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Deana Coble: Engineer on the Go

Deana Coble doesn't want to be the best woman engineer in radio; she wants to be the best engineer in radio, period.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. Deana Coble doesn’t want to be the best woman engineer in radio; she wants to be the best engineer in radio, period.

News station WUNC(FM), a noncommercial outlet in Chapel Hill, N.C., is where Coble holds the title of engineering supervisor. She says she strives to bring a human quality to what is sometimes a purely technical job.

“When our co-workers call us, they are usually in crisis,” said Coble. “That’s why I make sure I get around to seeing them during quieter times to build relationships. In this business you have to treat the person as well as the equipment, because if you don’t, your customers still aren’t satisfied.”

Learning distance learning

Coble, 33, is a North Carolina native. After receiving a bachelor of science in telecommunications at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., she joined the media department at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham. As media coordinator, she worked with teachers to get them to stop using old-fashioned overhead projectors and put their presentations on computer.

“The school was setting up a distance-learning network so they could share their classes around the state. During my five years there, we added graphics to make those classes more like a TV show,” she said.

“Our broadcasts started as two-way audio and one-way video through cablevision, but grew as the school decided to implement fiber-optic technology. This gave me a better understanding of data networked full-motion video and systems and redirected my interest from production to engineering.”

Coble’s next move was to Iowa Communications Network, where her focus was video sessions for hospitals, military and educational sites.

“Iowa had the largest state network in the country working on distance learning and they worked hand in hand with Iowa Public TV,” she said. “I learned routers and switchers from the data side, not just the production side.”

In 1995, Coble received a master of science degree in educational media and technology at the historically black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

“This was an amazing experience,” she said. “As a Caucasian, I was a minority student on campus, and my perspectives exploded with new insights. I was drawn to NCA&T because it was the only school that could facilitate my keeping a job and enhancing my education.”

In 1997 Coble rounded out her repertoire with RF training and transmitter maintenance at WUNC, where she was added to the expanding staff by David Wright, associate director of radio. Coble was thrown into a major studio design and rebuild project. She embraced the challenge and considers her switch from commercial broadcasting and telecommunications to public radio a major turning point in her career.

Mentors matter

Dick Stufflebeam, an assistant director of engineering at Iowa Public Television who is now retired, was an important early influence.

“He taught me this amazing thing: that engineering isn’t just about fixing equipment,” said Coble. “He encouraged me to spend time with people, ask them what else needs working on, and make sure they are enjoying their experiences.”

She said that Stufflebeam’s philosophy blended marketing, customer service and engineering concepts together.

“It was a wonderful gift he gave me,” she said.

Coble said sometimes she was called upon to repair something quickly in a remote location.

“We would have to get creative if we were in the middle of nowhere, that’s for sure,” she said. “But it was a great opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas from place to place within the state.”

Coble also welcomed the chance to tackle and solve problems on her own.

“That’s a real confidence-builder when you’re out there all alone and you can get it done,” Coble said.

Wright, associate director of radio at WUNC, also is a mentor.

“He believes in me and just basically forgot I was a woman,” she said. “Everywhere I would go, people would be shocked at my gender, but David desensitized me to all that.”

Even to take note of her gender might seem anachronistic in other industries; but the fact remains that, in 2002, most radio engineers are men.

“David and I went out to a new tower site that was being built and I was the only woman there among all these contractors,” she said. “We had to crawl into a truck to look for parts, and he started to help me up as a gentleman would help a lady, then he changed his mind. He didn’t treat me any differently from one of the guys, which greatly helped my credibility with the other people on the job.”

One thing that helps her is the attitude of the people around her, including Wright.

“He never assumes I can’t do a job; he assumes that I can,” said Coble.

Another helpful person along the way was Chuck Reisinger, at the time a contract engineer at WUNC.

“What I love about him is that he helped me create an open atmosphere,” Coble said. “Chuck didn’t have an issues with me being a female and a manager. I’ll toss out projects and the department brainstorms together on how to get there. We teach each other and no one looks like a fool. Chuck is a real asset in creating an engineering learning center.”

Building a better studio

WUNC recently underwent a major renovation that Coble helped design and oversee. On the first phase, Wright designed the structure and Coble took responsibility from the walls in. On the second phase, she handled the project design from top to bottom.

“Then WUNC expanded to Manteo, Buxton and Rocky Mount, and I worked with David on everything from antenna installation to putting in the concrete pads to installing the dishes, transmitters and remote controls,” she said.

“Construction workers had to be supervised and we had to maintain structural integrity,” Coble said. “I didn’t just build a building, I built relationships with people. I designed this place according to the users’ needs, even when they didn’t know exactly what they needed.”

One example is the studios. Prior to her efforts, the consoles were difficult to reach for some of the shorter employees. She took it upon herself to change that.

“David just said ‘run with it,'” she said. “That included everything down to the sprinkler system.”

Part of her job was gaining respect from the older, more experienced builders and contractors.

“I opened it up to get their input,” she said. “If their ideas were better than mine, we went with them. And when credit time came around, I shared it with everyone. From then on they never held back on ideas.”

One colleague said her selflessness is her biggest attribute.

“She always gives credit to her staff, which is a good lesson for all managers,” he said. “Her ‘get-it-done’ mentality has helped her guide her staff through some difficult minefields, but she is in the trenches with them and she knows what’s going on.”

Coble takes on outside work as well, such as production contract work, including such projects as a live national show, “The People’s Pharmacy.” She also edits programs and designs fundraising shows. Coble also is available as a contract engineer.

“When no one had heard of me as in that capacity, a man named Ben Brinitzer gave me a try when he was trying to move and consolidate four stations at one location. He handed me a drawing, a punch tool, heat shrink and strippers and said he would be back in an hour. If he liked my work, I was hired.”

He did and she was, and Coble claims still to have calluses two years later from stripping cables for that job.

In the meantime, WUNC is looking towards the future technically. The station plans to convert to IBOC with the purchase of an upgradable transmitter. No firm date had been set at press time.

“Those leaders in our industry who are able to convert now without seeing an immediate profit will position themselves as leaders,” she said. “Technology, cost and content. I want to be a part of bridging these elements of the digital divide so that the industry and the audience are both winners.”

And what is in the future for Deana Coble? She isn’t completely sure.

“But I probably won’t be here in 10 years,” she said. “WUNC has been great for me and I appreciate the growth and opportunities provided for me here, but I see myself expanding beyond this basis and accepting new challenges.”

Coble can be reached at [email protected].