The Association of Public Radio Engineers — like most organizations — put all in-person events on hold once the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, but the group is planning a return to its networking roots soon enough.
APRE has announced plans for its PREC 2022 Conference in Las Vegas to run adjacent to the NAB Show next spring. The organization’s leadership says “having engineers rub elbows at networking events” is what APRE does best.
APRE is a nonprofit which “exists to advance preserve the mission of public radio stations through education, outreach, regulatory support and the ongoing development and preservation of best engineering practices,” according to its website, www.apre.us.
Radio World spoke to Victoria St. John, president of APRE and director of operations for Vermont Public Radio, about how the group came through the pandemic, the lessons learned and its plans for the rest of 2021.
Radio World: What has APRE learned about itself during the course of the pandemic?
Victoria St. John: We wanted to keep our members involved and engaged, but it also caused us to look at what we are really about as an organization. We thought about all kinds of ways to keep membership engaged that were not in-person, but when the pandemic hit our membership was so busy. We did a few webinars, but it made more sense to not create extra busy work for them.
And we really are a networking and live event group. We prefer meeting and talking to each other in person. Our strength and our foundation is in connecting with people and sometimes that doesn’t relate to having webinars and holding Zoom meetings. We didn’t want to change who we are and what we do.
RW: Your membership had to react quickly to the pandemic?
St. John: I’m so proud of them. Our members were just bombarded with work. Broadcast engineers were helping their co-workers work remotely and problem solving the issues involved in that. And many of them had to continue working at the radio station. They are typically people who have screwdrivers in hand and are physically doing work at the stations and transmitter sites. It’s not a job where you can do everything remotely.
Of all the people in our industry the station engineers were the ones who had to make sure everyone else could do their job remotely. That took a lot of energy and focus. They were incredibly important during that transition and keeping radio stations on the air and broadcasting important information. The pandemic created extra layers of work for broadcast engineers.
RW: Do your members get the credit they deserve?
St. John: These are the smartest and most talented people you’re talking about. And they are asked to everything from unclogging sinks to setting up towers. They are the most technically savvy people within most organizations and they deserve a lot of credit for keeping things together the past year. They were often called on to do things they never have before. This was unprecedented.
And obviously they were personally impacted by the pandemic just like everyone else; socially distancing and being required to stay away from the office in some cases. And all the time trying to protect their loved ones.
RW: With in-person events starting to come back this fall, are there plans for a PREC this year at the NAB Show in October in Las Vegas?
St. John: The door isn’t completely closed on that. We are not expecting to have a formal presence there this fall though some APRE members may be on-hand. There may be the potential for social or professional connections.
RW: And next year? PREC will be back for sure?
St. John: Yes, we are expecting to be there. Engineers so often work alone in the field. It’s exciting for them to get together and talk about projects and compare notes. We are expecting a full PREC experience in 2022.
RW: What issues or topics are priorities for APRE for the rest of 2021?
St. John: We are focusing on our core foundational efforts. I call it the iron side of engineering — the transmitter and the tower; the whole RF side. You have to know software obviously if you’re an engineer, but cables, fiber and networking are just as important.
We also want to examine how this pandemic changed the broadcast industry. How remote work changes what we do as broadcast engineers and how to best support our team members to that end.
RW: What else is on your mind these days?
St. John: This whole idea that broadcast radio is dead is silly. I believe that close to 90% of all radio listening is still done over the air via transmitters. So that part of the industry is still alive and needs a strong engineering team.
There is a lot of focus on the bright and shiny with multiplatform delivery and we’ll focus on that as well, but the foundation of what we do is broadcast.