Steve Church Remembered

steve-church-press-photo-1995"We all die. The goal isn't to live forever, the goal is to create something that will." Those words, written by American novelist Chuck Palahniuk, aptly describe the life of Steve Church, talk show host, engineer, entrepreneur and founder of the Telos Corporation. He created many of the products that ushered broadcasting into the digital age, as well as the company which has been at the center of it all. 

Telos Systems was started in 1985 as a part-time project by Church, while he was chief engineer of WFBQ/WNDE radio in Indianapolis. He later moved to Cleveland, where he became chief engineer of WMMS/WHK, still nursing the company along in his spare time. Sales of the Telos 10 telephone hybrid eventually increased to the point that Church decided to quit his day job and commit to the company full-time. The rest, as they say, is history.

Church was the oldest of four brothers, growing up in Lansing, Michigan. According to his mother, Jacqueline Burgess, his interest in electronics began around age five. "Steve's grandfather was an electronics hobbyist, and had a workshop in his basement. Steve spent a lot of time over there and learned all that he could." Later Steve and his grandfather built a Heathkit stereo system together.

Brother Todd Church adds that the first radio station he built was put together in his bedroom around age 12. "He wired up all the equipment himself, and even had an oscilloscope and test gear to check it out." The phono oscillator enabled Church to broadcast an AM signal in the house and surrounding neighborhood. Later he and several friends built a radio station in the high school, which played music and news programs over the public address system. He gained more experience in electronics while working at a local television repair shop while still a teenager.

Church's intense interest in radio occasionally got him into trouble. Like many youngsters his age who were interested in broadcast engineering, he filled out bingo cards from trade magazines to get information on new products. Wanting a copy of the latest Gates Radio catalog, Church filled out the company line on the card 'Steve Church and Associates - Broadcast Consultants'. He got his Gates catalog, and that's when the trouble began. The Gates district sales rep was traveling in Michigan and decided to pay a call on 'Steve Church and Associates'. Young Church was in school at the time, and his mother answered the door. The sales rep took the incident in stride, but his mother was less amused.

steve-church-brainstorming-1997Church graduated from high school two years early, and immediately began pursuing his interest in radio. He would later take a few courses in electronics, but never completed a degree. Most of what he knew, he taught himself. His first job at age 16, after graduation, was at local station WJPM, where he worked as a board operator in the evenings.

Soon he moved on to Melbourne Florida, where he worked as a DJ for two years. He then returned to Lansing, working on the morning show at WFMK. He eventually returned to the engineering side of the business, working as an engineer for the Liggett Broadcasting Group in Lansing Michigan. Eventually he worked his way up to Director of Engineering for the company. After that came engineering positions in Buffalo, WFBQ/WNDE Indianapolis, Detroit, and finally, WMMS/WHK Cleveland.

He also became interested in computer programming during the early days, making a trip from his home in Michigan to Ohio so he could purchase a newly-developed Ohio Scientific Computer. Church had to find an operating system for his new purchase, and called a startup company called Microsoft, and spoke to a young software engineer named Bill Gates.

As with so many other technological innovations – electronic computers, heavier-than-air flight and landing a man on the moon – the Telos 10 telephone hybrid was founded on a determination to do what was thought to be impossible. Since the earliest days, telephone lines had been plagued with a particularly annoying type of distortion known as sidetone. This was especially problematic to radio stations that were running talk shows. Bell Labs had been working unsuccessfully to solve the problem for years. Finally they published a paper describing sidetone distortion, and declaring that it was a problem that simply could not be solved. There were seven pages of formulae and calculations to back up their claim that sidetone was here to stay.


Church, a former talk show host, read the paper, but saw the problem in in a completely different light. Rather than looking at sidetone distortion from an analog perspective, he saw it as an issue that might be successfully addressed with DSP (Digital Signal Processing). DSP was a relatively new technology which had come to fruition in the late 1970s. Church applied DSP adaptive filtering to the sidetone distortion problem – and solved it! The Telos 10 telephone hybrid was born. It was a milestone not only because of the product itself, but also because it was the first time DSP technology had been applied to broadcast equipment.

From there, Church went on to tackle other challenges. He had been researching a developing technology, known as audio coding, during the latter part of the 1980s. He made a pilgrimage to a small town in Germany to visit a research lab known as Fraunhofer. There, he learned of an exciting audio coding algorithm known as ISO MPEG Layer-III audio coding.

Harald Popp, Head of Department Multimedia Realtime Systems at Fraunhofer, recalls his first encounter with Church. "He came with me, spontaneously, from a trade show by train to do a listening session in our labs. Steve asked to hear some of his favorite music. We listened intensively to Yes' 'Owner of a Lonely Heart', and Steve got very excited. I think he decided then and there to cooperate with Fraunhofer, a very much unknown entity at that time. The resulting agreements helped us significantly to sustain and continue our R&D work on audio codecs."

