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Perspectives of a Fly in the Milk 2020

Our mere presence in the radio world has always been a form of protest to me

Blacks in technology concept image

The author of this commentary is chief engineer for Entercom Communications station WIP(FM) in Philadelphia.

Ben Hill
Ben Hill

I wrote an opinion piece in Radio World almost 20 years ago that I headlined “Fly in the Milk,” hoping to draw attention to the lack of opportunity for minorities in U.S. radio engineering. The issue didn’t gather much steam.

Today, much national attention is focused on racial issues. Recent stories in Radio World have been exploring the professional experiences of Black radio engineers. It seems a good time to update my earlier commentary and share my own.

Getting here

Dr. King’s work nationally, and local civil rights efforts in my city, certainly influenced me growing up. It was North Philadelphia and the 1960s. Police and parents were on the same page for “law and order.”

It seemed a time of innocence; and then came the Vietnam War. Everything changed.

Growing up a young Black person in America, the pressure can be intense; but my mother never allowed us to wallow in self-pity or to be afraid to venture out in the world and accomplish things. There was no playing the race card. But we had to stand up for ourselves.

My family had a lot of dignity and grace, since most of my relatives were housekeepers, maids and butlers. My high school was 90% white, and there were heavy racial tensions and fights.

I couldn’t wait to get out of there. No proms or sports really; it wasn’t good to be around after school. I was busy tinkering and trying to fix broken mechanical and electric appliances.

As a kid I could fix things, especially electronic items; I was working on radios and TVs by the age of 14. I attended a tech trade school for electronics that nurtured and taught me. The school was 50% black in the student body, which helped me to fit into it.

My professor Mr. Wortham told us, “Boys, you will learn all the technical stuff you will need; but dealing with people and co-workers? That will be a bigger challenge for you.” Boy he was right.

A couple of electronic repair jobs brought in some income but I was bored. I liked radio. I liked to play on-air radio contests; and I won a lot.

My radio career began because a morning show host wanted employees who looked like the predominately Black audience the station served. A noble cause indeed! A friend of mine told me about the job. I went to work at WHAT, a 1 kW AM station in Philadelphia. It was a crazy exciting place. The FM was WWDB.

This lasted about a year before I was let go; why I don’t know. Someone else was hired to replace me who wasn’t Black; but he was a good engineer, I was told.

I interviewed for jobs but didn’t get them. I knew things weren’t right because some of the interviews didn’t include a tour of the facility, no in-depth questions on my technical ability and not even eye contact in some cases.

But I also was interviewed and given a test by the legendary engineer Glynn Walden at KYW. He said I was very good; but he wasn’t hiring me because the job was a board operator position, and he said I was better than that. He told me to find an engineering job. He was right. Thanks Glynn!

Always back to radio

These interviews took me all over the Philly and New Jersey area. Meanwhile I taught broadcast electronics for the First Class engineering license. I had gotten mine by passing the tests for the Third, Second and then the First, which later became a General license.

I met a guy teaching at the school who’d heard that a job was open at a 1 kW station in Camden, WSSJ(AM). I applied. The African-American owner told me I was the only Black candidate he’d seen; he asked an engineering friend to interview me, not a radio guy but a nice person, and I was hired that day.

At WSSJ we built new studios and had to rebuild the transmitter site after an arson fire. The station was sold within two years. I decided to leave and take another teaching assignment at a trade school for electronics. Officially done with the radio business — I had had it! I was frustrated again; the career in radio didn’t seem to be happening.

This chapter went well, and I actually relearned electronics by teaching it, especially RF electronics. But a friend called me and said there were a couple of radio engineering jobs open in Philly.

I interviewed at the WSNI(FM)/WPGR(AM) combo. I got the job. The manager said that he liked that I came to the interview with my suit jacket over my arm and my sleeves rolled (it was a hot day). They took me right in as soon as I arrived.

We clicked the day I became chief at those stations, dealing with high-power FM and a 50 kW AM.

From there and over 40 years I have prospered at some of the biggest and best stations in the Philly area.

And I did eventually get to work for Glynn Walden, at WIP and KYW Newsradio for CBS Radio, which had been a dream job.

Creating positive culture

I’ve been known as something of a Radio Mr. Fix It, but I try to be more than that, remembering Mr. Wortham’s advice about people.

I walk around the station several times in the morning to make sure all is good — with the facility, but also with my co-workers. Someone’s memory is jogged by seeing me walk by. I get early warning of an impending issue. I ask not only “What else needs fixing” but also “How is your family?”

A friendly approach is always better than the alternative. Mom used to say you get more with a cup of sugar than a bowl of salt.

I tried to create a culture, a way to let young board ops and DJs and announcers know that someone was looking out for them. If they needed a pair of headphones or advice on building a home studio. Or cooking BBQ or one of my famous fish fries.

My friendly approach helped so much with making friends in a White world that was so different to the one I grew up in. Positive attitude and uplifting approach, even when I was not happy or pleased with the situation, really made a difference for me. No one was going to accuse me of a bad attitude or a chip on my shoulder.

I have wondered over the years how I was regarded by my engineering peers. I always felt concerned to fit in and be recognized as competent and knowledgeable, like they were. Not a token. Black.

This wondering — about whether we fit in or will be accepted — is added pressure we have to cope with daily.

Start with education

I have not seen a lot of racism but I’ve seen racial bias. I have heard the question in a crowd, “Who is the chief?” and seen their surprise when I identified myself. I’ve been at a convention and had someone think I couldn’t comprehend or understand how antennas or transmitters work.

Also I questioned why I could never seem to get a promotion. A dear friend, an industry stalwart who is White, told me, “They prefer to hire and promote those who look like them.” I appreciate him for telling me that. (This was not the 1970s or ’80s but far more recently.) He personally didn’t hire that way, saying he felt diversity was important for all of us.

I think that my Black peers — the few I know and with whom I’ve spoken about this — are well aware of the spotlight on us to succeed. Our mere presence in this radio world is a great thing because we are succeeding and benefiting. It has always been a form of protest to me, my presence.

But there are no new Black engineers coming along. Maybe in western and southern cities, but I haven’t seen it in the north. There have been some IT pros and some remote engineering guys I have met. Not many.

What to do about it?

Discussion on race as with any discussion needs to be followed with action plans. We need every major learning center in this country to open their doors with scholarships and grants to allow young Blacks and Latinos to attend college or trade school.

This would go a long way to helping young people find their way. We need to use our schools and universities as training and “melting pots,” learning from each other while we learn our particular craft.

And radio and TV companies should hire young people to fill their empty studios and buildings, especially at night. Where will the future radio DJs and workforce come from if we keep automating and cutting people?

The most startling fact I’ve heard about population lately is there are more young people under the age of 30 living on this planet than ever. They need guidance and mentors and education.

Removing the names of former presidents’ from buildings because of their racial misdeeds is good, I guess. But these universities need to make tuition free, especially at state-funded schools. Offer free education to young inner-city youth. Support inner-city schools, especially high schools and top-performing charter schools.

President Kennedy once said “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

I would amend that to “What more can I do to help my country?” Help young people succeed by mentoring, educating and offering them an alternative to the negatives they see.

I had the same encouragement and it worked for me.

Comment on this or any story. Email radioworld@futurenet.com.

[Related: “Is Diversity in U.S. Radio Engineering Possible?”]

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