All posts by Chris Tarr

Creating Tomorrow’s Leaders

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions of this article do not necessarily reflect those of the MAB. Contact the MAB for information on the MAB’s official editorial policy.

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Chris Tarr

By: Chris Tarr, CSRE, DRB, CBNE

Warning: This tactic requires a lot of self-confidence!  It’s an often-used adage: You’re only as good as your team.

The smart managers know this. They hire “A” players, coach them and (if they’re smart) grow them to the point that their employees could replace them. The not-so-smart managers fear this and hire “C” players or – even worse – hire “A” players and hold them back, in the hopes of making themselves look good.

Many years ago, I hired an Engineer for our Madison stations. He was just a kid, but I could tell that not only did he have a strong work ethic, he also had a pretty good head on his shoulders.

Through the years I taught him everything I know – nothing was off-limits or held back. He became extremely valuable to me. I could leave town on vacation or business and not give a second thought to whether or not things got done. They always did. I was diligent about letting him try new things, and often gave him insights into some of the “higher level” duties that I had to take care of in my role.

Then about two years ago, the inevitable happened. He was ready to grow beyond what I could offer him. He received a job offer for a position that was even far ahead of mine.

So, was there jealousy, or resentment on my part? Not at all. I look at that as one of my greatest accomplishments. I helped someone achieve their dream! How many people can say that?

A leader’s role goes far beyond just “getting the job done.” A leader insures that his team is always learning and growing, knowing that the people and the business benefit.

Have you taken the time lately to make sure the people you’re responsible for are growing professionally? It’s one of the best investments you can make!

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Chris Tarr, CSRE, DRB, CBNE is the Director of Technical Operations for Entercom’s Wisconsin stations. He is one of the industry’s biggest evangelists and dedicates himself to helping create great radio.  

Question Everything

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions of this article do not necessarily reflect those of the MAB. Contact the MAB for information on the MAB’s official editorial policy.

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Chris Tarr

By: Chris Tarr, CSRE, DRB, CBNE

I’ve seen a picture floating around the Internet lately – it’s a quote painted in a stairwell that says something along the lines of “The most dangerous words in the language are “We’ve always done it this way.” It’s an interpretation of a quote by Grace Hopper: “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say ‘We’ve always done it that way.’ I try to fight that.”

I like both versions, though I prefer Grace’s version better for several reasons. First, simply because it draws attention to Grace, who was an amazing woman and fellow geek: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_Hopper and, second, because I think it speaks much more directly than the first version.

There was a fundamental shift in my industry about 15-20 years ago. The last generation of Broadcast Engineers were mostly military trained and came from a time when Broadcast standards were much more rigid. Some of the rigidity was necessary due to the broad tolerances of older gear, some if it was due to over-regulation of technical operations by the FCC. Some of it was simply because the Engineers were used to that because of the military. That generation of Engineers started to retire.

I have a deep appreciation for those who came before me. In many ways the job was more difficult – all of that gear needed constant maintenance, and some of those regulations were pretty onerous. However, it did have the effect of creating some very linear thinking. Studios were designed to be very much alike. Design was very utilitarian. There was very little “thinking outside the box”.

Then guys like me came along. I came from the creative side. People like me who may not have been considered for such a job because we “didn’t fit the mold” were now getting hired. It really was necessary, since there was this huge wave of Engineers that were trained in the military who were retiring and there were more jobs opening than people available to fill them. A change in regulations meant that station managers were free to hire whomever they choose to fill those jobs (under the “old rules” the Engineer needed to hold a “First Class” FCC license). It was up to them to determine if the person was qualified or not.

The unexpected side-effect of this change? We began to see some *gasp!* creativity in the industry!

What happened was that people like me began to question the reasoning of utilitarian design. Sure, studios have always been designed the way they were, but why? Yes, we’ve always used miles of cable to run audio, but why not convert that audio to 1’s and 0’s and carry them over a network? All of a sudden we started to question everything.

That’s not to say that we questioned the people who made the decisions. Those that came before us are some of the brightest, most resourceful people I know. They go in my Rolodex under “People smarter than me.” Plus, some things have to be done the way they’ve always been done due to rules and regulations. However, the next generation is working with the FCC to re-think some of that as well.

