Rich Redmond serves as Chief Product Officer for GatesAir, responsible for product engineering, product line management and R&D among other tasks. He is based at the company’s headquarters in Mason, Ohio outside of Cincinnati. Redmond has spent his professional career applying advanced technologies to solve market problems and deliver business results. He spent many years in leadership roles at Harris Broadcast and Harris Corporation’s Broadcast Communications Division, responsible for new products, strategy and marketing efforts across radio and television transmission businesses.
Prior to joining Harris, he held national sales management responsibilities for Northeast Broadcast Labs and spent time on the broadcast operations side as a general manager, chief engineer and consultant. His expertise in leading growth initiatives and background in sales and engineering positions round out a unique, all-encompassing awareness of the over-the-air broadcast business. Here, we asked him about GatesAir’s mission, its products, customer service ideals and the philosophy behind Harris Broadcast’s split into two separate, dedicated companies:
It’s not as easy to run a radio station profitably today as it used to be. We posted an item the other day on GatesAir’s Flexiva transmitter and how it gains efficiency for the station. When you lower your electric bill, it reduces expenses.
Yes it does. You can get excited about spending money on promotions, or about content, or even hiring a new sales person. It’s hard to get excited about paying the power bill. You have to do it because you need to be on the air; it’s the whole basis of your operation. It’s one of those things that everyone just kind of writes a check for the power bill. You sometimes negotiate with different suppliers to get a better rate, but it’s a pretty constant expense that, while important, anything you can do to minimize it without impacting your coverage, content or ability to monetize is sound money.
What was the philosophy behind the Gores Group and Harris deciding to split Harris into two companies—GatesAir and one is Imagine Communications?
It’s a good question. I suppose one might even say for a long time, even before being acquired by the Gores Group, there was this view that we had groups within the organization with different business models, each focused on different types of technology. But at least in the United States, in television, we generally have common customers. In some other parts of the world it’s a little bit different. There are network operators who run transmission networks for, say, the BBC in the UK, and all that company does is really run transmitter networks and distribution. There are other companies or broadcasters themselves who run their playout center, or their studios if they’re in radio. In some parts of the world they’re pretty separate.
I always tell my TV colleagues that radio was there 10 years ago when it comes to digitization, leveraging IP, distribution via the cloud, and using common computing platforms for some of the day-to-day applications. The direction you’d need to go to manage audio and video content with those types of requirements, either for an over the top network or a more traditional linear television or radio broadcast – those studios, those content creation and distribution networks, are going through this transformation where software becomes the more important portion, standard computing hardware becomes the norm, and IP networks are leveraged for distribution. Up until today, an awful lot of equipment has been proprietary hardware. In the wireless over the air space, there are no transmitters that are 100% software. There’s always some power supply, amplification, and as we discussed before, the types of efficiency are more about power consumption and less about workflow and playout.
I think the core of it is a couple of things that have diverged over time. Imagine’s technology trajectory is much more along cloud-based solution software as a key enabling element, and hardware is a standard platform on the content creation and distribution. In GatesAir, it’s wireless over the air solutions. Software plays a key role, but that’s really to define what standard or version that a product runs at, whether it’s digital or analog. We are focused on efficiently delivering that content to the end-user wirelessly. So it’s innovation in amplification, innovation in interfacing IP networks for the distribution of content, but really it’s a much more hardware-centric business. It’s kind of split along those technology trajectories, and in some places in the world there’s commonality in customers, and other places in the world they’re actually different customers. That allows both groups to really focus on their trajectory path. As you might imagine, talking to a radio station about putting a new FM transmitter in and how that can help save the electrical bill, vs. talking to a TV customer who is trying to figure out how to distribute content via the cloud – those are two different discussions.
And it’s hard to specialize in both.
Yes, it allows people to focus and not try to be everything to everyone. You focus on the customers, focus on the technology and how we enable customers to do their business.
That goes the same way with radio sales in general. You almost can’t just sell spots and dots anymore. You have to know you’re digital, you have to know your social media component. When you’re selling radio time to people, it has to be more than a spot on the air. You have to learn a lot more. If you can separate people and companies up where they can really focus on the one path, it probably does mean you’re more of an expert on the selling process and the product information itself.
