So we had a pretty American Thanksgiving. Alexis cooked a 22-pound turkey. My sister Jennifer cooked a 13-pound turkey. Sister-in-law Michelle brought a salad. My dad and Kalli brought a couple of pies. Alexis's brother Victor brought some "pan dulce" and her parents made some really good salsa. After dinner we sang "Happy Birthday" to niece Megan and step-son Steve.
That's all really good news, and it made for a lot of photos on my Nikon D3200. As thankful as I am for all of this - family, love, radio, and raisin-filled stuffing - the surprising treat of the night came at 11:01pm. That's when, with fourth and goal from the 8-yard-line, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers rolled out left and fired a pass into the end zone... and it was just out of reach of the Packers receiver.
Bears win. Bears win. Green Bay had won the last 11 out of 12, and tonight's game was setting up for another heartbreak. But somehow we won and ever since then I've been trying to go to sleep but can't.
We ran on the air overnight using a phone line to connect between our new studios and the transmitter site behind Smith Chevy... so when I was there picking up the stools, I disconnected the phone link and charged up the Comcast Metro E service. Perhaps there were drops throughout the day today, as there have been for 18 months of using Comcast, but every time I listened in on the station today it was full, steady audio. It's not as good news as the Bears winning, but just as surprising.
I won't be doing the morning radio show in four and a half hours. This may sound a bit arrogant... but Ryan and I try to limit me to doing the show at the busiest times. Most regular weekdays qualify. The day after Thanksgiving does not. Tom Dabertin of Whiting is set to do the show in my stead.
What will I do in the morning? Probably the same thing I've been doing all week... working on the Comcast mystery. I've been thinking about it. What, besides the fact that we've been going to dead air for 18 months using Comcast, concerns me the most?
Sure, dead air sucks... even if it's for short bursts. It hurts the business, my reputation, puts us at risk of not being on the air during a real emergency. I get all of that. But since I had a day to digest the recent spate of Comcast techs coming to the buildings to try to figure out the problem... I realized this:
That not one Comcast person has ever admitted that there's a problem with the connection. Not one. Not even when I emailed a set of data that my IT guy says proves that the Comcast connection times out (see previous blog posts). Not even after I did tests with the Tieline tech support desk and told Comcast of their conclusion - the Comcast connection is weak.
Now I've been thinking about why not one of Comcast's personnel would have ever indicated to me that he or she even had a suspicion that there was a problem, either with our original Comcast VPN, which dropped. Or the more recent Metro E service, which has increased the frequency of the drops.
But wait. Mehasan of Comcast told me this week that it looked like to him that the Metro E service wasn't even activated, or was activated incorrectly. He said that I should call the Metro E help desk and tell them to activate the service. We did that and they said it was already activated. Who's on First, I don't Know's on second, and Watt's on third.
The more I think about it... I circle back to two possibilities of why not one Comcast person will even hint that there's a problem.
1. they haven't diagnosed any problems
2. Comcast personnel are trained to not mention any suspicion of a problem of Comcast's making.
There is a third possibility... that somehow over 18 months and several different ways of sending audio over Comcast lines, that I'm the culprit. It is still a possibility that even though I have had drops with all of my different ways of connecting the two studios, that I somehow overlooked something and have made the same mistake with each system.
But I don't believe so. What's really starting to bother me is that I hired an IT guy to come in and hook up a laptop on one end of the Comcast Metro E connection... and a laptop on the other end... and by doing simple old-school DOS pings for about ten minutes... we could find five instances of "Request timed out." Also, the round trip would balloon as large as 306 ms.... which is like a barely-audible heartbeat. We could find that with a couple laptops and ten minutes of testing... yet Comcast, with all of their measuring devices and genius coders - They can't see the same drops?
It doesn't make any sense. It's like your kid being really sick, as one of mine was a few years ago. We went to doctor after doctor, including Children's Memorial in Chicago, and couldn't get a clear diagnosis. It took spending a summer in Rochester, MN, at Mayo Clinic to find a tumor between my kid's heart and spine. There was a diagnosis out there. My wife and I knew it, and we weren't gonna stop until we found out what it was. It nearly cost us our business, our home... everything. But we stuck it out and stuck our fingers in the faces of hospital administrators and doctors... and there it was, a tumor in the most hard to find place on your body. And the most dangerous.
