Category Archives: Commentary

Making Waves Editorial: To Chill or Not to Chill

In August 1980 I was in my second year of TV engineering at KTVZ Bend when my boss Jess Ortega and I were to be on a live, local call-in TV show at 7pm at the station, talking about TV reception. About 30 minutes before air time, the transmitter dumped. As in—we were off-the-air. We jumped into the truck dressed in our suits, drove to the transmitter site, and were able to immediately put it back on-the-air because it had cooled during our drive. The show was re-scheduled for the next evening. Continue reading Making Waves Editorial: To Chill or Not to Chill

Making Waves Commentary: One Engineer’s Return from the Edge of Insanity

This week I’m starting a new job, serving as Assistant Chief Engineer at KGTV, with Bob Vaillancourt at the helm.

When systems integrator TV Magic started winding down in 2012, leaving me at the curb, I knew getting a good-fitting job wasn’t going to be easy if my family was going to stay in San Diego. Jobs in broadcast management here don’t open up every day, and I probably wasn’t going to go back to staff engineer. “He’ll just leave when a management job opens up.” “He’ll want too much money.” Without a EE or CS degree from a renowned university, high tech companies like Qualcomm and ViaSat would not even acknowledge my submissions.

So I dug right in to start my own consulting business, taking Small Business Administration classes, creating a website, and following up on referrals. (By the way, a big thank you to friends who sent potential customers my way. I believe we held up our part of the deal by treating these new clients well.)

What a great ride it’s been. I started helping Bext on their repair bench, taking small A/V jobs and then helping LPTV station KSDY-LD at their new studios in Chula Vista. I picked up an assistant with a bright young college student, Julio Ramirez, who helped with makeovers at KSDY-LD and KPRI (FM). At KPRI, we’ve done everything from fine tuning the IT systems, replacing the automation with Wide Orbit for Radio, completely rewiring the air chain for AES/EBU, retiring the old San Marcos aux site, and bringing in some redundancies that were never put in place. There were fun little projects like a weekend carrier-grade microwave STL/TSL sales and installation in Tijuana with Jeff Latimer.

A couple of days ago I looked at the huge list of equipment manual PDFs on my laptop hard drive. Holy cow, did Julio and I learn a lot in the last three years!

A truly successful business must scale itself properly, big enough that you can comfortably delegate much of your daily labor, take vacations, and afford a draw for yourself that is at least comparable to a staff engineering position, and that’s where I fell short. We’ve enjoyed the challenges and certainly the appreciation expressed, but you realize from time to time that you are to at least some extent servicing your own obsession with perfection, and that can seem a little…eerie at times. My wife Cheryl at one point after a number of overnight visits to the transmitter site seriously questioned my sanity, and if you look objectively at costs and risks vs. benefits, she was making a reasonable, if painful, point.

I don’t even want to get into the whole insurance and taxes thing about running your own business, except to say that there are very few days that go by without one or the other coming back with its beak open to feed.

The folly of any technical services business is that it’s one person producing work for one customer at a time, unlike software or sales of popular devices, where your business to serve multiple clients simultaneously, greatly increasing your income potential. Broadcasters are simply never going to pay you rates that a physician can demand, especially not the smaller broadcasters who can’t even afford their own full-time staff.

So I’m closing the business. Julio will carry on at KPRI.

Bob V. is a talented teacher and an experienced technical manager, so it’s back to being part of a corporate team. There’s much to be done, and with realistic budgets, daytime hours, and benefits like vacation, I’m looking forward to a new period of sanity.

Don’t laugh, Bob.

Making Waves: Our Summer Jobs

(Commentary) For better or worse, I share much of my DNA with my father, Herb, who has throughout his 84-year life so far, insisted mostly on doing everything himself. The story I often tell to illustrate this point is about when we lived on a 40-acre ranch in Central Oregon requiring constant fence and pasture upkeep during the hours he wasn’t driving an oil truck full-time. He found termites in the bathroom of the old homestead and learned that they came from a path of dirt and wood from the ground. This wouldn’t do. So he reconstructed the substantial foundation, lifting the house with jacks and spooning mortar in the small spaces between lava rocks that he had dragged under the house one at a time. I know because I helped mix the mortar and pushed rocks through the vent openings to him.

You can run a broadcast engineering business like this, doing it all yourself. You can run cables and terminate them, install and configure equipment, assemble satellite dish kits and climb towers. It’s mostly intellectually engaging, you accumulate experience and leave each project with a pride of ownership.

It will also drain you because you can never keep up with all the work, you can’t take time off really, and you will limit your income potential greatly. This is  because you can’t charge enough for the installation work to cover all the overhead you don’t get paid for, like accounting, marketing, and purchasing.

This is one of the basic tenets of small business. Basically, if you are doing the busy work, you’re doing it wrong. A small business owner should be tending to strategic planning and business development, leveraging income by hiring good help to handle the day-to-day activities that make up the foundation of your technical service business.

