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Buzzed on Digital

If you want to know the kind of devotion Dave Converse, VP/director of engineering at the ABC owned-and-operated stations, has for his job, just ask him what he does in his spare time.

“Drink coffee—constantly,” he says. “I’m drinking pumpkin spice right now. There is another flavor I drink: snicker doodle. It’s like cookies.”

With the speedy technological changes bombarding broadcasters—outfitting stations with HD equipment, for example—it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Converse needs that hot java to keep alert to the myriad details.

“His hand has morphed to the point where the coffee cup is integral to his bone structure,” jokes long-time associate and colleague Bob Billeci, senior VP of technology and operations at Sony Pictures Television International.

Technology may change, but Converse’s work life, when it comes to fixing, building, and solving problems of TV and radio equipment, remains the same—even in today’s complicated world of HD.

“The results may be different, the schemes may be different, but there always is a method to troubleshooting,” says Texas-born Converse.

He entered the broadcast world as a 16-year-old troubleshooter in the late 1960s at a small radio station, KTUX(FM) Livermore, Calif. His goal wasn’t to fix switchers, tape decks or the station’s antenna. He was looking to spin records, especially classic-rock tunes.

“I had a strong interest in music and electronics,” says Converse. “Working in radio was perfect for me.”

He moved around at different radio and TV stations in the ’70s and ’80s and, in 1984, went to KFSN Fresno, Calif., a CBS affiliate owned by then Capital Cities Broadcasting, where he was hired by Bob Billeci.

Converse followed Billeci, eventually rising to director of engineering at KFSN. He followed Billeci to KABC(TV) Los Angeles in the mid ’90s. In 1999, he landed in his current position as chief technical executive at ABC’s owned stations.

In recent years, Converse’s efforts have focused on the massive transformation of moving the ABC-owned stations to HDTV, which is why he is receiving a B&C Technology Leadership Award.

More than the other network-owned station group, ABC is far ahead in converting local newscasts to HD. KABC, WABC New York, WPVI Philadelphia, KGO San Francisco and WLS Chicago are all HDTV-equipped. The early move was made, says Converse, to keep up the high profile of ABC stations and the general overall status as the station group with the best-rated local newscasts.

“We have an audience that is pretty savvy about technological changes that are coming,” he says. “We’ll have three more stations transitioning to local HD news production over the next 12 months or less.”

HD doesn’t come without problems. “You are trying duplicate what you did yesterday with a new set of tools,” he says. “It’s not always intuitive.”

And it’s not just HD. ABC stations have taken the lead in other ways as well.

Led by Converse, ABC became the first broadcaster to deal with a wireless carrier in an FCC-mandated change. The group and Sprint Nextel signed an agreement under which ABC stations will vacate some of its 2 gigahertz (GHz) transmission band—known “2 GHz Relocation”—to make room for Sprint’s operations. It’s this band that ABC uses to send signals from its mobile news trucks to its stations for its electronic newsgathering (ENG). Other broadcasters will have to do the same.

Sprint Nextel was forced to move into this new band because the 800 MHz frequency, where it was operating, was getting crowded, public-safety communications being a concern for the FCC in the post-9/11 world.

Converse says the decision to move off the 2 GHz band early was intended to avoid dealing with technological conversions and changes that will certainly come down the road—as well as with the unexpected day-to-day engineering problems.

He thrives on those new demands. “What I like about my job is that no two days are the same,” he says. “It is certainly no less than a juggling act.”

Thriving on his improvising approach to his work is one of his best qualities, says Sony Pictures’ Billeci. “He keeps a cool head. “He would say, 'Let’s have a cup of coffee and figure it out.’ Years ago, the guys that would keep their cool under pressure were the guys that could keep the station on the air. Those guys are few and far between nowadays.”