This problem with Comcast certainly doesn't rise to the level of trying to save your kid's life. It shouldn't really even be mentioned in the same rambling blog post. On a reduced rank of priority, however, I feel a similar journey going on here. The journey has gone way beyond effecting the growth of our business, my reputation, our ability to broadcast during a real emergency... at some level I just wanna know what the hell's wrong. Is it Comcast? Is it me? Is it a combination of the two? Why can't Comcast see the drops? Or do they see them and if they admit to them then there's some sort of horrible consequence?
I don't know the answer to any of these questions and many more. It's not something I ever wanted to learn about - millisecond pings, nodes, amplifiers, the hierarchy of Comcast service personnel, LANs, WANs, Gateways, wireless megahertz levels, VPNs, HFC and so on. I've learned way more than I ever wanted to about how Comcast internet and Metro E work. And the more I learn, the more this one thing keeps gnawing at me - that I don't know what the heck's wrong.
And Comcast can't even see diagnose that there is a problem... or maybe they have but just won't admit that they have. Who knows.
It is the Friday after Thanksgiving and instead of sitting in the host chair at the Teaching Studios of WJOB at the Purdue University Calumet Commercialization and Manufacturing Excellence Center, I'm sitting in bed typing to you. I'm sitting here just kinda clearing my mind and thinking, relaxing. I just cooked some amazing potatoes, green pepper, onion and tomatoes - with my mother-in-law's authentic salsa draped over it - topped with a couple of scrambled eggs. I cannot cook... but clear your mind enough, take your time to cut all the vegetables, cook them slowly, listen to the silence, butter your toast AND let it melt into the bread... and stuff starts to happen.
You start to remember things. As the three or four of you know, I've been kinda fixating on this Comcast mystery, problem, fiasco... whatever you want to call it... for a long time. I argue that it's necessary that I fixate, that we basically can't operate our radio station unless Comcast fixes the problem... or I develop some kind of over-the-air system to connect our two studios that are only seven blocks apart... or I do something on our end that can fix the problem.
By now, you're probably growing weary of hearing about Comcast. So let's take a different tack. I'm sitting there stirring my eggs... peaceful, in my sweats and slippers, unshaven, hair messy (like always) and some incredibly wicked breath because I don't want to go in the bathroom to brush my teeth and wake up my exhausted wife.
It all started to come back to me. Why does this situation with Comcast seem so familiar? And then it dawned on me - because it has happened before. Four times.
Let's go back to the beginning. Alexis and I bought, out of bankruptcy, radio station WJOB in Hammond, Indiana, in 2004. As an aside, on the first day we walked in - March 11, 2004 - the toilets and sinks were backed up and had flooded the entire southern half of the building. We spent our first night at WJOB plunging toilets, mopping, buying fans and setting them up to dry the carpet. My 12-year-old and 10-year-old helped, along with a bunch of other relatives, employees, and friends. We worked into the night, wet and cold.
Oh, by the way, there was no heat in the building either. My wife cried. Big, snowflake-sized tears that, left unattended, could have frozen to her face.
But as stressful as that first night was, it was a walk in the park compared to the challenges we would face in terms of infrastructure over the next 11 years. The next morning we called out a guy to root-rooter the lines - all the lines - at a rather hefty cost. We were good to crap for a couple more years.
I wish all of the infrastructure challenges were that simple. As a matter of fact, when the three or four of you think about it - as I did stirring the eggs and green peppers this morning - the Comcast struggle is basically struggle #5 when it comes to Old Infrastructure. There were four before it. That's why it feels like we have all been here before.
You would think that when Comcast phone lines just go out on us during the broadcasting day, like they did a week ago, that it would be first time that happened to us. Hell no. For years, we would be broadcasting from our old studios during a rainstorm and all the sudden we wouldn't have phone lines for callers to connect with us. We could broadcast mano-a-mano, meaning the host could sit there and just talk. But he or she, me or I, couldn't take calls. The call-in lines just went dead.
Invariably, by the time a tech came out in the next day or two - or the following week - our call-in phone lines would be working again. This host we used to have called "The Preacher" blamed the mysterious phone outages on the ghosts hanging around WJOB. I sensed that it was something else - Old Infrastructure. And I write it with capital letters on both words, the kind of thing I would usually consider a sign of amateur writing, because if I ever wrote a book about this struggle to stay on the air for the past 11 years, that's what I'd call it.
