Building a Strong Bench is Broadcasting’s Backbone

| September 9, 2020

By Mike Kinosian
TALKERS 
Managing Editor

 

WESTBOROUGH, Mass. — The late Senator Robert Kennedy once said, “Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.”

As we continue to grapple our way through what has become the “new normal” of surviving a pandemic, we relentlessly pursue silver-lining inspiration to soothe the country’s collective, pervasive heartbreak.

Countless examples have surfaced of people stepping up to do their part in ways that, many times, are profoundly creative and often times, magnificently benevolent.

Overnight sensation

Consider a specific case in Roanoke, where a group of volunteer radio hosts launched “COVID Virginia – Together in Isolation,” a 24-hour call-in station that popped up overnight on Flinn Broadcasting’s WBZS-FM (102.5).

Working two-hour shifts, hosts set up in their bedrooms or living rooms where they began taking calls from the community and disseminating local coronavirus-geared information.

No one was getting paid, thus the project led by media consultant/part-time NBC News Radio anchor Bill Trifiro was done commercial-free. “Backbone Radio provided us with a one-button connect, studio-grade audio app that people could load on their phones or computers,” notes Trifiro. “This would connect to a board op, who would feed the server/tower.”

In addition to iHeartMedia donating NBC News Radio newscasts and its 24/7 News source, local outlets WDBJ-TV (CBS affiliate/channel 7), and WSLS-TV (NBC affiliate/channel 10) provided early-morning and evening newscast coverage.

 Can-do attitude

That’s one example of how the pandemic has mobilized an industry to think outside the box.

Regarding remote broadcasting overall in the coronavirus-era, Backbone founder/president/chief executive officer Richard Cerny stresses, “It’s hot – everybody’s interested in it. They’re trying to do everything from home because they can’t go the station. They’re asking us, ‘Can you do this?,’ and ‘Can you do that?’”

Albeit unquestionably ubiquitous, many are still unsure of precisely what to do with the internet. “We are helping people work from home more – it has spurred a lot of interest,” notes Cerny, who founded Backbone in May 1990. “It’s what you would do on Zoom, but for audio. [Clearly], the pandemic is bad – but you smile and ask what you can do to help [which is what we did] in Virginia. We donated [our service] to Bill Trifiro, who created this station and had everyone working from home.”

Heightened awareness of remote broadcasting exists not only in the commercial world, but in schools such as Franklin Pierce University’s Marlin Fitzwater College of Communication. Students there assembled a virtual radio row for both of the just-concluded national political conventions. “They took phone calls from politicians who did their spots right on the radio,” cites Cerny. “That [Rindge, New Hampshire] University actually has a journalism station and a sports station. They have everything that goes with it. They’re really getting into internet radio and have been very politically-active. This wasn’t the first time that they got involved with national political conventions – they did the ones in 2016, as well.”

Indiana farm system

Budgets are forever challenging, but Backbone started out with schools because, “It was a really easy way to get in and do some experimentation with people who were adventuresome,” discloses Cerny, whose own educational vitae includes a University of North Dakota MBA, and a BA in physics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We’ve been doing the college radio thing for quite a while and we’ve been getting a few high schools here and there. For years, we’ve operated The Intercollegiate Broadcast System’s Student Radio Network [IBS-SRN], which is the largest college and high school radio network.”

Based largely around Backbone, Plymouth (Indiana) middle school teacher Paula Neidlinger put together an entire media program curriculum for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students. “The school didn’t have the money, so she went out to get sponsorships,” Cerny explains. “You can have ads on a non-profit internet radio station [so] the kids got sponsorships from [local businesses such as] ice cream places, pizza parlors, and car dealerships. That not only paid for all of our fees but also for buying equipment – I thought that was very cool.”

