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Your Mentorship Matters

Award-winning engineer Mark Persons celebrates a time-honored tradition

A story in Radio World late last year described broadcast engineers as “Gods of the Machines.” How true that is when, so few people know the microphone-to-antenna technology in a broadcast facility.

Back in the 1950s and through the 1970s, Brown Institute and other schools taught answers to FCC exam questions without teaching the science. The requirement was to have qualified operators overseeing directional AM radio stations. 

The FCC caught onto this scheme and finally deregulated the requirement for First Class operators to take transmitter and antenna readings.

Engineers trained by electronic schools have always needed help understanding broadcast architecture. I was fortunate to learn from my radio broadcast engineer father and engineers at nearby stations. I would pester them with questions while absorbing answers like a sponge. 

They were my mentors. That gave me the knowledge and confidence to go out into the world of radio broadcast engineering.

Mark Persons, CPBE, is a retired broadcast engineering consultant and recipient of the SBE John H. Battison Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Mentor/mentee is a teacher/student relationship of, in this case, the practiced art of broadcast engineering. I say art because it is more than electrons flowing through wires. The engineer needs to fit all the pieces together to make a station play. An expensive mistake makes for a hard lesson learned, but one that can be avoided again by passing the story along.

Radio World contributor and friend Buc Fitch said it right: “Mentoring is the transfer of the love and practice of the craft while internship is academically focused on learning the mechanics.” As a mentor, I try to convey the spirit of broadcast engineering.

Walk the talk

As someone who likes to talk, I frequently shared knowledge with others during my 60+ years of engineering stations. 

When retirement was looming, I found two engineers who could work into the role of radio broadcast engineering contractor. They even paid me to do classes on how to measure AM antenna resistance and do RF spectrum analyzer measurements. 

Now they come to town to do work on the stations I engineered at one time. That’s when I get a free lunch for offering advice.

The Society of Broadcast Engineers started the SBE Mentor program several years ago to bring along those new to engineering. I signed up and am now assigned to four mentees. 

The most recent mentee is John Loven. He was hired away from the cellular industry to be the engineer for 16 Hubbard Radio facilities in central Minnesota. I built many and serviced all those facilities over the years. What a great fit for a mentor and mentee! 

John came with a background in microwave RF, but AM antennas with coupling networks and phasors were somewhat of a mystery to him. This was a great opportunity for me to be a teacher and enjoy a great friendship along the way. 

In the process, I’ve had to keep up with the latest broadcast engineering technology. As the mentees face problems, I help them and often learn from them while working out the answers. It is not always easy for an analog RF guy like me.

In the beginning

It all starts when I find a mentee, or I am assigned one by the SBE. The first act is to schedule a one-hour phone call or an in-person meeting to talk about our strengths and weaknesses. We get to know each other before any advice is given.

In one case, I found the mentee was not a good match and asked SBE for a change. It is best to get off to a good start rather than suffering with a problem. The mentee also signs my form saying he or she won’t sue if something goes wrong with my free advice.

I set down rules at the first meeting. That includes 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday calls. Don’t call from a transmitter in the middle of the night asking, “What do I do now?” Don’t expect me to be always available. After all, even retired people have schedules. That is even more important for mentors who are still working for a living. 

On the job

When I have been able to be with a mentee at a jobsite, I resist the temptation to do the work. After all, the new person needs to learn the job, even if he or she is slow to catch on. 

Mark Persons and John Loven

The first photo shows me explaining the engineering room at a studio to John Loven. He needed to understand the basic plan before proceeding with a change. 

My biggest problem is keeping hands off the equipment. After all, the best approach is to explain how it is done and let the student learn by mistakes, just as I did years ago.

The second image shows a hand drawing and conversation during coffee, explaining intermodulation between two transmitters. It is the theory part before a spectrum analyzer is pulled out for actual measurements. 

Instruction over coffee

There is still a service bench at my place. I invited a mentee over with a tower light controller that needed repair. I talked him through troubleshooting and replacement of a failed resistor. Again, he did the work. I just guided him along. 

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In the process, he learned troubleshooting techniques while I instructed him on the best ways to do soldering. This made me feel good that it took just one inexpensive component to restore the equipment, rather than replacing the entire controller for big money.

There are times when a mentee will ask a question that is out of my area of expertise. That’s when I go to my friends or a list of the other SBE mentors to find one with the right qualifications. I don’t act as the middle person, just pass the name and contact information along. Then later I can hear how it came out. 

I am not saying that all those who help others should be members of the Society of Broadcast Engineers. I am saying that the SBE has a good program that works. 

In the third photo, I was teaching others before the official SBE program began. Mentoring is an excellent idea that is the right thing to do. Amateur radio has had people like that since the beginning. They are referred to as Elmers.

About that AM directional …

What did you say?

Be conscious of using buzz words, phrases and abbreviations that outsiders would not know, such as STL, ICR, AoIP, RF circular polarization, ground system, TPO, ERP, HAAT, composite audio and SCA. The list goes on. Explaining these is all a part of the teaching and learning process.


The Society of Broadcast Engineers was a group of mostly men who got together to share ideas. Now it appears to be a group of men and women working, among other goals, to ensure the survival of the profession. 

At last check, there are four SBE certified schools. Bates Technical College is one of them in Tacoma, Wash. SBE member Roland Robinson is one of two instructors teaching the subject there. 

He says they start out with basic electronics, soldering and test equipment. They go on to audio and video, leading to system design and maintenance. Most students learn television broadcasting, video production and content delivery. Many quickly find themselves working at television stations in the northwest after graduation. Some have gone on to be radio broadcast engineers. 

Mentee Joe Offerdahl assembles an N connector.

SBE certification exams are offered at the college as well. Roland said there is even an amateur radio station at Bates for students to use. It is a great tool for learning RF propagation across all frequencies. See my article from 2021, “Alike, But Not Alike: Broadcast vs. Ham Radio.”

To help things more, the Society of Broadcast Engineers also now has the Technical Professional Training Program (TPTP) that I recommend to mentees. This training package offers a number of components to get new talent started in the field. At $475 for a year, it is worth every penny. 

The broadcast engineering community needs to do its part by passing along necessary knowledge to newbies so they can do the job. Broadcast engineers should give back to the profession that earned them a living.

Learn more about the SBE Mentor Program here. 

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