30th Anniversary - From Landlines to Sound Cards - Technology Soars through 30 Years
Radio/television engineer Jim Newbanks found the prospect tremendously appealing. The year was 1974, and he was moving to Springfield from Carbondale to get in on the ground floor of a radio/ television station under development on the campus of a new university in the state capital. Jim had been working for WSIU TV/FM at Southern Illinois University and was intrigued by this potentially challenging professional venture.
On July 1 of that year, Newbanks began his 19-year career with WSSR as chief broadcast engineer. His charge was to get the station on the air in a matter of months. Although plans for a television station were delayed indefinitely because of cost concerns, this would prove to be a rare period in the radio station’s history in that funds were readily available to purchase some of the better equipment on the market at the time. “At that point, we had ample budget to fill the studios and get started,” noted Newbanks.
Although the budget allowed for new equipment that was among the most reliable, the station could not afford to build redundancy into the broadcast operations, and it was forced to rely on a single source for transmission. WSSR’s signal was sent via microwave through a studio to transmitter link (STL) to the 524-foot transmitting tower located nine miles away in Mechanicsburg.
Without a backup system, the station’s signal was at the mercy of storms, power failures, and interference of every sort that could send the signal down for hours or, in some cases, days. Eventually, the station was able to add a second STL, another transmitter, and an emergency power generator. “That was a big relief because with the equipment, you never knew if one piece was holding everything else together, and the signal could go down at any time,” emphasized Newbanks.
The early years also brought their share of broadcast challenges related to programming. National Public Radio (NPR) programs, including All Things Considered, were transmitted via telephone landlines, which invited both technical problems and static interference. At last, in 1979, satellite distribution of network radio began when NPR went up on "the bird." During the same year, the Public Broadcasting Service began regular transmissions over its all-satellite distribution network. The difference in the quality of the sound was stunning.
In 1980, fellow broadcast engineer, Jim Dunn, was hired on full-time. At the time, stations required radio operators to hold a first class commercial radio license and take regular readings to measure and adjust the station’s antenna, transmitter, and frequency. During the coming decade that requirement would disappear and numerous other changes would take place as advancements in broadcast technology exploded.
Today, computers monitor and adjust the station’s frequency and transmitter and radio operators have been replaced by radio technology. “You input the constants and if anything drifts from that point it corrects itself. It’s like the cruise control on your car. Tiny, fingernail-sized computer chips watch everything closely,” explains Dunn.
Broadcast studios were originally built with equipment using discrete components that could be repaired onsite but in time replacement equipment contained integrated circuits and microprocessors, which became increasingly difficult to repair at the station. At that point entire electronic modules were replaced. In addition, huge strides have been made in recording technologies. “When I first came here, we had reel-to-reel tape machines and LP records. From there we branched off to cassette tapes, and the LPs were replaced with compact discs,” noted Dunn.
Today the WUIS studios are fully computerized and virtually all of the station’s digital recordings are stored in sound files on the computer. “Now almost everything we do is recorded on the hard drive,” notes Dunn.
The technological advancements have had a dramatic impact on news production in particular. Rather than lugging around bulky tape recorders and multiple input and output cords, reporters use mini disc portable technology, which is similar in size to a Walkman. It allows audio to be transferred in real-time to the computer hard drive for editing purposes. Soon the news department will transition to the Marantz PMD660, which is the latest innovation in recording portability in the field. It records audio on a "flash card" much like digital cameras do. The sound file is then uploaded directly to the computer hard drive for editing.
“We use the computer for editing, recording, and mixing the stories,” explained WUIS News Director Rich Bradley. “We also use the computer for controlling the programming on the radio station. It replaced the old cart machine. There is a virtual cart machine in the news room, when we have an audio spot in a story a key stroke on the computer activates the audio. That’s improved the sound quality and the production time considerably.”
While some of the transitions to new formats brought challenges as well as more than a few headaches, each change has enabled the station to improve the transmission and audio quality of the programming delivered. As for anticipated technological advances heading our way in the next 30 years, Dunn says we haven’t seen anything yet.
And before retiring in 2005 after 25 years at WUIS, Dunn set the stage for WUIS’ next technological advance – digital conversion.