When he found out what else Neidlinger was doing, Cerny suggested she write a book. After giving it some thought, Neidlinger got together with two friends – Bruce Reicher and Randall Tomes – and the three collaborated on “Scripted: An Educator’s Guide To Media in the Classroom,” which came out last month (8/11). “Backbone is probably the best thing that ever came into my educational life,” enthuses the just-retired Neidlinger, who had been a mass media/journalism teacher and administrator in the Plymouth School Corporation for 28 years. “Students have their own 24-hour-a day/seven day-a-week radio station without an FCC license. [Among other things], I was able to teach them how to do play-by-play sports.”

Opining that the “old days” of college radio was “spinning records,” Cerny puts forth that he’s looking at this as a way to put radio stations in K-12 schools. “Paula’s focus wasn’t to put music on the station because that is sort of a lazy way to do [radio]. You don’t really get any skills by playing records. She created a radio station with talk, news, sports, and events. I was thinking this is where [we will get] the future talkers. They have the skills to get media jobs. As far as we can tell, ‘Scripted’ is the first guidebook that starts with easy-to-use 21st century technologies, then actually lays out an extensive set of templates upon which schools can confidently build a curriculum pathway; evaluate progress; project budgets; and specify products with the best ROI. We believe this will be a watershed moment for student-run radio, where every school can easily create and afford its own broadcast/podcast program.”

They love LUCIE

Facilitating everything done in radio, Backbone is able to accomplish that without hardware. “People want to do podcasts together, but don’t like to sound as though they are phoning it in,” Cerny remarks. “We do that with our software and the precodex that come from LUCI in the Netherlands. The station pays a subscription every month, with LUCI getting part of [the fee] and we get part of it.”

Once the free app is downloaded, remotes can be done on devices such as a computer, tablet, or smartphone. “You get full two-way studio-quality communication, but it’s all through the cloud,” Cerny states. “The LUCI app replaces Comrex or a tie line and makes it a lot cheaper. The main station doesn’t have to buy all that equipment because it is working on a desktop or laptop. Prior to COVID-19, remotes were the big thing. You can’t afford to give everyone a box, but everyone has a phone. [Since] you always have the phone with you, you can always do a remote.”

Many present-day broadcasters are unable to afford doing remotes in the “old-fashioned” manner; therefore, Cerny maintains, “This is sort of the only way you can really revamp a station without having to buy all new equipment. Other than the tower and tower building, there is no brick and mortar here. Your bedroom is ‘the studio.’ You can have local hosts on the LUCIE that goes into New York. A producer working out of his house takes all the inputs; adds commercials; puts it back into the cloud; and [the final product] goes out to the tower. At the same time, it streams and makes podcasts – all of this stuff is automated. Unless you want to make edits, you just push a button to launch and publish a podcast wherever you want to send it.”

Expenditure starts with an approximately $150 multi-line phone system, which Cerny emphasizes replaces $5,000 to $10,000 worth of gear. “I noticed that my cellphone through Verizon is $2.14 less [per month] than what we charge for a full broadcast phone system. It is the cost of a cellphone plan and you get a whole broadcast system for your station. You can take calls from anywhere. Unless you go nonstop using phones during elections, practically no one will use the 2,500 minutes per month. Even if you do, it costs a few more cents per-minute. To make a full radio station with a microphone, mixer, and a [computer], your total monthly bill including syndication, tower link, phones, and remotes is under $1,000 a month.”

Other than the transmitter, everything is Backbone’s technology in the cloud. “We do ‘piece-parts’ and full-systems,” Cerny points out. “It all goes right together and it’s fast – you don’t have to wait for [equipment] to be shipped. The hardest thing to do is ‘mix minus’ on a mixing board; [however], you now have some fantastic RodeCaster mixing boards with the ‘mix minus’ built right into them and they only cost 500 to 600 bucks.”

Radio’s reported death greatly exaggerated

It is Cerny’s contention that internet radio is a way to get terrestrial radio revitalized, although he affirms, “Terrestrial radio isn’t going to die.”

