By Thomas R. Ray, III CPBE, AMD, DRB
Tom Ray Consulting
NEW YORK — Around Labor Day, I wrote an article that asked, “Where have all the broadcast engineers gone?” I was inundated with responses, which is why it has taken me so long to write a follow up article. Obviously, I hit a nerve with everyone. I have heard from Australia, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Ireland. Obviously, this is a universal topic and I have been overwhelmed. That, and I’ve been working on a large project with not much time to put electrons to the screen.
Additionally, I was both surprised and not surprised at the bitterness in many of the responses. Broadcast engineers are a unique group. It’s difficult, though not impossible, to find a more dedicated group of people in any business. We take it personally. The station becomes part of us and is what we do. And once that is disrupted, even if the person is in a much better place, it is taken personally. I can relate.
The first topic most writers hit was the subject of pay. Broadcast engineers do a lot. We need a skill set that is much broader in scope than needed for the vast majority of businesses – heck, when I tell people I repair transmitters from the 1950s through today – a huge technology difference – they generally look at me wide eyed and with mouth agape. Yet most responses consider broadcast engineers, as a whole, to be underpaid for what we are required to do and the skill set we need to know. Not to mention the long hours and odd hours we generally have to work – and don’t forget that many of us are on call 24/7, which is disruptive on many levels, particularly to the families involved. Many responses referred to work in cellular or computer (IT) related jobs – you generally work a 9-5 job, no on call, no weekends. You have specific, set duties. You have the time and materials to get the job done correctly. In broadcast, this generally is not the case.
And again, I saw a job listed recently that was a six station cluster. The laundry list of skills this person needed to possess was at least two pages – single spaced. And for all the requirements for this job, they were willing to pay the princely sum of $35,000 yearly. Granted, it was in a place in the country that was nowhere near a big city. But, bluntly, you cannot live decently on $35,000/year anywhere in the US. This is not a living wage in my opinion, particularly if you have a family. Take each of the skills called for in that document I read. Then determine who you would need to call to fulfill all those chores. The cost would far exceed the $35,000/year offered.
You can’t blame people for leaving the industry when they can get a job working for a cellular provider, work decent hours, and get paid more for what they are doing than they were working in broadcast.
One writer opined that this entire pay thing would go away if all the engineers across the country unionized. I disagree.
Speaking from a management perspective, stations would be less inclined to hire the proper amount of persons to do the job than they are now. If the union contract states the specific duties, no problem. The other duties that are not “part of the job” will simply not get done or be covered. These items will generally become a huge problem that will affect “the job” and the engineer will end up doing it anyway to get over that hurdle. And, frankly, ways would be found to simply put more people out of a job if this were done.
One writer opined that the Society of Broadcast Engineers should morph into a union. I strongly disagree with this thinking. SBE was not formed to be a union or to be a representative body for broadcast engineers. SBE is an educational foundation, a source of information from which engineers can draw. This is the mission of SBE and it should not be changed. Change SBE into a union and SBE members will no longer be welcomed in stations. And SBE membership would be discouraged by station management. Many employers pick up the cost of SBE membership for their employees because of the educational opportunities presented to members. Morphing SBE is just plain wrong.
Many writers opined that broadcast engineering started going downhill in the early 1980s when the Federal Communications Commission did away with the First Class license and replaced it with the General Class – then did not require a license at all to work on broadcast gear. I agree with this idea, but have reservations. While the First Class test did show that one knew his stuff regarding engineering in the broadcast environment, we all remember that DJ that had a First and couldn’t screw in a light bulb let alone fix the transmitter.
Schools had cropped up to “help you get your First.” These schools taught primarily memorization and tricks to allow someone to pass the First without having the formal study required or the on-the-job experience. Mostly, the overnight jock was encouraged to do this and get his First so that management would not have to staff both an announcer and an engineer overnight at directional AM stations. This eventually made the First a somewhat worthless piece of paper, so the FCC did away with it. But I can’t help but think that pressure was put on the FCC to eliminate the requirement of a licensed person to work on the transmitter and antenna system. To save money, of course. I find it ironic that, at least in the not-too-distant past, in the State of Connecticut, a person needed to apprentice three years, then sit for a day long test to become licensed to work repairing television sets. Yet anyone could walk into a broadcast station off the street and work on the transmitter.
