Chapter Eight

Talk, Automation, and Duopoly, 1985-1995

FM's dominance over AM continued into the late '80s. By 1987, listeners over the age of 12 had shifted to FM by a 3 to 1 margin, nationally (Petrozello, 1994, p. 45). Many AM stations began abandoning music programming for talk in the 1980's (Eastman and Ferguson, 1997, p. 378). Talk show hosts who were delivered to markets nationwide via relatively inexpensive-to-operate satellite technology, Rush Limbaugh in particular (Viles, 1992, p. 55), became household names in the 1980's in a fashion not seen since network radio's so-called Golden Age of the 1930's and '40s (Eastman and Ferguson, 1997, p. 389). Commentator Paul Harvey had maintained a level of national recognition over the ABC radio network beginning in the '60s and continuing through ABC's division into four networks in the '70s and '80s. WEBC had ABC's Paul Harvey already and had been presenting Bruce Williams of ABC Talknet in the evenings. On November 20, 1990, Limbaugh was added in a format change to all talk (Walter, 1997). In 1992, the station would acquire radio's third "household name," Larry King, who had previously run in the late night time period on rival KDAL. King had chosen to switch to the daytime hours and KDAL had a conflict with the Minnesota Twins broadcasts. WEBC got the Larry King Show affiliation (R. Johnson, 1997).

Talk programming, with its blocks of show segments separated by sets of commercial availabilities, lent itself to automated operation and most medium and small market radio stations running talk utilized automatic switching equipment. Shrinking AM audiences and economics drove this process (Petrozello, 1994, p. 47). Equipment costs could be amortized, while operator expenses, including wages, social security taxes, and other hidden costs, went on and on. As with the decision to drop transmitter engineers in 1969, automation was an easy route to take. The old WAVC(FM) automation system was put into place. It used a small personal computer that Paul Kero characterizes today as "not very sophisticated." (1997). Purely a sequential system, it was also inflexible. Once the system got out of proper sequence it was difficult to correct, according to Kero (ibid.). A leaky roof came to the rescue.

The flat roof on the 9th Street Building has leaked a number of times during WEBC's ownership of it. In the spring of 1991, rainwater leaked into the old automation gear, ruining it. With the insurance money, Northland Broadcasting's owners, Brill Media, acquired a then-new computer-based automation system called Audisk. Made by a Northfield, Minnesota company, Audisk was designed to run music. WEBC's installation was one of only a few that the company had performed and was the first to use Audisk for talk programming. Certain parts of the software were written on the spot at WEBC, to be incorporated into future Audisk programs (ibid.). The computer hard drive stored all commercials, public service announcements, and station promotional spots. Jingles, weather, station identifications, and drop-in lines were all digitally stored by Audisk. Each day needed each local commercial break to be set up by the all night FM operator, who used a printed Program Log for reference and typed in the slot number of each commercial on the log. These commercials had to be organized into spot clusters of specified length, usually two to three minutes, as set by the talk shows' distributors in their format clocks. Most of the time, the local commercial load in an hour would not exactly match the number of minutes in the breaks, so promos and PSA's were plugged in as filler. Unneeded breaks were left empty and the satellite network would fill with its own national PSA's (R. Johnson, 1997).

Every day meant 24 computer screens had to be loaded. When a late commercial came in, the new ad would get a cart number, which was really an Audisk slot designation, and then that number would be added, using a keyboard, substituted in the schedule for a PSA or promo logged into an existing break. If no such pre-emptible item was to be found, an unused break would be opened and filled with the new spot and enough other matter to complete the specified length of the break. It was rare for WEBC to be totally sold out (ibid.).

Each memory slot could hold one commercial. Some numbers were formatted to be as short as 5 seconds, for drop-ins. There were some 450 slots of 30 and 60 seconds duration and there were a couple of 5-minute memory slots to hold entire Paul Harvey broadcasts. If a client wished to use only one commercial, it was fine. In the event of multiple cuts to be rotated, WEBC had a problem. Audisk would only play from one slot number, whatever was typed in for a given break, so Traffic had to develop a system for rotating the spot numbers on the printed log that was used to program Audisk each day. Commercial traffic schedules were required to include as many separate "cart numbers" as there were individual versions of the same client's commercial. If there were four cuts in rotation, four slots were needed. For all its faults, Audisk was far more flexible than its predecessor, had top-notch digital audio quality, and was capable of running WEBC on its own for the majority of every hour. It wasn't just the transmitter at Parkland that was not staffed for legal operation. Now for the majority of the broadcast day WEBC didn't need anybody in the studio, either.