At the same time, however, he grants that eventually, “It’s all going to be internet. We know that; however, right now – there is a lot of money out there in facilities. This is 21st century technology that makes things a lot cheaper and is a good way to bring stations up-to-date. It is a very cost-effective way to create a radio station. It would easily take a half-million dollars to do what we’re doing for $10,000 – it’s nuts. Advertising on terrestrial radio is still better-paying than advertising on internet radio, so you might want to pay attention to where the money is flowing; we want to support that. We thought all of radio would be dead by now, taken over by music on the internet. The reality though is that you need [elements such as] news, weather, sports, and election coverage. You need everything and radio is still incredible.”

Extended in a variety of areas, Cerny-lead Backbone has had PRX as a customer for at least ten years. In the sports world, the central-Massachusetts-based (Worcester County) company works with entities such as the NBA’s Golden State Warriors; Major League Lacrosse; and the Fantasy Sports Network. “The Nexstar Television Group uses what we are doing for IFB,” Cerny reveals. “When they do the Olympics, Super Bowl, or Daytona, they use Backbone to communicate from a central location back down to the event. [Nexstar Media Group] San Francisco’s KRON-TV [channel 4] is using our equipment for that.”

Hardware is probably Backbone’s number one competitor although Cerny proclaims, “We are still [ahead of the curve] and no [other company] ‘virtualizes’ things to the degree that we do. We haven’t seen anyone else try to replicate what we’re doing.”

Instead of following anyone else’s lead, Cerny directs his Backbone team to be out forging its own way. “We don’t want it to be so different that people get lost in it. We probably could charge quite a bit more, but then we would lose all of our schools. [Big-name, syndicated hosts] pay the same for a phone system as a high school would.”

Fearless first-graders

Actively working on a variety of projects, Cerny envisions there is something going on in television, but admits his company isn’t quite there yet. “There is always another function that needs to be covered, so we are trying to fill the void,” asserts Cerny, who – for 19 years (1991 – 2010) – was president/CEO of Telecast Fiber Systems, the Worcester-based company he founded. “What we really want is to get more people doing this in schools. Apple began putting their computers in schools and look at it now – it’s the largest corporation in the world. It’s not a bad idea. There are 135,000 K-12 schools in this country, which is [considerably more] than the number of radio stations. We think every school should have a radio station. It’s not because it needs to be broadcasting – it needs to teach these skills at an age when kids are able to absorb them.”

Author/Indiana University alum Neidlinger (BA in telecommunications) was “blown away to see first- and second-graders with headphones on” running a radio show. “They have no fear and aren’t at a loss for words,” Cerny insists. “If they learn communication and digital skills this way and know how to integrate radio with all this other multimedia, they will be naturals [for radio].”

One of the first schools to sign up with Backbone years ago is Towson, Maryland’s Goucher College where Oliver Janney ran the radio station. “He is now in charge of doing all the remotes for CNN in Washington [as senior manager],” Cerny divulges. “He still remembers us and how easy it was to [use] Backbone; he has helped us get more schools. This is the stuff [in which] we now invest. We will reap the rewards a little bit later. K-12 schools aren’t going to pay a lot of money, but they crank out a lot of students.”

Following his November 1973 discharge from the Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) where he achieved the rank of captain, Cerny went to work for Corning Glass. While there, he helped develop a fiber which is the mainstay of all fiber communications. “In 1975, I introduced the first commercial single mode fiber optic cable,” he beams. “I was one of those pioneers and it came from what I studied when I was a kid.”

Having people succeed and making stations easy-to-operate is a familiar mantra for the gracious Cerny, who is content to forego the spotlight and stand in the background. “We don’t want to dictate what people can do,” he comments. “The only accolade we will take is that this works to make a great radio station.”

Particularly in the coronavirus-era and in a presidential election year, ability to do remotes flawlessly is one of Backbone’s greatest strengths, prompting self-described “old fiber optics guy” Cerny to quip, “With Backbone in the ‘cloud,’ you are never off the air.”

Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.

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Category: Features

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