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The Looming Engineering Age Crisis

Guest Blog Insight ColumnBroadcast 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 staffs. 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 staffs, 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 [email protected].

Profile photo of Chris Tarr
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.

20 Comments

  1. Profile photo of wndhh1


    I think the engineering crisis is the fault of deregulation and the state of radio in general. Owners simply do not want to pay to have engineers. As an engineer, you get tired of not getting paid by cheap owners!

  2. Profile photo of Craig Knickerbocker


    I just retired at 63 from working in a 2-way radio shop. We did do some work for a local 2-FM , 1AM station on occasion. But I can tell you some of the observations you made with broadcast also are true with the land mobile industry. My employer had a hard time finding a replacement for me and began training installers to do RF. No one is taking up RF much any more. They all want IT where there are more opportunities. You mentioned about not wanting to be on call, the same is true about land mobile. The company I worked for had contracts with several public safety agencies, a good many times the phone rang at 2 in the morning. If it was strictly an 8-5 , M-F job, I probably would have stayed longer.

  3. Profile photo of 1994acbs


    hi Chris
    yes i can relate to the demise of engineers.
    My forte working with high powered transmitters ranging from 1mW to 2.6GW (yes 2.6 Giga watts as used in OTHR) all computer controlled multiple switched log perodics.
    in that time we were also at same time employed by BAE Systems on Computer main frame/pc, Optical fiber, antennae, FM, MF, TV, HF with 24 call outs. I retired and left it to one guy with his wife as safety person (dealing with 25Kv) and 1 year later she suffered a heart attack lugging batteries up a hill in 110deg heat.
    since then ive moved on working around the world on paper banging on UN and Aid jobs. Now happily retired.
    cheers from Brian in Oz

  4. Profile photo of james flinn


    Wow! Great article! I’ve been saying this for years and years as I’ve watched the radio engineering community get destroyed by cheap radio owners. If you listen to radio and you hear badly produced ads, crappy drop in voices between songs saying “WXYZ, You’re Home Town Station”, wrong weather reports and no LOCAL morning show, then you’re listening to a station owned by a cheap (probably sales only) radio owner.

    I’m one of those engineers that has been treated like crap over the years by these loser owners. They call begging you to fix their crap after years on neglect and not listening to you. Then refuse to pay you after you’ve provided the work and got them back on the air. It sucks!!!

    I’m currently building food warming equipment in Wisconsin and pretty much hate my job. I miss radio and engineering but I don’t miss the headaches dealing with cheap owners. If I knew I could make a decent living with benefits touring the state fixing transmitters, I’d be gone in a heartbeat and back on the road.

  5. Profile photo of wattsup


    Excellent article Chris. It may be of interest to note that the SBE has recently launched a mentorship program. As a board member, I worked with the SBE’s Education Director and another board member to bring this to reality. Time will tell if it is effective. Regards, Eric

  6. Profile photo of wichitapc


    So the bigger question looms… Who does do RF training these days? I’m a station owner (under construction) who does have a contract engineer on standby, and I an IT person (which is where I make my money). I’m covered on the IT and audio side of the business, but once the programming leaves the audio processor, I’m out. If I found somebody and tried to steer them in that direction (RF Engineering), where would that direction be? My engineer fits the age criteria above… So I’m sooner or later going to be in the same boat as everyone else. Thoughts?

  7. Profile photo of Woof!


    I agree. But sometimes stations are ignorant to their own issues. Take Cumulus… One market refuses to get and keep their own power generator. That is for all 8 stations in the market. So it’s not the schools or schedules, or even the Engineers/IT guys at all. Sometimes, it’s station managers.

  8. Profile photo of eefunk


    Our small market station has two engineers under 50 yrs old. Although, that’s because we are RF design engineers full time and own/run the FM on the side. We charge way more for the most simple RF Design work than we can charge for broadcast engineering consulting. And that, I suspect, partially explains the shortage. In addition, when it comes to radio, FCC regs seem lost in the past. There’s a refusal to truly address the AM band shortcomings and we have the technically flawed IBOC system. There isn’t much appeal to working on this old and flawed tech., when an engineer could otherwise work on the more advanced technologies in the wireless industry.

