Shortage of engineers poses technical challenge for pubmedia stations

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This commentary was first published on the author’s blog and is republished here with permission.

I’ve been working with a public radio station facing a staffing predicament. Their longtime chief engineer was injured and was unable to work. He is not only the chief engineer; he is the station’s only engineer. Despite an attractive salary, they’ve tried to hire temporary help, but no one is interested.

They are not alone. I’ve also worked with other public media stations with unfilled engineering jobs for many months.

The challenges facing the future of broadcast engineering are multifaceted and require a comprehensive strategy to ensure the industry’s sustainability. The need for qualified engineers is not isolated to small stations; it’s a pervasive issue affecting both public and commercial broadcasters, with rural communities experiencing acute difficulties. Surveys conducted by the Society of Broadcast Engineers reveal that the workforce responsible for fixing broadcast transmitters is aging, and there is a noticeable absence of a younger generation ready to assume these critical roles. The decline in apprenticeships, historically providing essential training, further exacerbates the problem.

The United States is projected to require 5,100 broadcast engineers over the next decade due to the retirement of 6,200 existing professionals. This anticipated shortage is particularly pronounced in the RF (Radio Frequency) knowledge domain. Factors contributing to the absence of new entrants include:

  • The allure of competing technical fields offers higher pay and more straightforward work conditions.
  • Broadcast engineering requires a broad knowledge base.
  • There is a need for more awareness among major stakeholders.

To address these challenges, a nuanced approach is needed. One key recommendation is a move toward greater specialization within the field. Breaking down the broad categories of broadcast engineering into distinct skill sets could mitigate the shortage. Recognizing the increasing prominence of the IP domain in broadcasting, broadcast IT should be treated as separate from office IT. This specialization would necessitate knowledge of physical wiring, switch architecture, VLANs, subnets, IP streaming protocols, and audio and video formats.

The unique RF infrastructure rules, including safety requirements, require a solid electronics and engineering background. Understanding transmitter functionality, various failure modes and their potential causes are essential to RF knowledge. While physical plant work can be outsourced, supervision by a competent station representative remains crucial.

The first station I worked at had a staff of four full-time engineers and one part-timer. There was always at least one engineer at the station during most broadcast hours, with an on-call rotation. That is unheard of today. Acknowledging the often overlooked aspect of work/life balance is vital for retaining talent in the field. Broadcast engineers should not be treated as expendable assets; their well-being is crucial for the sustained health of the industry. Instances of engineers leaving the industry due to burnout and, in some tragic cases, experiencing severe health issues underscore the importance of addressing work/life balance issues.

Contracting becomes a viable solution for smaller operators needing help to afford specialized professionals. However, this raises questions about how the next generation of broadcast engineers will gain the necessary hands-on experience. While training courses offered by broadcast transmitter manufacturers and organizations like the SBE exist, hands-on experience remains irreplaceable. The situation calls for innovative and creative solutions, and in response, the SBE has recently launched a new Technical Professional Training Program.

In the broader context, broadcast engineers are portrayed as intrapreneurs within television and radio stations, tasked with identifying and solving internal challenges related to equipment and solutions. Despite the challenges, a career in engineering broadcasting is seen as exciting, challenging and ultimately rewarding, offering professionals the opportunity to impact how audiences consume news, entertainment and content.

The evolution of broadcasting systems towards increased reliability and automation has transformed the role of broadcast engineers. While the emphasis on maintaining everyday broadcasting operations has diminished, their role in troubleshooting major or minor problems, improving equipment and preparing for outside broadcasts remains crucial. 

The essential qualities required for broadcast engineers include maintaining composure under pressure, possessing excellent diagnostic and problem-solving skills, efficient time management and a genuine appreciation for the medium they are working in, whether radio or television.

I credit the Society of Broadcast Engineers for recruiting and training individuals. Many statewide broadcast associations have similar programs. The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, for example, has job fairs and technical training seminars. Broadcasters have many priorities these days. Making the engineering profession attractive should be one of them.

Dave Edwards managed WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio for more than 30 years and served as Chair of the NPR Board of Directors. He now advises public media stations and professionals.

