Tom Silliman says he didn’t choose radio, radio chose him.
That is to be expected of someone born the son of Robert Silliman, a well-known consulting broadcast engineer, and who grew up with a fully functioning broadcast test lab in his home basement.
During a career driven by a desire for adventure, Tom Silliman has managed to conquer many aspects of life, both professional and personal. From climbing the antenna mast atop the Empire State Building to riding the whitewater in a kayak on a river in Chile, he is a man passionate about work and recreation.
Silliman is president and CEO of Electronics Research Inc., and respected in antenna product engineering, manufacturing, testing and installation. He is an accomplished tower climber. He designed and patented the ERI Rototiller FM antenna, a side-mount FM antenna still considered to be a workhorse antenna in the FM industry, in 1975.
Now he is taking his place among a select group of broadcast engineering greats. Silliman, 63, is the recipient of this year’s NAB Radio Engineering Achievement Award, an honor bestowed upon industry leaders for significant contribution to radio engineering.
“Tom Silliman is often called a renaissance man due to his varied passions, but he is best known for his accomplishments in the field of antenna engineering,” stated Lynn Claudy, senior vice president of NAB Science & Technology.
“He’s a friend to many broadcasters and is always willing to help solve problems. Tom takes the time to explain complex RF issues to anyone willing to take the time to learn.”
In winning the honor, Silliman becomes half of the first father/son combo to win the NAB’s recognition for achievement in broadcast engineering. Robert won the award in 1993; he passed away in 2001.
“I began my career being born to Robert Silliman,” said Tom Silliman. “I’ve had the chance to work with so many great engineers, including my father. People like Jules Cohen, Ben Dawson, Ron Rackley and John Reiser of the FCC. It is unbelievably humbling to be considered a part of that elite group.”
Silliman has designed antenna projects for legendary vertical real estate holdings, including the Prudential Building in Boston, the Hancock Building in Chicago and Empire in New York. Much of what he has learned through the years goes back to youthful summers spent working for his dad.
“Our basement was full of tube testers to amplifiers to emittence meters. My father would sit me at the workbench with a soldering iron and let me work. I began working at the age of 14 when I would take the bus from my home in Silver Spring, Md., to Jack Moffett’s office, [who was] a former partner with my father in Silliman, Moffett and Rohrer. I learned basic trigonometry and what logs were, way back then,” Silliman said.
His tower climbing exploits have been well chronicled, even gaining national notoriety after he was featured on ABC TV’s “20/20.” He began climbing in 1969 and has been “literally on top of the world” on many occasions.
“I just love it still. It’s challenging, but it is sure good for business. We have picked up a lot of projects over the years because I’m a climbing engineer,” Silliman said. “We have a handful of PEs here at ERI that climb.”
Silliman joined ERI after receiving his Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University in 1969; he shortly afterwards completed his Master’s in Electrical Engineering there as well.
Robert Silliman hired his son part-time to help ERI at the company’s test site — then at Newburgh, Ind. — to work on antenna tests and filter design for the Shell Building in downtown Houston.
“I’d been working for my father since I was 14, so Robert Silliman knew what I could do,” said Tom Silliman, “and we eventually got that Shell job. To my father’s credit, he recognized my skills early on. He never made a major decision without discussing it with me. He was a joy to work with and we became best friends.”
Today, ERI has 250 employees spread among three facilities: corporate headquarters in Chandler, Ind., which totals 165,000 square feet of manufacturing space, a test range near Booneville, Ind., and a 25,000-square-foot RF component design and manufacturing facility near Portland, Maine. The company also manufactures UHF and VHF television antenna components and sells broadcast structures.
ERI, which purchased the broadcast division and selected assets of Andrew Corp. in 2003, is well positioned to take advantage of the deployment of IBOC digital broadcasting in this country, Silliman said.
“HD Radio is presenting many opportunities for growth. We were involved very early with IBOC and worked closely with Lucent Digital Radio and have put a lot of work into it.” Lucent Digital Radio merged with USA Digital Radio to form Ibiquity Digital Corp. in 2000.
ERI has since developed several antenna products for the HD Radio market, including its Lynx Dual-Input Side-Mount Antenna, which is experiencing strong demand, Silliman said. The antenna allows FM stations to implement simulcast operations of both analog and digital broadcasts without the use of high-loss hybrid combiners.
“It is dual-input but yet a very stable antenna,” Silliman said.
Despite what he calls massive consolidation within the radio industry, a slower-than-expected rollout of HD Radio and the sour economy in general, Silliman still believes in radio, even if he is not sure what the future may hold for the medium.
“It will be something. I think if the industry is going to experience this digital revolution, that eventually you could see analog go away totally,” he said, “but I’m just a servant to the industry and don’t make those types of decisions.”
Silliman described 2007 as a “difficult year” for ERI as the company geared up for the anticipated rush of television work in the rollout of digital television, a rush that never quite materialized.
This year “is going to be much better. We are seeing a significant jump in business right now for both for TV and radio,” Silliman said.
Silliman predicts business for ERI will be very good through at least 2012, as demand for vertical real estate increases.
“The change from analog television is going to severely impact radio operators. With all of the changes in TV there will be pressure on FMs to move. We have seen cases where TV stations have jacked up the tower lease rates where they are collocated with radio,” Silliman said.
While Silliman has dedicated himself to his profession, he has had the opportunity to enjoy several hobbies. The fitness buff and one-time avid skier became a world-class kayaker in the 1980s and 1990s, making trips each summer South America to kayak the whitewater in places like Costa Rica and Chile.
More recently, he has taken up horseback riding and practices cutting cattle on a 238-acre ranch he owns near Lynnville, Ind. with Ernie Jones, vice president of structural engineering at ERI. Eventually, he and Jones want to produce grass fed beef and pastured chickens for sale.
“We currently have 54 head of cattle and are hoping to add more. There is a lot more to riding horses than most people understand. I have been thrown off two horses in the last two years, and it can be unpleasant,” Silliman said.
He has a distinctively raspy voice, the result of numerous surgeries due to a recurring throat virus. A man with a sense of humor, he also was one of the individuals behind the April Fool’s story in Radio World’s March 26 issue titled “A New Concept in AM Radiator Design.”
Although he may be one of a kind, Silliman said he is honored by the award and feels as if he is part of a special fraternity to which few others belong.
He only wishes there were some women in that exclusive group. “There have been some phenomenal women in our industry and it would just be neat to see a woman on that list,” Silliman said.
Silliman is divorced and is now engaged to Sally Rose. He has two adult daughters and lives in Newburgh.