By Brian Galante
Special to RBR+TVBR
TOLEDO, OHIO — Upon hitting the airwaves in 1968, a Class A FM originally known as WHFD debuted.
Just over a a half-century later, the station is today known as WMTR-FM. It continues to emphasize service to its core over-the-air audience in Williams, Henry, Fulton and Defiance counties of Ohio, and the town of Archbold, approximately 50 miles west of Toledo.
While localism is WMTR’s calling card, it has gained the attention of small-town broadcasters across the U.S. for taking what some may consider to be a fairly bold step.
The FM serving a vastly rural region of the Buckeye State has adopted HD Radio.
It’s an important milestone for station owner Max Smith Jr., whose father, the late Max Smith Sr., founded the station with a mission of bringing community-oriented radio to the rural population. WMTR has a history of covering local interests and events, from the county fair and farm reports to high school sports. WMTR’s HD Radio broadcasts, which launched this winter, take that philosophy to new heights.
“I believe in HD Radio,” Smith said. “However, to be effective it’s important to evaluate how HD Radio can serve your community. It’s not about just throwing music on there; people can get music from a million platforms. It’s about offering something of local interest.”
This is exactly what Smith has achieved with WMTR’s HD2 feed, a country music format delivered through an FM translator in the adjacent town of Wauseon. While the country format is popular with local listeners – WMTR offers an adult hits format on its FM and main HD Radio channel – Smith has attracted a broader audience through expanded high school sports broadcasts.
“High school sports are very important to the northwest Ohio community,” Smith said. “For 51 years WMTR has broadcast the ‘High School Game of the Week,’ which meant we had to pick and choose which game might be most appealing each week. Our HD2 channel gives an entire separate outlet to expand our schedule.”
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from listeners. Since word travels fast in rural communities, local businesses have taken notice.
“We added eight new advertisers in the first month alone,” said Smith. “We retained that business and quickly accelerated from there.”
As of August 2, WMTR added approximately 60 new advertisers thanks to its HD Radio presence.
A HISTORY OF FIRSTS
Smith has long been interested in HD Radio, but it’s not always an easy feat for small market stations, especially when thinking big. For Smith, that meant overhauling nearly the entire chain from the studio to the antenna.
“There were several years of planning and saving involved to pull this off, but the spirit was willing because we knew that HD Radio had a bright future,” he said. “I noticed how broadcasters in the Detroit and Toledo markets had HD2 channels, and some have since added HD3 feeds. We wanted to be the first HD Radio broadcaster to serve our four-county region.”
This was only the latest in a string of firsts for WMTR. The station was the first in the region to broadcast in quadrophonic FM in the 1970s, and the first to adopt digital audio tape in the late 1980s. For Smith, adopting HD Radio was a natural step for a station that has aggressively adopted new technologies and formats.
Of course, taking that step meant upgrading the infrastructure – an infrastructure that still included components that often dated decades.
“My philosophy is, ‘When you go new, go all-new,’” said Smith. “We wanted the audio chain to be very clean and bright, and with excellent sound. This meant putting a new console and networking system in the studio, and a new transmitter at the tower site. And we pretty much upgraded everything in between, from the microphones to the STL system.”
In addition to these core components, Smith also had to invest in new technology to accommodate the HD Radio channels. This included a specialized system to process, multiplex and amplify the existing HD1 and HD2 signals, with headroom to accommodate a planned HD3 channel later this year.
As Smith is focused on the business elements of the station – in addition to also being WMTR’s morning drive jock – he naturally turned to his engineering talent to identify the most technically superior and cost-efficient systems. Smith did, however, already have this transmitter choice locked in.
“There was no question the transmitter was going to be GatesAir,” said Smith. “That much was automatic.”
WMTR has long used an Energy-Onix tube transmitter that was showing end-of-life signs. Arguably, the station would have needed a new transmitter even without the HD Radio upgrade.
“Our region has some of the highest electric rates in the state of Ohio, so there was no question efficiency was on our minds,” Smith said. “I had originally feared that moving to a solid-state system might actually raise our costs. When Greg Case, our long-time contract engineer did his evaluation of the GatesAir Flexiva transmitter, he confirmed that the amp draw was far less. And since turning it on, the Flexiva has reduced our monthly bills by as much as $150. That is a significant cost reduction for a small market broadcaster.”
Case had his work cut out for him. The infrastructure at the main studio was all analog, and Smith opted to have a new studio built for “The Buck,” WMTR’s HD2 channel.
He said, “We kept the existing Radio Systems analog console for WMTR and added a new Axia system with Livewire digital audio networking for The Buck. We integrated that same Axia/Livewire technology into the WMTR studio and STL infrastructure so that we could ingest their analog and digital feeds. By embedding Axia audio into the WMTR infrastructure, we ended up with an IP-based STL system that can deliver uncompressed, pristine audio to the transmitter site that is never converted back to analog.”
Case added what he calls “carrier-class, higher-end switches” from Ubiquiti Networks to IP-enable the STL system. “We created two VLANs to transport the Axia IP audio on its own private network, and we manage the Flexiva transmitter over another. That way, those signals are separated and remain pure across the air fiber network, while also enabling standard Internet service out at the tower,” he said.
At the transmitter site, the AES audio comes out of an Axia node and into an Inovonics digital audio processor before landing in the HD Radio architecture. Case selected GatesAir’s Flexiva FMXi 4g embedded HD Radio solution, which combines the Importer/Exporter function into a single platform – while adding a new twist that further streamlines the infrastructure.
“The FMXi 4g integrates the all-important HD Diversity Delay function into its platform, which is needed to eliminate the eight-second delay between FM and HD,” said Case. “That alone saved us up to $3,000 immediately. We added a GPS antenna along with it, and together that perfectly synchronizes the main analog and digital feeds. There’s nothing else on the market that can do this as well as the standard HD Importer and Exporter functions in one system.”
Case opted for the air-cooled Flexiva FAX transmitter model, which integrates an FM/HD-capable exciter. The exciter converts the AES input coming out of the FMXi 4g into analog and digital. He also chose to keep the existing Jampro antenna as it could accommodate the HD feeds as is, though the STL tower required significant work.
The investment in the HD Radio system is quickly paying off for WMTR. Smith estimates an ROI of 24-to-30 months.
“We are doing something very special and unique here,” Smith said. “We’re able to bring more community events to listeners – just last week, we did remote broadcasts at the Wauseon Homecoming event and a local Chamber Merchants tent sale. We’re penetrating local audiences in ways we never have before. We wouldn’t have been able to do this without investing in professional equipment and taking some risks.”