Rick Rapalee: Up to Eleven
BY Jelli ON October 15, 2014 IN Up to Eleven
Today, the Jelli team is kicking off a new monthly Q&A style column called “Up to Eleven” that will appear the third Thursday of every month and feature the unsung heroes in the radio industry—the Broadcast Engineer.
The column’s name, “Up to Eleven,” is taken from the movie “This is Spinal Tap” where guitarist Nigel Tufnel proudly demonstrates an amplifier whose volume knob is marked from zero to eleven, instead of the usual zero to ten. The phrase has come to refer to the act of taking something to an extreme and in 2002 the phrase entered the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary with the definition “up to maximum volume.”
The people we’re interviewing for “Up to Eleven” are turning it up past ten on a daily basis. Our first interview is with Rick Rapalee who has been working as a radio station engineer for 20 years. Rick is the Director of Engineering and IT for Entercom’s six stations KCTC, KDND, KSEG, KRXQ, KUDL, KKDO located in Sacramento, California.
We hope you enjoy our first installment of “Up to Eleven” and warmly welcome your comments!
The Jelli Team
Director of Engineering and IT
Jelli: What led you to a career in radio?
Rapalee: My interest in working in radio started very young… I was 13 or 14 years old. I was very much a geek—it was electronics from the get go. My other passion was music. I started playing my first instrument at 13. I started with sax, clarinet, drums, guitar, and today my main instrument is bass guitar. Radio, for me, is that perfect line down the middle of what I feel passionate about.
Jelli: How would you describe the radio landscape in your market?
Rapalee: I honestly don’t know how to describe it. I keep my head down and I don’t look to other stations in the market. That could be dangerous but I’m just focused on the work that we’re doing here.
Jelli: Are you wearing more “hats” than you have in the past?
Rapalee: Absolutely, no question. Things started to change in terrestrial radio in 1996 when the FCC allowed radio stations to cluster. This ruling took place shortly after I started working in radio in Sacramento. During that time, two stations had two engineers and things were much simpler– you only had a basic on-air signal. That has gone out of the window.
Today, we have two engineers and one IT engineer running six stations which include 5 FM sites and an AM station. Each FM station has its own transmitter site and the AM station has two separate transmitters on opposite ends of town. With technology changes in radio we have to manage a main signal, HD signal, HD2 signal, Internet streamers and a PPM encoding system. Our responsibilities go beyond that as we also get called on to help clean up building issues that get pushed to engineering.
Jelli: What is your favorite part of the job?
Rapalee: How much we do have to do! The scope of responsibilities is so vast that I never get bored and it keeps my interest. A new technology comes out and I’m learning it and seeing how it can be used at the station. That’s my favorite part of the job.
Jelli: What is the most challenging part of the job?
Rapalee: I think as I get older it’s the emergency calls. You have something planned with your family and kids and then you get called away. I try to do it with grace but if you get a call during a Fourth of July barbeque you’re having with you family it’s tough to leave.
Jelli: What are you doing social media-wise?
Rapalee: To us, in our particular small little corner of broadcasting, there is some support that we do with texting functions, as well as artist and title information. We make sure it gets disseminated to the right place. We don’t handle websites and have a separate department that helps with the integration between talent and listeners on social media.
Jelli: What makes your station “unique?”
Rapalee: Our entire amazing staff. They continue to provide amazing, compelling content and activities to our listeners. Our sales staff strives to provide our clients with results driven advertising solutions. It shows how these stations serve their community above and beyond.
Jelli: Why do you think terrestrial radio stations should invest in technology… like programmatic?
Rapalee: A couple of reasons. My primary one is to continue to be engaging to our listeners. We see how they listen to music and live their lives. Whatever the hot social media is and hot hardware is… it’s important to evolve with that.
The other side of that is terrestrial radio is going to continue to look at efficiencies. Entercom as a company tries to take a strong green approach (low carbon footprint) but four of our FM stations are broadcasting in HD at 50,000 watts which takes a lot of power. They generate heat so we need air conditioners to cool them. We’re seeing the evolution of the actual broadcast system. Over the next three months we’re going to be installing a new hybrid transmitter. This will reduce a lot of power consumption.
Jelli: What advice would you give to people new to the business?
Rapalee: Learn everything you can because you don’t know what you’ll need. You do everything in this job—working on generators to building towers to connecting transmitters. There’s just so much you need to do given we wear so many hats. When I was kid I used to do a lot of woodworking and I recently had to modify some cabinet countertops for a new mixing console install. Everything you learn, will all come back someday.
Jelli: What was your favorite radio station to listen to when you were a kid?
Rapalee: 97.9 KUPD in Phoenix, Arizona. 98 rock. I grew up in a little farming town called Casa Grande located between Tucson and Phoenix—almost exactly in the middle.
Jelli: Bonus question (#11): For someone vacationing in your market, what one thing would you say they “must see?”
Rapalee: This is going to sound atrocious but I would have to say don’t just do Sacramento, but do Northern California. It’s a wonderful city—there’s nothing wrong with it and has several historical sites like the Railroad Museum in the downtown area and Sutter’s Fort. I don’t limit myself to Sacramento because there’s so much to see in Northern California. There’s Lake Tahoe, San Francisco and just last weekend I went hiking on the Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevada. Northern California is an amazing place for a guy that grew up in Arizona.