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BEC Preview: RF Boot Camp

Gary Cavell is president of engineering consultancy Cavell Mertz & Associates and is also the editor-in-chief of the next “NAB Engineering Handbook” and former president of the IEEE Broadcast Technology Society. This is one in a series of Q&As with industry professionals about their presentations at the upcoming NAB Show in Las Vegas.

Radio World: Wednesday’s morning session, “RF Boot Camp,” that sounds brutal. What on Earth is it about?
Gary Cavell: The RF Boot Camp is coming back for a third year in a row, and has been updated based upon attendee feedback received from prior years. The NAB proposed this session years ago to help address the diminished opportunities for cross-training and learning. While this session cannot possibly teach everything there is to know, the intent is to provide a baseline level of understanding, and to point attendees in directions for further learning and exploration.

The session is not intended for accomplished, experienced engineers or those already experienced in RF systems. Instead, it is intended for people in the industry who are not RF-savvy, but who are finding themselves having to get more and more involved with broadcast plant signal flow and the RF transmission part of the plant. Our typical attendees include IT and computer networking professionals, production and news personnel, and even station managers and owners.

RW: One of your intended students is an IT person wanting to learn some of the engineering side, do you foresee the day when it will be reverse because the physical plant becomes so IT-oriented that this session will be “IT Boot Camp,” and a handful of the remaining scrappy RF engineers will be taking it to learn about all those “bits and zeroes and ones”?
Cavell: I think we are already at that day. The present day engineering workforce has had to learn more and more about networking, computer and IT. So in fact, my feeling is that more education for the scrappy RF folks is very much needed. It is fairly difficult to use any sort of broadcast gear these days, be it in the studios or in the various transmission systems, without encountering some sort of IP address and a need to understand how all of that works together. The “RF-only” person is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. So I feel that the educational needs of both ends of the chain need to be addressed — the grizzled RF folks need to become more and more comfortable with the invasion of bits and bytes, while the newer “computer-comfortable” folks need to learn the audio, video and RF side of the plant, which remains, and likely always remain, a big part of the broadcasting system in one form or another.

RW: How can stations, groups and networks do a better job of giving personnel this basic education, so that this session would no longer be needed? Or is that an impossibility?
Cavell: The skill and knowledge sets that are needed in radio and television broadcast plants are not commonly taught in colleges and trade schools, and as the years have gone by, the pre-employment training opportunities have diminished even further. As such, employee training in the broadcasting industry has always necessitated “OJT” (on the job training).

Unfortunately, the recession and other industry factors have served to diminish the talent pool at virtually every facility, such that few skilled professional remain to “pass it on.” Those that do are typically task-saturated, leaving little time to train others who might be coming along.

Now that the recession is behind us, and the need for skilled hands is increasing, I would suggest several approaches:

● First, individual stations, groups and networks should consider establishing an environment where mentoring and cross-training is encouraged and rewarded. Further, a mentor’s job security should be enhanced, and not weakened by virtue of their participation.
● Second, as the newer people enter the station labor pool, the employer should team the less experienced person with the veteran, and work with the more experienced staff member on ways to accomplish cross-training and monitor the progress being made. This will take an investment in management time, but it is worth doing.
● Third, encourage (and perhaps tangibly reward) participation in every available broadcast educational opportunity. These include relevant local college or trade school courses, participation in SBE, SMPTE and IEEE chapters and participation in their training and certification programs and webinars, and attending equipment manufacturer training opportunities and webinars. Where budget permits, I would also encourage the sending of staff to professional conferences such as state, regional and national conventions (NAB, SBE, SMPTE, AES and the like) where educational sessions are part of the program.

So it appears that I am saying, sessions such as RF Boot Camp opportunity are probably something that will continue to be needed.

RW: Tell us more about the session.
Cavell: The session will be divided into two parts — late morning and afternoon. The earlier portion of the sessions will focus on RF basics — what is RF? What are frequency and wavelength? Why is this important to know? Then RF Boot Camp takes us through plant signal flow, what kind of RF systems are involved?; how does RF gets to the antenna?; types of antennas and towers, and even aspects of personal safety. The afternoon sessions delve a little more into the specifics of AM, FM, TV, microwave, and satellite systems in order to increase baseline knowledge, with the end of the day highlighting more safety concerns and the ever popular “Hints and Ideas” session with John Bisset.

Lecturers will include myself; Cindy Cavell, former television news tech manager, TV chief engineer, winner of three technical Emmy awards, the SBE/AWRT Female Engineer of the year award, and this year’s recipient of the TVNewsCheck’s Women in Technology Leadership Award; Mike Rhodes, a registered professional engineer, former president of AFCCE, and newly appointed Baltimore-Washington SBE frequency co-coordinator; Dan Ryson, a former CBS Radio regional director of engineering for the Philly-Pittsburgh-Baltimore-Washington and Winston-Salem, N.C., markets, and member of the SBE national frequency coordinating committee; Paul Shulins, Boston regional chief for Greater Media; and John Bisset, author of Radio World’s Workbench column and a member of the Telos Alliance team.

RW: What’s the most neglected area/topic of the things the two sessions will cover? That is, what areas are attendees least likely to want to pay attention to — microwave systems? Plant safety?
Cavell: While I obviously feel that all of the session is important, the topics that concern me the most are those involving personal safety. Station staff work around equipment that is connected to the electrical power mains, often contain high currents or voltages, or emit RF energy that may pose exposure or burn hazards. Often, these people, out of necessity, will be working alone. Station owners, managers and staff need to become more aware of the hazards that exist and avail themselves of as much information as possible to ensure that workers remain safe as they go about their duties.

The second area of concern is RF systems — which of course is the real topic of the NAB RF Boot Camp session. Most of what we do these days involves radio frequency equipment (the station transmitters, the remote pickup and news gathering gear, studio-to-transmitter links, satellite systems, and even Wi-Fi and cellphone systems — all involve RF and all have common system considerations and issues. However, more and more of the focus is on the computer networking/IT/software side of station life, which is highly attractive to the newer generation of broadcast professionals. However, there is a growing knowledge gap when it comes to how these systems relate and interface to video and audio portions of the plant, and the various RF devices in particular. And as the more experienced staff fade into retirement, fewer and fewer people remain who are equipped with the big picture, much less a competent working knowledge of how everything fits together to produce the final product.