Q&A with Frank Foti, Executive Chairman of The Telos Alliance
Frank Foti is Executive Chairman of the Telos Alliance, founder of Omnia Audio, and a pioneer in broadcast audio processing and broadcast engineering. His numerous technical achievements have helped to shape the sound of broadcast audio for the last 40 years. Here, we sit down with Frank to learn more about his life, from the early, competitive days of broadcast audio processing to his most recent technical breakthroughs.
What made you want to become an engineer?
I was always fascinated by mechanical and electrical things. That stems all the way back to my childhood and to spending time with my father. My parents divorced when I was two years old, and I’d see my dad on the weekends. My father is a mechanical genius. Weekends with him were spent down in the basement where he was always fixing something. It could have been electronics or something mechanical. I would stand at the end of his workbench for hours. Even at five years old, I'd watch everything he did.
At the same time, I had an interest in model trains. There'd be times my dad would come pick me up and I'd say, "You know Dad, my train is broken." He'd say, "Frankie, bring it along," and not only would he fix it, but he'd make it work better than it did to begin with.
When did you decide that engineering was your path, too?
I was in first grade. My grandmother had given me a couple of old radios that didn't work. She was going to throw them out. This is back in the days of tubes, predating transistors.
On the back of radios and televisions there were diagrams called ‘tube charts’ that showed where all the tubes went. I was sitting at home one night and I noticed that both radios my grandmother had given me had some of the same tubes and the same number of tubes. I started mixing and matching, and lo and behold, all of a sudden the radio came to life and started playing. Obviously I'd found, through hit and miss, that one of them had a bad tube and got it to work. I remember feeling so great because I'd watched my father do this. Then here I am, I did this.
Then, if the TV broke down, my mother would put a couple dollars in my pocket. I'd take all the tubes out of the TV set, put them in a brown bag, ride my bike up to the drugstore, where the druggist would bring out a little box. I'd stand on the box in order to use the tube tester. He'd say, "Ah, young man, you need this tube." I'd pay the man, get the tube, go home, put the TV back together, and we'd watch television. I built my own stereo when I was in junior high school. By way of my dad, I learned how to solder and use test equipment. I think being an engineer was always in the cards. I just never went the formal route. I don't have a degree of any sort.
You just figured it all out on your own?
When I was in high school I had every intention to go after a four-year electrical engineering degree, but at the same time I received a scholarship from a local broadcasting school here in Cleveland called the WIXY School of Broadcasting. That’s where I got my first-class FCC license. I figured maybe playing around in radio might be a fun thing to do while going to school. But the more I played around in radio, the less I went to school. About a year and a half into it, I said, “That's it,” and took a job at this little radio station outside of Cleveland. At the time, they were bankrupt and I didn't even know it. I was 19; thank God I was still living at home with my parents.
I worked there for about three years as an engineer and was actually on the air. Then in 1978 I answered a blind ad in Broadcasting Magazine for a company in Cleveland known at the time as the Malrite Broadcasting Corporation. They owned the two top radio stations in Cleveland, one of which was my favorite—WMMS—because they played album rock. I was hired as Chief Engineer. I literally went from the worst job to the best job; from barely making minimum wage at age 22 to making a really nice wage along with the opportunity to be the Chief Engineer at one of the best radio stations in Cleveland.
Did your dad work in radio too?
My father was always very creative in the mechanical way. He started Hose Master--which makes stainless steel flexible hose--in 1982 with my stepmom and brothers. Today, the company employs more than 350 people and the number of patents that have been issued in my father's name is off the charts. The machines that make the hose are of my father's design, and the design of these machines is the best in the world.
Do you come from a big family?
By my natural parents, my mother and my father, there's myself and my sister, Renee. Then by my father's second marriage I have two brothers and a sister and by my mother's second marriage, I have a brother. I have one sibling who is 100 percent blood and then the rest--we're blended. But it's all one family. In my eyes, at least.
Did your mom work when you were young?
Actually, my mom worked. My stepfather worked. My dad worked. When I was in grade school and junior high, we were lower-middle class. My father was running a company before he started his own. It's that Midwestern blue collar mentality of: You're going to get up. You're going to go out and work for a living, and you're going to understand the value of a dollar in that it doesn't come by easily. If you want to get somewhere in life you're going to work and you're going to sweat. They were right.
I’ve heard you tell stories about your time as Chief Engineer at WHTZ Z-100. What was so special about that time and place?
Here was a situation where a lot of people came together with one common goal: Every one of us believed in our hearts that we could be number one. In August of 1983, there wasn’t a top-40 station in New York City, but somehow, we knew we would be.
