Why be a Broadcast 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
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.

Why stealing is bad

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.

The Engineering department bitch-o-gram

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.

Five ways to motivate an engineer

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:

  1. Having some projects with the aforementioned NEAT! items on occasion
  2. Increased compensation and or bonuses for good performance, completed projects, etc
  3. Decreased number of “pocket protector” jokes, glassy eyed staring, silly remarks and the like
  4. 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.
  5. 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.