Stations struggle to recruit, train new generation of broadcast engineers

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Matthew Smith

Kira Parker, Vermont Public Radio broadcast/transmission engineer, at the station's Mount Mansfield tower site.

This is the first article in “Tech Transitions,” Current’s special coverage of the changing landscape of technology in public media. Look for more stories to come — and you can still send us a recommendation of your favorite tech tool for an upcoming feature.

One of Bill Fawcett’s first acts in retirement wasn’t sitting back and cracking open a cold one.

Instead, during a frigid week in early January, he climbed a transmission tower high above the mountains of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to repair WMRA’s ice-damaged antenna.

For a quarter-century, Fawcett joked he was the engineering department for the small public radio station in Harrisonburg, Va. With four transmitters, one translator and a full-time staff of nine, WMRA provides NPR news and talk programming to the mountainous region. Its all-classical station, WEMC, delivers signals to four counties.

WMRA started searching for Fawcett’s successor as chief engineer last September, so why is he still working post-retirement?

“We consider the first search failed,” said GM Matt Bingay. “We can’t necessarily compete straight up with a major market as far as salary. It’s just not in our budget.”

Bingay could count the number of applicants to the first search on two hands. Two candidates declined job offers because of the pay. For the second search, Bingay convinced the station’s university owner to bump up the salary to attract more potential chief engineers.  

The shortage of qualified engineers isn’t confined to small stations like WMRA, though the problem is acute in rural communities. Public and commercial broadcasters, both in radio and television, are struggling to fill vacancies of these critical jobs. 

The workforce of broadcast engineers — those who know to fix broadcast transmitters, tubes and wires — is reaching retirement age, according to surveys conducted annually by the Society of Broadcast Engineers. Far fewer skilled young people are waiting in the wings to take on their roles. The apprenticeships that provided training to the engineers who are now approaching retirement are increasingly rare.

Jason Quinn, manager of broadcast technology at New Mexico PBS, installs new VHF antennas on a translator in Farmington, N.M. (Photo: Jason Quinn)

New Mexico PBS is among the public broadcasters struggling to attract qualified engineering applicants. Dan Zillich, director of engineering, has posted an open broadcast technology technician position twice. Bank tellers and producers have been among more than two dozen applicants; only one candidate was qualified with the skills the station needs right away.

WUNC also needs to hire a chief engineer. Job postings have attracted a fraction of interest that the public radio station in Chapel Hill, N.C., has garnered for other open positions, said Graham Youngblood, director of IT/engineering.

Recruiters gave different reasons for their hiring challenges — the geography of their communities of service or the financial situations or priorities of their stations.

Victoria St. John, president of the Association of Public Radio Engineers, pointed to erosion of the organic apprenticeship model that provided training to early-career engineers when broadcasters were locally rooted and robustly staffed. The apprenticeships evaporated during periodic mass layoffs triggered by corporate consolidation of commercial broadcast properties and downsizings within public media. Engineers who are starting or switching their careers have found more lucrative opportunities elsewhere.

St. John

“People with that type of technical acumen are now being offered all kinds of other jobs in different industries,” St. John said. “‘Hey, let’s go work for Google.’ Or, ‘Let’s start our own podcast. Maybe design a game.’”

Plus, she said, “Young people aren’t necessarily in the position to be mentored like they used to be.”

Many stations now choose to keep contract engineers on call instead of hiring full-time staff.

On-the-job training and mentorship made all the difference for Geary Morrill, regional director of engineering for the radio broadcasting company Alpha Media and chair of SBE’s education committee. In the 1970s he worked at a small station in Lansing, Mich., and gravitated toward a more technical role. The seven engineers on staff provided the training he needed to build a career.

“I was aware of it because it was there,” Morrill said. “If you happen to be working in a situation … with a contract engineer, you don’t even see that person. How do you even learn?”

Training bundled with mentorship

To help solve the problem, SBE recently launched a new Technical Professional Training Program.

Introduced in December, the program bundles over 100 on-demand webinars on topics ranging from radio frequency technology to networking, a hard copy of the SBE Broadcast Engineering Handbook, the exam fee for SBE’s entry-level “Broadcast Technologist” certification and access to a personal mentor — all at the cost of $475.

The mentoring component is key, said SBE President Wayne Pecena, noting “there’s just so much you can learn from book.”

“This is our way to try to recreate that [apprenticeship experience] as best that can be done with some limitations of those resources,” Pecena said. Mentors will ideally work within the trainee’s organization. SBE will assist in setting up those relationships.

SBE is drawing on its collection of training resources and services to create the program, essentially streamlining the training process for broadcasters and state broadcasting associations looking to educate promising young engineers.

SBE’s program follows the launch of the Public Radio Satellite System’s Public Radio Engineering Training Program in summer 2019.

