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NAB Show Quieter but Still Valuable

In the end it was a productive show for most.

Monday was like Tuesday, Tuesday was like Wednesday, Wednesday was like Thursday and no one knows what Thursday was like because no one showed up. I’m talking about the NAB Show in April of course, and the common perception amongst attendees that it was smaller and quieter than usual.

According to the official numbers, just over 83,000 showed up for what is broadcast engineering’s premiere conference event. That is down about 20,000 from last year.

My own impression was that the North Exhibit Hall, home of the radio and audio exhibitors, got off to a slow start, but in the end it was a productive show for most. I have to admit that it was much easier than usual to talk to many vendors about specific products for the items in my station’s budget. And some booths around the edges of the exhibit floor seemed abandoned. But those manufacturers with new and innovative technology were as mobbed as ever, with lines formed around their booths to see new equipment.

I have one other informal attendance metric. The Las Vegas Convention Center has a small restaurant near the North Hall known as Banners. The Banners Index, or the wait to get lunch, was as long as ever during the days when the exhibit floor was open. No signs of recession there.

On the other hand, there were a number of stalwart radio companies that simply didn’t show up this year, such as QEI and TFT. Their absence was a bit disturbing.

The reason for numbers being down this year is quite obviously related to the recession that is battering the economy as a whole and radio in particular. Radio stations and groups have cut their travel budgets to the bone in order to keep other cuts at a minimum.

From my own hometown of Boston, I think that maybe three or four radio engineers went this year; in normal years that number would have been 10 to 15. These cuts have hit radio particularly hard.

Friends I have seen in Las Vegas for many years were not able to make it this year, and the ones who did travel to the show often did so on their own nickel. Happily, hotel rates were the lowest I have seen in years, so those who decided to travel on their own, and perhaps even use vacation time, were at least able to find many bargains on housing. Some rooms were going for as little as $40 per night.

For those with expertise in finding a free meal around the show (a conference art form), attending really didn’t have to cost too much, especially if Las Vegas is within driving distance. For those trying to minimize all their expenses, the show became a kind of guerilla experience, some even forgoing the usual cabs to and from the convention hall for public transit on the city bus. Now that’s dedication.


In spite of the smaller attendance, the Broadcast Engineering Conference, which is at the heart of the NAB Show, was just as good and as educational as always. The list of important engineering papers was as long as ever.

In my opinion, the most important topic of the show was the various approaches to building high-power digital radio stations and the effects this would have on radio. It appears likely that some form of high-power digital broadcasting will be approved within a year and there was plenty of information for those of us who will have to build new transmission plants. There were many good papers and presentations to be seen, including one we are publishing in this issue from Geoff Mendenhall of Harris Corp.

A favorite moment for me this year was seeing David Rehr interview author Malcolm Gladwell during one of the show’s events. Gladwell is one of my favorite writers right now, and it was a treat to see him in person and hear more about his latest work.

For me, the most important reason to attend the NAB Show is to keep up on the latest in technology so that my knowledge and skills can stay up-to-date with changes in the broadcast industry. Even the smaller show this year was able to fulfill that goal, both in the conference sessions and in the exhibit halls.


Speaking of education, in the April 2009 issue of the SBE Signal, the Strategic Planning Committee released the results of its member survey. It showed that members consider education to be the most important concern of the Society of Broadcast Engineers; almost 99 percent of respondents were in agreement.

Our very own Cris Alexander, who authors the Day in the Life column for Radio World Engineering Extra, also serves as the chair of the Education Committee for the SBE. So in addition to reading his regular columns, you should look into what Cris has been doing over at the SBE.

Recent efforts have resulted in a new educational opportunity in the form of SBE University. Three radio-related courses are currently available: AM Antenna Modeling, FM Transmission Systems and Matching Networks and Phasing. The courses are available to both members and non-members and are taken online, on-demand for a modest fee. No travel is required.

Many of us talk about the need to bring new talent into broadcast engineering, and the SBE University can help. With expenses cut all across the board, are you hiring part-timers and recent graduates with no experience to help out with engineering? Here’s a way to get them the background education they need. What better way to start someone out as a new engineer?

I like to promote the efforts of the SBE because it exists to support broadcast engineers in their careers. I am a longtime member of the SBE and am a Certified Professional Broadcast Engineer. Note that it takes 20 years of professional experience to achieve the highest certification level, in addition to passing exams. The recertification requirement every five years forces engineers to keep their skills current. I chose to get certification because this is the industry-accepted method of proving that I have the skills and experience as a broadcast engineer.

Finally, to get into that certification “frame of mind,” please don’t miss our regular feature, the SBE Certification Corner in Engineering Extra. We present in each issue a challenging question that addresses a topic that might be covered on an SBE certification exam.

Author Buc Fitch and I try to come up with representative questions, which allow us to explain in detail a technical topic related to broadcast engineering, such as FCC rules, basic electronics or AM transmission systems. Our answers take a broad view of the topic so that in addition to just answering the question, we try to present background explanation that hopefully helps you to understand the engineering involved just a bit better.