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Five Questions: Cris Alexander

TechBytes talks to Cris Alexander about broadcast engineering’s future and its challenges

Cris Alexander is director of engineering for Crawford Broadcasting Co. He’s had the job for 30 years. Not many engineers have achieved that term of service. He is also a contributor to Radio World and Radio World Engineering Extra.

TechBytes: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in radio broadcast engineering since you started?
Cris Alexander: It is the integration of the personal computer into the broadcast infrastructure. When I started in the mid-1970s, we played vinyl records, NAB carts and reel-to-reel tapes, the same media that had been used for decades. Various other media made their way into our stations in the subsequent years, including cassette tapes, CDs, DAT and MD, but the biggest, most revolutionary change came in the early 1990s when computer-based digital media systems, which are so ubiquitous today, began to appear in radio stations. Today, our facilities are filled with computers and computer-embedded gear. They not only provide the platforms for recording, editing, storage and replay of audio, but they also control our transmitters (some of our transmitters now have embedded PCs), transport our audio, provide site security and even operate our HVAC systems. There is no end in sight for what these amazing machines can do for us.

TB: What is the biggest change you would make in radio broadcast engineering practice or anything else related to radio broadcast engineering?
Alexander: I would turn back time and make a much better effort to find, hire and train the next generation of broadcast engineers. We certainly made an effort in the past but it wasn’t enough. Those chickens have now come home to roost. It is a real challenge to find qualified people to work in the technical plants of our radio stations. It’s fairly easy to find IT people, and IT certainly has a big place in our industry, but our primary transport is still the one-to-many over-the-air RF model, and we need good RF people; people who understand antennas, transmission lines, transmitters, propagation, point-to-point links, remote control/telemetry and audio processing. People who have broad skillsets encompassing IT as well as the RF arts are rare indeed. I wish we had done a better job preparing.

TB: Where do you see the radio broadcast engineering plant going in the next 10 years?
Alexander: We will continue to see integration of computer and IT into the broadcast plant. Legacy technologies will continue to fade as we take advantage of new, state-of-the-art transports and technologies, many of which have come out of the wireless industry. Our transmitters will become more and more efficient as energy-saving technologies and designs make their way into new products, and these transmitters will essentially look after themselves — which is a good thing because of the dearth of up-and-coming “full-spectrum” engineering talent. The same can be said of our studios. Our industry will (hopefully) settle on an AOIP standard that will allow components from the various platforms to interconnect and communicate.

TB: You’re the top engineer at a station group — what special challenges does that job bring?
Alexander: My #1 challenge these days is finding competent and available tower contractors. We can find competent tower contractors, but they are often in such high demand that they are mostly unavailable. We can find available tower contractors, but they are often unskilled in anything but iron work. There are certainly exceptions to this rule — we have some outstanding tower crews in some markets that we can get same day service from in many cases, but in the biggest markets we have some real challenges in that regard.

Keeping people current in terms of training and technologies is another challenge, both at the corporate level and for our engineers in the field. We can hire a very skilled, very sharp individual and within a short period of time, his or her skills will be behind the times. New technologies will emerge and find their way into the technical plants with which our people have no experience and which our folks have no idea how to configure, install and maintain. Busy as our engineering crews are, there is no easy way to send these folks out for product- or technology-specific training. I have had to find creative ways to deal with this.

TB: What can broadcast engineers do better as a group or individually to further the profession?
Alexander: The #1 thing that broadcast engineers can do better to further the profession is to act like professionals. This starts with dress — if engineers don’t want to be treated like a plumber, a janitor or “gofer,” stop dressing like a plumber, janitor or “gofer.” They should learn to speak English so that they can communicate clearly with other staff members and managers in terms they can understand. They should communicate regularly — I like to see weekly reports in digest form for our managers so they know what’s going on in the technical realm (again, not in “Enginese” but in English, and leave out minute detail — if the readers want more detail they can ask for it).

Engineers should obtain and maintain the highest level of professional certifications and accreditations that they can. Finally, they should stay current, reading the trades (such as Radio World and Radio World Engineering Extra) to stay on top of changes, happenings and new technologies, and read all they can about new technologies to keep their knowledge base and skill set fresh.