Similar to what's happening now, when Comcast tech after Comcast tech keeps coming in or doing that most frustrating of things - "testing from central office" - a similar thing happened for years with AT&T. It wasn't always all of our call-in phone lines that would go out. We would sometimes have one call-in line available... but it wouldn't be 219-845-1100, which has been the main call-in line since at least the 1940s. The line still working would be one of the other random lines in the hunt group, so I'd have to sit there and say...
"Ah, we're having a bit of a technical problem. So to call in today, instead of using 219-845-1100, you gotta call in on 219-989-8509, and we only have one line available. So be patient."
Like now with Comcast, it was embarrassing. In the end, like now, the situation.
1. cost us a ton of money to deal with the problem
2. cost us a ton of hours to deal with the problem
3. kept some clients away
4. trashed my reputation
5. put us in danger of not being able to broadcast fully during a real emergency
Every time I was at the station when an AT&T tech came out, I followed him around. It was always a "him." I'd ask questions, look over his shoulder, shine my flashlight, listen to his answers. I learned way more than I ever wanted to about how phone lines meet in junction boxes, how they're strung overhead, how a patchboard works, how to test a phone line. We're talking dozens of hours of following techs around, calling guys I know in the phone business and asking them to take a look, probing them with questions, reading about phone lines on the internet, researching other ways to get phone service. All of this work so that in the middle of a show during a rainstorm the phone lines wouldn't go dead.
Ultimately, one tech, on a sunny day after a big rainstorm, told me something about the junction box on the corner of the street between us and Smith Chevrolet.
I don't know if this effects your phone lines... but there's a little puddle of water in the junction box on the corner. And some really old wires.
The AT&T tech - I can't remember his name - didn't do anything about the water because, by then a day after the rainstorm, our on-air phone lines all worked. But I filed that sidebar comment about the water way down at the bottom of the junction box in my swarthy little head. And the next time our phones went out - when it was raining, of course - I walked the tech - a different guy from the other ones - out to the junction box and asked him to open it.
There, mo of, there's your problem. That little f---ing puddle. Get rid of that and put some new wires in... and problem solved.
The tech, a good guy (they're all freaking good guys. The ones you want to have a few words with are usually their bosses. Suits. They're the ones who ignore your pleas)... this good guy called central office and talked to a supervisor. By this time, everyone knew about the problem at WJOB. I told about it on the air and supervisors called me once in a while with the same message -
Next time your phones go out, call us right away and we'll get someone out to locate the problem.
Ultimately, a supervisor gave the okay to replace the flooring of the junction box, rewire the parts of it that were my phone lines, and we haven't had a problem since. That simple. Time passes, love fades, and Old Infrastructure breaks down.
For the first time in like seven or eight years, I haven't done any live radio in a full week. It feels good and bad, like when someone massages that tight spot in your neck just a little too hard. At some level I'm ready to go back to the microphone. I miss it.
For now, though, I gotta tell you about Old Infrastructure. All you have to do is climb up on the 5600-square foot old WJOB building at the base of the 400-foot tower and from the roof just look around, slowly. To the west is the old Pullman Standard plant where they made train cars during the War. It's a huge, sprawling industrial complex that doesn't make train cars anymore but a whole lotta people work there for companies like Jupiter Aluminum making other stuff. There's a big tower or smokestack as you drive in to the complex and someone, that one creative guy at the plant, painted cat's paws up and down the length of the structure. Nice touch. Reminds you that amidst industry there is beauty.
Shift your view a few degrees to the north and there's the Caterpillar yard, where they hold all the lifts, backhoes, end loaders, scrapers and bulldozers for general use amongst the population. Just north of that is a shop where they service electric motors. I haven't been in there since I worked as a construction laborer a long time ago. My uncle or someone sent me there to get a motor fixed. All that I remember about the place is that there was this incredibly hot Mexican chick working in the little business office there. I wonder where she is now.
A little further north there's this huge hood a couple blocks long.. a massive carport. It's where the traincars pull in and get loaded with fertilizer. Across Indianapolis Boulevard is the old Stauffer Chemical plant, where this huge smokestack that's red and white blows steam all day and all night. Once, in the mid-80s when I worked at WJOB the first time, some Greenpeace guys with long beards climbed up one of the Stauffer towers and stayed there days, maybe weeks. They wouldn't even come down for me to interview them... and the police wouldn't let me go up and meet them so another opportunity for some really cool radio tape lost.
There's a huge railroad yard. It used to be like 30 tracks across but now they're taken some out and what's left is a desert of gravel under a huge bridge. The whole scene makes you feel small. There's Hammond Lead, where they do something with pencils. Just kidding. I don't know what they do but I hope it doesn't make its way into the ice cubes that we put in our Diet Cokes.
