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Broadcasting Faces a Coming Crisis

It’s nearly that time of year again. You know what I’m talking about; it’s time once again for the annual pilgrimage of lots of engineering-type folks and a bunch of their management out to Las Vegas for the next NAB Show. As we prepare for the show this year, we’re all no doubt looking forward to drool over the latest new technology, meet up with our old friends, and make some new ones as we share war stories and plans to upgrade gear.

Like a furtive figure lurking in the shadowy dark streets, though, is a topic quietly realized and sometimes mentioned among engineers, but broadcast management so often seems to somehow miss year after year.

The threats to broadcasting.

It’s no secret that broadcasting faces a growing list of obvious competitors:
• Pandora-type services
• Digital downloads
• Streaming video-on-demand OTT providers like Netflix and Hulu
• Government regulations
• Generational shifts to social media sources of news and entertainment

But while industry pundits, NAB panelists and public prognosticators debate what to do about these types of external threats, they often miss the single biggest internal weakness and its impacts (to which any career broadcast engineer will readily attest).

That shadowy furtive figure is sneaking up on the industry, and he’s often recognizable by three characteristics: he seems to know how to design and fix anything, he’s getting older, and he doesn’t seem to have many peers or apprentices. Who is he? He’s the disappearing engineer.

Consider: Without someone who knows current broadcast technology, can your operation compete successfully and stay up-to-date into the future? Can you make any money if your transmitter is down and you don’t have someone to fix it? Can your station warn the public of an emergency when the new-fangled IP-based STL (that some consultant said would save the company a bunch of money) starts dropping Ethernet packets and your engineer doesn’t know how to fix it—or even where to start looking?

The coming crisis in broadcasting is a daunting trifecta:

1. Current engineers lacking skills to work with modern IP-centric broadcasting infrastructure
2. Older engineers approaching retirement
3. Lack of qualified younger people interested in entering broadcast engineering

For all the benefits that the internet protocol offers to broadcasters, it requires a new set of knowledge and troubleshooting skills that many legacy broadcast engineers don’t historically hold.

Those skills can make employees more valuable—if they master those skills. But some really great broadcast engineers just can’t grasp the new technologies or learn them fast enough (or find enough time) to keep up. Worse yet, some engineers simply don’t want to learn anything new and would rather instead just relive their analog glory days (while loudly proclaiming analog’s virtues and dismissing anything digital).

Don’t expect your IT department or millenial office IT “dude” to provide the solution to this problem, though. How many of you have heard IT personnel emphatically state that they aren’t going to support computers or anything else that pertains to on-air broadcast equipment? Does your IT department try to handle the always-on 24x7 broadcast department’s on-air IT needs just like a normal office worker’s complaint about a flaky mouse (“put in a work order!”)? Or, worse yet, how many of you have had an arrogant and completely ignorant IT department come in and take you off the air by asserting their ownership and management rights over anything that talks IP?

It’s time everyone realizes that all broadcast engineering positions should—and already do—require hybridized skill sets encompassing both conventional engineering and IT practices, and that those two departments must overlap greatly.

An important characteristic of the threat sneaking up on us is that we’re losing more and more valuable engineers to retirement. It’s likely that most of the current engineers who will attend this year’s NAB Show probably know at least one engineer who soon plans to retire, and more who have. One engineer spoke last year of an SBE meeting where nearly every single member present was planning to retire within the next decade. Another national radio network’s engineer mentioned that several of their senior engineers would likely retire within the next few years. The stories like this are plentiful...

But the real problem with retirements is that nobody is stepping up to replace the outgoing engineers, and they often don’t have anyone to mentor in their waning years.

Let’s be honest: broadcast engineering just doesn’t hold the glamour it used to before the recent explosion of technology over the past two decades. Computers, programming, IT jobs, etc. are now “all the rage” among high schoolers and college graduates. Oh, sure, there are some young people interested in broadcasting—but when they find out how much it pays vs. the starting salary for other technical jobs like computer programming, broadcasting often doesn’t stand a chance.

We shouldn’t see so many job listings soliciting an experienced engineer to maintain multiple stations for a paltry $30,000 to $40,000 salary. Aren’t the stations’ annual revenues worth more than that? How much is your downtime worth per hour, or per minute? Can you really afford to not have a highly trained engineering team to keep your stations on the air?

As with any job in any business, hiring for increased skillsets, training, and retaining highly qualified employees will obviously cost more money. But the coming crisis of the high numbers of retiring broadcast engineers and the low interest among qualified potential replacements leaves little alternative but to take a long, serious look at compensations attractive enough to bring new talent into the industry and retain key employees who may already possess the requisite skills.

Additionally, it’s critical that broadcast management recognize that it will also cost them to keep their engineering staff learning throughout their career. Yes, engineers should be personally motivated to acquire new skills to stay relevant, but management shouldn’t hesitate to pay for training that will directly benefit their operations and help keep the facility technically updated.

Realize that training isn’t just an expense: it’s an investment—both in the employee (who will surely be grateful for the training) and for the company (which gets the tangible benefit of keeping the facility on the air). If your station doesn’t have a regular recurring budget line item for continuing education and encourage it, you should add one. It will prove to be worth its weight many times over in the long run.

It may sound like a cliché, but it can’t be denied: The future of broadcasting depends on you making these changes, whether you’re an engineer or in station management. It’s time to make changes, together.

Sherrod Munday currently serves as vice president of engineering for Sky Angel, a three-channel TV network found on Dish Network. His experience includes full-time and consulting services in both television and radio, delivering live and preproduced content over the airwaves, building syndicated satellite networks, and broadcasting directly to viewers/listeners over the Internet. He may be contacted