Facing closure, antenna maker Shively finds a buyer

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A major supplier of FM antennas and transmission equipment to public radio stations will remain in business under new ownership, easing concerns among many engineers about support for existing antenna systems and the continued availability of new products.

In January, Maine-based Howell Laboratories announced plans to either sell or shutter its Shively Labs division, a 50-year-old business known for its high-power antenna systems. While Shively was an important vendor in an industry where only a few other competitors offer a similar line of products, it had become a relatively small part of Howell’s overall business, which now focuses on water treatment systems, especially for the U.S. military.

That will change under Shively’s new owner. After almost four months of negotiations, Howell has agreed to sell the Shively division to American Amplifier Technologies, a company based in Sacramento, Calif., whose entire business focuses on broadcast transmission products. 

“We’re very familiar with their products,” said AAT President Steve Wilde. “We’re familiar with their staff. We’ve had relationships with them for many years.” Before founding AAT in 2012, Wilde, a veteran broadcast engineer, operated an engineering service company that installed and maintained Shively products around the country.

As a growing player itself in the antenna and transmitter business, Wilde said, AAT was immediately interested in Shively and ready to work with Howell’s tight time frame for a sale. With its other lines of business growing, Howell wanted any potential buyer to be ready to move Shively out of its facility in Bridgton, Maine, by the third quarter of 2023, ideally while continuing to fulfill orders for customers. 

With its own manufacturing facility in the Sacramento suburb of North Highlands, Wilde said, AAT was prepared for that challenge, working quickly to negotiate the purchase and begin the transition to Shively’s new West Coast home.

“It was a smooth, awesome process,” Wilde said. “They were prompt, they were very organized, and it made that whole sequence move right along.” 

A ‘formative experience’

Under the deal, for which terms were not disclosed, Shively stopped taking orders for production in Maine at the end of March. With that deadline looming large, some public broadcasters hurried to get orders placed. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, former NPR Labs Executive Director Mike Starling was already preparing to build out a new full-power community station to replace WHCP-LP, the low-power station he founded in Cambridge in 2015.

The construction permit he secured in September called for a complex directional antenna, the sort of product Shively specializes in. 

“We made sure to get our order in two days ahead of time,” Starling said, “And they confirmed that, yes, we’ve got virtually all the parts here and we’ll go ahead and order the rest of the parts that we don’t have, and we should be able to ship to you by the end of May.”

Speaking to Current in mid-May, Starling said he’s been in regular contact with the Shively team in Maine, who have assured him that his new antenna will be ready before the end of the month, just as promised.

“They’re absolutely rock-solid professionals,” Starling said. With a target date in early July to put his new signal on the air, he said he even offered to drive to Maine to pick up the four 9-foot-long antenna elements he needs. 

Those visits to Maine were regular events for engineers in the east, including Michael LeClair, former engineering director at WBUR in Boston.

“One of the formative experiences in my life was a tour of the Shively Labs manufacturing plant and test range,” LeClair said in an email. “When I heard the news that Shively was going to be sold I found it hard to imagine how the radio industry could continue without them. I have specified Shively antennas for over 30 years at many sites. Their range of product lines offered an antenna to every customer, whether large or small, and for every need. If you couldn’t find it anywhere else, Shively would build it for you.”

LeClair, who now operates a consulting engineering firm, says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the future of the Shively product line under AAT ownership. Wilde said that AAT will continue to support all Shively products as it ramps up production in California. For a few months, teams are working in parallel on both coasts, finishing up manufacturing and shipping on existing orders in Maine while beginning to transfer raw materials to AAT’s factory, where some Shively production has already begun on new orders.

“I feel like we’re doing a really good job of making sure we take care of the customers and making sure this transition is as smooth as it possibly can be,” Wilde said. “It’s been a very organized system. And I think both teams have done a fantastic job.”

Commitment to pubmedia

As an employee-owned company, Howell Laboratories said it would offer Shively employees the opportunity to remain in Maine working on other product lines or to join AAT in California. Wilde said he’ll soon make an announcement about which existing Shively staffers will make the move west. Regardless of whether they stay with the company, Wilde said, their valuable institutional knowledge will not be lost. Shively’s corporate records, including detailed information about each individual customer order, will move to AAT, and both companies have agreed to continue cooperating indefinitely when support is needed. 

“The Howell Labs staff that will not be continuing with Shively Labs will continue to be available to answer questions and help,” Wilde said. 

Wilde is hopeful that broadcasters will benefit from the combination of Shively’s product lines with AAT’s existing offerings. While both companies have competed in areas such as FM antennas, transmission line and filters, AAT also offers a line of FM transmitters as well as its own lines of TV transmission products.

In a time of supply-chain crunches that have made it hard for some stations to meet build-out deadlines, Wilde said Shively customers will also benefit from AAT’s ability to keep many of its products in stock for immediate delivery.

“We have transmitters in stock ready to ship,” he said. “We have filters, combiners, antennas in stock ready to ship — even our high-power systems.” 

AAT is eager to continue Shively’s long relationship with public broadcasters, Wilde said. 

“We want to continue to be a solution for public radio,” he said. “Absolutely.”

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