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‘Help! I Have to Train an Engineer!’

“Thank you for publishing Ron Pesha’s excellent article in your Aug. 16 edition,” the e-mail began. “His observations prompt me to contact you and inquire of your thoughts about possible solutions to what Ron terms the ‘incompetent broadcast engineer’ syndrome.”

“Thank you for publishing Ron Pesha’s excellent article in your Aug. 16 edition,” the e-mail began. “His observations prompt me to contact you and inquire of your thoughts about possible solutions to what Ron terms the ‘incompetent broadcast engineer’ syndrome.”

I received this query from a person involved in managing a small FM. He raised a useful question.

The manager hails from an engineering background and has worked in commercial and public radio. The person he has designated as chief operator has maintenance responsibilities that extend into other technical and academic areas. The engineer’s strongest suit is in IT, though he has some broadcast experience too.

“My desire,” the manager tells us, “is to provide a formal technical education of some type for my Operator. His knowledge of both RF and AF is basic and minimal; quite frankly, it’s insufficient to the point of being inaccurate. Perhaps Harris or BE could offer training to improve his RF knowledge but I’m uncertain about the opportunities available to him for the formal study of studio-engineering principles and practices.

“Last year I discussed this education situation with the SBE office in Indianapolis. The conversation didn’t yield anything beneficial, only a discussion about its test-certification program. The person I spoke with didn’t seem to understand that I needed to enhance my Operator’s knowledge and not to certify what knowledge he already possessed.”

The writer asked if we could help identify resources he hasn’t discovered to improve his engineer’s knowledge and skill set.

Online course

I put the question to several Radio World contributors in a round-robin e-mail. Cris Alexander of Crawford Broadcasting commented first:

“I recommend the Cleveland Institute of Electronics Broadcast Engineering course,” he said. “We have put several up-and-coming engineers through this distance learning course with excellent results.” Go to and click on Programs Offered to find Broadcast Engineering.

Buc Fitch replied: “Cris has taken you to one of the few ‘formal’ sources for broadcast engineering training. Overall, training opportunities in the broadcast engineering arena are lacking primarily because of economics. The count of personnel who would take that training vs. the recovery of the cost is so small and the money available for training is so limited, sources just aren’t there.

“I get all sorts of seminar and course offerings for wastewater treatment, construction practices and the law and the like where a two-day seminar is $1,400. That sort of money may be there in civil engineering but in many stations that’s the total engineering budget for a month. Even if the money were of no consequence, freeing the time for training presents problems since most stations use their tech people for all sorts of additional duties, such as production and VO.

“Couple this with the fact that broadcast engineering is essentially a practiced art — and, worse for training concepts, a ‘fusion’ art — and finding a broad-based topic to gather up a class at a convenient central point is difficult.”

So how do broadcast technocrats learn or stay conversant? Buc’s suggestions:

— By reading the trade journals religiously;

— Sketching out at least 20 minutes a day to read IBs, textbooks, papers and the like;

— Attending the tech lectures and presentations at NAB, SBE and state broadcaster events;

— Attend manufacturers’ product schools like the Harris transmitter training;

— Carrying on a lively mutual support system with tech peers and vendors via e-mail and POTS;

— Take related courses;

— And spending an occasional day working on OPPs (other peoples’ projects) with your “Elmer” or peers.

Buc adds: “This last suggestion may sound unusual; but I had a young ‘tool box’ carrier travel with me for a day; between the hands-on inspection and review of new gear and systems, and the in-depth discussion about these sites and systems while traveling, he told me that he had never learned so much in such a short period.

“With the substantial reduction in the count of technocrats in broadcasting, the character of our business is now one of individuals working in isolation. One engineer for seven or more stations is typical. In this circumstance, the admonition of Isaac Asimov is apropos: ‘It’s what you teach yourself that’s most important.’”


RW Engineering Extra Technical Editor Michael LeClair wrote, “It’s pretty hard to improve on the list that Buc provided. The NAB in Las Vegas is a good place to get knowledge; it helps to go every year for the immersion. It’s a relative bargain for the SBE member registration price of around $500.

“In my personal experience,” Michael continued, “the typical BSEE course of study at a four-year university is a nearly ideal background of knowledge for the modern broadcast engineer. It includes electronics, digital circuits, electromagnetics (unfortunately theoretical and not terribly practical, but still a necessary background), signal theory and laboratory training. I would recommend this for anyone looking to really get the tools to master broadcast engineering. Any state university should have this as a course of study.

“There is a great program at U-Mass Lowell for electronics technicians and audio engineers. We have a couple of their graduates working with us at WBUR(FM) right now.”

Contributor Jim Withers weighed in: “In my experience, about 99 percent of what I needed to know came from my knowledge of basic electronics. There is nothing particularly complicated about FM modulation, for example. Amplifiers, oscillators, etc., etc. all work based on certain principles that are well known and part of any reasonably complete basic/advanced electronics curriculum. Digital systems, likewise. Sampling rates, compression; these are things that are common to industries other than broadcasting and the principles translate readily.

“For example,” Jim continued, “control logic in transmitters is not unique to broadcasting. Anyone familiar with microcontrollers could navigate his or her way through a transmitter control ladder. (Home appliance controllers are about as complicated as the average FM transmitter startup circuit!)

“Knowledge about situations ‘unique’ to broadcasting (I put that in quotes; there really is nothing unique about audio/RF in a broadcasting plant) are still handed down from the old guys to the new; I can’t think of any way to change that. Some broadcast engineers (including my ‘mentor’ Robert Shrader in ‘Electronic Communications’) have written books describing these issues. I still pull out my copy if I come on a problem I haven’t addressed for a long time and need a refresher.

“If your reader’s guy is competent in electronics design and maintenance, he will be able to translate that knowledge to our chosen field with just a little help from a seasoned broadcast engineer.

“In my experience, the real problem is that most of these young guys grew up on Apple and Mac PCs and just naturally gravitate toward what they know. IT comes naturally; high-powered RF does not. To me, that’s the problem.”

And our long-time Workbench author John Bisset wrapped up our discussion with this: “In addition to these suggestions, Excelsior College of Albany, N.Y., gives credit to SBE-certified people within their degree programs. Also various SBE chapters hold Ennes Foundation Workshops; these sessions cover broad instructional areas for both TV and radio. Recently they have been in New York, Alabama and Boston. Many colleges and universities have schools of continuing and professional studies, where a person can take a one-day course or a seminar in many, many subjects.”

Thanks to the team for their suggestions. Tell us your own ideas for engineering training.