I've been thinking about the number of times in the last few years that we've seen a complete new technology that has come along and shaken up the familiar.  A statement like that demands an example.  Let's take microphones: there was a time when, if you wanted a high-quality microphone for broadcast or recording work, it would be a velocity microphone with a ribbon inside.  Something along the lines of a 77DX or even a Model 44.  Mics for rugged applications would always be dynamic.  Then along came the condenser mic, in large element configurations for high-end work (Neumann and AKG, among others), and low-cost electret versions (e.g. Sony) for portable use.  This led to the almost instant demise of the ribbon mic, primarily because the ribbons were always fragile (ask anyone who has ever blown into a ribbon mic), while the large element condensers seem to take a lot of abuse and retain their original specs.  But the high cost of the condenser mics meant that there was still market room for the dynamics.


Something snapped a few years ago, however.  Several new mic manufacturers came on the scene (Connaught Labs, and later, Rode), and whether through new manufacturing processes, or aggressive marketing, they drove down the price of the big condenser mics dramatically.  In an interesting marketing move, AKG introduced a bunch of new condensers at low prices, while keeping their traditional lines at the old prices.  And cost-cutters like Behringer appeared, and now nobody seems to know what anything is worth in the mic field.  Ribbon models are long gone, and now maybe the dynamics are headed in the same direction.  Who can tell?


Another example would be in video camera technology.  From image orthicon to vidicon to plumbicon, each generation was a further refinement in camera tube technology, each building on prior experience with camera tubes.  Then along came the CCD, and ten years later, they don't even make plumbicons anymore.


In 1975, every newsroom had a Model 26 Teletype, soon to be replaced by an Extel printer (first application I ever saw of the Intel 4004 processor), receiving five-level Baudot code via 20mA current loop from the local CNCP Telecommunications office.  (Talk about obsolescence--every noun in the last sentence except for "newsroom" is a thing of the past!)  Of course the teletype printed everything that came over the wire, and each printer used up a jumbo roll of newsprint (and a couple of ribbons) every day or so.  Incredible waste!  Every couple of months, the newsroom would press all hands into lugging the next truckload of teletype rolls up into the newsroom.


Well, we did the best we could, without PC's and hard drives, with our Olympia manual typewriters and stacks of carbon paper.  And, of course, our cart machines….


From tubes to transistors to VLSI, from carts to hard drives, from the telecine chain and the film gate to the latest server, by way of quad-head and helical VCRs and a bewildering variety of tape formats, we've embraced and later discarded more disparate technologies than we can shake a stick at.  And what are we left with: a microphone, a chunk of cat 5e cable and an IP address. 


And a transmitter. 


For the moment.


The struggle to remain relevant, in an age when every teenager has his own radio station on iPod in his shirt pocket, and a home PC can store, edit and forward a week's worth of video (with or without the commercials), is the eight-hundred-pound gorilla that the programming department needs to take on and wrestle to the floor.


The way to remain sane, in engineering, is to recognize that, whether we're talking about radio or television, it's all about the programming.  It always has been.


And as station engineers, it's our job to provide the interface between the creative force of the programming department and the now-almost-constant paradigm shifts wrought by evolving technology.  To absorb the jolts of change and translate them into symbols that a programmer can (perhaps) understand.


May we live in interesting times!