At the NAB Show in April, I attended a session titled “Radio Hacks.” I expected an hour-long discussion about bad morning show talent; as it turned out, it featured two college radio general managers presenting ideas about how to repair, replace, improve and scrape by when budgets are slim.
Examples included playing top-of-hour legal IDs from a CD boombox in the wake of an automation computer crash, and stringing mic cords down the hall to bypass a defunct control room console. One of the GMs described having two sports announcers, working side by side, each calling in on their cell phones so they could both be on the air when their portable gear failed. The most interesting hack involved using a single console for live air shifts and production work simultaneously.
It was fun to hear how nitty-gritty radio serves communities, educates students and drives radio management to “get it done” by any means possible.
As the session was winding down, a rabbit trail sparked up among the moderator, presenters and audience. The question was posed, “What do you do for engineering services?” Answers varied. One GM said she was able to pay for contractors in the area. The other said he had the benefit of using the university TV engineers when necessary.
But one question left everyone stumped. “Are any of these schools teaching kids how to be broadcast engineers?” The answer was a saddening “no.”
AN ANECDOTAL EXPLANATION
As the week rolled along at NAB Show, I began polling acquaintances and friends with many years of engineering experience. My question was, “Why is there a shortage of radio engineers? Where did they go?”
Several answers emerged, including one that goes something like, “We used to need 20 engineers at our company. Today we need 15. But there are only 10.”
Another answer suggested that the shortage of radio engineers is the fault of the current generation. “We’re not doing anything to make engineering an attractive venture. I mean, look around [the NAB Show floor]. We’re getting older. And some of us speak as if we hate our jobs.”
This particular engineer went on: “When I was a kid, the guy who ran sound at my church worked at a local radio station that needed some weekend help. So I took a board shift. One day, the engineer showed up and took the lids off the equipment in the studio. I was amazed at what he was doing and I said, ‘I want to do that.’
“He took me under his wing and started showing me the trade. More than 40 years later, I still love what I do.”
An engineer from Los Angeles assumes that kids don’t tinker with electronics anymore.
“Sure, kids are still technical. Look at what their hobbies are. They’re gamers. They program websites and are highly proficient at writing code. They’re still into things like ‘Star Trek,’ but I would urge some young ‘Star Trek’ fans to consider how the buttons on the bridge of the starship Enterprise work. Somebody wired those things up.”
This engineer pointed out that he and many contemporaries gained invaluable electronics experience and RF theory from ham radio. And many kids grew up dismantling electronics and appliances just to see what made them tick. This may have resulted in a messy garage or workshop, but those youngsters of yore became well-prepared to assume vital technical roles in broadcast.
One night at dinner I was talking to an engineer in his late 30s. I said, “You’re younger than most engineers. What made you get into this profession?”
His story had a similar thread. He was a musician and liked to do audio work. One thing led to another, and he was hired by a local radio station that needed some technical help in their studios. That led to his acquiring transmitter and RF experience. But he’s a rare breed, in that people his age simply don’t seem to be drawn to broadcast engineering as they were in the past.
This article is not an exposé about a looming secret engineering crisis. We’ve seen this coming for a while. As more of our daily accoutrements become increasingly digital and IP-centric, our youngsters’ set of interests will migrate in the same direction.
But this shift won’t affect only the broadcast industry.
Someone will need to assume the mantle when it comes to building integrated circuits. Someone will need to build wiring harnesses and be able to use a soldering iron. Our technology doesn’t magically build itself, and our entertainment doesn’t simply arrive at our streaming devices out of the clear blue sky.
THE SOLUTION — IS THERE ONE?
When perusing the exhibition halls that pertain to radio, the expected players were present. Automation systems, consoles, streaming products, social media delivery, microphones, on-air processors and antennas, to name a few.
The demographics of the convention-goers who visit certain exhibition booths support the thesis of this article. To be frank, rarely does anyone younger than 50 visit an antenna manufacturer. This is a strong indication of where the interests lie in today’s rising engineering generation.
Where are the young people? Many of them are crowding into the video and film production areas of the convention hall. Why? Because video is a pervasive force in social media platforms. Film production continues to thrive on Netflix and YouTube.
Where does this leave the antenna and transmitter sites that need servicing? Or the radio facility that needs to relocate and build new studios?
WORKING ON IT
In the “Radio Hack” session, one of the general managers pointed out that across the parking lot from her radio station is a technical college. Students learn IP networking and electronics, but they’re not consequently lining up to offer their broadcast engineering skills at the radio station next door.
Coincidentally, on returning home from the convention I visited a radio group that was also located about 100 yards from a technical college. The engineer at this particular radio operation said that the school did, in fact, send students over for internships. I asked if any of the kids knew how to use a soldering iron. He chuckled and said, “No, no. That’s something we’re working on. They need to be teaching that stuff, too.”
Jim Leifer, CPBE, president of the Society of Broadcast Engineers recently commented on this issue for Radio World.
“We are aware of the lack of engineers, and the need to cultivate new engineers. The SBE Mentor Program is one of our recent efforts to share career experiences with new technical talent. We are increasing our education efforts across multiple platforms, including webinars, and working with our members to help find solutions,” Leifer said.
“In addition, the SBE will hold a strategic planning meeting in June to address the needs of our members. This will likely include more ideas on how attract the next generation of engineers to broadcasting.”
He brings up an important point when he addresses mentorship. The long-lasting interests in broadcast engineering usually were seeded by prior generations motivated to seek out young prospects.
Fast-forward to today. What if a promising young student were invited to a local SBE chapter meeting? What if the kid running sound for the high school band were invited to a transmitter site to look around? It takes time and effort.
Mentorship is not always fun, but for the sake of the trade, somebody has to do it! When an aspiring, potential engineer wants to see how radio stations operate, showing him or her around for the day may seem like a waste of time. On the contrary, planting seeds for the future has never been an ill-advised effort in any profession. In this season of a lack of engineering types, seeds need to be sown in fairly short order.
Seeking out young engineers in today’s technical climate presents extra challenges. Young minds have their sails set in the direction of IP. Convincing them that broadcast engineering offers them a relevant career path might be tough. Nonetheless, if young technical types see passion and career fulfillment in the current generation of broadcast engineers, they — much like the generation before them — will learn to fall in love with the profession.
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