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Good Show, But for Engineers a Real Question

For techies, it's hard to tell just what this convention wants to be

Paul McLane is U.S.editor in chief.

The turnout at the fall Radio Show in Chicago is reported by organizers to be about 2,200 or so people. That’s up from about 1,800 last year. The number of heads I counted in the big opening session Wednesday was in the mid-hundreds, for what that’s worth.

For owners, GMs and sales managers, I think this show definitely was a success. High-profile CEOs were visible; there were plenty of people networking and debating the merits of mobile, Pandora and big-picture sales management stuff. The mood was pretty positive, considering the economy of late. The layout of the exhibit floor was far better this year; and the schedule and the session layout seemed more conducive to mingling.

I have concerns about the technical facet of this convention though. I sensed from panelists that turnout in at least some of the engineering sessions really disappointed them. And quite a few exhibitors expressed concern that they simply were not busy, especially after the opening evening and next morning’s hours. Some companies that logically “should” have exhibited found it better to just come and walk the floor to shake hands and sniff the air, or stake out a corner in another company’s booth, or not attend at all.

Disappointment was not a universally expressed opinion. Some exhibitors, if not effusive, told me they were meeting good people and being productive. And certainly I saw familiar engineering execs and opinion leaders present, like Gary Kline, Glynn Walden, John Lyons, Conrad Trautmann and Mike McCarthy, to name a few.

But it’s hard to escape the feeling that far too few engineers come to this convention anymore. I didn’t sense a big regional techie turnout; and plenty of exhibitors had time to walk around themselves talking to each other by midday Thursday. (It didn’t help, at least on the exhibit floor, that the NRSC meeting was held concurrent with exhibit hours.)

The question many people put to me after any convention is “Was it a good show? Should I have gone?” My answer depends on who you are and what you were hoping to get out of it. This fall, for owners and GMs and sales types, yes. For people who wanted to hear Tom Joyner or Bob Pittman in a super session, or who hope to be NAB board members someday, or who were trying to figure out how to use mobile tools and the future of the auto dashboard, yes. And for engineers active in national organizations, yes. But for exhibitors who want to sell products other than mobile apps, or for engineers who want to hear about new technology for a station buildout, and especially engineers who already attend the spring show, my answer would be, “Well, that depends on how good your airfare was.”

There’s no shame in this. The world of radio engineering has changed. The labor pool is smaller and buying models are different. Readers know I have been a vocal admirer of the job done by spring show planners in putting together the Broadcast Engineering Conference there. But I think NAB and RAB would do well to ask themselves in coming months precisely what role should be played by engineers, tech sessions and exhibitors at this fall show — how committed their organizations are to having a strong technical component, and whether this show can and should support an exhibit floor, much less one that occupies parts of three days.

Such questions have been raised before, of course; and our industry has tried several variations of convention formats in an attempt to answer them. But assuming good political and financial reasons exist to continue to have a floor and a technical program, it may be time to revisit combining such efforts with SBE or with one of the stronger regional conferences. For now, I’ve come to think of the fall Radio Show as a good manager’s event, akin to a strong regional conference, but with a notably diminished technical component.