The future of Broadcast Engineering

Nature abhors a vacuum.

There has been a lot of hand wringing and ink spilled recently on the titled subject. The problem seems to be particularly acute when it comes to RF knowledge. I agree with those concerned that there are very few new (read also as young) people entering the field. There are a number of reasons for this; competing technical fields that pay more and are generally easier to work in, the very broad knowledge base required for Broadcast Engineering, and the lack of awareness by major stake holders.

It seems obvious that for as long at there are radio and television stations, there will need to be those people who install and maintain the transmission systems. The question is, how to attract new people into that field. In order to answer that question, a follow on question would be, what exactly does a Broadcast Engineer do?

This can be broken down into three very broad areas:

  1. Conversion of the art into electronic form. In other words, capturing sound and video with cameras and microphones. What are the various analog and digital formats, how are those signals routed, edited, stored, retrieved and transmitted. What are the various bit reduction (e.g. compression) formats. How these live streams and stored files are mixed to generate the final program material.
  2. Transmission of the program material. Meaning moving the program to the transmitter site and broadcasting it for public reception. This would involve knowledge of Studio To Transmitter (STL) systems which can vary greatly but often include satellite distribution, public internet, fiber, RF wireless microwave systems, etc. Next step is the actual transmitter, filters, combiners, transmission line and antenna. Knowledge of all regulatory (in the US, FCC) obligations including EAS, Tower lighting and marking, transmitter operations; power level, interference, etc.
  3. Physical plant systems. Broadly speaking; HVAC, electrical power, emergency generators, towers, fire suppression, etc.

These work categories can be further broken down into three functions; installation, maintenance and replacement.

Since I have been more involved in the management side of things lately, I find that most of my problems are people problems. What may be a surprise to some, Broadcast Engineers are people. What may be even more shocking; people have interests. Those interests are the reason why they chose to work in a technical field. Forcing the IT guy to go to the transmitter site to see why the generator won’t start is not a good use of resources.

Looking at the very large skill set that a competent Broadcast Engineer needs to function in a modern broadcast facility, the first part of the answer becomes obvious; more specialization. Break down these broad categories into separate skill sets. Since it seems that many things are headed toward the IP domain, Broadcast IT should become a thing separate from office IT. While the two are similar, Broadcast IT requires more knowledge of physical wiring, switch architecture, VLANs, subnets, IP streaming protocols, audio formats, video formats, transport streams, etc.

RF infrastructure has its own set of rules, including personal safety requirements. A solid electronics/engineering background is required to understand how transmitters work, what various failure modes are and what can cause them.

Physical plant work, most often can be contracted out to various vendors. However, that work needs to be supervised by a competent station representative.

The next item is the thing that nobody wants to talk about; the all importance of work/life balance. This means not utilizing a broadcast engineer as a piece of equipment to be worn out and discarded when the performance level drops below expectations. I have know several broadcast engineers who have left the industry because of this. Worse still, there are those who have died of heart attacks or committed suicide. Work/life balance also includes proper compensation, so those people can afford to pay for essentials, have a reliable vehicle, healthcare, etc.

Of course, many smaller operators cannot afford to hire a RF specialist and a Broadcast IT specialist plus pay contractors to do physical plant maintenance. This is where contracting can fill in the vacuum. If contracting becomes the new normal, then how does the next generation of Broadcast Engineers get trained? Broadcast transmitter manufacturers have some training courses available as does the SBE. However, there is no substitute for hands on experience. While many Broadcast Engineering evolutions are similar, no two situations are the same and thinking on your feet is a job requirement. How are new people coming into the field get the necessary experience? The situation is not untenable, however it will require some creative thought.

Working with Tower Companies

Almost all radio stations use a tower of some sort to support their transmitting antennas.  These towers need maintenance from time to time and only qualified people should perform maintenance on towers.  Hence, the tower company is formed.

405 foot guyed tower with ERI FM antennas
405 foot guyed tower with ERI FM antennas

Over my years of experience, I have dealt with many different tower companies, from one man operations to big corporations that have multiple crews out in the field on any given day.  I have discovered that not all tower companies are created equal.  Not only do tower climbers need to be in good physical shape and be trained correctly in all tower climbing safety procedures,  they also need to be good mechanics so they can actually repair things on the tower.   Climbing a 470 foot tower to repair a strobe light is all well and good.  Once the climber gets to the strobe light, he needs to be able to disassemble it without dropping parts or breaking things, trouble shoot if needed, install new parts and re-assemble the unit, again without dropping or breaking anything.

Applying a RF connectors, installing a FM antenna or STL antenna, repairing light fixtures or conduit all require some amount of manual dexterity and concentration.  Assembling high powered antenna requires close attention to detail.  Any pinched O rings, cross threaded bolts, bent bullets and the antenna will have problems, likely at the worst possible time.

The sign of a bad tower company is if it’s climbers cannot carry out those tasks with one or at most two climbs.  I have a situation on a tower where our FM station is a tenant.  The tower has a strobe light failure near the top of the tower where our FM antenna is located.  They have climbed the tower no less than four times to repair this, and it is still not fixed yet.  Each time they climb, the station has  to reduce power to protect the tower climbers from excessive RF exposure.  Each climb it takes them several hours longer than anticipated to finish their work.

A good rule of thumb, If the defective part cannot fixed in the first two climbs, then the entire strobe unit should be replaced on the third climb.  Even though the strobe units are expensive, by the time they get done paying for all this tower work, they could have bought two new strobes.  Today will be the fifth climb and there is no guarantee that it will be fixed.

I advised the tower owner that they should be looking around for another tower company because these guys aren’t exactly setting the world on fire.