Question Everything

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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.  

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