The changes really benefitted the creatives in the building. For years, anytime an air talent wanted to “color outside the lines” by doing something different on the air, technical restraints created roadblocks. These days, I look at myself as the person who removes those roadblocks so that people can be as creative as they want. Instead of saying “we can’t do that,” it’s “tell me what you want to do, and I’ll get you there.” It has created some very interesting, creative and compelling radio.

It’s easy to default to “we can’t do that”. It’s the easy answer. It’s the fastest way to get on with your day. It’s also the quickest way to achieve adequacy. I choose to elevate everyone around me to “amazing” status by giving them the tools they need to be creative geniuses.

It all starts with a simple statement:

Question everything.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Chris Tarr, CSRE, DRB, CBNE is the Director of Technical Operations for Entercom’s Wisconsin stations. He is one of the industry’s biggest evangelists and dedicates himself to helping create great radio.  

“Because I know it’s There”

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions of this article do not necessarily reflect those of the MAB. Contact the MAB for information on the MAB’s official editorial policy.

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Chris Tarr

By: Chris Tarr, CSRE, DRB, CBNE

There’s a Steve Jobs story that gets passed around quite a bit. It goes back to the days when the Steves (Jobs and Woz) were designing one of the early Apple computers. Steve Jobs kept changing the arrangement of the chips on the motherboard because they didn’t look appealing to him. When asked why he cared so much for something that nobody would ever see, Steve said “Because I know it’s there.”

There is absolutely something to be said for that level of attention to detail. It shows that you don’t want to just get something done, instead you want to get something done right.

In fact, that kind of thinking can extend to relationships as well. Sure, you can ask how a project is going, or you can actually engage and deep-dive into what’s going on in an effort to truly understand how a project is coming along.

In my professional life, I “live that quote.”  I operate several unmanned broadcast sites that most people will never see. Yet, they’re clean, well built and well maintained. Why? Because I know they’re there. When I build relationships with my team, I try to truly understand what their challenges are, because I want to really know what’s there. Even when it comes to my supervisors, I want to understand what their goals are, for the same reasons. It’s only by approaching everything with a high attention to detail that we truly understand what it is we’re dealing with.

Yes, some of that detail is superfluous. Some of that detail won’t move the needle in the grand scheme of things. However, I don’t think those Apple computers would have sold as well had Steve not cared about the layout of the chips. Why? Because that would have meant that he probably didn’t pay attention to the many other “little things” that made the entire experience of owning one of those computers great.

It’s not about the one little thing. It’s about the entire collection of little things as a whole.

Little things make a big difference.

Chris Tarr, CSRE, DRB, CBNE is the Director of Technical Operations for Entercom’s Wisconsin stations. He is one of the industry’s biggest evangelists and dedicates himself to helping create great radio.

Reprinted with permission of the author.  

Editorial: The Looming Engineering Age Crisis

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Chris Tarr

By: Chris Tarr, CSRE, DRB, CBNE

Broadcast companies are standing on the train tracks, watching a train from a mile away making its way towards them. “Boy, that thing’s going to kill us! Should we jump? Should we run? Well, I’m pretty busy…I sure hope someone pushes us out of the way before the train hits us!”

And that’s how the end will be. The surprise? The train isn’t “new media” or the internet.

The train is our inability to act.

There’s something we’ve been talking about in the industry for years – it’s the lack of new Engineering and Technical talent. We all know the problem is there. We know that it’s already a big problem. The issue is we keep waiting for someone to do something about it.

We need to act. We need to do it now.

I know of two small market stations that were off the air for an entire day. One of them was repaired and put back on the air at full power. The other was patched up and ran at 20% power for almost two weeks. How do I know this? Because I’m the reason they were hobbled for so long. You see, I have a full time job managing the technical operations for six large market stations. Those are my primary responsibility. The two small stations have no engineer. The only contract guy in the area retired several years ago. I got a call from the station owner one morning after one of them went off the air. He told me there was nobody else to call. I helped him out, and agreed to do what I could until he found a local engineer. Two years later, he’s still looking. So, when those stations recently went down, they had to sit until I was done with my primary responsibilities and could get them back together. It killed me knowing that this small business owner was losing money and that he had to wait until I could get there.

That story is not unusual. I turn down all but dire emergency work these days. I tell people that I have more money than time. They’re always willing to pay whatever I’d demand, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that I only have so many hours in the day.

