Culkeen and Smith describe their project at Iowa DTV Symposium, 2008

At the Iowa DTV Symposium, Culkeen and Smith tell how the Jacksonville station overhauled its business and tech procedures.

Wringing out efficiencies

WJCT revises people processes
to keep up with technology

As belts tighten, many public and commercial broadcasters are wondering when computing technologies will deliver the efficiencies long promised by enthusiastic sales reps and upbeat marketing literature.

The answer: take a hard look within. Or so says WJCT, where fewer bodies are delivering programming to more TV and radio channels than ever before.

First came the monumental sequence of tasks required for the transition from flipping switches to clicking mice. With so many changes to make, the development of new human workflow processes occurred as a patchwork side-effect.

“Whenever we adopted a new piece of computer hardware or software, standard operating procedures were written for that specific item,” recalls Bob Culkeen, v.p. of technology and operations at the Jacksonville, Fla., station. “But no one stepped back to determine the best way to fit everything together.”
Multicasting changes the game

Then digital broadcasting became digital multicasting, and the game changed.

“When we started multicasting in 2006, we quickly realized all of our new pieces of equipment were interconnected,” Culkeen explains. “So, in December of that year, we began a mile-high systematic review.”

Functionally, this meant using the century-old engineering strategy of business process mapping. In short, a review team examines all of the steps in a workflow and creates a detailed chart. When business improvement is the goal, teams take mapping a step further by identifying and replacing obsolete, redundant or otherwise ineffective tasks.

“In our case, we’d start with dialoging sessions with each functional group,” says Duane Smith, technology director. “At first we’d discuss the exact ‘A, B and C’ steps within a given existing process, such as creating a log. Then, we’d begin including other individuals who were stakeholders in that particular process until everyone was around the table.

“Once we had all of the stakeholders together, we’d figure out how a process could be streamlined over the course of a few months,” Smith continues. “As we proceeded, we’d systematically chart every step on paper, so we could physically ‘see’ processes within a workflow instead of just imagining them.”

For broadcast traffic coordinator Chris Ashcraft, down in the trenches, this approach was more than welcome. “It’s the total opposite of the station I came from,” he says. “Here, my ideas aren’t just heard, they’re embraced. And ... I’ve learned how I could change my processes to make other people’s jobs much easier and more effective.”

As detailed process mapping helped wring out efficiencies, it revealed the considerable impact of other departments’ practices on the technology and operations division. “We found legacy processes in workflows and institutional mindsets were hindering progress at every step,” Smith says.

To move the whole organization forward, Culkeen and Smith set out to include other departments in their efficiency efforts. Predictably, the effort met with apprehension. “Not everyone is receptive to having their rugs lifted up so you can look at what’s underneath,” Smith says.

Glitch brings others to the table

Luckily, fate intervened early in 2007. “We missed a couple of underwriters not long after we adopted [Myers] ProTrack Radio,” says Culkeen,referring to the widely used broadcast traffic software. “This event demonstrated that our group and the underwriting department needed a better understanding of each other’s processes.”

Though skeptically at first, the underwriting sales unit came to the process-mapping table. “As expected, we discovered many different types of handwritten communications and manual processes,” Smith says. “None of them were due to anyone doing anything wrong. It was simply because no one had explained that there was a better way.”

For instance, there was the routine job of preparing affidavits for sponsors whose underwriting spots had aired. “Although we had adopted ProTrack, we learned underwriters were still using a legacy radio-traffic software program to create radio affidavits,” says Smith. “This was a workaround because none of ProTrack’s supplied forms allowed for a required notary seal.”

The Band-Aid involved copying and pasting information from ProTrack into the legacy system, Smith says. “Then the [underwriting staff] ran the legacy program simultaneously with ProTrack to ensure that all spots aired as logged.”

Like any savvy tech customer, Culkeen and Smith turned to their vendor for assistance. “Myers simply wrote us a custom routine that formats radio affidavits to look exactly like the one that our underwriters had developed in the legacy system,” Smith says.
The Myers solution eliminated the creation of TV affidavits in one system and radio affidavits in another, permitting underwriters to standardize on ProTrack for both.

After numerous other adjustments, the streamlined underwriting workflow map showed WJCT had trimmed the number of discrete tasks by a third. “With fewer tasks there are fewer errors, which has reduced the odds of missing an underwrite,” says Culkeen. “This, alone, has improved our bottom line.”

Efficiency goes organic

Success in underwriting enabled Culkeen and Smith to draw the communications and production departments into their efficiency initiative. With each subsequent streamlining project, the savings piled up. “Even the impact of small changes really stunned us,” says Smith. “Just automating the [on-screen logo] bug across five TV channels saved 1,200 hours per year.”

Not surprisingly, the organizational benefits are significant. As the station increased its output of TV and radio channels sixfold, from two to 12, the operations/traffic staff that reports to Smith has been reduced from 11 to seven.

