The Price Goes Down; The Cost Skyrockets

If engineers don’t like to be thought of as janitors, business managers struggle to break away from being seen as “bean counters” March 13, 2015

Broadcast business departments have come a long way. Not so long ago, engineering outranked finance. If engineers don’t like to be thought of as janitors, business managers struggle to break away from being seen as “bean counters.”

Their task is to reduce expenses through oversight. For a long time, the goal was to spend money “as if it were your own.” Over time this has shifted to reducing waste and increasing leverage though centralized buying. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard someone say “to make money, you need to spend money.”

Stations I work with use a simple credit card-based system, with a monthly report to complete; or a more “advanced” IT-based purchasing system. One brand in particular seems to pop up (especially just before companies fail). Such systems are sold to business managers based on a record of “reducing costs.” But economists teach us that often, real costs are not in the purchase price. For example, cigarettes are a few bucks a pack but their social and medical expenses are enormous.

When leadership buys such a system, it believes savings will come from leveraged buying power: “All our stations are buying the same things from vendors who grant savings based on getting all or most of our business.” The real cost is almost invisible … unless you are a broadcast engineer.

Unfortunately, the responsible engineer, confronted with a system that is frustrating and time-consuming — one that forces him or her to purchase not from e-Bay and discount houses but from selected vendors at higher costs —will defer spending … which is to say, maintenance. An equipment fan might cost a few bucks at a discount house, a purchase that takes a few minutes with a credit card. This purchase — now grossly overpriced, for a product with perhaps not quite the right fit — may require several hours over several days via a vendor that happens to do business with your purchasing system.

Where once an engineer could obtain supplies at Walmart on his way to work, now he must spend hours to order inferior products at inflated prices. And he can’t touch or see them until they are delivered a week later.

Yes, engineering cash costs drop dramatically — at first. Managers believe everything in the catalog is at bargain prices; they may get rebates. Vendors make their price points by cutting support and service. Resellers used to have to know products and guide you to best choices; now purchase decisions tend to be uninformed and we throw mistakes on a “cash-saving” pile. If something is wrong with a product, there’s no reseller who stands behind it with the manufacturer. The choice is simple: Try to get your money’s worth, and spend the time and brain damage; or toss this too on the “cost-saving” pile. There’s no penalty for waste, no incentive to get it right.

Of course, the effects of deferred maintenance may never be felt; and for a while, the station becomes a charity; engineers will bring parts and tools from home; we’ll stay late and take tasks home to stem the massive bleeding created by the purchasing system.

Broadcast engineers tend to be frugal, proud of a good deal. They are creative and may buy little things that make for a better product, cleaner workplace or more efficient process. They love to play Santa Claus, surprising the staff with odds and ends that make them and the product better.

Now the business department doles out such things — without oversight. Business managers sometimes are steeped in the notion that engineers spend money poorly: “the thrill of technology, the agony of expense.” For example, the unnamed software company paints engineers as spendthrifts and incompetents, incapable of managing a budget or making a rational decision.

Well, maybe. Last week I ordered transmission line bullets; I already know I’m not going to get them; they think I was going to shoot a hole in the line. That line is going to burn up. No one in the business department or at the purchasing software company will connect the dots. And maybe it’s not so bad; the business folks saved money; the software company made more money by “saving” money; and the engineer will get to save the day when a preventable “act of God” crisis eventually hits.

Yes, engineering is a cost center. But making it harder for engineers to obtain supplies or seek values is the wrong thing to do. Everything I know about how broadcast engineers think says so. When management buys into this form of insanity, the price goes down — but the cost skyrockets.

The Wandering Engineer is an industry stalwart who has been in broadcasting since the days of Marconi and Tesla. He gives his thoughts on the current state of broadcast engineering and the broadcast engineer.

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