R.A.P. Interview: Wally Wawro

R.A.P.: How has TV audio production advanced over the past twenty years?
Wally: It's making a very slow advance, and it's being driven, I think, by the consumer because, son of a gun, now you can go to your local, large appliance store and not only buy a stereo TV but a laser disk system, too. You have the opportunity to set the thing up to give you surround sound similar to what you have in the movie theaters. Thank goodness for the consumer. They are basically forcing the television business to get out of the dark ages in terms of audio. TV is video driven and there is no way around that. For example, what my company spends in the way of digital video processing equipment would astound anybody out there. We have got all the bells, all the whistles, all the toys. The people at ABC look at us and say, "You've got THAT?!" And we do. That's because manipulating the image has become so important. Graphics have become an incredibly important thing. Twenty years ago you didn't have field video tape. Twenty years ago it was just being invented. You had very basic character generation where they could perhaps put somebody's name across the screen electronically, if they were lucky. Usually, it was an art card that was dissolved into the picture from another camera.

The advances made in the last twenty years have been mostly in video, but thankfully, the FCC in 1986 said, "Okay. This is the TV stereo standard. This is the way it is going to be." They didn't goof it up like they did with AM, and low and behold, stereo sets came out on the market. That has started the evolution and has forced the TV stations into making changes. They're thinking, "My goodness. Stereo is here, and if the network is feeding it and advertising that this program is in stereo, darn it, we'd better make sure we can get it on the air in stereo." For a TV station, though, it is a long process. Number one, the capital equipment requirements are quite expensive. Number two, just the internal complexities of things make it difficult. I mean, you're not only dealing with audio wiring but you've got a lot of video wiring that has to follow along. The engineering requirements are much, much greater. No one that I know of in this entire industry, especially with the way it has evolved here in the 1990s, can just go out and drop a bunch of money on a brand new master control switcher that will pass stereo, a brand new studio to transmitter link that will pass stereo, and a brand new transmitter that will handle it all.

I am fortunate to work for a company that realizes that we can't do it all at once but at least gives us the opportunity to get started. We were not the first in the market with stereo, but now you can come to Dallas and watch the ABC network in stereo and hear just about all the commercials we play locally and all the promotions that are generated locally in stereo. We've had the system now for about three years. Eventually, we will be able to send some kind of stereo out on our local newscasts. I'm not saying that we'll do the news in stereo, but I'm saying at least we'll be able to then take our regular on-the-air controllers and integrate them fully for stereo.

Right now, we're looking at audio consoles for our control rooms. The stock console is not going to cut it for our requirements because we do a lot of news. We have to not only generate the audio that goes on the air, but we also have to have the sub-mixes and the mix-minus feeds and things like that that have to go to talent out in the field for cuing and so on and so forth. That requires an infinitely more complicated system than just what you'd normally find in a production room in radio. Often times, if you buy a stock product, you are going to wind up customizing it. Sometimes you have the luxury of being able to go to the manufacturer and say, "This is kind of what we've got in mind. Can you help us reach this goal?" We're fortunate in we can do that and that's what we're doing. So down the road a piece, 1994, we will have both of our main audio control rooms fully equipped for stereo with extremely state-of-the-art equipment. It will be highly computerized, and it will be wonderful.

The audio operator's job is going to become much easier and a lot less hectic than it is now. On the production aspect of it, we've built a stereo audio production facility here that is dedicated to doing production. I worked on a 12-input board for ten years, and now I've got a 40-input board. Well, that's a big improvement, but we went about it in a very slow, methodical manner and made sure that what we did was right for us in terms of equipping ourselves for the future of sound.

R.A.P.: In a recent conversation, you explained that you were looking at various digital workstations to purchase. Have you made up your mind on one?
Wally: We've pretty much made our decision. Again, one of the nice things about working for Channel 8 is that we've got a lot of people that are very perceptive, very technology driven. One such person is our systems engineer, Bob Turner. This man is light years ahead of everybody. He sees trends developing, jumps on them, learns all he can, and shares it with us. He's been extremely helpful in helping me realize a really solid audio for video room. We will be acquiring, by the end of the year, a digital audio workstation, the Solid State Logic Screen Sound. It's a very high end system. The price tag is six figures, but the thing that it does so well is that it is a very, very user friendly interface between audio and video. Instead of having knobs and buttons and dials, or a Macintosh computer, it is basically an electronic pen and an electronic pallet. You control all your audio from a video screen in front of you. There are similar systems that TV stations use for graphics work called Paintbox and Picturebox, and they happen to come from a sister company of Solid State Logic. SSL has adapted that technology for audio and has made it extremely user friendly. You've got your basic eight channels and eight reserve channels in the system, and you have all your materials stored on hard disk to be called up into the system as you need it. It will have magneto optical drives for external storage. It offers a lot more flexibility, and I really feel it's going to save me an awful lot of time.

R.A.P.: Would you say WFAA is a rare case in terms of the amount of money a TV station invests in an audio for video room?
Wally: Extremely.

R.A.P.: Do you expect this kind of commitment to become more widespread in television?
Wally: Audio for video again has gotten its big push because of the legislation selecting a TV stereo standard, and I think it's a little more consumer driven than a lot of people will admit. I think the audience is deriving great pleasure from the fact that they can now have this theater ambiance at home with the right kind of equipment. That forces the industry to do things.

A lot of TV stations go outside for production requirements, both video and audio. Even the bigger stations do not do a whole lot of work inside their facility, particularly when it comes to promoting the TV station. Our competitors here in Dallas do not have anywhere near the kind of audio facilities we have, but why do we have them? I think the reasons why are because, number one, we have the quality of people here to have such facilities in-house, and number two, in the long run, it is a whole lot cheaper to do it this way. We spent a lot of money updating my room, quite a bit of money, but the bottom line is that we can do it all here. About the only thing we don't do in here is music, and that's just because that's not my direction and not the way we want to go with it. But, we can handle the audio needs for our television station, and we can produce our own radio commercials. That saves us an incredible amount of money over the years.

More and more stations are coming into it. WSB in Atlanta is a good example. They have a small room with a Dyaxis in it and are using it to generate their own audio. Our sister station in Houston, KHOU, also has a Dyaxis. However, they don't have a full time producer assigned to the job like I am. Some of them just work with freelance people. But slowly, in the bigger markets, it is starting to creep in. One station realized that there is a little bit of an advantage to be able to have your audio production in-house, to be able to do your radio in-house, to be able to have the facility to come up with that unique or different audio track for that film promo or that news promo or that show promo. It started a trend, but it's going to happen very slowly.

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