The Elephant in the room is a time bomb: Des DeCean

Des DeCean, former Director of Technology for the Austereo radio network follows up our earlier report with this article with more thoughts on better maintenance and updating of studio and transmission equipment.

I was reminded of the importance of staying on air at all times when in the early days of SAFM (then 5SSA FM –or “Double SAFM”), if we ever had an off air event – (and there were a few in the early days), Paul Thompson the CEO would come into Master Control where I would invariably be in a cold sweat attempting a transmitter change or getting an alternate studio to air and relocating a jock.

Paul would stand behind me and count out loud in seconds while we were off air. Paul’s policy was if we were off air for more than 5 seconds – that was long enough for the listener to press a button on their radio and go to another station, and then there was no guarantee that you would ever get that listener back.

A tough rule – but it’s all about respect for your listener and your advertisers who have entrusted you with their advertising dollars!

There is an irony in the fact that as technology has become more complex and has taken over every aspect of the business and indeed improved business efficiencies incredibly, the very skills that are required to maintain these technologies are becoming a thing of the past in many stations. An attitude of “she’ll be right” has crept in as staff numbers have been culled often with no engineers left or one or two spread thinly between a number of stations.

Preventative maintenance (PM) – What’s that?

There’s an old saying amongst Engineers – It’s not a case of “if it will fail” but “when it will fail.”

Preventative maintenance is about fixing potential faults before they happen and providing a high level of attention to the most vulnerable points of failure in the broadcast system. It’s about ensuring that software and hardware are updated according to manufacturer’s recommendations.

Electronic equipment whilst it has a lot of smarts built in – is not fool proof and is still prone to failure due to component failure. Premature failure of components can occur – due to manufacturing issues or poor quality control etc. Heat is also the enemy with capacitors and other components suffering from accelerated aging if not maintained at their design temperature. Inadequate air-conditioning in control rooms and equipment locations will speed up the aging process and increase the likelihood of failure of equipment. In any case many components just have a finite life and this needs to be recognised through a PM program.

Failure of moving parts is a red hot high risk area. Most computer based equipment and other professional units rely on internal fans to keep the equipment cool. If the fan fails or the air filters are not cleaned regularly components overheat and the time bomb starts ticking louder! Spinning Hard Drives are another huge risk area that can result in loss of critical data if not maintained appropriately and swapped out toward the end of their recommended life.

Equipment  such as UPS’s provide stable conditioned power and can maintain the station on air during short power breaks but these units rely on batteries which have a finite life and must be replaced at regular intervals.

Preventative maintenance takes time to plan and requires a schedule that sees points of weakness being attended to on a regular basis. Most engineers are so time poor in stations these days that PM is a thing of the past.

Redundant Systems do you have them?

It’s been a tradition in Australian Broadcasting to have a standby on air studio to cover in case a studio fails.

What about all the equipment in the control room that makes up the program path to the transmitter(s)? Is there full redundancy there in the form of a backup system or secondary path? Thankfully most stations particularly in the commercial sector have a redundant path of some from, but is it tested regularly to see that it can actually work when called on? Can it be switched into service easily? Are there alarms to advise on air staff of failure? Many stations don’t monitor off air audio in the studio these days due to Digital latency issues so alarm monitoring is of paramount importance

Transmitters:  Out of sight – out of mind

All of the above points I have raised apply equally to transmitter sites and then some! This often forgotten critical component of the business is another area that requires skilled engineers to ensure that it is maintained appropriately and in particular has a preventative maintenance program in place. Whilst the maintenance of the transmitters themselves might be contracted out as is often the case, the program input equipment rack with its computers and equipment with fans etc may not be maintained to the required level that will prevent failure. Many contracts are based on fault rectification not preventative maintenance.

We don’t have the staff to do this stuff

Sadly this is pretty much the case in many stations these days. Preventative maintenance is the first thing that is dropped (and in Many cases never existed) because priority is given to providing new facilities and fixing faults after they have occurred.

A lack of appropriately skilled people in the station is the core issue here. On my watch at Austereo, in addition to our skilled  engineers we employed a trainee engineer in each Metro market so that we were maintaining a skill base that would ensure ongoing sustainability of the skills required for the business.

A possible solution for stations that are understaffed in the technical area would be to have an independent consultant carry out a risk assessment of the station then bring in contractors to carry out any recommended work. A preventative maintenance program could be set up and maintained on an ongoing basis

It’s an investment area that you don’t see any immediate benefit from, but it is insurance that will keep your business in operation into the future. It’s akin to white ant treating your home.

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