6 thoughts on “Shortage of engineers poses technical challenge for pubmedia stations

      • Such is my point, yes. And also I can affirm that nobody (or vanishingly few) is actually offering competitive salaries to engineers, yet there is constant griping about not being to find any engineers. I can’t tell you how much FT CE job postings I see that want “Jesus, and with IT skills” but the posted salary range is $50-$60k. Try more like $150k if you want to actually hire be competitive with the IT industry.

        As I mentioned elsewhere on social media, I’m more than happy to make the Toby Ziegler Bet that what Dave says is “an attractive salary” is not attractive at all. I’d guess it’s not even $75k, and that’s just nowhere near enough if you want to hire someone who has skills that other industries are willing to pay for.

        Maybe it’s time to stop lighting large piles of money on fire making podcasts that’re utterly unsustainable and time to start investing in real salaries? Perhaps? Just maybe?

  1. Dave: such a timely and important topic. Having worked recently with a couple of smaller market station, the issue becomes immediately apparent. While not always a day to day public facing issue, the fact is, we ignore it at our (and the audience’s) peril. Thanks for lifting it up.

  2. Dave and I (and plenty of others) have both observed this trend for many years, and while the SBE’s and others’ attempts to address it are laudable (and will hopefully ameliorate the problem to some extent), the associated point that is often lost is how we got here. Engineers are inherently fans of continuing education, and traditional RF broadcast techs gradually added more skill sets and took on additional roles as deregulation, increased equipment reliability, and the IT/IP world had their respective effects on the industry and their jobs. But when one of these resulting “jack of all technical trades” retires or moves on, that broadened skill set they acquired over the years must now be replaced *instantaneously*–and that’s the biggest challenge today, especially for non-profits. There’s practically no way to replace someone like that with *one* new hire. It will likely take two, two and a half or even three new positions, or some combination of staff hires and outsourcing, which can pose a major problem to a public broadcaster’s budget–particularly if the transition was unforeseen when budgets were drafted months before.

    Add to that the substantial drop in RF engineering education (one exception is the military), plus the intrinsic appeal of the massive number of other new competitive tech jobs and companies that Dave mentions, and the problem is essentially a classic economic one of low supply and high demand. Dave puts it nicely in his last bullet about “increased stakeholder awareness,” but more bluntly, this implies that broadcasters are going to have to understand their technology-support costs will increase, not decrease over time. Finding the right people who possess all the desirable attributes Dave rightly lists will not be easy or cheap. And even after their hiring, new staff’s continuing education will also remain necessary, as media technology continues to evolve. As the saying goes, it’s a journey, not a destination–and it will be an expensive one. But that’s the cost of doing business in today’s media world.

  3. Allow me to put this in context: I’m a 20+ year veteran of public radio engineering. If you’re going to entice me away from my current job, you’re going to need to offer me at least $130k/yr and that’s only if your area has a reasonable cost of living. Almost anywhere in southern New England (where I live) is gonna be more like $150-160k.

    And the benefits better be pretty good (good healthcare, 3-4 wks vacation, flexible work hours, WFH, company cellphone/laptop/vehicle, etc), too. My LinkedIn is at You decide if I’m worth it or not but don’t pretend that my skills & experience aren’t “better than most” and that is what I say I’m worth. If you want to hire me, that’s my price.

    Also, remember that the farm system in radio is gone. GONE. Dead and buried. Almost everyone you hire these days in ANY part of public radio…not just engineering…could very likely have no training, little practical experience, and (even worse) a lot of bad habits picked up along the way. This is especially true when it comes to technology in radio. You need to budget for a training officer…rather than just assuming your Chief Engineer will handle that when A: they never signed up for that, B: they quite possibly are lousy teachers/trainers, and C: usually they’re too busy doing their real jobs in the first place.

    And in fact, as the KQED ransomware debacle showed, from 5.0 to 6.5% of your total staff should be engineers and IT/network support staff. (see for that tidbit – search on “Gartner” to find it in the story) So in addition to a competitive salary and benefits, you also need to hire enough engineers so your tech staff aren’t working 80 hour weeks every year.

    We keep seeing these same stories about nobody can find engineers but really what we’re seeing are the same stories that nobody is willing to pay these engineers what they’re worth.

    (or I suppose we don’t see the examples of places that ARE willing to pay them because they’re not having problems hiring engineers!)

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