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-averse, 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 that before there was the internet, web streaming, Spotify, Youtube, Sirius/XM, television, cellular telephones, 3G, 4G, and so on, radio was mass media.  Radio was people-driven, and people-oriented, not an automated 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 rooftop 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 no 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, and 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 CEOs may not care that the 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 its 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 a certain thrill when it all works right, the first time.  There is a certain pride in 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 transmitter site to taking high-value equipment and selling it on eBay.  I recall a 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 leftovers 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 are 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, passed 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 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 is 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.  Oftentimes, 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.

Effective Communication

Communications men, US Navy WWII Pacific Theater
Communications men, US Navy WWII Pacific Theater

In almost every broadcast company I have ever worked for, there is always some communication 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 that 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, wasting other people’s time with long needless diatribes is ineffective communication.  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 paint the picture.

The key to effective communication 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 broadcast engineer, our intended audience is more likely station management and/or ownership.  Their backgrounds may be in 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 formerly 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 and 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.