Much ink has been spilled on the aging Broadcast Engineer. While it is generally true, many of the old RF engineers are getting older, there are some younger guys and girls entering into the broadcast technical field. While this is a good development, I look on with a bit of disappointment and a jaundiced eye. The newer broadcast engineers have fewer mentors around as there are fewer broadcast engineers. In addition to that, those broadcast engineers that are still at it are likely very busy trying to fill all the rolls they have been assigned. I have also noted a certain reluctance to impart information to the newer engineers. Perhaps this is some sort of subconscious preservation instinct. Thus, when a young guy that works with us admitted that he didn’t know that much about RF, I was not surprised.
I remember my first mentors in the broadcast engineering field. They were mostly older, near retirement and wanting to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. Several times, Don Porter would sit down at the work bench and draw out some basic schematic diagram on a broken piece of gear and let me try to fix it. It took time and patience because I know I asked many silly questions and made many silly mistakes. Sometimes he would chastise me and sometimes he would laugh and say “I did the same thing once,” which would lead to an interesting story.
Most of the younger people entering the broadcast engineering field (by younger, I mean less than thirty), have some type of computer background. Since there are numerous computers in the studio fulfilling many different roles, having a technical computer person on staff is a good thing. However, those people are often tasked with going to the transmitter site to do maintenance and trouble shooting. That can lead to a dangerous situation. Transmitter sites are and should remain the domain of well trained engineers. Those that know the operating characteristics of a tube transmitter, if there is one present. Those that know the basic principals behind and automatic transfer switch, if there is one present. The real danger of an untrained person at a transmitter site is they don’t know what they don’t know.
Then there are trouble shooting skills, which are only developed with time and experience. It takes experience to recognize that a tower crew has applied the wrong type of connector to an STL transmission line. It takes experience to recognize the failure mode of a Harris transmitter. It takes experience to know when a situation is too dangerous to proceed and wait for help. Formal education is very important, but nothing can replace the education received on the job. The field of broadcast engineering is so diverse and complex that it would be nearly impossible to learn everything in a classroom.
To be a well rounded Broadcast Engineer, one has to have knowledge in many areas:
- Basic electronics and electricity: Being able to read schematic diagrams, know what the components do and trace out signal paths. Understanding basic RF amplification by solid state and tube devices, understanding TTL logic, data buses, power supplies, etc
- Radio Frequency Principles: Understanding the relationship between frequency and wavelength, antenna theory, antenna operation (MF, VHF, UHF), the relationship between power density and log functions, transmission line theory, propagation types and free space loss.
- Audio engineering: Best practices for analog and digital audio wiring, microphones, processing basic studio acoustics and sound, audio levels, analog and digital playback systems and recording.
- Computers and IT: Computer networking, structure wiring, operating systems, servers, automation software.
- Emergency Power: Basic functions and repairs for UPS, generators and transfer switches.
- HVAC: Basic HVAC principals and operations.
- Maintenance: How to maintain the facilities broadcast and broadcast related equipment.
- FCC regulations: Part 11, 15, 17, 73, 74, 101 and other FCC regulations pertaining to any broadcast operation.
- Other regulations: OHSA, NEC, fire code, ADA, local zoning, etc
And that is simplified list. Many Broadcast Engineers will gravitate toward one or two of the larger categories listed above, e.g. either Computers or RF. Most will know something about both.
The SBE offers several on line courses and webinars with there Education Program.
In addition, many equipment manufactures offer courses, technical publications and white papers:
This is just a brief list, I am sure there are many others available on the internet.
Of course, nothing beats mentoring. Taking an inexperienced, willing to learn person aside and showing them some of the things not taught in school or written in a manual is a rewarding experience. There are still those that get bitten by the radio bug and are worth the effort to bring along.
We fight for every scrap we can get. Sometimes it is not a fair fight. Sometimes the most frustrating thing can be the suits in the corner office. We eat, drink and sleep RF. I have transmitter dirt permanently embedding in my skin. If a thunderstorm passes by, I get my shoes on. Last time I was home during a blizzard, I was in high school, and believe me, that was a long time ago. I’ve been hot, cold, soaking wet, dirty, dusty, hungry and dehydrated all in the same day. Those days can be 8-36 hours long or longer. 240 volts AC is low voltage. Arcs and sparks are a diagnostic tool.
I have clip leaded things, used non-standard parts to get a transmitter back on the air, employed fans on power supplies, filed, cut, bent, tightened, burnished relay contacts, put plate transformers up on a block of wood and crossed my fingers while turned the plate supply on.