Thus, Telos became the first licensee in the United States of what is now a household word-MP3. If not for Church's efforts, the technology that is the foundation of the iPod, iPhone and a vast number of portable audio gadgets our culture uses today, may not exist.

Church however, had licensed MP3 as part of the solution to another problem that had plagued broadcasters for years. Long-distance remote broadcasts had always been difficult and expensive. From the dawn of radio in the 1920s, the only option was leasing telephone lines from AT&T. In the 1970s, satellite technology became available as an alternative. Both options however, required considerable lead time, and didn't always work. There was no way to do spontaneous long-distance remotes, let alone maintain broadcast audio quality.

Steve Church reflecting on Zephyr's 10th Anniversary

Around the same time that MP3 audio coding was being developed, ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) was also being launched. ISDN was designed to deliver simultaneous digital transmission of voice, video, data, and other network services over the traditional circuits of the telephone network. Church wondered: could you combine MP3 audio coding with ISDN technology to create a high-quality digital audio dialup service for broadcasters?

The result was the Telos Zephyr, a point-to-point audio codec which made it possible for radio and television stations, networks, and recording studios to link studio quality audio paths over long distance digital telephone lines. The Zephyr revolutionized remote broadcasting, and in some ways, programming, by enabling the use of spontaneous interviews for morning drive shows and newscasts.

Church next turned his attention to the way audio was routed around the broadcast plant. As the digital age dawned, most radio plants were still analog. A typical major market station usually contained hundreds of punch blocks, and miles of multi-conductor audio cable. It was a system that was very costly to install and maintain. Computer networks, on the other hand, were completely different. Through the use of packet switching technology, a single Ethernet cable could carry multiple signals without any of them getting mixed up.

"Oh, baby!" Inspecting the latest Axia console, NAB 2010

Again, Church saw potential in an emerging technology and wondered, since packet switching and Ethernet topology work so well for data, was there a way it could be adapted to route audio around the broadcast plant? The skeptics quickly said no, there were too many "unsolvable" problems, such as latency, lost packets, and prioritizing audio over other traffic on the network. Again, Church persevered, and one by one the seemingly impossible problems were solved. The end result was Livewire, which employs a linear audio over IP method. This technology is the new wave of signal routing within a broadcast, network or recording studio. Today, Livewire is deployed in thousands of facilities worldwide.

About the time Livewire was being developed, Church moved to Latvia and set up a research center in the capitol, Riga. It involved a partnership between Telos and the University of Latvia, which was looking for sponsors at the time. In exchange for funding, Telos received access to research, students and professors, as well as a ready supply of recent graduates to work on projects.

Today, the Telos Alliance is the only American broadcast manufacturer with such a facility. It is one of the reasons that the company is an industry leader and maintains its competitive edge.

In 2010, Church, together with Skip Pizzi, authored the book Audio over IP: Building Pro AoIP Systems with Livewire. He was well published in numerous trade publications, had written many white papers, and given many technical presentations at NAB, AES (Audio Engineering Society), IEEE, SMPTE, and various other technical forums as well as contributing the broadcast telephony sections of the NAB Engineering Handbook. In 2010 Church received the NAB's radio engineering award.

NAB's engineering achievement award, 201

Frank Foti, CEO of The Telos Alliance, remembers that Church had no ego about his many achievements. "We had built a pre-production prototype of the Zephyr, and demonstrated it for one of the major distributors of pro sports programming. They liked what they saw, and sent a couple guys to Cleveland to cut a deal. Steve and I finalized the contract, and then they told us, 'Telos is just a small company, and we're going to find out who owns it, buy them out, and run it like a real business.' Steve and I said nothing as we drove them out to the airport, and we high-fived each other on the way back. They had no idea that they were talking to the owners of the company!"


With Frank Foti, 2009

Everyone who worked with Church has fond memories of the time spent with him, and there are many "Steve stories." Mike "Catfish" Dosch, former President of Telos' Axia Audio division, recalled that Church loved to debate with everyone at Telos. In fact, debate was a form of "sport" for Church, not just communication.

Shortly after Catfish arrived, Church took off for an extended vacation, but the techs would often talk about him. "Sometimes these employees would tell me stories about what it was like to work with Steve. And I learned of some of Steve's particular phrases he would use regularly in conversation. Knowing he would be at NAB in 2000, I had marketing solicit all of the employees to remember Steve's more popular phrases, 'Stevisms' if you will, and to screen them onto a shirt. We gave a shirt to everyone going to NAB and asked them all to wear the shirt to our post-show dinner.