WEBC's satellite receiving and decoding equipment was added-to as needed, daisy-chained in a string of color-coded units in two equipment racks (R. Johnson, 1997). A series of toggle switches, thumb wheels, and push buttons needed to be set in a certain pattern to receive any given program. In most evening hours and on weekends, satellite receiver transponder numbers needed to be changed during the local commercial interval between a talk show and the ABC network news. These changes were generally done by the WAVC(FM) deejay, since he or she was the only person in the building. There was a narrow window, sometimes as short as 30 seconds, in which the FM operators could make the change and they had to be careful not to get caught with a song ending at the exact moment WEBC needed to switch. Their first priority had to be to maintain the music flow on WAVC(FM), which was much more highly-rated and commercially-profitable. Yet, a late switching change on WEBC would result in the wrong programming being broadcast--- the Mutual network's news instead of ABC, for example--- or there would be dead air. For one reason or another, generally dealing with Audisk's daily programming or the presence on the hard drive of out-dated commercials, Audisk locked up and dead air occurred. There was enough dead air from time to time, sometimes several times a day, that a Silence Sensor was installed. This device would be triggered after a preset amount of dead air, usually five seconds. The Silence Sensor would fire a separately-mounted cartridge tape machine loaded with five minutes of public service announcements. An alarm light would flash to tell the FM deejay to correct the problem, normally a matter of moving the on-screen cursor to the right item in the switching list or re-booting the Audisk system itself. (ibid.).

Audisk would seriously lock up often enough to warrant keeping magnetic tape carts of each commercial as backup. Carts were also used by Dave Walter, the WEBC Program Director and News Director, for hours in which he ran the console, on a live basis (Walter, 1997). News sound bites were kept on cart and never were placed on Audisk. The practical operation at WEBC was a hybrid of digital and analog, both automated and locally-run (R. Johnson, 1997).

Another problem cropped up with satellite reception. There were two periods in the year, spring and fall, when the sun in its apparent path across the sky would coincide with the satellite's coordinates and a period would begin during which the satellite reciver would only produce static, a Sun Outage. These times are known in advance, though never calculated closer than to within a few minutes either way of actual start and finish. No signal is receivable for several minutes during a Sun Outage and a live operator would have to be on hand, ready with fill material; an extra forecast, news headlines, and a few commercials if it were to be a few minutes. In longer outages, a taped portion of the talk show that was supposed to be airing would be played during the interval. Even the receiving dish itself was susceptible to trouble, particularly accumulations of snow that would change the parabolic shape enough to miss the pickup unit at the focus. Signs were posted to sweep out the dish during snowstorms (ibid.).

WEBC's Parkland transmitter site had suffered from two decades of having no on-site engineers. Shrubs and substantial trees grew over the ground system. The building was in disrepair and portions were being used for cold storage of financial records in stacks of banker's boxes (ibid.). As mentioned before, holes had been crudely sledge-hammered through partitions to connect new satellite and microwave receiving equipment to the transmitter. The deterioration was finally halted as the Brill Media ownership began a period of refurbishment in the early 90's (ibid.).

A newly-developed Optimod signal processor was placed in the audio line just prior to the transmitter to compress audio levels for optimal modulation and to equalize the audio to emphasize the frequencies used in human speech. This device was the first to offer customization by format--- music or talk, AM or FM. WEBC's loudness, which is a subjective listener-perception measure, improved greatly. Worn out relay contact points in the directional system were cleaned and/or replaced in 1994. The shrubbery was cut (ibid).

Audisk was far from state of the art in just a few years and, company-wide, Brill decided to follow a growing radio trend away from analog tape and primitive Audisk-style automation to totally digital production and scheduling. In the summer of 1995, preparations began for the installation of a system made by Scott Studios of Dallas. These preparations included creation of connecting cables of exactly the same length, no matter how far apart the pieces of equipment that was to connect were located (Kero, 1997). Digital delivery systems have such critical tolerances that a foot or two of difference in cable length might introduce enough electrical resistance to affect the signal. In July, a Roland DM-800 digital recorder arrived and routine reel-to-reel commercial production ceased (R. Johnson, 1997). In August of 1995, WEBC and WAVC(FM) switched to Scott and most of the equipment in the building that used magnetic tape was rendered obsolete. The reel to reel and cartridge tape machines were removed from the WAVC(FM) control room. Analog tape was kept in WEBC's control room and was used for news sound bites, on cartridge tape, and as emergency backup for talk shows, on reel-to-reel tape. Sun outages still occurred and needed to be covered (ibid.).

