Like many a child, Kelly Alford spent time tagging along as Dad went about his work. His father worked in communications for the military, exposing Kelly to the transmitter towers and equipment found at transmitter sites.
That must have left quite an impression on the boy: Today vice president of engineering for the Ackerley Media Group, he has become one of the leading station-group technicians in the country.
He started as "talent." "I was the proverbial high-school disk jockey," he says, "and I worked my way through college at the University of Washington by being on the air." On graduation, he was recruited for aerospace jobs in the area but decided to stay in broadcasting.
"I wasn't a very good disk jockey, and I was really leaning towards the technology side of things anyway," he recalls. "What was really interesting was developing equipment to enhance the business model that the radio or TV station could use. I wasn't just into buying equipment because it's cool. I try to look at it as how can we use this equipment as a tool to improve our business rather than just because it's cool."
Spurning the aerospace industry, Alford landed a job with Seattle's King Broadcasting and worked on both the television and radio sides of the company. In 1988, he joined Ackerley as chief engineer of the radio group. And, as the Ackerley Group began to branch into television, so did Alford, who took on the post of director of engineering.
It was in 1996 that Alford first became involved with the project that led to his selection as a Technology Leadership Award honoree: centralcasting. (Alford's Ackerley Group has even copyrighted the term.)
Centralcasting wasn't a foreign concept to him. After all, being an old radio guy meant that he had had exposure to how radio was using technology to develop centralized operations that improved the radio industry. So the TV side of Ackerley, faced with digital transmission and the replacement of aging infrastructures at the stations it owned or wanted to acquire, looked to the economies of centralization.
"At the time, my boss was very interested in getting involved with centralcasting earlier than I thought the technology would allow," he says. "So I was constantly holding him back from doing it until there were solutions that would allow us to move forward."
Ackerley's first hub is based at WIXT(TV) Syracuse, N.Y. It handles traffic, programming, accounting and other technical operations for five additional stations in Binghamton, Elmira, Rochester, Utica and Watertown, N.Y. Two additional hubs are located at KGET(TV) Bakersfield, Calif., and at NCBA(TV) Salinas, Calif. All but two of Ackerley's stations, KVOS-TV Bellingham, Wash., and KTVF(TV) Fairbanks, Alaska, are involved with a centralcasting facility.
"Our stations are clustered in a way that they are relatively close together," says Alford. "The furthest fiber run we have right now is about 460 miles."
Clustering stations by geography is important for centralized operations. But Alford says the advantage of proximity extends beyond making sure the fiber runs between stations don't cover thousands of miles: It also affects the on-air product. "There are several hidden advantages that are hard to put down on a spreadsheet. Centralcasting plays a huge role in the ability to share material within a region, especially news material."
Regional magazine-style programs also can be given greater reach. "Plus we own all the inventory," he points out. "We've just started to scratch the surface of that element of the connectivity that centralcasting allows."
Centralcasting has definitely received increasing attention from equipment manufacturers, station engineering departments and the technical trade press. But despite Ackerley's trailblazing, it is still a concept in its infancy—at least for TV-station groups. Therefore, getting educated and finding the right fit is Alford's advice for a first step.
"If you have a station in a market that is making money, do you really want to upset the apple cart by making some radical changes?" he asks. "Or do you want to do portions of a centralcasting model to gain some additional efficiencies? You have to spend the time to look at the move and make sure everyone is comfortable with it before going forward."
Alford recommends developing pilot teams with people who have expertise for the unique parts of the station.
"That way they can speak directly to the various departments and let them know what the changes are going to be," he says.
The effect on a station varies greatly if it is at the hub (the central point serving the content) or at the end of the spoke (receiving the content).
Obviously, the amount of work done at a hub station will no longer be for one station. Alford says that takes some adjustment. "The real sea change is that, at a hub location, everyone has to work for the common good of the stations, not just the one station," he explains. "Sometimes, preference is given to the station that was the long-standing station."
At the end of each spoke, the biggest change will be that many accounting, traffic, programming, promotions and master-control operations will be handled at the hub. The upside for the local station is that energies can be focused better on its core responsibilities.
"It actually allows the local station to concentrate on the things that really matter, especially in today's economy," he points out. "That means a better local presence, including local news, and removing a lot of the distractions which are the back-office functions. You can actually superserve the market by not having these distractions. And management can be out in the community they serve by not having to deal with office issues all the time."
The staff transition to centralcasting can be done in three months, Alford says, adding, though, that those are going to be three months of continuous reorientation.
"We're changing the way television has been done for 50 years," he says. "If you can pull it off in three months, you're doing pretty good."
The creation of common technology platforms has also helped.
"Engineers can talk to each other and share information more than they ever did—which, in my view, is an advantage," he says. "Plus it takes a lot of the pressure off of me to remember what the issues are for each of the stations. And from an equipment-purchasing position, we get more muscle in negotiating because we buy group-wide instead of piecemeal."