My DVM looks like this:
Fluke 111 DVM
But the best part is, when I walk into a radio station studio, the DJ says “THANK GOD YOU ARE HERE!” I don’t drive a fancy car or wear a fancy suit, but the respect I get is there, even with the young too cool for school guys on the CHR station.
I am a broadcast engineer and I am here to fix your shit.
Good audio clip below of the WIYY’s (Rock 98, Baltimore) console melting down during the morning show. These things happen from time to time. I often found, when it happened at one the stations I was working for, nobody would know anything about it. Nope. Just stopped working. What? No, I don’t know anything about the coffee dripping out of the bottom of the console.
Rock 98, (WIYY) Baltimore, coffee spilled into console courtesy of the Baltimore Sun.
If that link doesn’t work, try this one (7MB .mp3 file).
Pictures and stuff at their facebook page.
Off the air for twenty minutes during morning drive. I wonder what kind of console it was? From the pictures on facebook, it looks like Wheatstone stuff. Ouch! That’s going to leave a mark.
I tried to enforce a no eating no drinking in the studio rule. Most of the time I was successful, however, there were various incidents over the years. The worst was the morning show spilling “distilled water” in the console, but not saying anything about it. Months later, the air monitor stopped muting when the main mic was turned on. Nearly caused the guy who did the spilling to loose his hearing. Karma.
At another station, someone spilled soda on all the remote mic on/off/cough switches for the guest positions. That prompted an early morning phone call, which the morning show producer yelled at me and told me I must be at the station in five minutes (I lived about 25 minutes away at the time). Ha! I took my sweet time getting there. The soda cooked all the +5VDC regulators on the guest microphone modules, thus, for the next several days, all the morning show DJ’s had to share one microphone.
Old time radio guys will tell you, do not mess with the engineer.
That question was posed to me this afternoon by a coworker. It is, indeed, a good question. Certainly, broadcast engineering is more of a vocation than a career, especially where it concerns radio stations. Why would anyone work for low wages, long hours, little or no recognition, 24/7 on call, and or unappreciative management.
Further, in this risk adverse, zero defect, micromanaged environment, what is the upside to being a radio, RF or broadcast engineer?
I suppose one would have to have some appreciation for history. One of the reasons I cover radio history here or certain historical events is that without knowing the roots of radio, one would be hard pressed to find today’s version of radio broadcasting even remotely interesting. Understanding the before there was an internet, web streaming, Spotify, Youtube, Sirius/XM, television, cellular telephones, 3G, 4G, and so on, radio was mass media. Radio was people driven, people oriented, not an automation computer programmed from afar. People tuned in for the music but also the personality and the personal connection.
Growing up in the late sixties and seventies, radio was my link to the outside world. As a young boy living in rural upstate New York, my mostly agricultural surroundings seemed a bit provincial. Through radio, I was able to listen to the clear channel stations from New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Washington DC, Cincinnati, etc. The street that I grew up on did not get cable TV until 1980, prior to that, the roof top antenna received exactly two channels, when it wasn’t blown over by a storm. The black and white TV was often broken, sometimes for over a year. It was of not great consequence however, when nightly under my pillow, the battery powered transistor radio was employed until midnight or later.
When I got older, shortwave radio kits were built and listened to.
Through that medium, I learned about life outside of my small town.
Author, sitting in front of Atwater-Kent Model 20 regenerative receiver
The upside is being a part of something that can still be great, although those stations are getting harder and harder to find. Still, there is a certain pride to a job well done, a clean transmitter room, a well tuned machine working into a properly tuned antenna. Does anyone even appreciate that anymore? I do. Lou Dickey, John Dickey, Bob Pittman, Leslie Moonves, and other CEO’s may not care that transmitter site is clean and well kept. They may, in fact question it as a waste of salary. I appreciate it. Fellow engineers will appreciate it, too.
Starting a transmitter, especially a high powered tube transmitter, is a joy all it’s own. Nothing against Nautel, they make fine transmitters, however, when pressing the on button, the outcome is almost assured: The transmitter will turn on. Not so with certain tube type transmitters. Pressing the plate on button for one of those can have many different outcomes. There is certain thrill when it all works right, the first time. There is a certain pride driving away from a transmitter site, listening to the radio and knowing; I caused that to happen.
Eventually, you will get caught, odds dictate. The local engineer for Cumulus Broadcasting in Cincinnati found this out earlier in the week. Of course, innocent until proven guilty, so I won’t assume anything.
