The author recently retired as chief engineer, Salem Media Chicago.
Consolidated broadcast ownership groups face a concerning trend in recent years: Engineers are retiring or leaving the industry. There are very few or no trainees in the pipeline to replace them.
Outsourcing the work comes with risks for ownership including unstable expenses, lack of direct accountability and little loyalty. Outsourcing also draws from the same pool of older talent that continues to shrink.
I hope to offer some ideas for how to address this issue before it reaches crisis proportions. As recently as two months ago, Salem (where I work) had six market engineer positions seeking candidates. So the discussion seems timely.
I’ll begin with a prediction: The days of tall tower radio are probably numbered.
For AMs the complexity of the antenna systems and often remoteness of the tower locations works against manageability. Sites that aren’t remote to the market are often attractive for the land value. Stations are displaced and possibly diplexed.
Audience preference is also an issue. Electrical noise was poorly controlled by regulatory agencies early in the United States and is now basically out of control.
FMs have a different threat profile. Most occupy towers that also house television antennas. Broadcast television is happily selling off spectrum and what remains competes with internet streaming video for audience. Cable has always been the delivery vehicle for viewers with purchasing power. The transmitter coverage mostly marks territory exclusivity and compels cable systems to pay carriage fees. Eventually the cost of maintaining transmission equipment in high places will exceed the revenue from the additional audience it delivers for broadcast TV despite the increase in “cable cutters.”
Why TV matters is because the homes for FM antennas will become more scarce. The likely answer will be a digital product with areacast/geocast characteristics in the existing FM spectrum, building on present-day HD technology. These will look more like cellular, albeit wider coverage. Large and medium markets would be divided in fourths or fifths.
My estimate of the horizon for all of this is about a decade. But right now these licensed facilities, despite their likely imminent demise, are essential for the revenue model of AM and FM radio broadcasting.
Enough gloom and doom. The death of radio has been predicted many times and we remain robust. This is one of those times, and I hope these suggestions will facilitate the transition away from the present content delivery model to one that will better serve our industry in the future.
The IT mindset
First, at the studio the analog architecture that borrowed from 1920s telephone technology is dead or dying. Audio over IP is now the de facto standard for radio content creation.
These systems use generic IP routers and switches from names like Cisco and Juniper along with cabling and connectors as found in every business that uses computers, which is to say every business. Only the endpoint devices — the consoles, content storage, control systems and external connectivity — are different. Even those look very much the same to the users of the former analog studio stuff, albeit with greater flexibility and user adaptability.
For these environments, technical staffing can come from a ready-made pipeline of trainees. Computer network training and certification are the answers.
Vendors like Cisco maintain educational opportunities and associated testing so that candidates come with credentials that non-technical HR personnel can rely on. And like such hires at other IT intensive enterprises, they learn on the fly about the industry-specific aspects of radio.
New IT hires at a hospital likely do not know the ins and outs of the hardware and software in use by doctors and nurses. They learn through exposure at the front lines. Bonus: Local hires with network skills can offset the cost of a “corporate” IT department with better results.
Smart consolidated broadcast ownership groups will figure this out. Résumés without meaningful IT certification credentials will go to the bottom of the pile for engineer consideration.
Clever operators and groups will see the benefit of cross-training the key operations personnel in basic IT. Again this training is available off the shelf, provided by community colleges and private concerns. Rigorous examinations confirm that the knowledge on offer is actually absorbed.
Cross-pollination between the radio lifers without a formal IT background and the generically trained IT techs that radio will recruit is essential for two reasons. Being on the front lines of radio operations will give the non-radio IT recruit an understanding of the often-chaotic business model we all know well. And presence in the market makes the IT architecture less abstract, time imperatives more compelling. Most studio plants are bespoke, with differing mixes of broadcast licenses, formats, studio and physical architecture. Expecting a tech a thousand miles away to quickly grasp the interconnection and equipment interaction is just unrealistic.
Interaction with users on a face-to-face basis rather than via an anonymous trouble ticketing system is simply better, too. When the user can stand nearby and answer questions about symptomology, and when the tech can see and place hands on the involved hardware, results come faster. Problems that are chronic are identified and fixed. Priority is driven by actual need. In environments where an existing operations staffer is up-skilled with formal IT training and certification, outsource IT hours should fall.
Summary: Local markets must have local technical skills, whether new or existing hires, able to address the internet protocol and networking issues as they arise. Centralized support simply cannot provide this. Efforts to bring order to this process simply increase local market unit frustration.
In my opinion, the studio environment is the easy part of the hiring problem. It’s the transmitter sites and getting the content to the point of transmission/distribution — read “STL” — that presents the thorniest dilemma. I’ll turn to that discussion next time.
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