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.  

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