Employee #1

As much as it goes against my instinct, I decided that when young students were between college terms earlier this month, it would be a good time to hire. I listed in Craigslist an opening for a broadcast engineering “apprentice.” I didn’t want to say “intern” because this is a real job and a paid position and in California the term intern has legal limitations when you are not paying (even though most employers seem to ignore the rules at their own peril). I believe that students or those looking todevelop careers deserve to be paid for their work, whether they are bringing real talents to the job or just working hard. In my opinion, there’s entirely too much slavery going on, and it’s hurting our economy by cutting off the income of people who should be out there consuming.

Within a few minutes of posting the opening, I got a resume and cover message from Julio Ramirez, a young man who seemed to fit my three needs: (1) self-initiated computer hobbyist who had dabbled in programming and/or networking, (2) a customer service attitude of respect and friendliness, and (3) long-term interest in broadcasting or something like it. I hired him the next day even though responses were still piling in. Some resumes were short on something, some were vastly overqualified and might suit a future full-time opening (or they should work independently!), but this one was just right.

So Julio and I have had our first week together, running and punching in UTP cables with another helper one day, finishing for me a complex batch file for a CALM Act audio monitoring program another day, and assisting with a commercial cueing problem I had been dealing with. Once a graphics student, he even had a logo designed for my badly ignored website before we could even get started. He’s learning new skills faster than a classroom lecture would give, and I’m clearing my TO DO list with rapid relief.

If you have some work to do that you’ve had to sideline while you grapple with your day-to-day, consider hiring someone from that huge pool of underemployed technicians out there. While you aren’t likely to find someone you can send to the transmitter for a quick fix, most broadcast work these days involves microprocessors and the kind of technical problems you can solve with Google searches, a technical mind, and time.

I took the big step to employer, and we’re going to have a terrific summer.

What We Said About You in Denver

This year’s SBE national meetings took place in Denver October 23rd and 24th. I took a gamble with the weather and won, arriving three days early, taking in a weekend of 72° blue skies and bright orange and yellow aspens in Boulder, my wife and my first trip after having both of our kids now away in college.

I got down to business Tuesday with the other SBE officers and board of directors at a hotel at the outskirts of Denver. Besides simply the aura of being around a group of wise, dedicated 50 and 60-something year-olds coming to help the Society, here’s what impressed me about the board meeting:

The SBE Remains Solvent

National dues income is up and certification fees are down. The Finance Committee studied expenses and income and came to the conclusion that a small forecast deficit will be offset next year with an increase in dues. That’s too bad, but our dues remain well below those of other professional societies like the IEEE. From my seat, expenses for the society appear very conservatively spent, and the committee came to same conclusion, largely leaving spending alone. Our Indianapolis headquarters management has extensive experience operating non-profit organizations, and it shows.

Leaders are Concerned about Future Relevance

I don’t need to tell you much about the revolution in broadcasting that has brought us to an IT-centric world for both program delivery and station administration. And when we conduct meetings about transmitters, audio consoles, and processing appliances, guess what? The IT guys aren’t there. Unlike the old days where one guy worked on everything from the mic to the antenna, today’s broadcast techs are specialists. They have to know so much—security, automation, administration, and networking software and hardware—that many brains overload or lose interest at transmitters, antennas, and even audio best practices.

There is talk about rebranding the SBE to meet the new realities in an IT-centric world. Should the Society change its name? I haven’t been convinced yet. In my book, the guy restriping a playout server is just as much a broadcast engineer as the guy changing out a power amplifier module in the transmitter.

I believe the new certifications in computer networking address this revolution, as do certifications in digital video modulation and directional AM antennas. We need to sell the importance of these certifications to broadcast managers.

Membership is Strong. Chapters?…Not so Much

The new reality is that staffs have been reduced to the bone and no one knows if he can get away for an extended lunch once a month. And at the end of a long day, the last thing many engineers want to do is extend that day to go talk shop with other engineers in listen to what might be a boring speech.

We’re hearing about chapters in relatively large markets like Salt Lake City and Las Vegas barely hanging on. The more successful chapters like San Francisco, Denver, and Portland get together because they like each other and they make the time for it. Some chapters, like Hawaii, are geographically challenged and exist mostly on paper when they exist at all.

Savvy engineers have discovered that they can keep current with new technologies by watching educational YouTube presentations and following online blogs and newsletters.

The need for live, local educational opportunities continues. We have proven in San Diego that well prepared and publicized presentations and seminars draw plenty of participants. Chapters like ours need to make sure we have highly relevant, accurately described presentations that address real station problems or new technologies and not allow presenters out to present meeting-length commercials. Whether this is enough to keep people coming to meet remains an open question.

Interestingly, certification remains strong or steady across the country regardless of chapter health.

So while we tabled big decisions about rebranding, name changing and other jerky moves, your leadership is aware that we cannot ignore changes in the way our business is getting done.