Public Radio Stations Face a Shortage Of Engineers

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.

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