In public radio recruiting, many prospective engineers possess information technology skills, but few have experience with RF technology, said Michael Beach, VP of distribution at National Public Radio. RF knowledge and know-how are critical to maintaining the transmitters, studio-transmitter links and satellite systems that deliver signals to listeners’ radio sets.

Station leaders may see mergers or increased automation as reasons to cut back on engineering staff, but Beach points out these changes won’t reduce the number of towers or equipment they operate.

“Adding technical systems increases the need for installation and maintenance,” Beach said. “The larger a state or regional network becomes, the more complicated their network technology becomes.”

PRETP modeled its three levels of certification after SBE’s certifications, progressing from Certified Public Radio Operator to Certified Public Radio Technologist and finally Certified Public Radio Engineer.

PRSS’ goal was to recruit 15 engineers during the program’s first year, Beach said. To date, 26 engineers representing 19 stations from across the country have enrolled for the first level of training.

The Certified Public Radio Operator level costs $1,700 and includes engineering handbooks, registration for the National Association of Broadcasters and Association of Public Radio Engineers conferences, and one year of SBE membership.

Futureproofing the workforce

The Public Radio Engineers Conference, which typically precedes the NAB Show in Las Vegas in March, offers a chance to share ideas and ask advice of other engineers. APRE President St. John said the opportunity to network is the biggest benefit for engineers.

Last year, APRE expanded its scholarship program to cover all costs for six recipients to attend the conference, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. St. John said APRE worked hard to recruit people who were new to the field or early in their careers.

APRE contacted “stations that are remote, rural [or] Native stations” and those with limited funding, St. John said. “Those were the people that we actually reached out to in our scholarship committee to say, ‘Do you have smart young people that you want to have this opportunity to learn the industry?’”

Crowds at broadcast engineering conferences trend older, white and male, said WUNC’s Youngblood. He advises hiring managers who are recruiting to do more to connect with women and people of color.

“It’s not helpful if everyone looks the same and acts the same in anything, as far as I’m concerned,” Youngblood said. “Everyone can build as many training programs as they want, but just because you build it, doesn’t mean they’ll come. There needs to be an actual reason for … people to want to do this.”

Veterans’ organizations are another option for finding qualified candidates due to the military’s use of RF technology throughout its branches, noted Zillich of New Mexico PBS.

With the challenges that digital disruption poses, radio’s inherent challenge is to “futureproof” local stations as “content-creation organizations” that distribute over airwaves and digitally. Just as the most successful journalists are comfortable working with emerging storytelling platforms, Youngblood said, the most successful engineers will combine RF know-how with IT skills of the future.

NPR’s Beach agrees training programs aren’t the whole answer. “It has to be part of a larger industry effort that requires consistent attention,” Beach said. “Stations that rely exclusively on a shrinking number of already sparse contract engineers to respond when problems occur will find themselves off the air more often as systems age.”

15 thoughts on “Stations struggle to recruit, train new generation of broadcast engineers

  1. Part of the problem is station management doesn’t want to pay for GOOD engineers. I contracted for 15 years before I gave it up. Got tired of chasing people down to pay me for getting them back on the air. and in my position, net 60 was unacceptable.

    Management needs to rethink how they treat engineers.

    • This is exactly it. It’s not that there’s a shortage of qualified engineers, it’s that management won’t pay for one. They think they can get by with a couple IT guys and contracting out anything that requires specific technical aptitude. Reap what you sow.

  2. The national average hourly wage for broadcast engineers is roughly the hourly wage of plumbers and electricians. IT people are paid far better, with better hours. Engineers beg for funds to replace thirty year old transmitters while IT departments regularly get the gear they need. There are plenty of people out there to do the work, the problem is a lack of funding from stations. Change the funding dynamic and the engineers will be in abundance.

  3. It’s not like there’s a big mystery here. The hours are long. The pay is mediocre compared to fields that demand comparable skillsets. The management interference tends to be legendary. No wonder nobody wants to work as a broadcast engineer. We’ve known this for over twenty years.

    Worse, there’s hordes of “retired” engineers who stay in the game just enough, and at ridiculously low hourly rates, that many stations decide they don’t need to hire a FT engineer…they’ll just make do with contractors. Gee, thanks.

  4. Also, as K-Love has proven and now iHeart is trying to adopt, you can get rid of a LOT of engineers by standardizing and streamlining your studio and transmitter plants. It costs a lot up-front to convert everything, but once you’ve made it so every transmitter site has the same shelter building, the same backup power generator, the same utility rack with the same equipment (STL, remote control, audio processor, etc) and that one engineer can remotely manage a couple dozen sites, and walk into any site and know exactly what should and shouldn’t be there? Hard to say there’s a shortage of engineers in that situation.

