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Keys to success

As broadcast engineers, we often sense that our training and our engineering skills and abilities do not receive the respect we would hope for — not that we thrive on our egos. More often than not, our greatest satisfaction comes from our unique ability at problem solving, especially under duress. The concern is that, far too often, we are perceived by management as workers plying a trade, seemingly as general handymen. The perceived value of engineering to station management is an ongoing challenge for many technical professionals, and station size or market importance has no bearing on these attitudes. Although the following ideas for improving your standing with your management are not guaranteed, this information will lead you in the right direction.

Maintain your technical abilities

To maintain your career as a broadcast engineer, you will need to keep pace with technology and technological changes. When I was a student years ago, a professor told our class that if we wanted to be effective broadcast engineers, we would need to technologically retrain ourselves four times throughout the span of our careers. Whether it be tube technology, transistors, integrated circuits, digital technology or any future innovations, you will need to be retrained to remain professionally competitive.

This can be accomplished through formal class work, keeping up with manufacturing trends, attending trade shows to hear technical seminars and studying the exhibits, forced self-study, or voracious technical reading. Of course, SBE chapter programs and SBE seminars can enhance your continuing education as well. No one action of those listed here will be adequate by itself.

Some broadcast companies will reimburse part or all of your continuing formal education, usually requiring employee loyalty as part of the agreement. In other cases, you may need to pay your own educational expenses. In any event, continuing to improve your technical knowledge is a good way to increase your professionalism. Be sure to keep your management team posted on your increased skill level.

Also be sure to keep your management team posted when you become SBE certified (each time, if you achieve multiple certifications). This will open the door to further conversation about advancing yourself to provide added value for the good of the company.

Dress for success

If you carry a management title (DOE, CE, or even EIC or supervisor), you undoubtedly have routine meetings with your station’s non-technical management team (GM, PD, news director, sales manager, marketing manager, etc.). If you are not regularly attending their routine meetings (typically held weekly), start attending. Pay attention to everything they discuss, even if they seem to have no topics directly related to engineering. You might hear discussions about visions or goals that will require engineering assistance in the future. Also, you will gain a new appreciation for the mindset of management and thus be better prepared to deal with them on their terms.

Dress in a manner compatible with the rest of the management team. If they wear business suits, then you should also wear a business suit. Make sure your suit says that you are also a management professional — not a used car salesman. If you have not been dressing in this manner, and comments are made about your new style of dress, simply acknowledge the change by saying, “Thank you. I feel much more comfortable discussing station business and sharing ideas with you when dressed this way.”

Without saying another word about your attire, you will intuitively be considered more professional. Of course, always wear your SBE certification pin on your jacket lapel to these meetings. If asked about it, the door will be opened to discuss how your SBE membership and certification improve your professional abilities, thus making you a more valuable asset to the management team.

Along with professional attire, good grooming is also necessary for your overall professional appearance. This includes neat hair, a clean shave or neatly trimmed facial hair, clean hands and shined shoes. With professional attire and good grooming in place, you will not only be ready to take your place in management meetings, but also be ready to represent the station on any public occasion.

Although it may seem “old school,” you may find it appropriate to normally wear a suit to work, and keep a change of clothes in a locker for any maintenance you may need to perform. Alternatively, keep a service “jump suit” in your locker to wear over your trousers and dress shirt for maintenance, or a simple lab jacket to cover your dress shirt for light maintenance. While different from today’s trends of casual engineering attire, following this guideline will always position you as a professional engineering manager first, then as a broadcast engineer.

Document your work

The presumption is that you have some sort of regular schedule that you are expected to maintain. If you do not punch a time clock, keep a personal log book (separate from any official company records) indicating your daily start and end times. In this book, also log your daily activities during your regular work hours. List things like meetings, engineering planning time, talking with vendors, professional correspondence time, technical maintenance time, training time and time for any nontechnical actions taken at the request or direction of the management team.

Include more detailed notes when advising any members of your management team about actions they need to take regarding decisions on budgetary items or other items that may involve legal or licensing issues. If you recommend budgeting for or purchasing critical replacement parts, and you are denied, note that in your log as well. Include names in your personal log.

Remember, the FCC puts responsibility for operating within their rules squarely on station management, not on engineering. If you provide sound engineering-based advice to your management team, and it is documented, and they ignore your advice, then they must deal with the consequences — not you. If, for some reason, your management does not value your accurate documentation and sense of accountability, you will be able to refer to the thoroughness of your procedures to prove your high ethical standards, character and professionalism to your next employer.

Also document any work that involves you — and the time spent — outside your normal work schedule. This might include anything from overnight transmitter maintenance to a call at 3 a.m. about a burned out pilot light to a stopped automation system. Compile a list of this additional work and submit a weekly report to your station management team.

