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Sobering Realities for Engineers

The New Year is a good time to look back and ponder what we've accomplished over the past year, no matter if it was good, bad or ugly.

The New Year is a good time to look back and ponder what we’ve accomplished over the past year, no matter if it was good, bad or ugly.

Life’s most valuable lessons often are learned through making mistakes.

2003 witnessed the removal of a number of chief engineers from their jobs in this business, from large and not so large markets alike. We all know one if not several such individuals. It’s never pretty. These are perfectly capable and knowledgeable career engineers with solid experience who know their craft, who get things done, and yet who get fired because of any number of reasons.

When the axe falls, these folks usually turn to contracting on their own or depart the industry altogether. Some eventually find employment with other stations. Working in today’s consolidated world for mostly public companies driven by EBIDTA, free cash flow and stock price is not for everybody. But the quality of the work experience for most employees remains primarily a function of the local general manager. Most still make it fun to come to work everyday.


I remember getting the “We’ve decided to make a change” surprise some years ago when a new GM arrived with his own slate of friends he wanted to bring in from a former gig. It doesn’t happen to engineers often; but if management wants to replace somebody, they will usually find a way if they can do it with defensible justification. It’s harder to do this nowadays without documented cause in the face of government EEO and corporate HR protections.

There is no such thing as a perfect employee. We all have our strengths and areas of expertise as well as our weaknesses and blind spots. The challenge is to find an employment opportunity where we can showcase and maximize our strong points and minimize but improve on our weak points.

For radio station engineers, management’s expectations usually are simple and straightforward: Keep the station on the air, legal and always sounding good, with all equipment running smoothly. Do all of that within budget and as a team player supporting the needs of the front-line players in programming and sales.

The first part usually is fairly easy, provided you have adequate help and support. The second is more challenging for many.

Engineers tend to be task- and object-oriented. We focus most of our talent and effort on solving problems involving electro-mechanical and programmable devices. That tends to foster one-dimensional awareness. Inanimate objects are easier to coax into cooperating than human beings.

We often forget that other people usually are adversely affected by the failure or malfunction of these devices. Most are not technically inclined nor do they have the patience or interest in dealing with things technical. All they need is an understanding, friendly human who can resolve their problem quickly. Managers in particular appreciate an engineer who can deliver such customer service.

Different roles

In multi-station clusters and large markets, engineering departments usually comprise several staff members and a chief engineer. With consolidation, the role of CE in this environment has evolved into more of an administrative or engineering management position.

The battle-scarred chief who once spent most of his or her time fixing hardware now delegates many of the old tasks to others, and deals mostly with meetings, paperwork, phone calls and e-mail. To be an effective team leader and department head, he or she must earn the respect and support of the staff by supporting them. It’s a transition some have found difficult and not fulfilling.

The CE who succeeds and excels in this role typically views the job much the same as the general manager views his or her own. The GM is charged with keeping the station successful by achieving set goals through managing the needs of staff members as well as the needs of his infrastructure, all within the limits of the financial resources he is given.

To keep on top of this challenge, both must exercise good judgment, good time management, good communication and follow-through, plus good people skills. If the CE does not share the GM’s vision and goals for the station and does not fully buy into the big-picture plan to achieve them, the station is saddled with a handicap that management will usually not tolerate for long.

CEs should also be mindful of the technical needs of other department heads, especially the program directors. Programming is the lifeblood of any successful station. Staying competitive and innovative with new problem-solving tools is equally important to engineering and programming. With good ratings, good revenue follows and everybody wins.

Chain of command

In some stations, management views this relationship so important that the CE is made accountable first to a PD and then the GM. CEs who take a proactive interest in the programming affairs of their stations become valuable assets to the PDs and almost guarantee their own job security and success.

On the other hand, engineers who view and treat jocks and other programming staffers with little or no attention and respect will get little in return and are usually not long for the payroll.

A common mistake that general managers sometimes make in appointing or hiring a chief engineer is placing too much importance on technical skills as opposed to management skills. They regard technical proficiency gained through experience as the key ingredient of a good CE and assume management ability is learned easily or somehow absorbed by osmosis.

Many engineers who excel in dealing with studio, RF or IT systems and who are people-friendly may not be suited for or prepared to be an effective department manager. GMs do no favors to an aspiring staff engineer by promoting him to a vacant CE position without affording him an opportunity to learn about the business and the art of managing. Ideally, that should include participation in outside professional seminars and courses in addition to the wise mentoring of inside senior managers.

One other mistake too many stations make is understaffing their engineering and IT departments. Supporting the technical needs of a cluster of stations can be a daunting 24/7 commitment. Engineers who want to properly serve those needs all too often end up working entirely too many hours. Burnout and family or personal problems are common.

Most all other station staffers can work eight hours a day and then go home without worrying about or being bothered by after-hours call-outs. Too many engineers don’t have that luxury and very much need additional staff support so on-call schedules can be rotated.

Worth pondering

If you aspire to become a CE, or just to become a better CE and more secure in your position, take a close look at the management style and expectations of those above you. Then take a close look at yourself and how you’ve performed over the past year through the eyes of your supervisors.

Think about your own perceived strengths and weaknesses and how can you better leverage your best skills and shore up those still being developed to contribute to the station’s success as well as your own. If you’re lucky to work for a company that does annual employee performance reviews and facilitates extension training and education, you’ll have a head start on the answers.

Making and keeping New Years resolutions, especially involving your job is never much fun, but those who succeed in doing so will always become a better person and a better employee.

Happy New Year and may you have a prosperous 2004.