Broadcast engineering, especially radio engineering is a small field. Sadly, when something like this happens it makes all radio engineers look bad and there is no good reason or excuse for it.
I have seen several cases where an engineer or technical person has taken advantage of their position to pilfer from a radio station. These vary from cashing in on dud tubes from a transmitters site to taking high value equipment and selling it on eBay. I recall on recent instance of backup transmitter and STL systems being sold. I cannot imagine what these people are thinking. A transmitter, STL system, console or even a dud tube has a serial number and is traceable. Anything with a serial number is likely part of a station inventory list and or will have some record of manufacture and sale.
There are instances when old equipment is getting thrown out. In that situation, I always get permission before removing anything, even from the dumpster.
I have made several trips to the scrap yard with old transmitter chassis, wire or left overs from transmitter installations. In those circumstances, I always get a receipt and write the source of the scrap on the back. This way, a record is kept and if there is any questions, I can refer to it.
Generally speaking, it is better to be overly cautious.
I was cleaning out the engineering room at WBEC in Pittsfield, MA today. The previous engineer, Ken Jones, past away last July and we have been hired to do the engineering work. Part of that job is knowing where key information and parts are, thus the clean up.
Whilst in the middle of that fun, I found a sheaf of papers consisting of this:
That is the classic engineering department bitch-o-gram, typed out on a typewriter. There were no fewer than eight memos to Ron (Stratton), who appears to be the General Manager, from Don Coleman, the lowly engineer. Since WBEC was a directional AM station, the engineers had to walk out to the towers every day and take a set of base current readings to confirm that the antenna sample system was working properly. A rule no longer in effect. Like many AM stations, WBEC is located in a low, swampy area. You will notice that this engineer had given the swamp a name and one wonders what the significance of that name is.
Back in the day of typewriters, sending off memos was no easy task. After the document was typed, a copier had to be found, copies made and distributed to all parties. Often times, distribution consisted of handing a copy directly to the person and waiting for a response. It was a way to put things in writing and to create a paper trail if needed in the future.
Here is another one:
In this memo, our hero references all of his previous memos on the same topic. Obviously, this engineer was very concerned about tower access and not breaking his or anyone else’s leg. I like the invitation for a walk out to the tower. The studios and general manager’s office are located at the WBEC transmitter site, so it would not have been a long walk.
These are fairly mundane, I can remember typing a few memos to the programming department on asbestos paper to keep them from bursting into flames. Ahhh, those were the days.
Anyway, it is a lost art, one of many.
For some reason, this idea just popped into my head. Sometimes engineers get a little leery when it comes to a new project, especially in this
micromanaged digitally connected world. I have learned to beware of buzz words and phrases like:
- We couldn’t do it without you
- We need you to guide this project through
- I’ve got your back
- Failure is not an option
- Engineers are what makes radio stations tick
What they really mean is:
- If we could figure out a way, we’d do it without you
- We need you to answer your cellphone and email 24/7 so we can direct your guidance
- Watch your back
- This is such a lame brained idea, it’s going to fail and we are going to blame you
- Who really knows what engineers do?
What management does not seem to understand is what motivates engineers. How do you get the guy who is on call 24/7 three hundred and sixty five days out of the year (even on vacation) to rise above his normal performance level and really shine?
Have no fear, there are things that engineers daydream about, those special little projects that can only be categorized one way: “NEAT!”
Most engineers that I know are enamored with efficiency. Anything that can increase efficiency, increase data throughput, provide more information and or make a difficult job easier may fall into the NEAT! category. Things like IP enabled remote controls, transmitters and processing that can be accessed from lap tops or smart phones. Installing VNC or like program on computer automation systems, servers and the like so that they too can be viewed and fixed from lap tops or smart phones is another good example. Of course, exactly what qualifies as NEAT! varies from engineer to engineer.
Here is the complete list of engineering motivators:
- Having some projects with the aforementioned NEAT! items on occasion
- Increased compensation and or bonuses for good performance, completed projects, etc
- Decreased number of “pocket protector” jokes, glassy eyed staring, silly remarks and the like
- Engineers are highly trained professionals. It is not up to us to fix the chair your ass broke, fix the toilet your cheap ass had installed, tape the worn out carpet you got on trade, fix the leaking roof you also got on trade, change light bulbs or wash the station vehicle. So don’t ask.
- If somebody could figure out how to include one of these with all new equipment installations or projects, perhaps in the ancillary kit or something:
That would be great.
