December 31, 2018

FTV: New Year, New Tech Part 2

     We left off Part 1 around 1997 with the newly remodeled WOAS-FM studio approaching the cusp of the new millennium with a new studio layout and all new electronic hardware.  There were still things to be done but operating a radio station isn’t much different that owning a car or home: there is always something wearing out that will need attention.  It is probably time we added ‘technology’ to the old sayings, “Time and tide wait for no one” and “The only sure things are death and taxes.” The last twenty years of the WOAS timeline of technology certainly would support upgrading these old maxims to include ‘tech support’.

    Now that things were humming along, equipment-wise, we had enough students and community volunteers to run a pretty diverse schedule of programming.  When a live DJ wasn’t available, the slot was filled with canned programs we received on either cassette tape or CD. One of the newer pieces of equipment in our production studio was a CD burner that we used for a number of tasks.  We still relied on our dual cassette machine during the day because it gave us three hours of programming that would loop back to the beginning. If a DJ was absent during the day, we were assured that there would always be something on the air.  In the evening, the problem was a little different because we didn’t want to loop the same music over and over. Using the CD burner, we were able to create station identification spots that could be used when we programmed canned shows and multiple CDs to air on autopilot.  Each CD would be separated from the next with one of the ID spots and at the end of the day, the station’s ‘WOAS is now leaving the air’ message.

    In the late 1990s, my home computer was in need of a serious upgrade so I had made arrangements with a former student to build me new one.  During this project, Mark offered to help us configure a server to stream audio and video from our studio. The first platforms we used were converted from two large rolling servers that were handed down to us from the tech department.  Named ‘Kang’ and ‘Kodos’ (names familiar to any fans of The Simpsons), they were perfect for introducing a new level of technology to the studio, but in the end K & K proved rather fussy and   underpowered for our needs. Mark dug into his stash of technological bits and pieces and fashioned upgraded versions of Kang and Kodos that he surprised us with.  The units worked great, but because we feed our signal through the Intermediate School District network that runs out of the ISD offices in Hancock, it took some coordination with them to make sure everything played well together.  The audio feed worked out fine as did the feed from our rooftop weather station. It was the video feed that gave us fits and it would be another dozen years before both the ISD’s equipment and our expertise would provide us with a stable visual presence on the web.

    When the ISD upgraded their systems (something that is always being done to keep up with the needs of their large clientele across the Copper Country), Kang and Kodos were rapidly becoming ‘old technology’.  We saved our pennies and built up enough of a war chest to purchase a new server, monitor and power backup unit to replace the K-boys. Mark had moved on to a new job playing with technology in the real world, and our new ‘Mark’ turned out to be Tyler who was living the dream as a DJ (studio and dances) and became our on site techie.  He was responsible for installing our Emergency Messaging System (EMS) and tweaking some of our server functions. He also converted our handwritten studio log to a computer based system. We leaned on Tyler quite a bit even after he graduated to his own real world tech job, but both he and Mark are still an e-mail away when we run into some new glitch that doesn’t magically fix itself.

    We had an array of tech people working with the school district throughout the early 2000s and the support network staff at the ISD have been invaluable to keeping us visible on the web.  When we found out techie intern Steven had actually set up a website for his old high school radio station, we hired him to get us in a stable mode. It took some months to iron out the glitches, but by the time Steve graduated from MTU and headed out to his new techie career, things were running smoothly and most problems were small and easy to diagnose and fix.  The site one sees when visiting was the result of Steve’s efforts, and as we alluded to earlier, “Time, tide, and technology” keep advancing and we must adapt when it does.

    To give everyone an example of this last statement, let us go back to mid-winter of 2018 when our studio video feed disappeared.  I ran through the normal checklist of things that might have caused the problem but came up empty handed. I tried contacting tech support at UStream but couldn’t get anyone there to respond.  The ISD techies came to the rescue when I asked them for help. One of them pestered UStream until they finally got an answer: UStream had dropped their free video streaming service without so much as notifying their users (or if they did, I missed it).  They offered to replace it with a paid service that we could not afford.

    Once again, our friendly ISD techies began to work the problem.  There are a number of them that work on rotating shifts so I can’t even begin to thank them by name, but over the space of several months, they explored other options that would allow our radio station to be seen on the web again.  When they recommended that our video feed be switched to TwitchTV, it took a few helpdesk sessions with the ISD techs to get us up and rolling again. We let it run for some weeks and once deemed it a reliable feed, they replaced the link on the station website from UStream to Twitch TV.  Clicking the ‘Live Stream’ icon again gives our listeners a way to see and hear WOAS-FM online.

