Ron Schacht: Up to Eleven
BY Jelli ON April 16, 2015 IN Up to Eleven
Today, the Jelli team shines a spotlight on Digity Media’s Engineer Ron Schacht in our latest installment of “Up to Eleven.”
We also want to draw attention to a couple of fun facts about Ron—he has been working in radio since 1963 and during that time he has been struck by lightning not just once, but twice, while on the job!
We hope you enjoy April’s “Up to Eleven” feature!
The Jelli Team
Contract Engineer, Digity Media
Jelli: What led you to a career in radio?
Schacht: Music. I have been a music person all of my life. When I was 7 or 8 years old I built a guitar. I’ve always been into music and records and that’s what made me gravitate towards radio.
I also really like the technical end of radio. At an early age I got into ham radio and the town that I grew up in had a mom and pop operation—it was a 50,000 watt Classical station. The owners were desperate to have someone work the board so at the age of 14 I walked in the door and got the job. Working as a board operator at this classical station was pretty intense because the audience were purists. Classical music listeners demand high quality audio. You had to know how to read music and you had to have the score of a classical piece likeBeethoven’s 9th Symphony down so when you came to a crescendo in the score you could back the audio levels down gracefully. Back then, they didn’t make processing equipment for classical music so we had to do it by hand.
Jelli: How would you describe the radio landscape in your market?
Schacht: The markets I work in are Mason City, Iowa; Rochester, Minnesotaand Austin, Minnesota. One of our region’s claim to fame is that Hormel’sheadquarters are based in Austin—that’s where all of the Spam in the world comes out of.
One of the interesting things about radio in the Midwest is that AM is still alive and well. People rely on AM radio a lot—especially the farmers as they depend on radio for their local news and weather reports. There are some stations here that are interesting but the majority of radio is cookie cutter. Corporate crap. You hear the same exact songs and delivery in this area that you would hear in Philly. New York or Denver. The deregulation that allowed corporations to come in and buy up radio has eliminated the diversity that used to exist.
One of the companies I’m working for (not Digity) is a small operation. They have 12 stations and features local content that runs from local sports to a show that features a woman disc jockey who has been working in radio for 50 years and plays Frank Sinatra to a big following of listeners. In my opinion, if a station announces lost dogs it’s a good station. Interest, convenience and necessity are the cornerstones to good local radio and a lost dog is something that’s important to some of the listeners.
The listeners who didn’t lose a dog don’t tune out because of the announcement, they tune out because of 30 minute stop sets.
Jelli: Are you wearing more “hats” than you have in the past?
Schacht: Computers are the biggest change. Now, you’re not just in the control room and transmitter room because there’s technology all over the building. I’m involved in the business part of the station more than ever but as an engineer your job is to fix things. Anything with a cord and plug the engineers fix including the toaster, air conditioner, whatever. Many group owners look at engineers as an expense they would rather do without since it is not an FCC requirement any more. Unfortunately, in the long run, it costs them more not having the equipment maintained and upgraded regularly so when the stations start to fall apart, they are sold to some unsuspecting buyer who usually has no technical expertise so the facilities continue to decay.
Jelli: What is your favorite part of the job?
Schacht: My favorite part of the job is the adventure—what’s going to happen next? From minute to minute—it’s not boring. I got into radio naturally. When my son grew up I told him if I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t do anything different. I worked in TV when I was living in Pennsylvania and didn’t like it. It was too regimented. With radio, it was the music. If I went back in time to the age of 14 I’d do the same thing all over again.
Jelli: What is the most challenging part of the job?
Schacht: As I get older the most challenging part of the job is the uncertainty of the hours. It didn’t bother me when I was younger to get up at 1:00 a.m. if I got called out or if I took my wife out to dinner and had to leave to take care of an emergency but it’s getting old now. It’s nice to get in at 7:00 a.m. and get off of work at 3:00 p.m. For an “old dog” like me keeping up with technology is a full time job.
On the positive side of things, the equipment has gotten a lot more reliable. Now, maybe 10 percent of the storms that come through cause trouble. We used to spend most of our time keeping the transmitter site up, the tape machines and the turntables running but not anymore.
Jelli: What are you doing social media-wise?
Schacht: All of the stations I work for have Facebook, take caller requests and post things on social media. Song suggestions, they’re really hot on that. I think social media is just as important as the signal on the air from the staff’s point of view.
Jelli: What makes your station “unique?”
Schacht: The people. The music can be found anywhere but the on-air personalities make the stations unique. The on-air personalities think the engineering people are nutty and I think the same thing of them. That is what separates us from juke boxes and satellite radio. There aren’t radio “stars” like there once was but I think the listeners still connect with the air personalities and consider them as personal friends. As time goes by, I’ve developed more respect for the play by play announcers. They are really talented and to have the ability to talk for two hours during a game and not have any dead air impresses me.
Jelli: Why do you think terrestrial radio stations should invest in technology… like programmatic?
Schacht: The listeners nowadays are technology savvy. Which means, the radio stations have to be on the same level as their listeners.
They’re used to be a group of people called audiophiles. I’m a fanatic for sound. Now, most people don’t care about the sound quality, they care about convenience. Yes, some digital audio can sound ALMOST as good as analog but the average person is sure all digital audio is better because it is “digital” and the term has become a buzz word. The average person says this sounds just as good as my MP3 player but I don’t like to see radio stations downloading their music off the Internet for the most part, the fidelity is inferior to what an analog FM station can reproduce.
Jelli: What advice would you give to people new to the business?
Schacht: That’s a tough one because no one seems to want to get into engineering anymore. All of us have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Kids are tied up into computers and not interested in technology as far as repairing and maintaining equipment. I had a ham license before I got into radio and people still get them but not the kids.
I was born at the right time. World War II was over and you could buy radio equipment cheap. You could rip apart old television sets and build a ham transmitter out of the parts. You can’t find surplus parts anymore that would allow you to take things apart and build things.
For people wanting to buy into radio, don’t expect to make millions but keep localism in radio and it will be around for a long time. Here in the Midwest, when I hear the Emergency Alert System (EAS) go off with a tornado warning or the news people doing continuous severe weather coverage, I feel proud to be a part of something that is saving lives and property. Satellite TV, satellite radio or the internet can’t do this. We are always here to provide this service.
Jelli: What was your favorite radio station to listen to when you were a kid?
Schacht: My favorite radio stations that I listened to as a kid in the Fifties were WBAX AM 1240 in Wilkes Barre, PA; WHWL AM 730 in Nanticoke, PA and when rock and roll evolved WARM the mighty 590 in Scranton, PA.
When I got into engineering in the Sixties the Classical station was WYZZ.
Jelli: Bonus question (#11): For someone vacationing in your market, what one thing would you say they “must see?”
Schacht: Here in Mason City, Iowa you should visit Meredith Willson’s boyhood home and museum. Willson wrote the famous musical “The Music Man” and Mason City is the original “River City” featured in the musical.
The second thing you should visit if you’re a music fan is the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. The Surf Ballroom was the last concert venue for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson. After they played here in 1959 their plane crashed about two miles away from the venue. Many people refer to the plane crash as The Day the Music Died—the airplane the famous musicians went down was called Miss America Pie.
The ballroom is just loaded with pictures back from the Big Band Days and every year in February the venue throws a big party.