Editorial: There’s a Crisis Coming in Broadcasting, and It’s Not What You Think

Munday_300By: Sherrod Munday, VP Engineering, Sky Angel  

At the recent National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show in Las Vegas, again this year, it was really exciting to see the new technology that broadcasters can use to deliver their content to the public.  Likewise, there certainly was no shortage of keynote speakers like NAB’s President and CEO Gordon Smith who proudly proclaimed the ongoing importance of conventional broadcasting via the airwaves, and the benefits of “localism” that radio and television broadcasters bring to their communities.

The large number of conventional broadcasters – and the companies that service them – who were present and active at the NAB show spoke to the ongoing relevance of conventional broadcasting.  As Smith noted in his opening remarks at the beginning of the NAB show, broadcasting most certainly is and will continue to play an incredibly important societal role to educate, inform, report relevant news, and warn the public of urgent danger.  Ben Sherwood, president of Disney-ABC Television Group, also reminded NAB attendees that the $1.4 Trillion USD of economic benefit and 2.65 million U.S. jobs attributed in 2015 to broadcasting cannot be ignored.

In spite of the diverse benefits and strengths provided by broadcasting, however, many serious threats to the existence of broadcasting could significantly and adversely impact the wellbeing and sustainability of broadcasting as a public service and as a business in the not-so-distant future.

It’s not an unfamiliar list of threats – indeed, most of these threats have been well known and discussed for years now, even at the NAB show itself:

  • Online streaming services like Pandora and Spotify
  • On-demand content like podcasts and video-on-demand providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video
  • Increased governmental oversight and regulations
  • Higher licensing fees
  • Ease of public access to illegally copied content like recent movies and music
  • The generational shifts to alternate sources of news and entertainment

…and the list goes on…

But, even while pundits, analysts, prognosticators, and business executives debate what to do about these types of problems, they’re missing one of the biggest threats to their existence.  It’s like the Biblical “log in your own eye” problem – they’re so focused on external threats to their existence and sustainability that they completely miss the primary weakness from within their organization.

The classic “SWOT” chart, commonly used in business management courses, reminds reminds astute business leaders to look at their business with an eye toward two opposed pairs of interrelated issues: things that can help their company versus things that can hurt their company, and things that are external versus internal.  Yes, broadcasters have plenty of Strengths and Opportunities that can help their business.  And, yes, there are some pretty well known Threats like the ones listed above that really could hurt their business.  But it seems like the broadcasting business isn’t really willing to talk about their own Weaknesses that could hurt them.

Or, maybe it’s even worse than that: maybe they don’t even recognize that they have weaknesses.

And to paraphrase the venerable Yoda from the movie Star Wars: “Hurt them badly, those Weaknesses could.

Anyone who has spent their career in broadcast engineering will readily recognize and has likely already witnessed the ongoing crisis getting worse and worse as time progresses.  The Titanic’s side has been ripped open under the waterline, and just like the captain of that doomed ship, the management in the broadcasting business just hasn’t recognized the severity of the problem or done anything intentional and methodical to mitigate and solve it.

You’re wondering: what could be more dangerous to broadcasting than threats like those listed above?  Those sure sound like the doomsday forecast for broadcasting, don’t they?

Consider instead the following single internal weakness for a moment, and ponder its significance compared and contrasted against external threats like those listed above:

  • No qualified engineering staff to keep the facility on-the-air

It’s a short list, indeed, but think about it again for a minute.

Without someone who knows the current broadcast technology and equipment and how to install, configure, maintain, and repair it, can your broadcast facility and operation stay on the air for very long?  Can it make any money if your transmitter is down?  Can your station warn the public of a public emergency when the new-fangled IP-based STL that some consultant said would save the company a bunch of money goes down or starts dropping IP packets and nobody knows how to fix it – or even where to start looking?

That may seem a bit overdramatic, but it’s really not.

You see, the coming crisis in broadcasting is the lack of qualified people interested in getting into broadcast engineering, coupled with the current generation of engineers coming ever-closer to retirement.  At this year’s NAB, many first-hand stories about this crisis were shared between friends and acquaintances, and surely many more such stories are regularly lamented at SBE meetings all across the nation – and probably all around the world, too.

It’s likely that most of the current engineers who attended this year’s NAB show probably know more than one engineer who soon plans to retire. One engineer’s story told of a recent SBE meeting in Michigan where a guest speaker was dumbfounded to realize that nearly every single SBE member present in the room was planning to retire within the next 5-8 years.  Another engineer from a major national radio network mentioned that their senior engineers have all announced or are all planning retirement within the next year or two. And the stories like this go on and on…

But the real problem is that nobody is coming up behind them to replace the retiring engineers.