That's just some of the industrial stuff around the iconic radio station WJOB in the middle of Hammond, Indiana, a few blocks from East Chicago and about a mile from Gary. It's a huge, beautiful 400-foot tower that speaks of majesticness and what is good about technological advancement. But as with the Pullman plant and the old Stauffer Chemical facility, the rail yard and the lead factory, the tower is old. As are the wires, pipes, transmission lines, amplifiers, junction boxes and switching stations that feed it. Thus we continue our discussion of Old Infrastructure.
As mentioned above, I had a little deja vu this morning while stirring the green peppers, onions, potatoes and tomatoes... this problem with Comcast not being able to provide me with solid service... and not really knowing why. I've been here before. We have all been here before.
2. First Communications
In April, 2011, we signed up with a company called First Communications to give us dedicated internet so that we could stream video from our own servers at the WJOB site, in the middle of the heavy industry. We eventually wound up buying 10 megs up and down, guaranteed, for about $1500 a month. That's how expensive dedicated internet used to be.
To put the First Com lines in, we had to bring out a (union) contractor to build a little mini-tower to connect a line to the nearest phone pole and then out to the street. It was a costly and lengthy process but after writing a lotta checks we were able to set up First Communications dedicated internet into our really old building.
It never really worked right. In streaming, what you really need is to upload to the internet at a high and steady rate. We would often get 20, 30, 50 megs available for download, for some reason, and then 2 or 3 megs available for upload. First Com sent techs down from their Chicago office a ton of times to measure the problem and then come up with some ideas to fix it. I fought with them a lot. We were streaming the morning show or a high school basketball game and after a couple hundred viewers, no one else could watch it. We should have been able to accept 750 easy.
But as with Comcast, we couldn't figure out why it was reduced internet that fed the old WJOB building in the middle of smokestacks and railyards. First Com, although they provided the heavy internet, used AT&T lines to do so (this was before AT&T got into the business of dedicated internet). First Com tried to follow the lines back to the source... but it was futile for the third-part First Com to try to figure a labyrinth of AT&T transmission lines, some of which were nearly a century old. By the time First Com picked up their service three years later and went back to Chicago, one of the techs told me - "We may never do business in Hammond, Indiana, again. Your shit down here is just too old."
So there. Another communications line falling victim to Old Infrastructure. The next two struggles with Old Infrastructure deal with Old Infrastructure of a different sort.
3. Hammond Sanitary District
As mentioned, when we first walked into WJOB after winning the station in a court battle, the place was flooded. With sewage. My wife cried. "We put our life savings into THIS."
I hired someone to come out and check all of our toilets and sinks and stuff and replace a few... and to regularly root-rooter the sewer lines. Still, every once in a while a couple of the toilets wouldn't flush and would overflow. My plumber said it was the city. The city said it was us. End result - cost money.
4. Hammond Water Department
Same thing with the water department as with the sewers. One day I went into the back kitchen for a glass of Hammond water. I love Hammond water. I've been drinking it all my life and it's the best water in the world. Straight from Lake Michigan.
But that one day the water came out yellow. Nobody wants to drink yellow water, just ask Johnny Cash. And then there was sand in the water. After a couple weeks of dealing with the Hammond water department, it came down to me and a manager from the water department standing over a big hole in the ground looking at a valve. The valve was bad, which was the city's problem, but the pipe leading in to the valve also had to go and that was my problem. Somehow I wound up replacing a good 50 feet of pipe and busting out a portion of a wall to get a new water line into the building. Cost, hassle... Old Infrastructure.
AT&T, First Communications, sewer, water... and now Comcast. Do you spy a trend? The infrastructure around my old radio station is very old. It's certainly not an ideal place to put an innovative media company.
Here's my point. What I'm going through with Comcast... this deep struggle to digitally connect two radio studios seven blocks apart... it's not just about getting and staying on the air. That is, of course, the number one priority. We just want to do radio.
But we are also part of a larger community that rarely, if ever, meets or speaks. There's a lone wolf radio guy in Utah right now or southern Alabama or Alaska even and he's having problems with his connection to his studio. And he's using internet. Maybe it's not Comcast, but it's internet and it's a problem. And I just keep thinking if I can see this Comcast thing through to the end then maybe just maybe we'll discover something that can help him out. That's all.