It’s exactly right. Our customers over time have learned the importance of focusing on their listeners or viewers and making sure they have the right content tailored to them, and that the staff is aligned to that message. Just like in some groups, everyone has a different plan, but some groups want to have separately focused sales organizations, or certainly staffs. Some consolidate many things. We’ve taken the approach to focus people around these two paths of technological innovation, but on different ends of the spectrum.
What is GatesAir’s mission moving forward?
Helping people cost-effectively deliver content wirelessly over the air. In the radio space it’s more of an end-to-end solution, in that we build radio studios with our networked digital studio products. We have interconnect solutions with our Intraplex line of IP, TDM and RF links. These could be STLs for a studio to transmitter connection or, for example, customers use them to send content between studios or from a studio into a satellite radio uplink. Then, of course, wireless TV and radio transmission. This is across all analog and digital standards, so if you’re a radio guy that means in the US, analog AM/FM and HD Radio. In other parts of the world it could be DAB or DRM, or CDR, China Digital Radio in China.
In television there’s a whole litany of standards used in different countries. We really have different platforms that are hardware-defined, based on efficiency, and the software determines what standard it operates in. Really, the message is that we focus on enabling wireless over-the-air delivery of content.
It seems like HD Radio is winning out over the Eureka system. They got rid of that in Canada, in Europe it’s not moving that fast. HD might just be a better system, at least for FM. I’m not too sure about AM. We’ve definitely got issues with that, but AM in general has issues with power lines making noise on the car radio. In the house, your computer, your modems, your cable box, your cell phone, everything causes interference to AM radio.
It really does. While that’s probably not one of your questions, that’s one of those areas where the disappointing thing is, broadcasters can certainly put their best foot forward, and there’s certainly those broadcasters who invested in their AM facilities and they certainly maximized them, whether it’s maintaining their antenna having clean audio, maintaining or having new transmission equipment – but a lot of the things you mention, man-made noises, are pretty hard to overcome.
One of the things that’s interesting is there are a number of countries actually doing something about it, whether it’s providing FM licenses or expanding the frequency band of FM to fit AM stations. In some parts of Europe they transitioned to DAB digital from medium-wave AM. There are places where the regulatory environment is actually constructive to help with that transition. I remain hopeful in the US that the commission will be supportive of helping those broadcasters, because I think it’s a technological challenge that needs some regulatory assistance.
We talked a little about Flexiva, and you can talk a little about that. In general, what products would you say GatesAir currently offers that really stands out among its competitors out there, among the broadcast electronics offerings and so on?
Sure. I’ll take them by segments. With our Intraplex products, the IP Link codec, which is a robust IP transport solution, allows you to deliver audio and data with high-quality while leveraging IP circuits or the public internet. We get content from point A to point B. IP is the promise of low-cost delivery and easy connectivity, but like anyone who has listened to streaming on a computer or watched YouTube videos and get buffering, the network is non-deterministic. Broadcasters have always demanded high-quality, always-on content, and I think we’ve bridged the gap to say we’re taking that always-on reliability and allowing you to leverage the IP network. I think we have a unique solution there that will allow people to cost-effectively deliver their content over public networks.
Flexiva, for FM broadcasters, whether you’re a low-power station, whether it’s a translator or you want to run elevated HD side-bands, we have a rock-solid solution for FM. We go from low-power, 100 watts, all the way up to approaching 90 kilowatts solid state FM. It’s really a complete solution.
In television, we’ve just launched the Maxiva line of high-efficiency broadband transmitters in UHF and VHF. If you’re a TV broadcaster, just to put a point of reference, you may have purchased a transmitter ten, twelve, thirteen years ago, even fifteen years ago at the beginning of the DTV conversion. While the transmitter may be running fine, you could lower you Total Cost of Ownership by threefold. When you’re running very high power UHF, just as we talked before, it’s very relevant for the TV broadcaster when it comes to cooling. You save not only in the transmission operating costs, but in the costs to run the air conditioners. I think we’ve got some pretty outstanding solutions, and all of them are really designed to help lower the cost of content delivery.
One of the good things I think about digital translation is it requires less power to get the same coverage. That did help broadcasters on the TV side.
It did. The thing that challenged some of them is when they moved to higher frequencies and UHF versus what they could do in VHF.
And that’s higher power.