    A quick scan of the studio in 2019 shows that most of the equipment upgrades made twenty years ago are still serving us well.  We wore out and replaced our CD burner, one studio mic, and a cassette player over the years. Our newest DJs classify using the cassette player in the same category that I used for the ‘wind up Victrola’ when I was their age: ‘ancient’.  It still performs the same function it did when we first installed it: it keeps us on the air when there isn’t a DJ in the studio. With many of them using playlists off their phones, they are even drifting away from playing CDs to a large degree.  Just to make sure that they don’t lose their working knowledge of the basic studio gear, I force them to have a ‘no phone or computer’ broadcast week every so often to prove they can still play music off CDs.

    When the district switched to an internet based phone system, we were happy to see that they did not forget to replace the studio phone this time.  It took a longer cable to hook us up as our internet connection is in the production studio and the phone is in the broadcast studio. There are times when the DJs can’t hear the phone ring so we took the additional step of installing a strobe light that flashes in the production studio for incoming calls.  We maintained our Extension 113 number, but for some reason the school website has a different number for the studio (and yes, it is another little problem that we has to be fixed in the new year).

    Back in the day, student volunteers spent hours stringing phone lines to the cafetorium, gymnasium and school board meeting room (which is now a computer lab) so remote broadcasts could be done from anywhere in the school.  With the advent of wireless technology, we have the ability to do the same type of remotes without the need of wires, but it is on our list of ‘one day we will give this a try’ things. We have already been able to utilize the wireless nodes with devices in the studio and will soon be getting a new chromebook for studio use.  The last time Tyler paid us a visit to help install a new input for a second computer/phone input to the board, he mentioned that our old ‘punch board’ interface was getting a little long in the tooth. If things go according to the plan, we hope to see if there is a newer piece of technology that will replace this unit in the future.

    Just to be clear, I am not whining about the things that break down or need to be upgraded.  These are all small problems in the larger scheme of things and the only way to not have equipment wear out would be to not use it at all.  Some years back, we experienced the one ‘major’ problem that has occurred since I began working at the station in the late 1980s. In the normal run up to a new broadcast year, we begin broadcasting in mid-August, just ahead of the annual Porcupine Mountain Music Festival.  One morning after a violent thunderstorm, I fired up our pre-PMMF programming and discovered that none of our studio monitors worked. The first thing that popped to mind was the one particularly bright flash I had seen in the direction of the school the night before. It was one of those ‘flash/boom’ kind of lightning strokes that make you jump.  It made me think, “Oh, that one hit something pretty close to the school”. When I started investigating our AWOL monitors, I narrowed down the focus from “pretty close to school” to “it hit the school.”

     Usually a failed circuit means a burned out computer chip on the broadcast board, but after swapping out a few chips to no avail, it became apparent that the entire right circuit board (that handles all of the monitor outputs) was shot.  I contacted the support line at the board’s manufacturer (Arrakis) and they gave me two options: Keep replacing chips and hope for the best or replace the whole circuit board on that side. Although it cost about a quarter of what we paid for the whole control board, Option 2 did the trick.  It cost only slightly more than the school’s insurance deductible so we ended up eating the whole cost. Had we taken the time to look a little farther, we would have noticed the same lightning strike fried the football field scoreboard circuitry, the entire fire alarm system and one of our new teacher’s personal laptop.  If all of these items had been turned in at the same time, we could have gotten a little change back on our damaged board. Luckily for the district, when the fire alarm system damage was discovered, the insurance company treated it as a ‘point of discovery’ claim and the school was able to replace and upgrade the fire alarms that were originally installed when the school opened in 1967.  

    Where does all this technology mumbo jumbo find us today?  We don’t have holographic DJs spinning tunes and we are still waiting for those personal jet packs, but never say die.  What we do have is a little old ten watt FM station that used to broadcast to a radius of about 20 miles from Ontonagon but now, thanks to the internet, can be heard all over the planet.  We are pretty proud that we have had our station logo worn on every continent except Africa (so far) and most of those contacts have come from people finding us on the internet. Check this space in ten years and see if I am still whining about jet packs when the station hits the big 5 – 0!

    Do you want to help WOAS-FM replace some of our aging equipment?  We began a Schwans Cares fundraiser on January 1, 2019. If customers enter our campaign number ( 44259) when placing their orders online, Schwans will donate 20% of the order (or 40% for e-gift cards) until mid-February and 5% until mid-April at no additional cost to the customer.  Those who are not Schwans customers can still help out by mailing a tax-free donation to WOAS-FM, 701 Parker Ave. Ontonagon, MI 49953. We deeply appreciate the public’s past and future support of YOUR SOUND CHOICE, WOAS-FM 88.5.

Top Piece Video:  As long as we are talking radio and Steve Perry has now released his first album in twenty years (Traces 2018) this seemed to be as good a video to use as any – except for the crappy appearance . . . not our fault!