I was building what became the main studio, and Scott Shannon, the program director and also the morning show person, came into the studio one day and said, "Franko, mark my words-- we're going to make f***ing broadcasting history right in this room." (Excuse my language.) The rating for that period was going to come out in early January. I was in California for the holidays and one morning, the phone rings and someone said, "Frank, it’s the radio station."
My heart stops, and I’m thinking, Uh-oh, we must be off the air. I get on the phone and Scott Shannon says, "Franko, I just wanted you to know, buddy, we're number one." Hearing it, I had tears in my eyes. Now I know what it must feel like when a pro sports team wins the World Series or the Super Bowl or the NBA Championship. There's nothing it can compare to. The amount of work that we all put into getting to number one was off the charts. It was one of the greatest feelings that I ever experienced.
How long did it take?
That's the amazing thing. We did it in one rating period. We went from worst to first in 74 days. It was never done prior and it's never been done since. We took the radio station to the people—almost on a daily basis, Z-100 was out interacting with the audience. The radio station seemed like it was your best friend, and the audience loved it. Even now, 30 some years later, I'm still in awe of what we did.
You created the sound of the station.
I almost single-handedly built the radio station. There were a couple of other company engineers that helped for the first couple of weeks, but then had to go back to their jobs. At Z-100, Scott Shannon and the jocks, they wanted to sound bigger and louder on the dial than anyone else. At that time, to do that meant that you had to make compromises where the audio might be a little distorted or what have you. I spent enough time tinkering around, however, to where Z-100 was not only the loudest- and the biggest-sounding, but the best-sounding. If you scanned across the dial with your eyes shut, you knew which one was Z-100.
All through the time I was at Z-100 I’d get phone calls from other radio stations, either their program directors or chief engineers. I wasn't about to tell them what we were using for equipment. I was not at liberty to tell people what we were using for our audio processing, some of which was highly modified by myself. I started thinking, "Man, maybe there's something to this." A year or two prior is when I met Steve Church, founder of Telos, and I thought if he could do it, so could I.
The two of you became fast friends?
I knew right away that this guy was a good engineer. He had made this telephone interface for radio. When I met him I said, "I want to buy one." He said, "Frank, but you know, the thing is like $3,000."
In my mind, I'm thinking, three grand is nothing to the number-one radio station in New York.
The use of telephone on Z-100 was huge. At that time, to have 30 phone lines into a radio station was unheard of, but we did because we had to hit all five area codes.
So I bought Steve’s interface and put it on the air, and immediately a friend of mine and the Director of Engineering of NBC’s news division, Warren Vandeveer, calls me up asks, "Foti, what the f*** did you do to the phone? My God, the calls sound like they’re right in the front seat of my car!"
Rather than tell him what I did, I gave him Steve Church’s number. An hour later, Steve called me and said, "NBC just called." I said, "And the problem is?" He said, "Frank, I only made 10 of them. They want 50." “Well Steve,” I said, “I have a soldering iron.”
The point of the story is, I was a guy on the sidelines, watching my friend, Steve Church, start this little business out of nothing. I never had the book aptitude that Steve had, but in June of 1988 I quit my job at Malrite, sold my house in New Jersey, and with that money, created a company called Cutting Edge Technology, which is now known as Omnia Audio. Steve had already been doing it for a few years, and we were advisors to each other. He'd help me, I'd help him, and actually, what's today's date?
It’s the 16th of December.
Well, we're having a conversation on an amazing day, because on this exact date in 1992 Steve Church and I signed papers to bring our companies together.
That’s an incredible coincidence.
Telos was much further along than I was, but Steve said "Look, if we bring the companies together, you really should have some ownership." But neither of us knew how to value it. I called my dad up and one Saturday afternoon we met at his office to explain what we wanted to do. It was my father who said, "You know Steve, what if you have X percent and Frank has X percent." In my mind I'm thinking, that number is too large. We blew it!
After that, we went to this rib restaurant in town, and Steve was real quiet. Then he looked at me in the eye and said, "The percentages your father suggested, Frank, is that enough for you?" I said, "Steve, if you're willing to consider that, it’s more than enough for me." He stood up and said, "Deal." That's how we brought the two companies together.
I will tell you, to this day I have no idea what the damn contract says. Never once did Steve or I ever feel that we had to look at it. We came together like two brothers from other mothers to blaze trails.
You have a competitive streak. Where does that come from?
When I was growing up, society was a lot different than it is today. Divorce was not very common. My stepfather was in my life but worked nights, so I was a bit of a mama’s boy. When I was born, my right eyelid hung down, and I got picked on a lot. My saving grace was when our family moved to this little suburb of Cleveland called Wickliffe, Ohio. There, I learned that if you wanted to fit in, you had to be decent at sports and I began to play basketball. I've always been someone that roots for the underdog, and Wickliffe is a very small town. But I remember thinking, I'm going to win!" My motto in that is I play to win as compared to playing not to lose.
