The recent swell of debate and social tension about race in the United States has brought additional focus on the experiences of Black radio engineers employed in the industry.
When news stories discuss the percentages of minorities in radio jobs, their focus is usually on ownership or radio business management. But the Black population is definitely underrepresented in U.S. radio broadcast engineering, most technology observers agree. Why that is, and what should be done about it, are less clear.
Radio World reached out to a number of African-American technical professionals who hold positions in radio or associated businesses to ask about their experiences in broadcast engineering. Some told us that Black engineers are sometimes reluctant to speak about their obviously low numbers in the field. Several engineers we contacted declined to be quoted.
“Treated me with respect”
David Antoine is project engineer and support engineer for Lawo Inc., which designs and manufactures advanced networking audio controls.
He said his experience in broadcast has been mostly positive.
“My peers in the industry have treated me with respect. I enjoy a good name and reputation at this point in my career. I am on a first-name basis with many of the movers and shakers in the industry,” Antoine said.
Antoine said there have been some job opportunities for which he wasn’t considered, though he felt qualified.
“However, I’m not one to play the race card. It may have simply been that they found a better, more qualified candidate. I do believe that it has been up to me set my course and get what I need to position myself for the right opportunity when it comes along,” he said.
One incident in particular left Antoine questioning the sincerity of a potential employer.
“There is a small radio group owner here in the tri-state area [of New York]. I applied for the chief engineer position when it was posted. I went in for an interview that turned into a three-hour get-to-know-you discussion. A few days later I received a letter from the GM thanking me for the time and the discussion, and that he was looking forward to us working together. As you can imagine I was very excited.
“I waited, one week, two weeks and three weeks. I put in a call to the station and was told ‘the GM was very busy, did not remember talking to me and that the position was filled.’ Needless to say, I was a bit stunned. I’ve had similar instances happen afterwards with other broadcasters. Same outcome,” Antoine said.
A lack of inner-city curriculums teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics — STEM — could be a reason for the ongoing lack of diversity in radio engineering, Antoine said.
“In experience from years in the industry, my honest observation is there are not enough interested qualified candidates for the career field of broadcasting,” Antoine said. “Broadcasting and AV does not pay as well as IT, web development, programming and related computer-centric fields.
“I have found it is hard to convince young people in general to look into the career paths on the ‘cable side’ of the microphone or camera. I find this to be true in broad sense where race or ethnicity of candidates is concerned.”
But Antoine, whose experience in the broadcast industry began in the 1970s, said it’s time for further discussion of the state of race relations in this country.
“It is a shame that it took the video of George Floyd being suffocated to bring the conversation to the forefront and for some of the masses to realize that the discussion needs to be had,” he said.
“Disbelief as to who I was”
Ben Hill, chief engineer for Entercom Communications station WIP(FM) in Philadelphia, said current social discussions leave him “hopeful and optimistic, but at times cautious and weary, hoping America will live up to its promises” when it comes to acceptance of all races.
“I have been on a number of Zoom meetings on race relations and church meetings discussing race and policing in America. I am suspicious of anyone who says ‘all lives matter’ so nonchalantly. The ongoing discussion along with action is very important,” Hill said.
Hill, who has served 43 years in a variety of roles as an engineer, chief engineer and tech manager, said he has been in uncomfortable situations because of his race throughout his long career.
“I have gone to conventions and seminars and station tours, and it was surprising to many because I was the only black engineer they had ever seen. ‘Who is the engineer?’ they would ask, looking right past me, only to realize that the guy with his hand up was the engineer. This has happened on job interviews, at sports stadiums and at businesses and nightclubs where we were remote broadcasting.
“I make sure I have a station shirt or jacket and have my business cards ready to show with my ID. I have been stopped and questioned as to who I was at events and why I was there. I don’t really remember many colleagues being grilled this way. Disbelief as to who I was an issue,” Hill said.
He said at times over the years he has “felt prejudiced by some White colleagues,” though he describes his experience working at CBS and Entercom as “excellent.”
“I have been mentored by a number of great engineers and station managers over the years. In some situations I have felt I needed to be the very best and strive harder to be on par with their knowledge and expertise of the equipment,” Hill said.
“That’s why I always felt like I had something more to prove. Pressure to succeed in a White world is an issue for us of color.”
“We still have a lot of work to do”
Tobias Poole is another longtime veteran of the radio engineering ranks; he is operating director for noncommercial WRTI(FM) in Philadelphia. He manages all aspects of the technical operations of the station, including the installations of transmitters and repeaters across the Delaware Valley, including New Jersey, Harrisburg, Mt. Pocono, Pa. and Delaware.
Poole said while it is true radio engineering is predominantly White, he feels the industry is slowly changing.
“It is not like it used to be. Things have changed. Radio and TV now offer better opportunities for more minorities to enter the field; but we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “The best advice I can give is to pick the road you want to travel, make a pathway, and go for it.”
Poole says current discussions including the Black Lives Matter movement are long overdue, both in broadcast circles and across the country. It helps to “open up dialogue that leads to change and opportunity for underrepresented minorities to achieve and succeed in the communications industry,” he said.
Poole believes that the number of African-Americans in technical positions such as IT, production and studio engineering continues to rise, while the number of radio engineers has not.
“I wish I had a good answer for this, but it really could encompass a number of things. Business culture, unions, politics, race, lack of mentors, opportunity and beliefs could all play a role. I’ve heard stories about it over the years,” he said. “Since the beginning of radio, minorities have been excluded, discriminated against, and encouraged not to get involved because the hiring belief was that broadcast engineering was not for them.
“Like so many industries, hiring minorities would have meant there would have to be an internal industry shift in how minorities were perceived, especially as it impacted their seeming proficiency in comparison to their White counterparts. In radio, this could trickle down easily and explain why there are so few minorities hired,” he said.
Poole, who holds a bachelor of science degree in communication from Ohio University, wonders if more career doors would have opened for him if he were White, but also notes an overall “ceiling effect” in his chosen field.
“On a different pathway, who knows? Perhaps I could say yes (to more opportunities). I had to train my mindset to overcome roadblocks like anyone else,” he said.
Poole, who plans to retire at the end of this year after 33 years at WRTI, said his experience at the Temple University-based station has provided an excellent opportunity “to really share, teach and mentor individuals from all diversities who might not have otherwise been given the opportunity to go into the broadcast business.”
Next issue: What employers and industry organizations told us about diversity in engineering.
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