Personally, in my opinion, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 did a LOT to start the rapid decline we’ve seen in the industry. It used to be that an owner would have an AM and an FM in a given market – sometimes also a TV. That AM/FM combo would have one if not two engineers. Now, six-eight stations are housed under one roof, and many times, there is one person for those eight stations. So in the past, you would have had at least four engineers for those eight stations. Now, there is one. The other three went off and found employment in another industry – and that generally is not good for us when talented people leave the pool – especially when they have been pushed out.
Another writer said that he thought engineers were their own worst enemy at times – which explains the treatment, conditions and “other” work engineers usually have to do. This is something I’ve been saying for a long time. If you want to be treated like a professional, you need to act like a professional.
Granted, some of what we do is dirty work. I’ve yet to open a transmitter that doesn’t have some crud inside. It’s unavoidable, especially in tube type transmitters that have high voltage inside that attracts dirt. But there is no excuse to show up at a management meeting or staff meeting dressed like a slob. Unless, of course, you have been working in the transmitter and said meeting was a last minute thing. I’m not saying that an engineer needs to show up to work every day in coat and tie. But “business casual” should be the general dress code. A nice pair of jeans, not dirty or ripped, and a polo shirt, not a T-shirt that is ready for the rag pile, goes a long way toward showing that a person is on a higher plane. I used to carry cover-alls in the car in the event I needed to go to the transmitter on a day when I needed to dress up. They were disposable, and were much cheaper than replacing a $50 pair of dress slacks. I also kept old sneakers in the car so I wouldn’t ruin my dress shoes which can easily happen if you need to stomp around in the tower field.
Another writer, along this same line of thinking, said that sometimes our attitudes go a long way in the way we are treated. Being grumpy all the time is understandable when you feel overworked. But it’s not necessary, and you will be held in lower regard.
Additionally, the “talent versus engineer” thing was brought up. Some of my best friends in the industry are talent. Some of them are high strung for a reason. And most of them are lucky they can figure out how to work a light switch. But that is not their job. Their job is to entertain our audiences. Whether you think it is or not, this is hard work, particularly in talk radio and particularly if the phones stop ringing. Our job is to make sure talent can do their job and do it well. If you work together with talent, it shows on the air in their presentation and in the overall on air sound. It’s time some buried the hatchet and got on with the job of presenting to the audience – on both sides of the fence. Show the talent that you care, and you will be surprised how much fun they can be.
Another gent said that he was having trouble finding people who “understand that because they are on call does not mean that they do not need to be at work on time.” OK – this is a two parter. If these persons think they can simply do what they want because they CAN be called in, that is wrong and they should adjust their attitude. That being said, if this person thinks that someone should be in at 9:00 am after a 3:00 am phone call – particularly an “abusive” call about a light being out on a console channel off button and “Mr. Morning is going to be really upset when he gets in if this isn’t changed” – then the writer needs to adjust his attitude. 24/7 is a two-way street. I made it very clear that if the phone rang at 3:00 am, I had to get up, answer the call, solve the problem usually with a workaround, then try to get back to sleep – usually after having to take the dog out because he thought it was time to get up. Or worse, get one of the kids back to sleep because the phone woke them up. I would not be in at 9:00 am – I was going to sleep in because my health was more important than being in at 9:00 am. On the other hand, I was available for that call – regardless if it were at 3:00 am or if I were at a family function. And if I needed to get dressed and go to the studio or transmitter to solve the problem, don’t expect to see me at all during the day. Getting blown out of a sound sleep and having to come to and perform is extremely stressful on a body. I will go home, sleep the best I can (because I’m like a rooster – I’m up at the first hint of daylight), then rest for the remainder of the day – yet be available on the phone and via email.
