Where Have All the Engineers Gone?
In 1960, Pete Seeger sang the lyrics,
“Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing …” That song is running
through my head now, but with a different question: “Where have all the
I got into this business more than
three decades ago. During my career, I witnessed the transition from full-time
human engineers based at radio stations to the “plug and play” era of today.
Who will pick up the
tools of the trade? iStockphoto/Dmitri
Radio broadcast engineering can be a
tough business. You’re generally expected to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days
a week, over the course of your entire career. Working day and night with my
wife, Paula, often meant cancelling family gatherings in favor of getting a
transmitter running again. But it’s also a satisfying and challenging occupation,
which kept me on my toes for 33 years.
I now work in the shop fixing equipment
that stations send me, enjoying the lack of calls about repairs at 3 a.m. But now
that I play a different role in the engineering world, I wonder what happened
to all the new engineers out there, the ones who should take my place. Why are there
Unfortunately, the industry (including myself)
has not done a good job of attracting and training young blood in the radio
engineering profession — though the Society of Broadcast Engineers is trying,
We are in an unusual business where
equipment is manufactured in relatively small numbers, so the cost is high and gear
usually doesn’t fall into the “throwaway” category. When a $70,000 transmitter
goes down, there is not always factory tech support to point the way.
Any young engineer must possess
electronics training so he or she can understand what a circuit is supposed to
do and how to troubleshoot it down to the component level when it is not
working right. More and more these days, I’ve observed a lack of such training
from technical schools — perhaps because many college-educated engineers are
focused on designing equipment now.
Recently I was at a cell site that is
co-located with an FM broadcast transmitter. I was having trouble with my
soldering iron and asked a cell repairman to loan me his iron, but he told me, “We
don’t have soldering irons because none of our work requires soldering.”
Wow, was I surprised. I wear out
soldering irons because they get so much use on the job.
It is true that radio studios are
moving over to IP audio, which falls more into the domain of IT people, but
transmitters and antennas still need broadcast engineers to install and
maintain. Today’s engineers need to do both IT and maintenance, or the station
must have two people to fill those roles.
I have been getting calls from IT
people who are struggling with transmitters that are beyond their level of
education or understanding. Those people often do not have the Ohm’s Law basic
knowledge to help them think through component level troubleshooting problems. Any
upcoming radio broadcast engineer needs to recognize this and train accordingly
to be equipped mentally to deal with this when it occurs.
We older engineers need to help by
mentoring the young ones to bring up their level of expertise in electronic
problem solving. It is the right thing to do.
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Persons has 33 years’ experience as a professional broadcast engineer. His
website is mwpersons.com.