A stereotype persists in the minds of many industry people about today’s radio engineer.
There he sits, the grizzled, silver-haired veteran in a cramped room in the back of the station, rewiring some sort of old motor, grumbling about the good old days of tubes and how great things were before all these new-fangled digital devices.
Typical comment: “Never had a spec a’ trouble with those old Ampex decks.”
Today’s engineer is far more likely to be found installing a server than fixing a tape deck. But the image of the cranky old engineer lingers.
That was then
Meet Aaron Winski, director of engineering for WPW Broadcasting. He is based in Monmouth, Ill., and oversees 18 stations. He is 25 years old.
Like many in the engineering profession, he started as an amateur radio operator in his early teens.
“After I graduated high school, I worked at a couple of local two-way radio shops and did some installs,” he said. “I was also a part-time disk jockey and did a lot of maintenance, like cleaning cart machines.”
He was working for WMOI(FM) and WRAM(AM) in Monmouth, when they were purchased on Jan. 1, 1998, by WPW Broadcasting.
“CEO David Madison brought up in a meeting that we needed an engineer so I began fixing mic cables, then doing more computer and transmitter work and maintenance too,” Winski said.
“I went back to school that spring, on April 6, 1998. I remember the date because it was the day we got inspected by the FCC. They walked in the door as I was walking out, bound for Hamilton Technical College in Davenport, Iowa.”
For two years, Winski went to school four nights a week yet awoke at 4 a.m. to serve as news director on the radio. As the group acquired more stations, he would travel to nearby properties and help out there, too. While this was going on he became a father.
“I don’t think any of this would have been possible without the support of my wife Dara,” he said.
He received his bachelor of science in electrical engineering technology in May of 2000. By that time, WPW Broadcasting had grown to 17 stations and Winski was overseeing all of them while still going to school.
“I was pretty tired and was traveling from Quincy, Ill., to Whitewater, Wis., to keep these things going, plus dealing with lightning strikes, new automation systems and tower work,” Winski said. “We don’t have any other contract engineers, and I’m still doing it all. If I get everything done, I try to sneak home to see my family a little early on Friday afternoons.”
With the lure of the computer industry, why did Winski choose the world of studios and transmitters?
“I think probably because of my amateur-radio background. And one more thing I noticed,” Winski said, “there are very few schools left with a good RF program, and the people who know it well are retiring or dying. This is a great field for me.”
Winski still is involved with computers – and lots of other things.
“I literally deal with everything from IT work to plumbing to carpentry,” he said. “Sometimes it makes for some long weekends, but I’m learning quickly. The first transmitter I installed took me three days. The fifth one took me just four hours.”
Many people in the industry have a mentor; Winski is no exception. His is Andy Andresen, chief engineer for Cumulus Broadcasting for the Quad Cities.
“I met him right after I started going to Hamilton Tech because I was looking for a job as an intern,” said Winski. “After I told him everything I could do, he told me I didn’t have time to be an intern. We still cover for each other during vacations. This gives me even more diversity, because in addition to all our equipment, I have to be familiar with his group’s, too.”
And like other engineers, Winski has his favorite gear. He favors Broadcast Electronics AM solid-state transmitters such as the AM-1A and AM-500.
“I’m also a fan of Sine Systems remote controls and the Optimod 9200 AM processor,” he said. “When it comes to automation and studio equipment, I like the BE AudioVault Express and the Harris AirWave 12 analog console.”
For laughs, Winski hands station interns a note to go to Radio Shack and pick up a bag of BA 1100 NS. Think about it.
Speaking of equipment, Winski received an emergency call one day from one of his properties in Rushville, Ill., saying the station was off the air. He drove an hour, met the general manager at the tower site and gave everything a good once-over. He couldn’t find any obvious problems until he opened the back door to the BE FM-10A power supply.
“A snake had crawled through the high-voltage interlock and got cooked,” he said. “I broke off the handle of a broom and wedged it between the opposite wall of the transmitter and the manual throw on the contactor, which worked great for a few days until I got a new contactor.”
A guy with attitude
David Madison, Winski’s boss, said his engineer’s attitude, hard work and dedication make a difference.
“He helped me build this group, and engineers like that are hard to find,” said Madison. “We’re still buying stations, doing upgrades; and believe me, whatever Aaron needs, we’ll give him lots of support. He had a 4.0 average in school while he was attending nights and working for us during the day.”
Madison praised Winski’s attention to detail and organization.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people. I can say that Winski really helps our bottom line by overseeing corporate budgets, too.”
“You have to eat, sleep and breathe radio to do it,” Winski said. “How many people do you know who really enjoy going to work every day like I do? I love the challenge.
“My wife hates it when my pager goes off at midnight and I have to run to fix a transmitter, but deep down I’m ready to go and lick the problem. It’s just who I am.”