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ABA Takes Steps to Develop Engineers

State broadcast association helps underwrite a training program for would-be techies

Where will the next generation of broadcast engineers come from?”

The Alabama Broadcasters Association isn’t merely asking; it’s trying to answer the question through a program to attract and train prospective engineers in the Southeast.

This is a refreshing instance of broadcast ownership acting in its own interest by taking responsibility for maintaining the technical talent pool.

The first class, “Introduction to Broadcast Engineering,” was held this month over three days; it attracted 19 people from Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. The program featured classes at ABA headquarters plus tours of area stations.

Larry Wilkins, CPBE, is director of the ABA Engineering Academy. He told me the concept came about because several TV stations couldn’t find people to fill open engineering positions.

Chief Engineer Frank Giardina of Cumulus Broadcasting shows a Harris DX50 transmitter to participants. Wilkins credits Sharon Tinsley, president of ABA, with the idea of creating its own educational program; perhaps somewhere out there in radio- or TV-land was a master control operator, intern or other person interested in advancing his or her career through engineering.

ABA fixed up part of its Birmingham office as a classroom with tables and projectors. Wilkins, a retired Cumulus engineer, created the content for the first class. The association then publicized the program through SBE chapters, Wilkins’ listserv and Tinsley’s emails to Alabama’s broadcast general managers and associations in surrounding states.

Students paid nothing to register, and ABA was able to get them a good deal on hotel rooms. The association provided the classroom space and refreshments. Wilkins volunteered his time. So did Bob Mayben of SCMS, a former teacher of broadcast history who spoke to the students about Marconi and the roots of the industry; so did local engineers Frank Giardina and Scott Sarkisian, who led tours of their employers’ stations.

The first class offered a broad overview of engineering and a “block diagram” approach to station design. In July, ABA will sponsor two week-long classes that go into more depth, one for radio and one for TV; those students will have the opportunity to take the SBE Certified Broadcast Technologist exam. ABA hopes to offer another basics class in the fall, and may offer one that will prepare students to take operator’s exams, of particular interest in TV.

Wilkins is a key part of all this, obviously. In addition to his years of work experience, he performs Alternative Broadcast Inspections in the state, which gives him useful insights. “I pick up a lot of stuff at stations on what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong. I incorporated those ideas in the class.”

The Internet helped him develop good visual materials to illustrate concepts like frequency vs. wavelength and the nature of the color spectrum (he ended up with 112 slides in his PowerPoint). When he needs help developing a topic, he reaches out to someone within his considerable network of industry contacts.

This is talent development “on the cheap,” which is a good thing. While the Society of Broadcast Engineers offers a growing number of training resources, and there are full-time technical schools out there with broadcast offerings, this type of program — encouraged and supported by management, though with plenty of support from the engineers — strikes me as a welcome, accessible “field-level” effort.

The program, Wilkins said, “really caught on more than I thought it would catch on.” He is active in SBE certification and has kept the society informed about the effort; SBE leaders, he said, enthusiastically support the idea. And ABA has received queries about the program from other states.

We won’t know anytime soon if this program has lasting benefits in developing more engineers. But the lesson is clear: Broadcast executives who lament the lack of good engineers can act in their own interest to help develop future talent. This need not cost a lot of money. It does require a little planning and the wholehearted involvement of talented volunteers willing to share their knowledge; my experience is that broadcasting has plenty of those.

So how about it, state associations? Your state has smart, veteran broadcast engineers like Larry who are interested in helping assure the future of their profession. Let’s see more of this.

If you launch such a program, Radio World will share the news with the industry.

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