Do You Need to Go, or Just Want to Go?

Jim Withers says Facebook is great, but nothing beats face time
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Note from Paul McLane: For this issue I turn the page over to our friend and contributor Jim Withers for reflections on the big spring show.

I’ve been going to the NAB convention for 36 years, and have missed only one in all that time. I’ve usually managed to convince the guy with the checkbook that I needed to go.

Of course, back in the day it wasn’t all that difficult. Every station of any size at all sent someone to “The Show.” Profit margins at TV and radio stations were astonishing — 50 percent was not uncommon — so convention trips were not given as much scrutiny as today.

The only thing I know that grows at a 50 percent margin these days is my waistline.

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Gabriele and Mark Hayes from Oneworld Media collect info from Christopher Currier at the Sennheiser booth. Photo by Kovacs/Dawley In addition to the economy (and my belt size), the NAB Show itself has changed. The two biggest exhibitors in 1974 were RCA and Ampex. Both are long gone, replaced by companies like Sony and Ikegami. Both were relative newcomers back then (Ikegami came to the convention selling its revolutionary “Handi-Lookie” ENG camera, and I am not making that name up).

This is to state the obvious: 2011 is a totally different environment for broadcasters, and station managers are examining expense requests accordingly. The employee who wants to be on hand to sample the equipment offerings (not to mention the buffet at the Bellagio) will be prepared to justify the expense.

Here are strategies that have worked for me (and on me) in the past. Use ’em now or hold onto ’em for next year.

1.) Save some dough — There are bargains to be had. Many companies offer “NAB Show Specials” for the very good reason that they want to be able to tell visitors that “so-and-so from here-and-there broadcasting just bought three of these!”

2.) Facebook is great, but nothing beats Face Time — I remember, growing up, that my mother would put an egg timer beside our phone, the better to ensure that the once-a-year holiday long-distance phone call did not roll over the three-minute limit. Electronic communications have come a long way, but for all that, there is no substitute for sitting across from an important vendor, client or fellow engineer in a booth or over a beer after a day on the floor. I have bought and sold equipment (and a station or two) in those meetings. I have gotten (and given) tips on new equipment from small vendors in out-of-the-way booths (“Hey, you gotta’ go see this thing called a Handi-Lookie!”) A tip that leads to one improvement in the operation back home could more than pay for the trip.

3.) Meet the Man — The FCC usually has a booth. While your first thought when thinking of the regulatory guys might be to turn out the lights and hide in a closet, The Show is a perfect place to do a little “meet and greet.” If you work in broadcasting long enough, you eventually will be on the phone with, exchanging e-mails with or sweating out an inspection visit from the FCC. If you know in advance that they do not carry the handcuffs you have nightmares about, you will do much better when your turn in the barrel comes around.

4.) You wanna see what this baby’ll do? — Every new system — HD Radio and TV, RBDS, Dolby encoding, going all the way back past FM stereo, videotape and cart machines — gets demoed first at the NAB Show. These “mini-shows” are conducted with factory engineers standing around in monogrammed shirts waiting for someone to throw them a question for which they do not have an answer (which does not happen often). If you pay attention, you’ll be prepared later when you get asked “Should we invest in that?” back home.

5.) More than exhibits — I have gone as a “full convention” attendee, and other times as an “exhibits only” free rider. The decision whether to pay the freight for the management and engineering sessions has a lot to do with your job function, as well as the program itself. In years when a huge development is being rolled out that directly affects me, “it pays to pay,” so I can hear the pros talk about it. Other years, not so much.

6.) Squeeze-the-Vendor game — This is not as acrimonious as it sounds. Most vendors want to please customers anyway. But if you have a problem with a piece of equipment, or cannot get a part, or an answer, The Show is the place to fix it.

I once had an audio board with a broken button face that the parts guys just couldn’t find. Small deal, but high on my Frustrate-O-Meter. I mentioned the problem to my sales guy while getting that Face Time I mentioned. He promptly went over to a board in their booth, popped off the button lens and gave it to me. Dollar to dollar, that isn’t enough to justify a ticket to Vegas, but still, it felt pretty good.

7.) Going to NAB is a perk — Since engineers and operations people live on the expense side of the income statement, there just aren’t many perquisites. Down in the bowels of the engine room — shoveling coal as the general manager yells down “More steam!” — you’re rarely thought about until the iceberg looms out of the night dead ahead.

The NAB Show gives you a chance to get into the daylight for a week. To feel important and really, to be important. To be able to offer personal insight when the GM or the business manager asks for a summary of new technologies, or the difference between Console A or Console B. Going to the convention helps validate your answers. And good answers are more important than ever.

There is a quid pro quo, of course. When you have the green light to go, tickets and hotel confirmations in hand and a pocket full of quarters for the slots, remember that the cost must return value to the station. You are going with the purpose of becoming a better, more well-informed employee.

If that happens — if you get back and bring new information and knowledge that can be put to good use at the station — this might be one time when your needs and wants coincide.

Hope to see you on the floor.

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