You see, broadcast engineering just doesn’t hold the glamour it used to in the older days before the recent explosion of technology over the past two decades.  Computers, programming, IT jobs, etc. are now “all the rage” among college graduates.  Oh, sure, there are some young people interested in broadcasting – but when they find out how much it pays versus the starting salary for other technical jobs like computer programming, broadcasting doesn’t stand a chance.

We shouldn’t be hearing of stories of station groups wanting to hire an experienced engineer to maintain three full-time stations for a paltry $30,000 to $40,000 salary, yet most broadcast engineers probably have a first- or second-hand horror story just like that to share.  Aren’t the stations’ annual revenues worth more than that?  How much is your downtime worth per hour – or per minute?  Can you really afford to not have a highly trained engineering team on staff to keep your stations on the air?

But let’s go back to where this article started: the first sentence hinted at one of the key underlying problems.  It’s the new technology.  Yes, it’s that same new technology that lets us see amazing “4k” pictures on our televisions and be wowed by their clarity and crispness.  It’s the same technology that lets us set up an unattended radio automation system that runs 24x7x365 without a live person in front of it.  It’s the same technology that allows our websites to show “Now Playing” data for what’s airing real-time from our automation system.  It’s the same technology that allows us to reduce our operational costs by 50% and increase capacity by 100% every couple years.

You see, those same new technologies that provide so many benefits also create a need for entirely new skill sets among the engineering staff, and those new skills make the engineers more valuable than in days gone by – if the engineers possess and master those skills.   But the problems go deeper than that: some really great broadcast engineers with decades of experience just can’t grasp the new technologies or learn them fast enough (or find enough time) to keep up.  Worse yet, some engineers simply don’t want to learn anything new and would rather instead just rest on their laurels from their analog glory days (telling everyone how good analog is, and how easy it is to troubleshoot and maintain).

The problems spread to other departments, too: How many of you have heard an IT department employee or director emphatically state that they aren’t going to support anything (especially computers) that pertains to on-air broadcast equipment?  Or, how many of you have heard of the IT department trying to handle the always-on 24×7 broadcast department’s on-air IT needs as if they were no different or more important than a normal office worker’s complaint about a sticky key on their keyboard?

These fundamental problems have come to a crisis point.  Broadcasting companies both small and large need to understand that the entire engineering department needs new skills to stay competitive and keep the station on the air.  We need to realize that all broadcast engineering positions should – and already do – require hybridized skill sets encompassing both the conventional engineering practices and the IT practices.  It’s simply not possible or practical anymore to have completely distinct and separate IT and broadcast engineering departments and expect them to each stay out of the other’s “turf” or territory.  It’s impossible to treat either one as more important than the other; they are equals and inextricably linked and interdependent in the modern broadcast facility, and each department needs to have an excellent working knowledge of the other’s equipment, needs, and areas of responsibilities.  There’s simply no place for animosity or ignorance between the two departments anymore.

The Bottom Line

For those managers who skip the bulk of most reports and proposals and simply look down to the end to find out how much it’s going to cost and ask, “What does this mean for our bottom line, and what’s the benefit from this expense?” this part is for you.

As with any job in any business, hiring for increased skill sets, training, and retaining highly qualified employees will obviously cost the business more money.  But the coming crisis of the high numbers of retiring broadcast engineers and the low interest among qualified potential candidates to replace those engineers who are leaving leaves little alternative but to take a long, serious look at compensations that will be good enough to attract new talent into the business and retain key employees who may already possess the requisite skills.

Additionally, it’s critical that management recognize that it will also cost them some money to ensure their engineering staff continues to learn throughout their career.  Yes, engineers should personally be motivated to acquire new skills to stay relevant, but management shouldn’t be at all hesitant to pay for training that will directly benefit their operations and help keep the facility technically modern.

Training isn’t just an expense: it’s an investment – both into the employee (who will surely be grateful for the training) and for the company (which gets the tangible benefit of keeping the facility on the air).  If your station doesn’t have a regular recurring budget  line item for training (or “continuing education”), it should.  It will prove to be worth its weight many times over in the long run.

We all have to do something to ensure that broadcasting can overcome this personnel crisis, and the time for that action is now.  There isn’t a “quick fix” available, and this isn’t a one-time thing, either: it will require a change of mindset and paradigm all the way from the junior engineering staff up through the most senior management and the C-level.

It may sound like a cliché, but it can’t be denied: The future of broadcasting depends on you making these changes, whether you’re an engineer or in station management.  It’s time to make changes – together.

==============

Copyright 2016
Sherrod Munday
smunday@ieee.org

Sherrod Munday currently serves as VP Engineering for Sky Angel, a 3-channel TV network found on Dish Network.  His experience includes full-time and consulting engineering in both TV and Radio, delivering live and preproduced content over the air, via satellite syndication, and directly to consumers across the Internet.  You may reach him at smunday@ieee.org.

Reprinted with permission.