Communications men, US Navy WWII Pacific Theater
In almost every broadcast company I have ever worked for, there is always some communications dysfunction between management and the technical staff. It is perhaps, inevitable given the different cultures. Most managers come from a sales background, where everything is negotiable. The engineering field is fixed in the physical world, where everything has two states; right/wrong, on/off, true/false, functional/non-functional, etc. Try to negotiate with a non-functional transmitter, let me know how that works.
Engineering eggheads often couch their conversations in technical terms which tend to confuse the uninitiated. While those terms are technically correct, if I said “Радио генератор инвалида.” You’d say “Huh?” and rightly so. If the receiving party does not understand the terms used, it is ineffective communication.
The other mistake I often see, which irritates me beyond reason, is long rambling e-mails or other documents that fail to come to the point, directly or otherwise. Time is a precious commodity, waisting other people’s time with long needless diatribes is ineffective communications. Likely, the recipient will not read the entire thing anyway. If a person gains a reputation for generating huge amounts of superfluous verbiage, then it only becomes so much background noise to be filtered out. When I was in the service, I went to a class called “Message Drafting.” This was back in the day when everything was sent via radio. The gist is to get the complete idea across to the recipient with as few words as possible. Think: “ENEMY ON ISLAND. ISSUE IN DOUBT.” Clear and concise, six words paints the picture.
The key to effective communications is to know your audience. If you are writing a white paper for a bunch of MIT graduates, use all the appropriate technical terms. More often than not, however, as a broadcast engineer, our intended audience is more likely station management and/or ownership. Their backgrounds may be sales and finance.
In order to get those technical ideas into the heads that matter, a good method is to use the lowest common denominator. If the general manager is a former used car salesman, car analogies might work. The transmitter has 200,000 miles on it, the tower is rusting out like a ’72 Pinto, and so on. Almost anything at a transmitter site can be compared to a vehicle in some way. Find out what the manager’s background is then figure out what language he or she speaks and use it. You may say, “But he is the manager, it is up to him (or her) to understand this stuff.” You are not incorrect, but that is not how the world works.
Secondly, use brevity in communications. Managers are busy, engineering is but one aspect of the radio station’s operations. If written, provide a summary first, then expound upon it in follow up paragraphs if required. If you are in a meeting, give a brief presentation then wait for questions. Always have a high ballpark figure in mind when the inevitable “How much?” question comes along.
Don’t assume that the manager will follow through with your ideas up the chain of command, always follow up a few days later. If it is important, continue to ask, in a friendly way, if there is any progress on the issue.
There are so many ways to communicate these days that failure to communicate is almost unfathomable. One additional thought, if you find yourself out of the loop, find a way to get back in or you’ll find yourself looking for a new job.
One of the great side benefits of working at a radio station is the regular availability of free food. I almost don’t want to do a post on this because somehow, some corporate boss is going to read about it and a no free food edict will result.
Every so often, some local deli or pizza place will drop off something for the air staff. Usually, it is a friend of a friend and nothing nefarious is going on. When it arrives, the odor of good things to eat wafts through the building. With the smell of blood in the water, the sharks swim out of the sales bullpen and a feeding frenzy develops. Just watch out for your fingers, during the scrum, it is difficult to tell the difference between a digit and a sausage.
It goes fast, when I walked by this table 15 minutes ago, there were five full pizza boxes, just delivered.
radio station food
Now there is one box with two slices of some meat lovers heart attack special.
It just doesn’t have the same ring as Disk Jockey or DJ. However, that would be an apt description of the person who plays the hits on most radio stations these days.
It is mostly just drag and drop the next element into the play deck, if anything needs to be done at all.
Technics SP-15 Turntable
I remember when DJ’s actually jockeyed disks, it was a sight to behold. Back in the day when everything was on vinyl except the commercials, which were on cart, the DJ had his or her hands full. Most of the songs where in the 2:30 to 3 minute range, so while the song was playing, the next song had to be cued up on the platter, the old song needed to be put back into it’s sleeve and shelved (most of the time), check the log to see what was on deck, pull the next commercial stop set, answer the phone and god forbid if the Program Director called on the hot line and it rang more than 3 times. And hopefully the head wasn’t too far away, that coffee went somewhere, after all. While all that is going on, timing, audience interaction, hitting the post and sounding fun. In spite of what Howard Stern says, it was not easy.
Today, of course, if there is even a person in the studio, they may glance up at the computer screen every now and then to see when the next time they need to talk. Otherwise, they would be engaged in talking on the phone with their girl friend, texting, surfing the internet, or watching the baseball game on TV.