And that requires higher power, and the other issue is, just as a point of reference, an AM solid state transmitter might be 90% efficient, meaning 10% waste. An FM analog transmitter’s probably in the mid-seventies, so about 25%. A high-efficiency digital transmitter is in the high thirties to low forties. But if you go to one put in 15 years ago, it may be in the mid-teens. It could be that 85% of your power bill is just going to heat on the transmitter, just wasting power, and you’re processing all of that with an air conditioner. Some of these sites, it’s like running your furnace and your air conditioner simultaneously just to get to 70 degrees, and the only guy who is winning is the utility.
Our significant innovation in television transmission including our software-defined exciter, and the fact that we have broadband high-efficiency in our transmitters, you could purchase today and take advantage of the power savings, and you have something that very flexibly can be changed, should repack happen, and whatever move you need to make with your station. It’s a pretty easy transition with a minimal investment. In some cases it’s just a software load to a different standard, or a frequency change you punch in on the front panel and the transmitter changes. You may need to tweak antennas and other things you have. The flexibility of the platform allows you to enjoy the savings of the platform today, and your investment is flexible for the future.
What about the NAB show in Las Vegas? What were some takeaways?
It was interesting from a couple standpoints. Certainly for us, we had a lot of activity around the debut of GatesAir in a public venue. We had tons of customers come to see us, and we launched Imagine at the same time. People who used to walk into the North Hall and saw a big booth that said Harris or Harris Broadcast now ended up seeing two booths located close to each other: One was Imagine Communications and one was GatesAir. We had a lot of excitement around people wanting to see what was going on. For the first time in a while we were able to showcase and really drive the focused message of our products home.
When I mentioned focus, sometimes you have this big enormous booth, and in one area you have scheduling software targeted at cable MSOs and cable operators, and another has radio transmitters and radio studios, and yet other has digital signage and government solutions – not to mention traditional TV broadcasters’ solutions.
There’s really a variety of things that can be overwhelming, and I think both companies were able to really target its message. From that standpoint it was exciting. We saw many great customers, and came away with a lot of great opportunities from the event. I think from that standpoint it was good. If I take a broader view, certainly we were able to showcase the new technology and high efficiency of our transmitters.
Participation, allegedly, was up over the previous year. We were certainly very busy. I had over 65 meetings with customers from around the world. I think it was a great event, but I think it was also one where people were trying to understand what was next, and depending upon where you came from around the world – because there were a ton of international participants – you were at a very different place in your time horizon. US radio guys were talking about translators for AM stations, elevated side bands for HD Radio; about power savings and what transmitters could do for them, or studios and IP links.
TV guys weren’t sure what the spectrum auction might bring in repack, but as we’ve just discussed, were very excited about: “I’m going to be broadcasting for a period of time. Let me get the power savings.” A lot of the international guys are where we might have been ten years ago from the standpoint of digital on the horizon, and they haven’t converted yet. It just depends where you were in the world and what your topics were, but generally people were optimistic about broadcasting as a business, with some trepidation I think about what tomorrow’s going to look like.
Right. Are we going to keep our TV station in general? Do we want to sell the station in an auction? You don’t want to buy a transmitter until you know the answers to some of those questions, that’s for sure.
The guys I talked to all think the auction’s kind of interesting, but the majority of them – and by majority I mean like 97%, 98% – they’re all planning on being in the business. Whether they change a channel or end up sharing something with someone, the guys we all spoke to are saying, “This is the business we’re in and this is where we’re going.” They had an awful lot of discussion around, “The game plan isn’t simply reaching the viewer at the home; it is also wherever people are consuming media.”
We’ve always said that the compelling things about radio is that it’s local, it’s mobile, and it’s free. I think in television for a long time, home was where people usually consumed media. We’ve seen over time people have become much more portable media users, whether it’s movies on an iPad, or watching streaming video, or using ATSC-M/H or something like that. There’s a lot more focus on mobility for TV stations, and the realization they’ve got this great wireless spectrum that’s ideal for targeting mobile devices. How do we go targeting those consumers on the move, and how do we leverage the spectrum we have whether its pre-repack or post-repack? That’s the big difference between local broadcasters and a basic cable channel, which is generally delivered only via one of the platforms.