“When we started, approximately three-quarters of our traffic needs were outsourced,” estimates Smith. “Today, everything is done in-house.”

Having a tight ship now permits WJCT to adopt leading-edge technologies faster and more smoothly, Smith says. This includes last June’s implementation of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers’ Broadcast Exchange Format (BXF). (Kulkeen and Smith discussed their streamlining and adoption of BXF at the Iowa DTV Workshop last August.)

BXF itself was a step forward because it enables TV automation and traffic systems to share information securely, eliminating countless tedious manual tasks. By serving as a so-called beta site, adopting the BXF Gateway from Avid’s Sundance Digital before its market debut, WJCT became the nation’s first station to implement an off-the-shelf BXF solution.

Now the various departments handling on-air materials are preparing for installation of a 10-terabyte storage area network (SAN). Essentially, an SAN consolidates hard-drive space into a shared pool, Smith says. This will eliminate schlepping files between departments on a thumb drive — for instance, taking narration from the radio station’s audio studio to the video-editing bay. To keep the many versions of audio and video files organized, Smith plans to use a ProTrack media-asset management module. 

Culkeen says the real success was making change organic. “We’ve created an environment that allows the free flow of ideas to ensure we’re always reviewing ourselves,” he says.
To keep up with the constant technical changes, the Technology and Operations staffs meet on Thursday afternoons when their shifts overlap. “In those meetings it’s not about one person’s ideas,” Culkeen says. “It’s always full team participation, where we educate and train each other.”

Traffic coordinator Ashcraft says the cooperative spirit is palpable. “At other organizations, radio and TV don’t talk to each other,” he says. “Here, we all work together so I’m ready to jump in as backup master-control operator when someone is absent, and they can jump into my job when I’m gone.”

The technology group has taken steps to keep other departments engaged. “For instance, underwriting verifies some of our work,” Culkeen says. “This ensures that ongoing communications occur between our group and theirs.”

Change has become institutionalized, Smith says. “Now, examining processes is continuous, and we’re always looking for better ways to do things, even if it means changing a process that we developed recently,” he asserts. “Whenever necessary, we herd the appropriate people together, particularly during new technology deployments. So, after about the first year, people came to expect change rather than resist it.”

In fact, Culkeen and Smith’s efforts have fostered a change mindset throughout the entire organization, says CEO Michael Boylan. “Any time you talk about altering a process, it can make people nervous about the outcome. But, Technology and Operations has a positive can-do attitude, and that’s contagious. It trickles back to production, marketing and everywhere else.”

“The tech folks definitely lit a spark,” Boylan attests. “And the rest of the organization is embracing it.”   

Copyright 2009 Current 

Organizational Streamlining 101

Although streamlining an organization can occur by force, WJCT’s Bob Culkeen and Duane Smith believe relationship building works best. They offer some tips from their experience aligning processes of the underwriting and operations departments.

Understand everyone’s pain, not just yours. “Cross-departmental education is important,” notes Culkeen, v.p. of technology and operations. “For instance, in the beginning, our staff didn’t understand what was involved in creating a contract, and underwriting didn’t understand what was required in our area once a contract was created.”

Use diplomacy. “Rather than saying, ‘You’re doing this task wrong,’ we found people are more receptive when we spoke in terms of making things easier for them,” says Smith, WJCT’s technology director. “So, we would say, ‘Here are several different ways we could make this task easier for you, as well as make your results better, more efficient and more reliable.’”

Encourage contributions from younger, tech-savvy employees. “One engineering hire was fresh out of IT school, with no broadcasting experience,” Smith says. “Since computers are his first language, he has offered some tremendous insights. No matter how smart those of us with legacy broadcasting are, computers will always be a second language to us.”

Develop trust by keeping your mind open. “We developed trust by constantly showing others it’s not about our department or their department, but what’s best for everyone,” says Culkeen. “To do that, we focused on the best ideas, whether they came from us or were contributed by someone else.”

That’s not just about critiquing others, echoes Smith. “You have to be brave enough to look at your own work, too.”

Focus on the right questions. Don’t ask, “Why are you doing it that way?”, which can be perceived as punitive. Instead, the salient questions are: How are we doing the task today? What are all the possible ways it could be done? And, given the options, how can we improve upon the way we’re doing it now?

Have patience. “When you’re looking under rugs that haven’t been looked under in a long time, you can imagine the things you’ll run into,” says Smith. “And, yes, it’s time-consuming. But, it’s front-end, one-time work, where 100 hours of process mapping can save 10 times that, so it pays off pretty quickly.”

Choose optimism. “I recently read an academic paper about how broadcasting is gloom and doom,” Culkeen notes. “But, we believe it’s an exciting time to be a broadcaster. There are so many new technologies, and new avenues, to reach consumers. Because we see the possibilities, we’re having fun.” 
— Anne Rawland Gabriel