“Radio needs engineers!” is the battle cry of station managers across North America, and has been for years. The problem is where to find this new blood. And as baby boomer engineering directors retire, colleges graduates seem even more likely to seek uber-profitable 9-to-5 IT office jobs rather than more “realistically compensated” positions in radio that may involve ’round-the-clock responsibilities and multiple working locations.
Of course, as many a radio engineer will tell you, an engineering job — particularly one involving RF — offers a level of variety and adventure that a desk IT job can’t. So the challenge for radio engineering directors is to expose college technical students to the romance and quirkiness of the profession. Once they have been exposed, many such students become hooked and commit to it for life.
Virgilio Martinez Sanchez
iHeartMedia is one company that has grasped this truth and run with it. Under the company’s COOP program, electrical engineering students at the University of Cincinnati, Philadelphia’s Drexel University and other U.S. colleges spend part of their education as paid interns at iHeartMedia.
“The typical pattern is that an electrical engineering student alternates a semester in college, then a semester working for us as an iHeartMedia COOP engineering intern,” said Jeff Littlejohn, iHeartMedia’s EVP of engineering and systems.
“Typically, they join us for two semesters in total. During that time, these interns get hands-on experience with our engineers; working on our radio studio and transmission facilities, and gaining real skills.”
Under its COOP program, iHeartMedia typically hires and trains eight to 12 interns annually.
“Our goal is for them to experience the diversity and challenges of RF engineering firsthand, and to get caught up in the romance of radio,” said Littlejohn. “As anyone who has worked in radio knows, no two stations’ facilities are exactly alike. That’s one thing that makes maintaining, troubleshooting and upgrading them challenging, but also interesting for RF engineers. The work is always creative and different.”
Once these COOP students graduate, the best of them are offered full-time jobs with iHeartMedia. But the educational opportunities don’t end there: Since 2014, Littlejohn has run a two-year Market Engineering Manager Development Program, “MEM-Dev,” that uses a mix of online and hands-on training (including complex group projects) to bring assistant engineers up to full management capabilities. As with COOP, the company’s goal is to put eight to 12 people through the MEM-Dev program every year.
“An electrical engineering student who has taken two years’ of our COOP program in college and then gone through two years of MEM-Dev while on the job at iHeartMedia has enough skills and experience to support a medium market radio station or group of stations,” said Littlejohn.
“This one-two combination works: We’ve been able to fill a number of our RF engineering positions this way with young, motivated engineers.”
THE INTERNS’ VIEW
Chris Herlinger, Virgilio Martinez Sanchez and Drake Spivey have three things in common.
First, all were college students being trained as electrical engineers and decided to do COOP terms with iHeartMedia. Second, they are now full-time RF engineers working in various iHeartMedia markets. Third, all three all love being RF engineers, even though they hadn’t entered college with radio as a career choice.
Herlinger is director of engineering for iHeartMedia in Waco/Killeen, Texas, Martinez is a broadcast transmission engineer who serves Austin and San Antonio, and Spivey is chief engineer for Milwaukee and Madison.
In each of these former interns’ instances, their colleges and iHeartMedia made an effort to attract them to RF engineering as COOP options.
“I heard about the iHeartMedia COOP program from a woman in our engineering department at University of Texas at Arlington,” said Martinez. “Then, right out of the blue, I got a phone call from iHeartMedia Senior Vice President of Engineering Tom Cox, asking if I was interested in an interview. I went to Dallas for that interview, got accepted, and soon enough was doing actual field work with iHeartMedia engineers.”
Taking part in the iHeartMedia COOP program presented these interns with novel, hands-on assignments from the get-go, under the expert guidance of iHeartMedia engineers.
“I got to build a box full of relays, that would switch between a station’s main and backup transmitters automatically in emergencies,” said Herlinger. “I was working with high-power lines and multi-kilowatt transmitters; the stakes were really high.”
Once these three had graduated, full-time radio jobs awaited all of them.
“As soon as I was finished school in February 2016, iHeartMedia asked me to take over RF engineering for a six-station group in Madison, Wis.,” said Spivey. “I am now based in Milwaukee, working as chief engineer for four AM and two FM stations.”
As full-time employees at iHeartMedia, these former interns have access to the MEM-Dev program. Herlinger and Spivey are enrolled: “Besides online learning, we get to take part in group exercises that matter, such as rebuilding one of our AM station’s transmission facilities,” said Spivey. “How cool is that?”
For these former interns, taking part in iHeartMedia’s COOP program steered them to lifelong careers in radio. “This is such a varied and different business to be in,” said Martinez. “Without taking part in the iHeartMedia COOP course, I would never have considered radio as my profession of choice.”
From iHeartMedia’s perspective, the company’s COOP and MEM-Dev programs have provided a practical, effective answer to the question of where to find new technical staff.
“The system works,” said Littlejohn. “COOP allows us to interest young engineers into coming into radio, while MEM-Dev gets them up to speed fast to serve our medium- and small-market stations.”
Does your organization have a program to develop radio engineers? Tell us about it at[email protected].