New NOC Chief Provides a Look Back and a Look Forward

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Steve Densmore, the new PRSS Director of the Network Operations Center (NOC), spoke about his background and experience and what it’s like to fill the very large shoes left by former NOC Chief Ralph Woods.
What’s your background/qualifications for this job?

I worked at ABC Radio Networks, first as a tech, then a supervisor, and then as Manager of Radio Operations at the Washington, DC bureau.  Although our focus was primarily news gathering, we did a lot of affiliate support hosting stations that would come to the nation’s capital to highlight an event and have a Washington dateline. That was extended to providing on-location support to affiliates as part of our coverage of the eight political conventions and one Olympics that I served in the role of Engineer-in-Charge. I’ve spent a lot of time gaining experience in getting audio from one place to another, while promoting the mantra:  “We wouldn’t be much of a network without affiliates.”
In 2007, following the sale by Disney of ABC Radio Networks, I went to work for iBiquity Digital Corp. as Broadcast Technology Manager where my new mantra was: “We wouldn’t be much of a company without customers.” I was tasked with making IBOC technology accessible by making sure the information paths were open between equipment providers, stations and the developers at iBiquity.  It pleased me to no end when one public radio chief engineer refereed to me as his “Snopes guy at iBiquity”.
With the economy taking a tumble in 2009, I left iBiquity during a massive downsizing and wound up at the Voice of America. There I became familiar with what it’s like to work in a large-scale broadcast facility that fed out programs in 43 languages via the major media platforms of radio, television, and streaming on the Internet, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  During that time I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, to provide technical support for VOA’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup.  There I added video to my resume, sending both radio and TV reports back to Washington via IP.  I’m proud to say that for that I was awarded the Broadcasting Board of Governors Gold Medal for Exemplary Service. I also traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan to help move VOA’s Afghanistan bureau to another part of Kabul. Being government employees, we stayed at the American embassy in modular housing with instructions on the doors to our rooms explaining what to do during a rocket attack.  Fortunately, there were none.  By then my mantra had evolved to: “We wouldn’t be much of a government broadcasting service without content.”
In 2011, a friend posted on Facebook that the friend of a friend of his was looking for a radio tech to fill a post in Afghanistan.  Partly on a whim and mostly from curiosity, I responded and the next day I was on Skype with the civilian manager of the 82nd Airborne’s PSYOP radio station at Kandahar Airfield learning exactly what the job entailed. Two weeks and several more interviews later, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and on September 30th, 2011, I got word that I was being “deployed” that night to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

What are your thoughts about playing such an important role in the public radio arena?

I think the first day I arrived at 1111 North Capitol I had black and blue marks on my arms from pinching myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream, because for me it is certainly a dream job. My love for Radio goes back to when I was a kid living in Hawaii and built my first four tube shortwave radio so I could listen to the NASA Gemini launches.  Back then communication satellites were still very experimental so shortwave radio was the only way to hear them live.  I’ve had a long career in commercial radio, and for a while in government radio.  I see public radio as the last bastion where people use the medium to light up your mind.  I’m looking forward to putting the experience and knowledge that I’ve acquired throughout my career to helping make that light a bit brighter by making that path between the content producer and the listener more efficient, accessible and transparent.  Working in public radio is a dream come true.

Talk a little bit about your overseas broadcast experience and how it prepared you for being the PRSS NOC Chief?

I mentioned before that I took a very radical career turn when I accepted a position working for a defense contractor at a radio station operated by a US Army psychological warfare detachment in Kandahar, Afghanistan.  It’s hard to describe what a different environment that is.  For one thing, broadcast radio was now considered to be a weapons system on a battlefield.  The Asia Foundation every year in their “Survey of the Afghan People” finds that radio is the most accessible form of information and entertainment in the country.  The Afghans have a rich heritage of music, poetry and storytelling that had been suppressed during the Taliban rule.  When coalition forces drove them out of power, there was a nationwide release of pent up demand for access to these things along with a thirst for news and information.  Our task was to create a radio outlet that would attract a listenership from the surrounding region that would then be an audience for the PSYOP messaging that the Army would insert into our programming, not unlike a sponsor selling a product.  Over the course of my two years there, I was a mentor for an incredible group of Afghan broadcast technicians, editors and producers.  Not that there was much to mentor since they had acquired on their own a very impressive set of skills as broadcasters.  The challenge for me was working with the people who ran things, i.e. the military.  For the first year and a half I was a DoD contractor first at Kandahar under the 82nd Airborne and then at Bagram under the 1st Infantry Division.  I then moved to Kabul as an employee of NATO.  There I worked with not only Afghan broadcasters but a command group made up of Americans, Romanians, Germans, Norwegians, Italians, Turks, Brits, and even a Malaysian.  In all three postings, the people in uniform whom I worked for had a knowledge of broadcasting that was very limited and mostly theoretical, so for my part a broad understanding of other points of view tempered with a bit of patience were required.  Those are skills that are universally applicable.

Do you have any broad aims or goals that you hope to accomplish over the next 12 months?

I didn’t come to NPR and PRSS with the idea that I’m going to “turn things around”.  Having worked in the broadcast industry in Washington, I was aware of NPR’s reputation for a high level of professionalism. Having been here now for a little over two months, that impression has been strongly reinforced. My first task here is to learn. I’ve seen more than a few bosses with “bull-in-a-china-shop” syndrome, and I want to avoid that. Part of leadership and management is making decisions. Smart decisions are always the best kind. What I feel I’m bringing to the PRSS is a very broad background in radio and a wealth of experience. Living in the Technological Age, one of the things we have to deal with is change. I’ve seen enough of that over my career that I think I have a pretty good handle on it.

Did Ralph give you any parting advice as he walked out the door?

Ralph and I have actually known each other for a very long time. Years ago, NPR and ABC Radio did some business sharing, and I got to know Ralph professionally. We also rode the same commuter train to work and would talk shop on the ride into DC. He used to tease me that working in commercial radio must be nice because we were always swimming in money. I used to tease him back saying it must be nice to work for a business that can’t show a profit. We both knew that those statements were nonsense.
People who know Ralph know that he’s a master of making up maxims.  One he left me with is:
“Know where you have been.
Know where you are, and
Know where you are going.”
As the Johnny Cash song says:  “I’ve been everywhere, man.”  Where I am right now is the best place I could possibly be.  Where I’m planning to go is toward a bright future for Public Radio.