
      -DT

      Like

  4. Mark Roberts

    Walkthroughs and training are important, too, as is thinking through likely use cases or scenarios in the event recovery from downtime is required. Personal example from one morning 35 years ago, on KTRH in Houston, all-news, 50,000 watts, morning drive. Houston awakened to hear…tapes of beautiful music on 740 AM. What happened? A two-dollar capacitor in one of our audio processors ahead of the STL blew out, blocking the audio signal. That triggered an automated tape system at the transmitter site about an hour away. Just a month earlier, to save money, the station had quit stationing engineers at the site after the FCC eased some requirements (DA-2 with a critical pattern at night). So at least the tape system worked, but it sure wasn’t all-news. It was intended to bridge the gap for a short period of time until someone could get to the transmitter and bypass the STL. A simple phone connection, albeit with lower quality than usual, could’ve gotten us back on the air. The newsroom was staffed with an editor on duty. But no one thought to call in an engineer to get out to the transmitter and jury-rig something. Finally, our managing editor woke up at 6:30 am, heard what was going on, and called the chief engineer. I was on afternoon shift, thus missing all the action, but we sure heard about it afterwards. Training and documented procedures could easily have enabled the staff to avoid the whole affair. I knew the engineers well and one of them showed me the capacitor: It was called an “Atom”. You never know what will fail.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank You for sharing that story Mark. I appreciate you stopping by today’s blog to read it and add your experience to what I wrote.
      -DT

      Like

    • Randy Kabrich

      Same thing happened to 50,000 watt WGN in Chicago around 20 years ago. Only problem was the tapes were not music, but some supposedly “non-dated” talk episodes.

      Problem was the tape hadn’t been updated in a decade(s) and the station, the hosts were no longer on WGN as the station had been revamped and was it was pretty much as if you were listening in the twilight zone.

      Liked by 1 person

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