RADIO REDUX—WHITHER TOMORROW’S BROADCAST ENGINEER?
Well, here we are in the new millenium, and everything technical is supposed to be better. All our stations are automated; the cartridge machines have all disappeared. Commercial audio files automatically arrive in our e-mail baskets, as if by magic. If we desired, we could burn the files onto audio CD’s, full broadcast quality, which would last for a century or so, for about a buck per CD. Unbelievable!
Come to think about it, what exactly do we mean by “broadcast quality?” The phrase used to mean high quality, built to last, and usually, expensive. Nowadays, “consumer quality” is often higher than “broadcast quality.” But that’s okay, it’s happening everywhere: a quality timepiece used to connote high quality workmanship, as well as accuracy. Nowadays a $40.00 Timex probably keeps time as well as that Rolex you’ve always wanted. Let’s face it: our old quest for high quality technical standards, that used to burn up all of our engineer’s waking working hours, has largely been reached: high quality audio and video can be almost trivial in the digital age.
Yet technical people are more overworked than ever. The cartridge machines disappeared, but in each one’s place up sprouted half a dozen PC’s. At most stations, the engineer is now much more involved in programming and operating the radio station, because of the intricacies of the automation system. Meanwhile, the transmitter site has not gone away, though it is much more likely to be ignored while the engineer edits the day’s logs, or tries to figure out why the automation insists on crashing each Tuesday morning at . The reliability of equipment may have improved, but the station engineer seems to be more essential than before. And harder to replace.
Curiously, it’s not the new skills that are hard to cover: there are, perhaps not lots, but there are some computer-literate potential radio station workers around. But as colleges and technical schools have increasingly focussed on information technology, RF and component-level troubleshooting skills have gotten progressively less attention. It’s surprising to many to realize that broadcasting is one of the few remaining areas of electronics where technicians are expected to troubleshoot right down to the component. We live in an age where most electronic devices are more economically repaired by swapping whole circuit boards. And while that’s certainly true of PC’s, broadcast consoles and transmitters are mostly too expensive to be repaired that way. Component-level troubleshooting and repair is an art all of its own—an art at which fewer, as the years progress, will be adept. Broadcasters hastened the attrition by largely eliminating assistant engineer positions throughout the eighties and nineties. Now the chief engineers are starting to reach retirement age, and the skill shortage is becoming more apparent to all.
What to do? Well, we should start by encouraging young technicians to enter broadcasting. The field offers challenging work that is far more varied than most technical employment. And maybe it’s time to increase the number of technicians on staff—if they’re so busy, perhaps increasing their number will help improve their lot. Frankly, it’s probably the only way to create an entry-level job in broadcast engineering today. And without entry-level technical jobs, there will be no new broadcast technicians.
Dan Roach works at S.W.Davis
Broadcast Technical Services Ltd., a contract engineering firm based in