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

11 thoughts on “Editorial: There’s a Crisis Coming in Broadcasting, and It’s Not What You Think”

  1. I’d like to expand on one of your points above. “lack of qualified people interested in getting into broadcast engineering”. Add to that “lack of qualified people interested in STAYING in broadcast engineering”. I’ve been an engineer on both the TV and radio side for the past 25 years. 10 years ago, I left corporate radio to form my own consulting firm. Now, after 25 years, if you had a problem I couldn’t fix, I knew someone who would. But after 10 years of owners/managers trying to talk me down in price and playing games with my invoices, I’d had enough and got my real estate license. I actually had an owner tell me he was replacing me for “a guy at church who knows computers”. That’s cool, when your “church guy”, can’t figure out why your AM transmitter suddenly won’t load into your directional antenna before a sold out high school basket ball game, don’t call me. I had three closings this week making 10 times what you wanted to pay me and now I’m taking the weekend off. Yes, this problem is internal, and it’s squarely at the feet of those who think they can hire “some church guy” to work on RF systems.

  2. BRAVO!!! This has been my mantra for the past 10 years or so. Looking over my shoulder wondering who is going to do this or that as many of us ‘fade’ out of the workforce.

    In the spirit of mikeroweWorks… there IS a need for TECH in thousands of very real hands-on jobs. I’m working toward evolving that people/skills/jobs evolution and continuation.

    “We need to talk…”

  3. There’s a whole different set of problems for us local mom and pop operations (yes, there are still a few of us around). We can’t afford a fulltime engineer but still have to stay with the new technologies to remain competitive. I am co-owner/engineer so the problem isn’t quite as bad in our operation as it is in some. I feel the pain of those operators who are having a hard time finding ANY engineer at all to help them out.

    1. Not directing this at your situation Maynard but as an operator in general… the cost of keeping their technology up and running should not come as a surprise when your business depends on it so heavily. If they can’t afford to maintain their station correctly then l would imagine there are other things not getting done well either. That’s when you evaluate your ability to stay in business. An Engineer’s worth should not be discounted because an operator can not afford them. They have families to raise and dreams of their own. This idea that they should be benevolent “do gooders” “for the love of radio” has got to stop.

  4. One point. It isn’t just broadcast engineers leaving. It is technical people of all kinds who are underpaid and undervalued & walking away. The idea that I.T. people are well paid is crap. Very few are. The last time they were paid appropriately was in the early 1980s. When I became interested in computers and taught myself to program in 3 languages (including assembly) while under 16, software people earned a lot. By the time I graduated with a degree in the mid 80s there were very few I.T. jobs and I worked at Jack in the Box. By 1990 most I.T. people were lower middle class while being expected to work 70 hour weeks (without reporting the time). I would have made more money as a plumber. Until I went into I.T. contracting for the use of my services, my hours were terrible and my pay was mediocre. Had those old 1982 levels of pay, kept up with the cost of living & how much I had to learn every month to stay employable, a person with my abilities would make about 300k a year. We don’t. The people in sales and marketing make the big money. The upper management makes most of it for going to meetings were nothing useful happens. There is a massive shortage of engineers of all types. A lot of highly qualified people quit and do other things because they are overworked and underpaid. I have yet to see an upper managerial, marketing or sales position I could not do a better job at than the “wunderkind” in the suits who get paid to sit in meetings. That is not an unusual opinion. A lot of us DID do those same jobs (plus the I.T. work) in “start ups”. We know overpaid people when we see them.

    1. Pretty much the same point I was making, Ken. Good people are leaving because management sees us as “disposable” like the rest of the departments. The problem is, when you are off the air, and none of the people in the “disposable” departments can figure it out, you have nobody left to turn to for help. We’ve moved on and have no desire to come back and help you for $20 an hour.

  5. Handwriting on the wall. After two decades of doing what I had dreamed about as a teenager I got out. Sailed in the Merchant Marine as a Radio Electronics Officer and made as much in six months as I had been earning in a full year. Exactly NO exaggeration in that statement. I did try again for 18 months at WTIC when the sailing gig ended but it had actually gotten worse. The same old pay scale and the ever growing ego and condescending attitude of the “morning personality”. In the late eighties when I was making 15 or 16 dollars an hour and station management would not blink an eye at paying an HVAC company $150 an hour to fix the air conditioning unit on the roof (right next the the STL link) I knew their thinking was inverted. I’m sure the proportions probably still hold true and now the guys are supporting three and four stations. I doubt they ever get a full nights sleep. I ended my career with a fixed wireless remote metering data company managing five technicians making a decent salary. I never again looked back. My only regret was that my adolescent dream had been so thoroughly destroyed.