    • Everything that is said here is true. At Family Life in New York I am very blessed to have management that will replace equipment pretty much when I say it has reached EOL. I maintain 67 transmitters across two states with one part time retired guy and an on call guy. I keep telling the retired guy there’s only one way he’s leaving and I’ll send flowers. I’m currently looking for a full time person but it’s easier to find a needle in a haystack.

  5. This article is right on the nail when it says that there are no mentors any more and a lack of available training. I began my career as a technical assistant on a BBC shortwave station. Three years later I had learned enough to take the engineer’s course and became an engineer. I never had a degree and never felt the lack: the needed skills were both too diverse and too specialist, especially when I joined a major manufacturer (Marconi). I then had a second mentor who taught me all about high power transmitters (megawatt size) and I learned about high power electrical supplies, plumbing, steam plumbing, and masses of civil engineering.
    None of this exists any more, it has been overtaken by technology.
    But somehow, US radio and TV stations still believe that engineers will continue to be available. I don’t think so.

  6. Though it was long ago, I remember the difficulty learning how to solder and fit an N connector to a piece of cable. EOM

  7. Thank you for this article and for this new Tech Transition series! Excited to see more articles and conversation in this area.

  8. The shortage of qualified technicians capable of working on high powered RF devices (and staying alive to tell about it) are dwindling. I think many of the comments made about this subject by other posters are all true and feed into the problem. Certainly the lack of respect for the engineers ability to work on weekends, late at night and in blistering heat and freezing cold to restore service of old, out of date, no longer serviced equipment, along with an ever diminishing budget for spare parts has made the occupation less than desirable to young(er) people. Especially if there is no apparent appreciation for their efforts, both in compensation and recognition. I have served on the National Education Committee of the SBE for quite a few years and we have discussed this many, many times. One of the contributing factors has been the emphasis away from technical training. Often, training other than accredited colleges and universities has been viewed as less than desirable. Technical skills are often placed in the same light.

    People with good, valid technical training often earn salaries that are in line with many who have completed four years of college with a degree in many fields. Paying for a good engineer (or technician if you prefer) is so often viewed by the accounting department as a “burden” to the operation of the organization. Engineering is an intangible, unmeasurable “commodity” whose worth does not appear in “black” as do sales or other “income” based figures but in money saved and even more important, revenue not lost. That can only be done by an in house engineer. I can cite way too many examples of money saved by having an engineer on staff who was familiar with the installation (often having done the install themselves) or by being familiar with operations and/or surroundings. Those things do not appear on a ledger. They will, however, appear on a ledger as increased profit.

    Thirdly, it is also a product of the “glamour” factor of the occupation/field. “Broadcasting” is no longer viewed as being a career with a future, save “news” or the like. Young people have become unaware of and do not utilize broadcasting as they once did. Thus as a career replacing a game card, a graphics card, or a modem (actually a transmitter) is easier, can be done basically at their leisure, and the recipient of the service will exhibit some gratitude for their efforts.

    Pay the engineer (technician) a good salary, appreciate their efforts and give them support and we will most likely see at least an upward “bump” in the number of people desiring to work in the field. Don’t do as one GM I worked for and call the engineer, who is out at the transmitter at 3AM working by themselves replacing a fried HV rectifier, to ask them “do you know we are off the air?” and “why haven’t you got it repaired yet?”, and finally, “hurry it up !”

    Please read the chapter on “Engineering Management” in the SBE Broadcast Engineering Handbook and it will go a long way.

    • Succinct. I worked as a broadcast engineer “technician” for 41 years. No respect when I was the only one working Midnight to 8am to fix things. Phone calls from
      Warm beds at home never helped me get the job done.

  9. College of San Mateo (a community college south of San Francisco) ran a broadcasting major and operated KCSM-FM and TV. Some years back they ended the broadcasting major and hired professional staff for radio and TV. They kept the radio and sold off the TV a couple years ago.

  10. I managed noncommercial WPKN/Bridgeport CT for almost 30 years. We paid our CE what he asked for as a monthly rate. We bought whatever he said was needed, and an extra for the shelf if he thought that was good idea. Chief Engineers are, in my opinion, saintly.

  11. Futureproofing the workforce; Product Mfgs and Management must share the responsibility…!!
    Noticed no mention of Product Mfgs!!..With the challenges that digital disruption poses, over the last ten years I cannot understand why these Media product Mfgs release newest with latest software features and options. Instead of offering training to Station ENG its like ” oh you need to use this for on-air or post..well we offer training at $$$/time?? Then Management, instead of investing in the ENG/IT dept, they play the OP-ex game and convince upper Mgt we just need to sub or when its broken we will call the Mfgs??..mp

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