If you are salaried, rather than an hourly employee, some employers believe that your contracted salary covers all your time. However, most states have wage-hour laws that require employers to pay overtime at overtime rates, even to salaried employees, for work in excess of 40 hours per week. Certain salaried employees that have primary authority over other employees may be assigned “exempt” status, precluding them from overtime pay. Overall, most salaried employees do not qualify as exempt employees. Your state’s wage-hour office can clarify any specific inquiries.

Because you are responsible for installing and maintaining the station’s technical equipment, the proper technical operation of that equipment should be an interest of yours as well. In the area of documentation, be a willing trainer of anyone assigned to operate any of the technical equipment. Document any training given, including time spent and the name of the person trained. Include that in your weekly report to the management team. This will also show that you are a team player and are providing value-added engineering service for the good of the station.

In addition, a properly trained nontechnical operator will be less likely to damage the equipment, thus reducing your maintenance requirements. If you notice someone you’ve trained handling the equipment in an inappropriate manner, a gentle reminder about proper procedures (while allowing them to maintain their dignity) will go much farther in reinforcing your professional leadership than berating them for their incompetence.

A nontechnical approach

In general, the nontechnical management team has a primary goal to make money for the station owners. In their meetings, you will find that all of their decisions will be based on that underlying goal. In today’s highly competitive business climate, it’s imperative that you learn the business and the business language of broadcast management.

For example, hiring a high-priced talent is fiscally responsible if that talent can generate additional revenue by increasing the ratings. Spending money in marketing and advertising is all designed to increase market share, which translates into the ability for the station to charge more for station advertising, thus increasing station revenue. On the other hand, engineering is generally seen as a department that only wants to spend money.

Years ago, broadcast engineers could tell management that a certain piece of (presumably expensive) equipment was needed to either maintain technical quality standards or improve technical quality. Engineers only needed to talk “engineering” language.

These days, a successful engineer must talk to the nontechnical management team as a salesman, selling the value of good engineering. The engineer must think in sales and marketing terms to convey the goals of engineering in words and with presentations that support the work that engineering can provide to achieve the goals of the nontechnical management team.

If engineering saves the day against near disaster, include specific examples of the support that was willingly given by engineering to enhance the value of engineering to the management team in your weekly reports. Prove to them how the efficiency and skill of the engineering staff can actually save money by reducing unplanned downtime and saving otherwise lost revenue. You are now marketing engineering expertise for operating and maintaining the technical plant, rather than quoting a dollar amount for a technical expenditure.

IT support falls into this category of full-service technical support. From an engineering point of view, it would be far better for engineering to assume technical oversight of all IT operations to allow coherent integration of technical computer systems with business computer systems. Typically, IT people with no broadcast engineering experience may know computer technology, but they will have no idea why it might be a bad idea to do a routine reboot of the on-air automation computer during afternoon drive time or during a local newscast. Help the management team understand why it is to their advantage to incorporate IT as an engineering responsibility.

Finally, if other departments place blame for their errors onto engineering, be prepared to discuss these challenges in your weekly management team meetings — openly and candidly — and with documentation you have maintained to support the high level of engineering service you have provided to give them every opportunity to succeed. While you cannot always guide nontechnical staff to make wise decisions, you can report that the equipment they used was tested and was functioning perfectly. This is another opportunity to offer operator training for more value-added engineering support.

Summary

Keep current with technology any way you can. Your continuing education is mandatory to be successful as a broadcast engineer. Dress for success. If you dress like a tradesman or a janitor, you will receive the respect you deserve. If you dress like the manager that your title indicates, you will receive the respect you expect. Document, document, document. As an engineer, you are already used to dealing with details. Let these details help you to succeed. Finally, step out of your engineering hat to learn how to communicate with nontechnical managers in a professional way that they can understand.

A further way to exude your professionalism is to speak and write in an articulate manner, always using good grammar and correct spelling. Maintain a friendly but professional manner with all management and staff. Leave slang and inappropriate language in the back room.

Once you have gained the respect of the management team for your more professional appearance, attitude and ability to communicate, you will be able to gain influence in removing some of the nontechnical functions from your workload. Because image is important, you might actually be able to convince management that hiring a lawn service will improve the appearance of the grounds, that hiring a plumber on retainer who actually stocks the needed parts will solve those problems more quickly and at less expense than using engineering time to run to the hardware store, and that hiring a janitorial service is prudent.

Remember, when factoring your expense as an engineer for doing menial nontechnical labor, take your salary and add 50 percent. When all the benefits are added, that is your actual cost to the company as an employee. Now compare that amount against the cost of the outside services listed above. You should be able to prove that this new course of action will save money.

Consider these ideas as a starting point. When you start thinking in management terms, you should be able to develop other ideas in which engineering can become a value-added resource for the good of the station.

Todd A. Boettcher, CPBE, is chair of SBE Chapter 28 in Milwaukee.