Sign Off: Musings from the Wandering Engineer

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Sign Off: Musings from the Wandering Engineer

Jan 1, 2015 9:00 AM

The Wandering Engineer

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The idea of broadcasting via electronic means was a revolution, sending content to the masses fairly quickly. In the United States, that commercial-based business model launched around 1925, then reached most homes and many automobiles within a decade. Adding a broadcast service with pictures came into its own in the 1950s in the form of television, roughly the same time most of today''s working broadcast engineers were born. Many classic radio shows moved to TV, but some made the transition better than others. Broadcast engineers struggled to adapt to the idea of �pictures� with radio.

This transition from radio to TV is where the first division among broadcast engineers occurred. For the longest time, most TV stations were attached to radio stations and in some cases newspapers. Broadcast engineers could move between radio and TV if they chose to and had the opportunity to keep up the required skill sets. By the time the Society of Broadcast Engineers was formed 50 years ago, it had become harder to keep up with both fields as the technology between the two became more complex and less similar.

Station owners, vendors and trade magazines specialized in ever-increasing numbers. More SBE chapters became either more radio- or TV-oriented. Educational programs for broadcast engineers split into three pieces: radio only, TV only and �both.� In the beginning, �both� was some radio frequency, audio, physical plant and infrastructure, with some regulatory pieces like EAS.

This is where the second division occurred. �Both� began to include ever-increasing amounts of information technology. In the beginning, many broadcast engineers would move between IT and �everything else,� but IT rapidly dominated the entire plant; including the distribution channels which were once so RF-oriented that it was the �license� that allowed a broadcaster to broadcast.

No one doubts that the role of IT will continue to grow, but this transition did something curious. IT brings radio and TV back together. Anyone with a Web browser can get content with text, audio or video, more or less at will. There is no big economic or technical difference between the two. Early in this convergence, radio started to send texts and tiny images over the air. Today, the modern radio studio is starting to look more like a TV studio, including cameras to stream video over local cable systems and the Internet.

The strange fact is that radio and TV''s differences are far less a matter of technical or economic limits, but one of choice and tradition. A broadcast engineer that thinks they are �TV� or �radio� was probably born in the ''50s, and concerned that there isn''t anyone in line to take their place.

The stations that I work with are all typical. There are broadcast engineers who spend most of their days in front of a computer screen remotely managing the broadcast enterprise; there are others who spend most of their days working on the wiring infrastructure, RF plant and other hardware.

The IT-oriented broadcast engineers are constantly maintaining, rebuilding and moving content or functions from platform to platform. The lifetime of IT hardware is shorter than �traditional� hardware, so maintenance of drives, motherboards, power supplies and the inevitable corruption of key pieces of software is constant. Re-licensing and working with legacy serial connections are time-consuming pain points. Interfacing each new social media or other Internet-based distribution platform into the facility and finding the new app that will be useful and popular for maybe a few days or weeks is the fun part for the IT-oriented engineer.

The infrastructure-oriented engineers do a lot of IT, but someone has to keep up with the signal routing, cooling systems, transmitter sites and all of the other things you can''t maintain from a desk. They tend to be older and a lot more concerned with reliability, spares and maintainability.

The interesting thing in my stations is that the IT guys are usually more popular and, frankly, �alpha.� Simply put, more resources are put into what is often the IT �toy of the week� than into the rest of the plant. Fortunately, there is little to do in the way of maintenance on the actual RF side with today''s transmitters and related equipment. The same story applies for much of the production equipment. When something does go wrong, it''s almost always an IT issue and well within any of the engineering staff''s capabilities.

The unfortunate fact is that these shifts have left many stations with horrible infrastructure that is so poorly installed and documented that it''s nearly impossible to maintain. It''s often easier to just to add a new workaround on top of the last workaround than clean things up and document them. To be continued �

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