The Scott Studios touchscreen system allowed WEBC to truly operate on a hands-off basis for hours, even days. The system consists of a "PB" or playback unit and a "Troll" or controller unit that includes a touchscreen display for manual operation and totally automatic scheduling of all commercials and programs when desired. Two full-color computer screens now stood above the WEBC audio console and Audisk's yellow monochrome display was removed. WEBC's Scott PB came with 9 gigabytes of memory, enough to hold all of the commercials, public service announcements, and promos--- in a similar fashion to Audisk--- but in a more readily retrievable manner (Move Up from Carts, 1996). Multiple versions of a single sponsor's commercial could be rotated automatically. It utilized two sound cards so commercials, jingles, and other items could be cross-faded or two could be played on the air at once, with one audio cut run as a voice-over on another (R. Johnson, 1997). Announcers could prerecord positioning lines and the lines could be made to mix with standard signature music or jingles, for example. The result is a very live sound, difficult to distinguish from the sound of stations that use an in-studio operator. In truth, poorly-trained or inattentive minimum-wage board operators would probably miss a switching assignment more frequently than the Scott System ever does.

The first practical advantage to the company of the Scott System was that the WAVC(FM) announcer was no longer needed to change transponders and channels on the satellite receiver. A new satellite receiver, compatible with the Scott system, was switched by computer command. Transponder changes occurred routinely, far more reliably than ever was the case with the at-times distracted FM deejays. Next-day delay of the hour-long Doctor Dean Edell show was handled automatically, triggered by the Scott Troll at the proper time of day. The PB recorded the entire program on the hard drive and played it back the following day when prompted by the Troll's schedule (R. Johnson, 1997).

Deregulation of radio had begun under the Reagan administration and in the early 90's included a relaxation of ownership rules (Pember, 1996, p. 518). A new expression entered the world of broadcasting: duopoly (Eastman and Ferguson, 1997, p. 358). This rule, relaxed even further under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, allowed more than just one FM and one AM to be owned in a market by one entity (Meadows, 1996). First there was one competitor that operated a duopoly of four stations. Later that group was in turn purchased by the Shockley KDAL-based company to make a six-station conglomerate. It was time to expand Brill Media's Duluth holdings and the company went shopping (R. Johnson, 1997). In late 1995, duopoly hit WEBC as a third station was added to the Northland Broadcasting family, KLXK(FM). It had been broadcasting a satellite service featuring '60s/'70s Oldies. Management decided to keep the format, and using the versatility of the Scott System, to originate everything locally from the hard drive. KLDJ(FM), or "Cool 1-OH-1-point-7", joined the WEBC family (ibid.).

Thus stood WEBC as 1995 ended, 71 years after its start. Operationally, human beings created the hourly template logs in the Troll indicating placement of spot breaks and news. Information on commercial scheduling from advertising sales orders was entered by a human clerk, processed by Traffic software, transferred to a floppy disk, and loaded onto the Scott merging station. Preset hourly templates would guide the merger of Traffic and Programming in the computer. Commercials were recorded digitally and "dubbed" onto the hard drive in the production room. They were then downloaded to WEBC's PB unit by production personnel. Human beings still were necessary to support the daily operation of the station, but for many hours every day, WEBC operated with no assistance from living, breathing people (ibid). The smooth computer switching, coupled with audio fidelity better than any analog AM transmitter is capable of sending out, had improved the overall sound of WEBC from recent years. Yet, it seems that something was lost along the way from Walter

Bridges winding up the spring drive in his Victrola, tip-toeing around while a live microphone was picking up the music from an acoustic horn. In place of Bridges and all the subsequent announcers, musicians, and deejays that have worked at WEBC over its 71 years of life, there is just a quiet room with a colorful computer screen glowing away.

Works Cited

Eastman, L. and Ferguson, D. (1997). Broadcast/Cable Programming. Belmont CA: Wadsworth.

Johnson, R. (1997). Personal recollection. Audio cassette.

Kero, P. (1996, October 1). Telephone interview on audio cassette.

Meadows, J. (1996, Winter). Telecommunications Act of 1996. Georgia Computer Law Section Newsletter.

Meys, W. (1997, February 13). Interview on audio cassette.

Move Up from Carts to Touchscreen Digital Audio. (1996, June 26). Radio World. Display advertisement, by Scott Studios, p. 8.

Pember, D. (1996). Mass Media Law. Madison WI: Brown & Benchmark.

Petrozello, D. AM Savors Sound of Success. (1994, October 10). Broadcasting & Cable. pp. 45-47.

Viles, P. AM Radio's One-Man Comeback. (1992, May 4). Broadcasting. pp. 55-56.

Walter, D. (1997, April 2). Telephone interview.