  6. Truth is, advances in technology *are* making traditional broadcasting worth less and less to the audience, and the industry’s historical and current resistance *to* those advances have resulted in both a lack of interest in ALL broadcasting jobs across the board. How excited have the most recent two generations been about getting into radio? How many of them have wanted to be TV journalists? Do you see the demand for broadcasting programs increasing at colleges across the country? No, you don’t. Why? Because broadcasting rejected everything after Generation X. They’re leaving US because WE left THEM. And now we’re paying the price.

    Welcome to the 21st Century.

  7. The year I was born, my dad got into broadcast engineering. He worked for a local radio station for decades and later worked at the corporate level for one of the then big “Group”s. In 1983 he brought home an IBM PC junior he bought on credit… It was not cheap. He sat me in front of it and, at 15 years old, he told me to learn this. “This is the future”. I did. My dad retired from radio just a few years ago. I have been in IT in some capacity for the last 30+ years. My dad’s desire for me was not to have me grow up to be a radio engineer. Want to know why? Because the stress and aggravation that comes with working for cheap, money grubbing, unappreciative suits (like Cumulus and all her step sisters) is not worth it. I grew up in that environment. I grew up with a dad who had a pager strapped to his side at all times. The only other of my friends who knew what that was like had dads who were doctors. I guarantee you they were living much larger. Cancelled vacations. Missed football games. Fatigued father decompressing at the kitchen table all par for the course. Yeah… I gave radio a try… I was one of the first truly IT only guys in radio. The first in our corporation to be called IT manager. Automation forced the station to hire an IT guy. They had to increase the Chief Engineer’s salary (a guy who had been there for years) in order to keep me on staff because IT guys made that much more than them. That meant that I made as much as the Chief Engineer and that still was not much. And everyone at corporate acted like they had just cured cancer by paying engineers higher salaries. When I found myself not seeing my kids much and wearing a pager in a plastic bag in my pocket at the neighborhood pool, I realized this was not for me. I did start my own business and have time for my family now. Those radio days were great days. Not because of what my corporate employers made them, but by what those hard working “do anything” radio engineers made them. If you want to fix radio in general… Regulate it like the old days and get rid of corporate hoarding of stations. Broadcast engineers can’t continue to be the only engineer in the office AND be supporting 7 stations. You want more broadcast engineers in the industry? Stop telling yourself that you got into radio engineering for the “love” of the business. Stop letting corporate walk all over you. Put your foot down and demand more money, more resources, and a decent staff. How the heck are we to get new engineers when the chief engineer is the only engineer? Who is grooming the next generation?

  8. I started into radio broadcast engineering in 1987, and by 1992 I was working as a full-time contract engineer. I also worked in industrial electronics, doing on-site repair work and circuit design, which made more money for me than broadcasting. For me, broadcasting was more interesting. By 1995, I was repairing broadcasting equipment as well. All of this together made a full-time job. By 2001, the industrial business had fallen of due to plant closings. Changes in technology wiped out the business of repairing RPU equipment, and the quantity of STL repair work decreased.
    When the economy gets bad, consumers cannot purchase as much, and businesses roll back on advertising. This leads to broadcasters having less money to pay for broadcasting engineering services. So, my work situation just kept on going downhill along with the economy. Often I could not get paid, and some of the broadcasters were just plain crooks, cowards, and liars. The ones that did pay were real gentlemen will always remain my friends.
    Ultimately, I got out of full-time broadcasting, my wife having been constantly on my back about the hours and lack of income. I needed to guarantee that I could provide for my family into the future.
    I took a job with the government. The government job has a guaranteed paycheck, and some decent benefits, but the pay is not there either. The first day on the job, I felt out of place and did not want to be there. I still feel that way, after many years on the job. I am extremely tired of the job and I want out, thinking constantly about going back to full-time broadcasting. I am in a supervisory position, which helps keep me from being totally bored, but there is no technical challenge. The government system has my hands tied in a number of ways, which creates a lot of stress and headache. Creativity is also hard to use within this government sphere, and having always been creative, this drives me nuts.
    My test equipment, inventory, electronics library, and other things are just sitting idle. It pains me that my life’s work, investment, and ambition has been wiped out. I see stations that need engineering work done very badly, but cannot or will not pay for it. I think constantly about the joy I experienced in working with real electronic equipment. But I am also glad to get away from the income problems that broadcasting gave me.
    Then there is the cheap broadcasting gear that has appeared and flooded the market. Apparently there is so much competition that manufacturers try to sell their products by adding hi-tech features, but to do this they cut corners and leave off important things in the RF domain of engineering design. The products do not last long, are difficult or impossible to repair, and are missing traditional features an engineer needs to do his job correctly. The Harris DAX transmitter is an example. That one turned me from Harris after a long relationship.
    Throughout history, professions have come and gone, old ones disappear, and new ones are created. I just wish I had not been caught in between two of them. I do not mind learning the IT stuff, but for me, it is boring when compared with electronic circuitry and working with big systems and equipment.

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