That dovetails into another question, which is: What are you learning from your customers that needs to be done differently? How are their needs changing, and how are you adjusting to meet that need a little bit ahead of the curve, so to speak?
The big thing is: How can you help customers connect their compelling content with viewers or listeners? There’s a whole litany of ways you can help solve that problem. We touched briefly on for AM broadcasters who can now have an FM transmitter, and we leverage our Flexiva line for that. The discussion’s a lot more about, “How do we go reach that listener? How do we get more people exposed to their content?” than it is about how many watts come out and what the GUI looks like.
Those are important things, but it’s really the mission, and that’s the discussion we find with a lot of guys talking about HD Radio. “What are these other channels of content I can put on, and how can I leverage that?” Sometimes they’re in concert with a translator, other times it’s about sports content from AMs putting on the FM, or in television, operational efficiency is certainly critical, and that’s part of the discussion. The forward-looking technology we showcase in our partnership with LG, a prototype of Futurecast, which is a submission we put forward for ATSC 3.0.
There is also our partnership with the University of Braunschweig of Germany. We showed a technology we call Tower Overlay that allows you, on the same TV transmitter, to simultaneously transmit digital television and LTE broadcasts. This has the potential to target those mobile devices and actually has the potential to help carriers solve the capacity issue and offload traffic. It’s an opportunity for carriers and broadcasters to most effectively use the available spectrum. Those are more future-looking. The point really is the discussions transfer from the technology discussion of bits and bytes, to “What’s the business problem we’re trying to solve and how can we bring some tools to the table to do that together?”
It looks like from what we’ve heard it might be getting a little better, but for a while there were a lot of low cap ex budgets being put out there. You just saw people fixing transmitters and fixing equipment rather than replacing. How does that impact the way you sell, and what are your plans to address cap ex budgets that have been limited due to just revenue issues and the like?
That’s a good question. We probably see that in North America. If we were primarily North American focused it would probably be a bigger issue. I’m not dismissing that it is one, but if you look globally, which, just to put it into perspective, about 60% of our business is outside the United States. In those cases there are some different dynamics, whether it be the transition to digital, analog rebuilding, or power efficiency solutions.
Really in North America I think it comes down to some of the things we’ve touched on. How do you more cost-effectively deliver the content? It’s a little bit like – sometimes in a building you find out using energy efficient products that if I update the furnace or change out all the fluorescent lights, you’ll get something that’s more efficient. You never start out saying, “I’ve got a problem with my lights.” The driver was, “I’m going to save on my operating costs.” Compared to the days of simply saying hey, it’s time for a new transmitter, or we really want to upgrade the studios, it really gets down to how we help broadcasters monetize their investment. It puts the onus on us to help have that dialogue and make sure people understand the value proposition.
When you think about where we are and where we’re going, we’ve always innovated and built in things that help lower the total cost of ownership. In some cases it’s helping with the education. Like I mentioned before about a transmitter’s efficiency, the one thing that may not be totally clear is most people end up, especially in warmer climates, spending more money maintaining their air conditioners within the transmitter space than they do the transmitter. While the transmitter may not seem like the thing to invest in, if, for example, you did invest in that, not only did you save on the power bill, but you quickly change the dynamics of what you’re paying for your air conditioner maintenance.
For us, the more we’re engaged with our customers and we leverage our customer-first culture to really understand and walk a mile in their shoes, it helps us figure out what are the levers we can pull to help them optimize their business. Having that intimacy with the customer and understanding their challenges helps us bring solutions to the table, rather than showing up with a brochure saying we’ve got this new technology.
How do you meld past technology with new technology to the benefit of broadcasters and customers?
It all starts with people. It sometimes gets really easy to get hung up on the technological portion of it. Once you’re understanding what folks are trying to do, what things are important to them and how they work, then you can map the technology they understand, where they’ve been, where they’re going. Henry Ford who once said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said, ‘Faster horses.’” If you think about you and I, we go to the store to buy a new TV set, or we start looking online or whatever, our point of reference is always what we have today.
Going forward, the important thing is by understanding people, and their business, it allows us to explain technology options and how it benefits them. It has everything to do with really being intimate with our customers, better understanding their business models, and better understanding their operations. That helps us figure out if there is new technology that can help them solve the problem in a way that might not have been obvious, because they’re immersed in the middle of it.