  9. Profile photo of Chris Tarr


    Wattsup: I was on the board years ago, and we were talking about it then. My concern is that while an internship program is nice, if a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound? 🙂 Basically, if there are few young people aware of Engineering, there won’t be anyone to mentor.

    Wichitapc: That’s the million dollar question. Very little infrastructure exists to train new Engineers. I do have a few ideas I’ll be presenting as a way to start the brainstorming.

    As I alluded to in the article, we’re in kind of a “chicken and egg” situation. We need to find training, and we need to find entry level jobs that can pay a living wage. The current way of doing things won’t support either one. So, we’ll have to come together a bit to pool resources.

    Great discussion everyone!

  10. Profile photo of themaiz


    Chris, well done. And by the way: this is global. Little by little, business pressures, improved technology, changing operational models, belief that everything is IT, and any number of other factors have led to decimation of the technologist ranks, and killing of education systems.

    Chris is right about needing to do something, but it takes more than even identifying the need and a solution. The people who pay the bills need to feel enough pain, and enough pain beyond their own shop, that they are motivated to take a whole-of-industry view – and then DO something. Or at least support those who want to do something.

    In 2006 I pulled together a cross-industry group of colleagues to address this in Australia. We created Media Industry Technologist Certification. The concept we used: when education is broken, qualifications regarded as irrelevant, and licensing requirements absent, there are no motivators to get people onto the pathway. So create one. The SBE Certification system has a lot going for it, and the incentive of “certified preferred” in job ads does lead to a quest for knowledge. Our logic for MITC was to kick-start the system by creating a vacuum through a broad industry-based certification scheme. Job specs which prefer certified candidates, certification which can be given to anyone who proves they have the knowledge, leading to a demand for knowledge delivery.. and then a miracle happens and the education system revives. Maybe. At least it was a track where nobody was waiting for the chickens or eggs.

    We did pretty well, and the process we created was a whole heap of good things. What we missed was commitment by the people who pay the bills. Well that, and something that technologists aren’t good at: marketing! The best mousetrap languishes until someone sells it.

    Anyway, the MITC process sits right now waiting for a new lease of life. So Chris, if there’s a groundswell to do something about education and training, count me in. And I can still point to others who are interested. Meanwhile, we’re doing a little bit here in Australia with the technologists who support community radio: check http://www.technorama.org.au

    John

  11. Profile photo of bspain


    I recently retired from the broadcast industry, and might do some contract work, if I could get some assurance of payment for services rendered. There are too many low pay, slow pay, no pay licensees out there. During my last 12 years, I was the c.e. for a group of stations, and occasionally did some contract work for stations that were off the air. There is no reason to mentor young engineers for low paying RF jobs, when they can make real money in IT. A friend of mine has a 2 way shop he has been trying to sell for several years, and he also can’t afford to pay a wage that would induce young techs to enter that business.

  12. Profile photo of scottcason


    Hey! I was finally able to log in. The issue Chris is missing in his article is cheap owners not willing to pay for good service. I’ve been in radio since I was 13 years old, contracting for the last 13 years. I can’t tell you the number of clients I’ve lost in my contracting work because the owner “knows a computer guy at church” who charges a LOT less than I do. Eventually the AMs that the “computer guy” takes care of stop changing antenna patterns (conveniently they get “stuck” on daytime), his FMs suddenly get really loud and distorted and all his tower lights either burn out and cease to function, or they get stuck on during the day and night wasting electricity. These cheap owners think they are saving money because they are paying their “computer guy” $15 an hour, but fail to see the lost listeners because they can’t stand how his station sounds anymore, or after getting a visit from an FCC field agent, suddenly all that money he has saved now has to go to fines because his “computer guy” didn’t know FCC rules and regulations and how to keep the stations operating within them. Guys like me move onto other money making ventures. Now, I’m very selective on who I do contract work for. And I DON’T answer my phone after 11 pm or on weekends unless it’s someone I already have a relationship with. The small time broadcasters complaining about not being able to find good engineers? You can start by looking in the mirror to find your problem.