"There we were, all with our shirts on and Steve hasn't said a word. Clearly, he hadn't noticed. Finally Frank (Foti) had had enough.

"'Steve, did you notice anything unusual here?'"

"'No, uh why?'"

"'The shirt Steve! Read the damned shirt!'"

"Frank stood up and turned around showing the back of his shirt to Steve. It didn't register until he got to about the third or fourth line. Then his eyes got big and he busted up laughing. It was good fun."


The Shirt, 2000

While Telos has a research center in Latvia, much of the innovation came from traditional brainstorming sessions, often with Church and Foti sitting in restaurants drawing ideas on napkins. "One of the early problems with DSP in audio processing was how to do hard limiting without generating aliasing distortion," recalls Foti. "We went out to a Thai restaurant for dinner, Steve got an idea and started drawing on napkins. At the end of the evening, we had lots of napkins, as well as a solution to the aliasing problem that worked."

Denny Sanders, Director of Marketing for Omnia, recalls his first meeting with Church. "I was Creative Services Director for WMMS in Cleveland at the time and Steve was just hired as our new Chief Engineer. We hit it off right away. He was a fascinating conversationalist, had a brilliant mind, and he was curious about everything."

Sanders recalls that Church's engaging personality and inquisitive mind were put to good use when he started doing a weekly talk show on WMMS called "Livewire". The top-rated Sunday evening show often featured unusual guests such as an expert on artificial intelligence, a UFO hunter, and various other fascinating individuals. Steve would ask probing questions and not allow extreme statements from either guests or callers to go unchallenged. The show continued on WNCX when Church went to work there.

As Telos grew, Church began to travel overseas to promote the business. First there was a trip to France to set up equipment for the 1992 Olympics. He was fascinated by French culture and took courses to learn the language. Later he traveled to South America and taught himself Spanish. When he moved to Latvia, he learned Russian. He was versed in no less than seven languages, having taught himself most of them. As he traveled and learned languages, he also absorbed the cultures. He admired all forms of the arts, music, wine tasting, a hearty debate, and a stimulating academic lecture.


Partners, 2010

Church was an intensely inquisitive person. He read for pleasure, yet his subject matter covered just about everything. He possessed a passion for science fiction, along with an extreme interest in another well-known self-made entrepreneur, inventor, and contributor to our world - Thomas Alva Edison. Shortly before his death, he visited the Thomas Edison Museum in West Orange, New Jersey.

While Church is remembered for his technical innovations in broadcasting, he was also an outstanding entrepreneur. One of his many interests was economics and economic theories, subjects which he read extensively. He was apparently able to apply what he learned to the running of his company. Telos Systems received the Weatherhead 100 Award from the Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School for business, seven times. The award recognizes the top 100 companies in Northeast Ohio, as ranked by the university. Over the course of a few years, Church grew Telos from a skunkworks of a few people to the modest size it is today, with offices located throughout the world.

In the end, the 56-year-old Church lost a three-year battle with brain cancer. He passed away quietly at his home near Cleveland, where he had moved from Latvia to receive treatment at the Cleveland Clinic. He is survived by his loving wife Lana, stepson Dimitri, mother Jacqueline Burgess of East Lansing, Michigan, brothers Brent Church of East Lansing, Dann Church of Castle Rock, Colorado and Todd Church of Interlochen Michigan.

Church took immense pride in knowing that he contributed to his industry, the business world, and in the creation of jobs for a significant number of people. He was passionate, driven, dedicated, loyal, and enthusiastic about life. He relished seeing the dreams and goals of others come true, as he empowered the dreams and goals of numerous colleagues. His legacy lives on in Telos Systems, and all that he created.

We conclude with Steve's own words, taken from the 2008 Telos catalog. They are perhaps the best summary of his passion for life, and for the industry of radio.

"Radio is a bit like a kiss, no? When passion takes a grip, a kiss connects two humans in an exchange of secrets and emotions. We kiss furtively, lasciviously, gently, shyly, hungrily, and exuberantly. We kiss in broad daylight and in the dead of night. We give ceremonial kisses, affectionate kisses, Hollywood air kisses, kisses of death, and (in fairytales) pecks that revive princesses. At its best, and in our imagination, radio has such a variety, and a similar power.

"It is well-known that one's lifelong musical taste is pretty much imprinted during the teen years. Our connection to the radio might be, as well. How many of us, during those sensitive years, listening to a great DJ or talk host, decided we wanted to be a part of that? ... Think about the vast numbers of people for whom work is just work, and consider how fortunate we are to have found a vocation bound in such a way to our inner spirit."


A rapt audience, as always. NAB, 2009