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 engineers gone?”

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 Bruskov

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 so few?

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, commendably.

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.

Comment on this or any article. Write to radioworld@nbmedia.com.

Mark Persons has 33 years’ experience as a professional broadcast engineer. His website is mwpersons.com.

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How true, how true. When I was a young radio engineer in 1979,at the age of 20, I already had an amateur license for 4 years. I knew about the "basics" of RF and transmitters. Contrary to popular belief that the radio industry is becomming an IT world is only half true. True, the new transmitters are more microprocessor based and in some instances you need a PC to chat with it, but there is still the "basics" of transmitting. Whether it is tube or solid state, there will always be line currents, Ep, Ip, Collector voltage and current, HV power supplies, tuning, etc. The average IP/IT guy is completely lost when you try to explain to him that the SWR is causing fold-back of the Power Out. They are very good at getting the audio into the STL, that's about it. A broadcast engineer can make really good money these days as an independant engineer taking on multiple customers. However, you will be responsible for MANY! MANY! transmitter sites. Which is OK until a lightening strikes hits
By Marcel Livesay on 5/24/2012
Terrestrial radio has no future and is a 20th century business, trying to hang on in the 21st century..Ten years from now, the entire radio brodcast business will be gone. There simply won't be enough revenue to support it in it's present form.. So, "where have all the engineers gone", will be a moot question..Enjoy the time you have left.
By Sammy G on 5/23/2012
Hate to say it, but the solution to this is not better training of engineers. That takes too long, costs too much, and produces more employees than the market will support. The solution's going to fall instead on equipment manufacturers; companies that can make transmitters that are wholly modular and require little or no diagnostic/repair skills. The wireless communications industry figured this out a long time ago: make it cheaper so you can have lots of spares. Send broken units back to the factory for repair. Or, if they're cheap enough, just toss them out. I know this thinking is anathema to many in the broadcast industry, but the handwriting's been on the wall for over two decades now. I strongly suspect that any major OEM for broadcast gear, that makes equipment which REQUIRES a high-level engineer to operate, will quickly find themselves without any customers.
By Aaron Read on 5/20/2012
Where have the engineers gone? To other industries! After the great Clear Channel blow-out of 2009 I struggled to find another gig in radio; there were none. After reviewing my resume I realized I could apply for just about anything. There were plenty of jobs in the cell business and they like broadcast guys. Why? We have done just about everything and have done it well. I am being paid about 50% more than what I was making and am no longer on call, ever!
By Dave on 5/16/2012

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