  13. Profile photo of bmaks47


    This problem was a lunch topic 20 years ago with my buddy. We were contract engineers and had no trainees or people interested in the job. All we were looking for was a person who could work on studio, transmitter, STL, microwave & towers – oh and be on call 24/7 – 365. Did I mention pay & trying to collect it. OH and computer/ network experience.
    Working 9/5 in a nice clean office was a lot nicer and payed better. Had a station – off the air – and got them on the air, that nite, took 3 months to be paid. (And a lot of angst)

  14. Profile photo of panama jack


    I find it odd that nothing much has changed in the Radio engineering department. I saw the same horse-hockey during my years in the biz; the least-appreciated were the engineers (after the DJ’s of course). I was PD and GSM for one station running on a parts-stripped backup TX that was missing the side panels and back doors. The neighborhood rats had the habit of crawling in and shorting it out, always at 2 or 3 AM, and since we had a contract engineer who hadn’t been paid, I had to drag my ass up the mountain fire road to replace the fuses and power it back up. I always respected the engineers and tried to learn from them; it’s a miracle I didn’t get electrocuted.

  15. Profile photo of slick


    I’ve always shadowed engineers: I hold the flashlight, and they explain stuff…

    Back in the early 1980s, I was on-air at KIKX/Tucson. Before it went dark, the GM asked if I might be interested in having the company pay for my training…and after, I accept a contract as one of their engineers. The company never followed through.

    After hiring me AFNI, AOL, and Microsoft paid for my training (in addition to financially supporting my furthering of industry related education)…so I worked for them…

  16. Profile photo of saladressing


    One solution as the best at what you do is to demand payment up front, even at 2AM. They don’t pay, their station stays off the air or they can try to find an inferior engineer.

    • Profile photo of scottcason


      They will find an inferior engineer….in the mean time, you are still up at 2am dealing with them. Nope, I refuse to do that anymore.

  17. Profile photo of tripinva


    As one of the very few people under 30 who is interested in broadcast (albeit on the TV side), I can tell you that money is definitely one of the biggest reasons for the issue, at least for me. I truly wouldn’t mind learning more about the nuts and bolts (if I knew where to get such knowledge) if there was the expectation that the money would be there at the end. I make significantly more money sitting at a desk with relatively fixed hours than I think I would as a field technician/engineer with relatively unsteady hours (and I do TV broadcast-related work, not even IT). If that’s somehow not the case, then the perception is definitely out there that there’s no money in it.

    If they want people to do the work, then they have to pay a competitive rate, especially if the hours are questionable. And hearing the horror stories here about people who won’t (or can’t) pay doesn’t make it any more attractive; I hadn’t even thought of that.

  18. Profile photo of radio wraith


    If radio stations were again required to have a First Class operator on staff, and if that person were required to spend ‘X’ number of hours per week with the transmitters, there would be far fewer emergency calls.
    For too many years owners have combined the engineer who handles the transmitters, the studio engineer who takes care of studio equipment, the IT person, and the janitor into one position at the janitor’s salary.

  19. Profile photo of missraadio


    I too started in radio as a “studio rat” at 14. Learned all I could. Went to a school for First and built my first FM at 21. Seat of my pants then (1971) but it stayed on the air and sounded great. Fast forward thru other industries and re-entered radio in 2005 for major NYC co. Two consolidations and 11 years later, I am on the sidelines. Too much hassle, small-mid markets run so tight they most often cannot afford a “good, full-time” engineer. With the slow death of small market AM, it gets worse. I was fortunate to have few GREAT mentors over the years from that first FM to present day. Less is more now, and it just isn’t as much fun, but still I love it and would answer a call (but not at 2am).

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