Radio and television have been uniquely integral components of the lives of North Americans and those in other countries for decades. It’s through those vast mainstream communications mediums that we’ve gotten our news and entertainment while staying informed about what’s happening around the corner and around the world. But far beyond the microphones and cameras located in the broadcasting studios are the companies behind the scenes with the vast technical expertise that allows those audio and video signals to travel from the source to literally billions of people.
Nautel of Hackett’s Cove, Nova Scotia, has for decades been recognized as one of the world’s largest and most trusted manufacturers of AM and FM radio broadcast transmitters with more than 12,000 deployments in 177 countries. Additionally, it is known for being the first company to develop a commercially available fully solid state broadcast transmitter. Nautel recently acquired C-Tech, a 45-year-old enterprise located in Cornwall, ON, which focuses primarily on the NAVtech side of the business as a manufacturer of sonar transducers. Now known as Nautel C-Tech, the company has for years been a primary supplier to the Canadian Navy, International naval forces and major defense contractors worldwide.
Founded in 1969, Nautel remains headquartered in Hackett’s Cove, with about 185 employees. The company’s initial primary offering was building and supplying solid state navigation beacons for the Canadian government in the 1970s. To better serve the U.S. market, Nautel Maine Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary located in Bangor, Maine, was founded in 1974 and has about 45 employees.
Leading the way at Nautel is Kevin Rodgers, who became president and CEO this past August, but he’s been with the company for almost 30 years, giving him extensive first-hand experience in the company’s history and evolutionary path. As one would expect, the core of Nautel’s staff is comprised primarily of electrical engineers, about 40 in total, ranging from recent graduates to those with an immense level of advanced RF design experience.
“We started in the 1970s making navigational products and beacons, primarily for the government,” Rodgers begins, during a recent interview with The Canadian Business Journal. “It’s still part of the business today, but much less so as we’ve gone into commercial products either for individual radio stations or groups. Many are privately owned and some are single stations.”
Despite now being the only Canadian company in the AM-FM transmitter space, Nautel is by no means alone from an international scope, and this industry is very much a global one with significant competitors in the United States and Europe. While Canada does provide a large market with which to cover, Nautel products and services go well beyond our borders and into most countries, including those making upgrades from older systems.
“We’ve just done a large contract with the government of India to supply the entire country with AM transmitters,” Rodgers reveals. “We just finished shipping that out a couple of months ago.”
At the core of its operations has been Nautel’s Solid-State Technology, which was developed as part of a conscious move away from the older tube technology. Much of what was developed by Nautel years ago is still viable and highly efficient in today’s marketplace and many of their first generation of AM transmitters are still operational. In a Solid-State component, the current is confined to solid elements and compounds engineered specifically to switch and amplify it. Integrated North American manufacturing gives Nautel complete control over all aspects of transmitter design. It’s by no means an exaggeration to say that the transition to Solid-State Technology effectively revolutionized the industry.
“The main difference between the two is reliability,” Rodgers notes. “That was the big technology innovation about why it was such a breakthrough back in the early ’70s. There was no other transmitter that could perform as reliably without as many service intervals as the tube technology. Where we started from, with the navigational beacon business, it was pretty important in pre GPS days to have a reliable technology in that space.”
As an acknowledged leader and pioneer in this industry, Nautel has an impressive lineup of well-known and established broadcasters across Canada and around the globe.
“Our biggest customer base currently is AM-FM radio stations,” Rodgers confirms. “Our customers are the likes of the CBC and Bell Media. Tune in to most AM or FM stations and there is a very good chance it’s being broadcast via a Nautel transmitter.”
While there has been a noticeable decline in AM radio over the past 20 years, the impact has proven to be negligible for Nautel according to Rodgers because virtually all those stations formerly on the AM band have made the jump to FM – which Nautel also services with its transmitters.
“What’s happened in many places is they’ve switched from the AM dial to FM, so that switch has not been a bad thing. It’s caused new requirements for FM transmitters.”
A surprising revelation that came out during the discussion is that Canadian broadcasters have been quite slow in moving away from the traditional analog transmitters to digital.
“In Canada there has been no move to go digital,” Rodgers remarks. “All of the current broadcasting for AM and FM in Canada is still all analog.”
It seems as if there is more of a tentative wait and see attitude to gauge what the rest of the world is doing before making that leap into the digital realm. In other words, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. When the time comes, it amounts to a monumental business decision to make that type of commitment. However, there will be a time when all broadcasters use digital transmitter systems.
“Obviously they have to look at it as a return on investment,” Rodgers replies. “There are not a lot of digital HD receivers made available in Canada. In the U.S. they’ve been doing it for more than 10 years and it’s gaining momentum. Some auto manufacturers are providing HD radios in their cars, but that is still very much an untapped market in Canada.”
Commitment to Service
One primary aspect that has been very comforting to clients of Nautel is that the company has never discontinued support on any product it’s ever produced, which is a herculean task when one takes into account all the many various transmitting products developed over the past 45 years. Rodgers and his team make the necessary investments to ensure a client’s experience in owning and operating a Nautel transmitter is second to none, and by extension is committed to introducing substantial new functionality to already-installed Nautel transmitters. While it’s no doubt a laborious effort providing ongoing support indefinitely, it’s something Rodgers and the company stand by, because the customer must come first.
“I’ll be the first to let you know that it is a headache,” he laughs. “But it’s something we’re proud that we offer and we stand behind. It’s one of Nautel’s key points. We do our best to support everything we’ve ever made and it makes us stand out in the industry.”
As an example of their sophistication, each series of Nautel’s transmitters have the ability to report the status back to Nautel head office via the Internet which allows the company’s technicians to remotely diagnose any problems a client may be having with their field equipment. It’s all part of a greater commitment to producing the best transmitters anywhere in the world.
“We’re going to continue innovating, stretching our goals in order to make the most efficient transmitters that we can produce,” Rodgers promises. “Technology is evolving at a more rapid pace now than when the company started. For example, the GV transmitter, the high-power FM transmitter line, replaces the NV line which was only five years old. But the GV is so much more efficient so the power savings are significant.”
As technology continues to forge ahead at such a rapid pace, it does require that a significant amount of annual income goes back into research and development in order to continue pushing on the innovation aspect and refresh the technology as necessary. It’s something Rodgers and his executive team recognizes and embraces.
Many of the senior management team has been with Nautel for 10-plus years and a lot of the employees have been part of the team for three decades. The loyalty and commitment shown by those working with the company gives Rodgers immense pride. Sound, stable and reliable ownership, community values, and a vibrant yet experienced work environment all add up to a recipe for success. The enthusiasm of the people to offer the best customer service in the industry and the best quality products in the industry is really what it comes down to.
The radio industry continues to provide a large international market to service, but Rodgers and his team are always expanding their operational horizon, seeking out new and exciting opportunities where they can apply their noted expertise.
“We’re very excited about the TV potential,” Rodgers offers. “This is something new for us. We’ve only been in the TV space for two years. We’re at the bottom of the growth curve on that. In three years, we’d like to be able to look back and say we’ve come a long way.”