When I went to work at WMMS, the radio station was very successful, and I loved the way that we went after the competition. We looked at it like we were at war. If you gave in and they got better ratings than you, then they're going to make more money than you, which is serious when people's jobs are on the line. I used to think up ways to make the competing radio stations go off the air.
You have a long list of technical accomplishments, which is your proudest?
The Non-Aliasing DSP based audio clipper, which actually grew out of some joint work that Steve Church and I did. Other companies have their own way of doing it, but it's nowhere near as elegant as how we do it. The performance of the same function done by our competitors pales in comparison. That’s because Steve and I did not allow our creativity to be limited by book knowledge. Some people, if they’re told the world is flat, won’t go to the end of the driveway.
This technology is in all the Omnia products.
Yes. That algorithm is part of all Omnia products, and it allows us to do precision peak control. Normally when that function is applied to an audio signal, its effect can be very audible and sometimes not very pleasant. We're able to do it such that the amount of, let's say, sonic annoyance, is kept to a bare minimum. It's almost like you have to way overdo that application in our products to get it to misbehave. Whereas, the same cannot be said about our competitors.
Tell us about Low IMD Clipping and how you were involved in that.
That was further research into being able to allow a radio station to maintain their competitive level of loudness, but it actually enabled us to dial back in, if you will, some audio quality. That came about after two to three years of R&D. This is the function that has allowed the Omnia.11 to stand head and shoulders above all else. Again, we're able to be louder and cleaner when some broadcasters will say you can only have one or the other. The classical music stations and fine art stations don't want to hear any distortion, so this is important. In fact, some of the stations that use this technology get compliments from local symphonies. This all factors back into the Low IMD Clipping system.
How does it work?
Some of the signal processing is designed to creatively and intelligently think, "Ah, this part of the symphony is extremely soft. I want to gently bring the level up so it doesn't sound abrupt." Then if a crescendo comes along, it'll think, "Whoa! Now it's so loud, if we let this go through, it's going to sound distorted. How do we gracefully readjust the audio level so that the crescendo still sounds like a crescendo but so the level change is not sonically annoying?" It's easy to talk about, but to actually make it happen, that's where the magic comes in.
Everyone at Telos Alliance seems to work there for a very long time. How do you instill this kind of employee loyalty and longevity?
My mother and my father told me, "Try to treat people the way that you wish to be treated." If people are responsible enough and capable enough, and you have the right fit among the team, then you can basically show them what needs to be done, turn them loose, give them the rope they need to get the job done—and give them a little extra because people stumble now and then—and treat them with kindness and love. That applies to everybody.
Also I've had some great examples. I mentioned my father's company. He treats every one of his employees the same. There have probably been a dozen times that labor organizations have tried to come into my father’s company and get the factory workers to organize. Every time they say, "You get the hell out of here. The people that own this company take care of us. We'll have nothing of it." It comes down to how you treat your people. I try to do the same, because at the end of the day, we're all on the same team.
You are known fondly as Il Padrino, tell us about your heritage and your fondness for the film The Godfather?
I'm half Sicilian, half Italian. I'm a fan of the movie not so much because of the violence, but because of how Vito and Michael Corleone think. In the case of Vito, he worked his way up and through the process he observed at every step. Along with that, he took care of his friends and they took care of him.
Sicilians and Italians are very clannish. They have families that are very close. We've got each other's backs in an unconditional way. That's how I look at the Telos Alliance. I've been fortunate to assemble a team where we're very close. We've got each other's backs. There is a lot of old world tradition that still fulfills my family and I think that culture naturally blends well into the type of company that we have.
Do you have any advice for those young engineers or anybody that's just now getting into the industry? What would you say to them?
The world today isn’t as forgiving as it was when I came into it: When a kid with no formal education could get his foot in the door and because of his passion and perspiration, as Thomas Edison would have said, was able to work his way up the ranks. You have to identify something that you really want to do and then go for it. Young people today, they want the quick start guide and then want to be an expert. I don't know if that’s possible.
Where do you see the Telos Alliance heading in the next few years?
We're now starting to see the fruits of some of the projects that we've done over the last couple of years. We've got a number of others that are in the incubator now, and we'll start to see some pop in 2016 but probably more so in 2017. The whole streaming phenomenon is really growing. I see us being very involved in immersive audio for television and music. We're just scratching the surface there.
The future is extremely bright for our little organization.