And for the record, yes, I was called during both my mother’s and father’s funerals. So I know from whence I speak.
I received yet another note yesterday from someone I have known for a long, long time. He said, “There are far too many appealing options for bright young technically-minded people such that fixing plugged drinking fountains, photo copiers, and making the email work on the owners wife’s smart phone for 30k a year has no luster.” He also went on to say that the “show biz excitement” has gone out of the industry with all the voice tracking that is being done, and that, unfortunately, the industry is presently filled with “old guys wishing it were 1985 again.” Those are scary statements.
So, what can be done? That is the Million Dollar question. And I wish I had the answer.
First and foremost, management needs to understand that engineering is a “necessary evil.” No, most Engineering departments do not generate revenue. That being said, we make it possible to generate revenue. And to do that requires a skill set that is worth more than most are being paid.
But pay doesn’t mean only what a person takes home in their paycheck. When was the last time the engineer at your station took any significant time off without getting called? When was the last time he had a good night’s sleep. When was the last time someone from the sales department was allowed to take their significant other out to a nice dinner on a station trade? Has this courtesy ever been offered to the station engineer? These are things that go a long way in cementing the relationship between engineer and station. It shows that they are valued employees – even if the station sincerely cannot afford more than that $35,000/year. Respect and loyalty are a two-way street – and I think that is something many have forgotten.
While there is something to be said for the demise of the FCC First Class license, this happened in the mid 1980s. It’s time we let this go. It to me is similar to the argument in Amateur Radio (I am a ham) that persons who hold a license but never had to learn Morse code are no good. Well, I have never been able to learn Morse code – I don’t know why – it’s not from lack of trying. Yet I hold an Amateur Extra license, the highest class. And I can tell you that the test is as rough if not rougher than the former First Class test. My years of broadcast experience come in very handy in my ham hobby, and I have helped numerous hams understand the higher levels of electronics required to pass the Extra. I have even won over those who hold the opinion that I’m not a good ham because I don’t understand code. So it’s time we stopped blaming all our woes on something that has been done a long time ago.
In my opinion, someone holding an Amateur Extra license is an extremely good candidate for an engineering position. They understand a higher level of electronics. And hams “get it.” We do it for fun – and the best job in the world is one where you can have fun.
Additionally, the SBE has an extremely good Certification program. While not meant to replace the FCC First, I would consider a candidate who held an SBE Certification before I would someone who didn’t. The difference between the FCC First and an SBE Certification is that, once you passed the FCC First, there was neither incentive nor requirement to keep up your skills – a very important thing with the rapid advance of technology today. SBE Certification has certain requirements to maintain your Certification every five years – all based on continuing education. I would encourage persons to pass their SBE Certification and maintain it.
Another issue I see are engineers that do not want to learn the IT portion of the job – and yes, our jobs have evolved to include IT duties, like it or not. It is rare to find a studio facility these days that is not IT based. I’m not talking the studio computers – I’m talking the consoles and audio routing systems. Transmitters, too, are IT based. But they are not necessarily for IT persons. We, as engineers, need to learn and be willing to learn about IT. It’s not going away any time soon.
But the bottom line comes down to pay for everyone. I don’t have an answer for this. Perhaps you do. Or if you’re a manager reading this, perhaps you could send me a note and tell me what it would take to get the company to offer more pay to the engineer. Please email me and let’s keep this discussion going.
And finally, how do we attract new people into the industry? Please email me on this. What would you tell someone who is looking to get into the industry (“run fast” and “go have your head examined” are not appropriate responses!)? I am heading up a new committee for SBE on mentoring, and we are trying to answer this question.
I’m glad a lot of persons had a chance to vent. But let’s keep the discussion going. There must be some answer out there, and I’d like to find a few.
Thomas R. Ray, III CPBE, AMD, DRB is president of Tom Ray Consulting and Technical Editor of TALKERS. He can be phoned at 845-418-5065 or emailed at email@example.com. His website is www.tomrayconsulting.com.