Public radio engineers await fate of major antenna maker

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The potential sale of one of the country’s only major manufacturers of high-power FM broadcast antennas is causing concern among public radio engineers who have long depended on the company for challenging projects such as directional antennas and multistation combiner systems. 

Antennas and combiners made by Shively Labs carry the signals of many major stations, from Boston’s WBUR to Dallas’ KERA/KXT to Seattle’s KUOW. Shively’s headquarters in Maine boasts one of the few test ranges needed to fully prepare complex directional antenna systems for real-world performance. 

A tower climber removes a section of a Shively Labs FM antenna at WJZR in Rochester, N.Y.
A tower climber removes a section of a Shively FM antenna at WJZR in Rochester, N.Y., which is being acquired by pubcaster WXXI. (Photo: Scott Fybush)

Founded in 1963 by former RCA engineer Ed Shively, the company has been owned since 1980 by Howell Laboratories, an engineering firm that now has a wide range of product lines. Those include water purification systems, dehydrators and an increasing amount of contract work for the U.S. Navy.

While its military and commercial marine business has grown, broadcast antennas have become a smaller piece of the company’s portfolio, said Shively VP Angela Gillespie.

“We just had a huge [military] contract that was five years long, and it’s just growing so much,” Gillespie said. “Shively has become such a little part of it, and it’s a part that’s not really growing. It’s steady, but it’s not a growth market, so the decision was made to see if we can sell that division and focus all our efforts on other parts of the company.” 

Because the company is employee-owned, Gillespie said Howell was able to be unusually open about its plans for Shively, which were shared in an email to its customers as well as on several engineering mailing lists.

“We don’t want rumors going around,” she said. “We want to be up front and give everybody the information that we currently have and that we are willing to share.”

Threat to supply chain

As soon as Shively made the announcement Jan. 5, it was an immediate topic of discussion in public radio engineering forums, where engineers have already been expressing concern about a dwindling number of broadcast vendors and the effects of supply-chain slowdowns on the availability of needed equipment.

“Any time there is less choice, that’s not good,” said Joe Tymecki, senior VP of engineering and technology at Vermont Public. The statewide network has been a loyal longtime Shively client, using the company’s antennas at all 29 of its FM transmitter sites. 

“The quality is great, and the customer service is amazing,” Tymecki said. “They are always very helpful in pre-planning and strategizing, even before we were even close to generating a quote.”

That sort of expertise and advice is especially valuable for public media, Tymecki said, because of the long time frames for many projects.

“We can’t just pull the gun on something. It has to be planned ahead of time because of capital cycles and grant or supporter funding for certain initiatives,” he said. “In some cases, I know they’ve spent a day or two helping me out with things and they’ve never seen a dime for it.” 

Because public stations tend to have long replacement cycles for equipment, Tymecki says high-quality vendors such as Shively are especially important for the system. The company competes against just a few other players at the top end of the antenna market, primarily Indiana-based ERI, California-based Jampro and another Maine company, Dielectric, which is primarily focused on TV antennas. 

The television side of the market has also suffered from a shrinking number of vendors. RFS, the Australian-based company that supplied the master TV antenna system for One World Trade Center in New York that includes pubcasters WNET and WLIW, announced recently that it will be exiting that business this year.

Other parts of the equipment industry have also gone through upheavals. GatesAir, one of the dominant manufacturers of FM and TV transmitters, was purchased in August by the European technology giant Thomson. Meanwhile, BW Broadcast, a U.K.-based maker of lower-power FM transmitters, abruptly went out of business after the deaths of both of its partners. 

Because most antennas and combiners are custom projects made to order, Tymecki and other engineers worry about what might happen to an already fragile supply chain if a Shively sale results in more work for the company’s competitors. 

“As it is sometimes, we’re stretching things,” Tymecki said of the challenge of building out new FCC construction permits within the commission’s three-year deadline. In a state where building new towers on mountaintops requires navigating a complex permitting process, Vermont Public won’t risk ordering an expensive custom antenna until those state permits are in place, so any delay in delivering an antenna can risk missing the FCC’s expiration date.

‘We love our customers’

Support for existing equipment is also a concern for public radio engineers. Whether it’s a custom-built directional antenna that may need replacement parts after suffering weather damage or a multistation combiner that needs to be updated to add a new station, they depend on being able to check with the people who built the system. 

In the mountains above Seattle, “I look after a site with a very large Shively combiner that needs to know it will always have a mother to turn to,” said Clay Freinwald, a veteran consulting engineer now with Northwest Public Broadcasting in Washington state. 

While Howell Laboratories looks for a buyer for Shively, Gillespie said the company is working to allay those concerns. 

“We are still taking orders,” she said, including many from existing Shively customers hoping to stock up on parts. Cable harnesses that connect multiple elements of FM antennas are particularly susceptible to weather issues, leading some customers to place orders now to have replacements on hand if necessary. 

“If you have a big system with a multistation combiner, we would even say that if you really want to be safe, you should have an extra power divider on hand as well, but it’s hard to plan for the worst and you hate to do that,” she said.

Gillespie hopes the worst won’t come to pass, though. Several potential buyers have already toured Shively’s plant in Bridgton, Maine, north of Portland. If and when a deal is made, Gillespie expects there will be a period of several weeks when Shively stops taking orders while a buyer moves equipment and restarts the operation at a new location. By the third quarter of 2023, she says, Howell is hoping to cease Shively manufacturing operations in Bridgton, freeing up space it desperately needs to expand its faster-growing product lines. 

With the growth of those other businesses, Gillespie said, all Shively employees will be offered continued employment with Howell, though they’ll also have the opportunity to choose to stay with Shively under new ownership. 

While Shively’s manufacturing records will go with the company to any new owner, Gillespie said she and other Howell employees will remain available in the long term to retain a knowledge base for Shively customers who need assistance.

“We love our customers. We love to be part of the broadcast industry,” she said. “You work on long-term projects with people. You get to know them, and then you get to know their family.” 

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