Category Archives: Commentary

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.

Election of the Local Kind

November is the month by charter that our SBE chapter has its annual election for leaders.

Yes, we know you think you are too busy, especially with all the corporate consolidation and fewer employees to take the workload.

But that’s a cop out. You still have an idle moment here and there, and most of the work is in just showing up for the meetings, most time of which is taken in eating, like you do every day at lunchtime. Most of the leadership jobs take an average of less than an hour a month outside of the meetings.

What’s in it for you?

Hopefully, you want more of what you have gotten from the SBE. The way to assure that is to make it happen through your leadership. Yes, your leadership. More insightful, educational meetings. More networking opportunities. More certification exams given. Make it happen. It’s barely any more work than just watching it happen.

If you are more interested in getting than in giving back, let us count the ways:

  • Win points toward certification renewal. You need points. This is an easy way to get them.
  • Put some leadership on your resume. When you show leadership experience, you are taken more seriously before your next interview or customer sales experience.
  • Kick your networking into high gear. The more people who know you, the easier it is getting your next job, even if you are self-employed. Especially if you are self-employed, because you are being interviewed every time you sell a new client.

What Positions are Available?

  • Chair – The person who leads the meeting. Occasionally you have to make a decision about funding or lead an executive meeting, usually over lunch. Figure on attending the meetings plus perhaps an hour or less per month.
  • Vice-chair – The person who leads the meeting when the Chair doesn’t show up. Figure on attending every meeting. Not a position for someone who travels a lot. Do not volunteer for this if you are a regional sales account manager.
  • Secretary-Treasurer – The person who keeps the checking account and turns in a meeting report after every meeting. About an hour a month more than attending a meeting. Again, this isn’t a position for someone who spends a lot of time out of town.
  • Program Chair – The person who sets up the upcoming meetings. This is usually the most important role, and sets the agenda for the success of the chapter. You must fish for good speakers, using other chapters’ or national ideas, or inquiries as leads. Again, very little time, but some communication is required and the secret to success is lining up the meetings many months in advance. This is a position OK for someone who travels, especially if you do a lot of networking.
  • Webmaster – Not an elective position, but an important one. If you like writing, the rest is easy because WordPress is all set up.

How We Plan to Conduct the Election

This year we’re trying something different. Chapter 36 will use BallotBin.com to actually conduct the election electronically. We like the website because it’s free, they have a  public service charter, absolute privacy (no spam use of email), and a simple interface. Can’t stuff the ballot box and that sort of thing.

How Do You Sign-up?

Please send an email message to the current Chair Doug Alman through this contact form. Tell him what position you are interested in. We need this information before our October 17 meeting. Thank you.

Making Waves: What’s Ahead for the SBE?

We met Saturday, June 23rd in a nondescript room in the Indianapolis downtown Hilton Hotel from 9 AM till 9 PM. 36 members and national staff attended the SBE Strategic Planning Conference, and I’ll spoil the ending somewhat by saying that there is much consensus on at least what are the most effective and least effective parts of the SBE now.

Attendees seemed to agree that certification and education should remain core reasons for existence. They serve our membership directly, fill niches typically not duplicated by colleges, and are relatively efficient to administer. And I believe the SBE can take a bow at how we are rapidly changing to meet these needs through webinars, education conferences, and challenging new certifications.

The group got sidetracked for a period of time by what I would offer was needless talk about re-branding. Why, some asked, are we called the Society of Broadcast Engineers if so many members now are from alternative allied industries such as fiber and satellite distribution or from nearly pure information technology backgrounds? I don’t see this as a real change. Our members nearly all serve broadcasting. “Broadcast” doesn’t mean that you own a tower; it means “one-to-many.” Cable, fiber, satellite, and web distribution are still legitimate forms of taking a single message and distributing to multiple listeners and viewers.

One discussion that seemed to mute itself was about the relevance of having legal counsel lobbying for technical broadcast issues. Our attorney Chris Imlay, I will tell you, is deserving of love and praise within the society and really knows his stuff with regard to FCC rules. He’s approachable and you can tell he really is interested and cares about injustice in ruling of the airwaves, both in broadcasting and amateur radio (he’s counsel for the ARRL, too). He spends enormous amounts of time studying, advising, and lobbying for the interests of…broadcasters. Not you, the engineer, but for your employer. And that’s the rub with me. He should be billing the National Association of Broadcasters for these activities. When someone new on broadcast spectrum causes interference to broadcasters, it is broadcasters that they are harming, not broadcast engineers directly. I would like to see either NAB taking over that legal bill directly, or hiring the SBE to help look out for their interests as owners.

The challenging part of the meeting came when we began discussing how to attract a broader base to local meetings. Our meetings are central to an involved membership, but they are attended by only a fraction of our membership, and many of those attending are not members. If you pick a program related to radio broadcasting, will your TV engineers attend? If you have highly technical IT presentations, will your traditional broadcast engineers feel left out? How can we best train members to best administer chapters? No hard answers or brilliant suggestions came out of this meeting, but we need to work toward some solutions.

Got ideas? Feel free to respond with your comments.

(Commentary by Gary Stigall, Chapter 36 Program and Certification Chair, and member of the SBE National Board of Directors)

SBE36.ORG v4.0

Welcome to the new website! Our previous version, written with the Mambo content management system, was getting long in the tooth. It was inelegant to work with, and it got so that only Internet Explorer would edit the posts, and that won’t do.

The e-mail newsletter interface and appearance was less than optimal, and it would add random exclamation points to the output.

All that, and the host moved from San Diego to somewhere in Florida, and sometimes the latency would give you sufficient time to go to the restroom waiting for a page load.

I have wanted to play with WordPress, and true to its reputation, it’s elegant and well-documented. When I discover a new feature, I tend to think, “Damn, this is good.”

So I made some new banners in Photoshop, deleted a line of CSS code that made the spacing too high at the top, transferred stories going back to 2005, imported the newsletter subscribers, and added some new posts. The old news transfer was laborious, but it was my own fault for misplacing the password for the database administration, which kept me from doing a text dump.

It’s come a long way from the first edition in 1997 that I edited manually on Netscape Navigator. But the content loaded fast, photos were often added, and hey–the news got out.

I hope to add some very useful new features, including comments from members on our stories and the ability for sponsors to sign-up and renew online. The site is already simple enough to operate that any of you could add a story easily.

I still have to create and post the sponsor banners and move additional old posts.

There’s never enough time.