So how did we get here? It’s pretty simple, really. Before deregulation, each station (or market AM/FM) had their own engineer. Many of them were radio operators in the military and received excellent training. They came back home and settled in to radio careers. They lived in the back office, fixing cart machines and unclogging toilets. Engineers needed to be licensed, so there were technical schools with training programs turning out newly-minted license holders. Things were good. Then, consolidation and deregulation. Stations no longer needed to have an FCC licensed, full-time engineer on staff. It was left to them to decide what worked best. Soon you had one or two engineers for half the stations in a market. Many engineers used that “opportunity” to retire. Others tried it and simply burned out.

Time marched on and technology improved. Now with today’s tech, it’s not so hard to juggle multiple stations. Sure, we added computers to the mix, but we also added IT staff. The balance shifted – it was no longer enough to know electronics and RF. You needed to know computers and IT. More engineers took this “opportunity” to retire, while many others took on the challenge and learned and grew their skills. Meanwhile, since there was no longer a requirement for engineers to be licensed, the smart schools did a pivot and changed their curriculum from Engineering and Electronics to IT. There was (and is) a huge demand for IT staff, so they followed the money.

For a while, nobody noticed. Many of the retired engineers moved into contract positions, becoming “firemen” who came by whenever things broke. The smaller stations enjoyed the savings, at the expense of the routine maintenance that a full-time engineer provided.

Then, the wheels started to fall off.

A significant portion of those original engineers have either passed on or are well into their 80’s. The younger ones who were still doing contract work are now retiring in staggering numbers. Meanwhile, nobody has been turning out new engineers. The younger guys who were mentored by these original professionals are now getting snapped up by the larger broadcasting companies and are being well compensated in an effort to keep them.

This still leaves a few significant problems. First, the smaller stations can’t afford an experienced engineer. The salary competition can be fierce. Second, the “younger guys” aren’t that young any more. I fall into that category, and I’m 46!

So what do we do?

It’s a multi-faceted problem, but here are the broad strokes. First off, it’s a discipline that few are aware of. You’d be surprised how many people have no clue that there are technical people making the transmitter work. It’s very much “out of sight, out of mind”. So there is a definite “marketing” problem.

Second, and this is a biggie, we compete with just about everyone for talent. Ask yourself – why would you take a job in radio, with 24/7 on-call requirements, lower pay, requests to fix plumbing, etc., when you can be a 9 to 5 desk jockey?

Third is training. How do we teach the next generation the skills that they’ll need? Transmitter and RF basics, radio automation, management…the list goes on. There isn’t much in the way of broadcast engineering training out there.

Finally, there’s the baggage. You likely know what I’m talking about. Broadcast engineers have historically had a (in some cases well deserved) reputation for being the odd guy who works strange hours and acts like a mad scientist. They are often looked at as one notch above the janitor, instead of the technology professional that they are. Look at the companies that “get it” – Emmis’s Paul Brenner who developed NextRadio and iHeartMedia’s Jeff Littlejohn who perfected iHeartRadio. These are engineering professionals who were given a seat at the management table and did big things for their employers. They work for companies that recognize and reward their technical staff the same way they do their sales and programming staff. That’s something that’s very attractive for a young technical professional who is thinking about career paths.

So I’ve laid out some of the issues. Now it’s time to start solving the problem. This isn’t a one person, one organization solution. It’s going to take all of broadcast media’s stakeholders working together to make it happen. I envision manufacturers teaching courses (I got a lot out of Harris’s “Broadcast Technology Training Center” back in the day), organizations like SBE, NAB and state broadcast associations recruiting and promoting, broadcast companies taking a hard look at how they handle their technical staff and we as engineers making sure that we continue to do our best to bring value to the table for our employers. We all need to put our heads together and come up with a coordinated effort, working in concert to open up the pipeline to recruit and retain technical talent.

Otherwise the next time a station goes off the air, it may be forever.

Have a suggestion or an idea to help raise awareness within the industry? You can contact me at chris@tarr.cc.

Chris Tarr, CSRE, DRB, CBNE is the Director of Technical Operations for Entercom’s Wisconsin stations. He is one of the industry’s biggest evangelists, and dedicates himself to helping create great radio.

The piece originally appeared on RadioInsight.com and has been reprinted with permission of the author.