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.

Why SBE certifications should matter, but often don’t

Industry certifications are good tools to gauge an person’s knowledge and experience. Often times, potential employers look for specific industry certs like CCNA, CCNP, Comp TIA A+ or MCSE as conditions of hire.  In highly technical fields, these are reasonable benchmarks.

what-does

In the field of Broadcast Engineering, a CCNA or a MCSE are nice, but do not cover the RF, audio or video skill sets.  True that more and more content transmission is migrating to IP networks, the initial input is still analog.  I have seen the most savvy IT guys utterly baffled by professional audio and/or video requirements.  A tube transmitter?  That is a special animal that can exact a high price from careless maintenance personnel, up to and including death.  That type of situation is clearly not covered by a CCNA or a MCSE.

The typical Broadcast Engineer straddles both worlds; IT and RF.  On any given day, s/he may be working on the computer automation system, or at the transmitter site fixing a transmitter.  Thus, we are jacks of all trades, master of none.  The finer points of configuring MS Active Directory may be beyond a Broadcast Engineer’s understanding.  Same with the tuning up an AM directional antenna.  At a typical broadcast facility, these projects do not happen very often and experts can be hired to complete this work as needed.  Having a specific industry certification for Broadcast Engineers makes a great deal of sense.

The reason SBE certifications often do not matter is that most station managers and owners have no idea what a Broadcast Engineer actually does.  It is an unfortunate situation when a non-technical manager has no idea where their subordinate is or what they are doing.  It is not simply a matter of accounting for time either.  Almost every station or cluster manager that I have ever known came from a sales background.  To many of them, engineering is a black art.  Working in such environments is a study in frustration especially when engineering is seen as a liability on the balance sheet; somewhere far below sales and promotions but slightly above the cost of garbage collection.  When these types of managers are in a hiring process and a candidate presents them with a set of letters following their name, who knows what they actually mean?  What hiring managers do know is this; more experience means more salary.

In order for SBE certifications to mean anything, the SBE itself needs to do a better job promoting its certification program to owners and non-technical managers.  This can be done through working with the NAB and other trade associations that broadcasters belong to.  Part of the reason why so few new people are coming into the Broadcast Engineering field is because career paths are ill-defined, promotion and advancement opportunities are limited, salaries are stagnant, and better opportunities are found in other technical fields.  A better understanding of Broadcast Engineering skill set would be helpful to non-technical managers, sort of a “Explain it like I am five,” (ELI5) type seminar.

SBE Certification

SBE-banner

I am toying around with the idea of reinstating my SBE certifications. At one time, I was certified as a Senior Radio Engineer.  That certification lapsed several years ago for a variety of reasons.  The first and foremost was my desire to find another career outside of radio.  At the time, I was working for a giant flaming asshole who prided himself in causing his subordinates health problems; things like strokes and heart attacks.  The sign over his desk read “The floggings will continue until morale improves.” I was also busy at home with a new, very young child and an old, broken down house.  There was not enough time to come up with enough professional points to re-certify or study for a test.  So, it went by the wayside.

Lately, however, I am beginning to see some advantage in having an SBE certification:

  • It comes in handy as a skills benchmark for potential clients and others
  • It lends some amount of credibility among fellow broadcast engineers
  • There is a support network for job searches

Thus, when I went to the SBE website and found the Jubilee Project, I was intrigued.  The SBE is offering to reinstate those former members with lapsed certifications until April of 2014 provided the applicant can supply enough recertification points.  I am also contemplating taking the Certified Broadcast Networking Engineer test for much the same reasons listed above.  I will let you know how it goes.

Incidentally, my ability to deal with giant flaming assholes as increased in the intervening years.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

The Society of Broadcast Engineers

The Society of Broadcast Engineers or SBE is an organization that is supposed to further the art of broadcast engineering.  Once upon a time I was a member, I attended meetings, got my Certified Senior Radio Engineer badge, I kept track of my professional development, and so on.  As the decay advanced, I realized that the SBE looks and sounds good, but actually does little.

What are the issues facing Broadcast Engineers these days:

  1. Too much work.  As consolidation changed the radio business, the engineering department was not immune to staff cuts.  Add to this the increasing dependence on automation and computers to program and run entire radio stations from studio to transmitter as additional responsibilities.
  2. Lack of maintenance budgets.  Particularly in this recession, money that should be spent on preventative maintenance is gone.  The result, more reactive maintenance, off air incidents and the like.
  3. Lack of pay for increased hours.  Goes with the above, more stations, more responsibilities, same or less pay and benefits.
  4. Lack of new talent in the radio engineering field.  There is money to be made if  you are a technical person, just don’t go into broadcasting.
  5. Lack of personal life.  Being on call 24/7 for 20 years has taken it’s toll.

So what has the SBE done to alleviate these problems?  Granted, most of them are management issues with the radio station staff, but has the SBE even tried to educate station owners and management.  How about helping engineers learn how to negotiate pay raises?  A better support network?  Perhaps, (gasp!) some type of organized labor?

I know the more work for same or less pay is almost universal and is a contentious issue among fellow engineers, so much so that many have left to pursue other careers.

Then again, perhaps the radio engineer is a dying breed.  Eventually, everything in a broadcast studio will be run by computers and distributed over the internet, so some type of computer guy could do the job.  Broadcast engineers will have to re-invent themselves to stay in the field because I think terrestrial radio’s days are numbered.  Eventually RF guys like myself could go work for the cellphone company, or go do something else.