New Broadcast Engineer

The new engineer
The new engineer (banana for scale)

Update and bump: The many great comments about the SBE certifications got me thinking about what a Broadcast Engineer actually does. I remember typing something about it quite some time ago, thus, I dredged up this old post originally from August 8, 2009 out of the archive.

Enjoy:

The other day, the NTR (Non-Traditional Revenue) person came to me and said “Great news!  We hired a new web guy, he knows all about engineering too!”

Really?

So I spoke to the new Web Master/Broadcast Engineer for a bit.  As it turns out, he knows how to do things like reboot the XDS satellite receiver, reboot an Audiovault server, he has been to a transmitter site a few times to take meter readings.  I suppose these days, that is what counts as being a broadcast engineer.  Someone with this level of experience could get by for a bit until something really bad happened.

Sadly, I think (my former employer) upper management and ownership believes that this guy could do my (old) job.  To them, I am an employee number, with a salary and benefits package worth X.  If they can replace me with someone that makes <X, that would represent savings.  Plug that guy into this spot, everything will go on as it did before.

I don’t think they understand exactly what a Broadcast Engineer does.  On any given day, I may:

  • Program an automation computer
  • Change the battery on a backup generator
  • Change the battery bank in an 18 KVA UPS
  • Clean a transmitter
  • Aim a satellite dish
  • Trouble shoot a DS-1 Circuit
  • Trouble shoot a T-1 MUX
  • Repair a microwave transmitter or receiver
  • Take a set of monitor points
  • Repair a tower light flasher circuit
  • Install a console (analog, digital, IP routing, TDM routing)
  • Repair a CD player
  • Trouble shoot a transmitter RF module
  • PM a generator
  • Work with a tower crew to place an antenna on a tower
  • Install an RF connector on 3 inch transmission line
  • Wire an air conditioning unit at a transmitter site
  • Repair lightning damaged ATU
  • Trouble shoot an AC unit
  • Aim an STL antenna
  • Repair an RPU transmitter
  • Design a computer network
  • Trouble shoot and repair a FM transmitter
  • Wire a new rack room
  • Coordinate a complex format change
  • Install a translator
  • Program and wire a new satellite receiver
  • Wire a transmitter remote control
  • Hike to a transmitter site to after a natural disaster
  • Trouble shoot an audio hum
  • Pass an FCC inspection
  • Install and program an EAS unit
  • Wire a new studio
  • Design a tower light monitor circuit
  • Fix a studio phone system
  • Install an audio router
  • Match an AM transmitter to a new tower
  • Wire an ethernet patch panel
  • Program a wireless access point
  • Install an IP router
  • Manage a new tower project
  • Install a new transmitter
  • Re-install an old transmitter
  • Make NRSC measurements on an AM transmitter
  • Repair a corrupt OS
  • Replace a hard drive
  • Reboot a server
  • Fix a reel to reel machine
  • Install a computer program
  • Clean a console
  • Pass an inspection by the fire marshal

To name a few.  In other words, there are a lot of complex systems at a multi station radio facility.  Some of this can be learned at various schools and colleges.  A lot of it is experience.  There is no substitute for an experienced veteran broadcaster who has seen almost everything and can think on his or her feet.

I have had this discussion with the market manager, and he gets it.  I know that he understands who knows more about the ins and outs of all of our studio and transmitter sites.  Things like, where is the water shutoff, the handle is broken off of the toilet on the second floor.  Of course, I know it is down stairs in the furnace room next to the fire sprinkler system.

I know where the skeletons are buried.  I have the inside numbers for the utility companies and the phone company.  I know the code enforcement officer for most of the municipalities where we own buildings and property.

Yet, the only thing they see is X.

Training up the younger set

Math Textbook
Math Textbook

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.

Out in the Trenches

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
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.

Electronic death

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.