Category Archives: Commentary

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.

Making Waves: An Ode to Ham Radio

Attending once again the annual NAB Ham Radio Reception reminded me of the great impact ham radio has had on broadcasting. Many familiar faces, both famous in the industry and not, were in attendance.

According to my old log book, I made my first ham radio QSO (conversation) 40 years ago on May 1, 1971.

I had first seen a ham radio station when my seventh grade math teacher, John Kellmer, offered to see his son Marvin’s set-up because he had overheard me tell a friend about my new Philips electronics experimenters kit. Marv, WA7ECV, had a huge boat anchor of a transmitter, a Heathkit TX-1 “Apache,” and its accompanying single sideband adaptor. He had a new Drake R4B receiver that glowed greenish blue with a frequency dial accurate to a kilohertz. I wanted one immediately. An approaching thunderstorm allowed Marv to demonstrate static buildup on his inverted-V dipole by putting a neon light across the terminals and watching it light up when the voltage exceeded about 90 volts DC. I grinned for about an hour solid there.

About two years later, when a couple guys from my Spanish class, Steve Coffman and Lee Romine, said they were interested in ham radio, we plowed ahead and studied for the Novice class FCC license. I had prepared with by ordering from Lafayette Electronics an Ameco Morse code key, a code study phonograph record, and an ARRL book, “How to Become a Radio Amateur.”

I rode with Lee 45 minutes to nearby Bend, Oregon to take the license exam. Steve and his mailman, ham K7HOG, met us at the home of a friend where the exam was given. Steve, Lee, and I all passed, then waited for our licenses to arrive from the FCC.

My ticket, WN7RGQ, arrived the next month, and I was on the air May 1. Unfortunately, I had purchased a cheap new Ten-Tec PM-2 transceiver that, while cute, could only output a bit over a watt continuous wave (CW). And like all Novices of the day, I was restricted to whatever frequencies I happened to own crystals for. Nonetheless, I made dozens of contacts, and developed a couple of friends. I would chat with kids my age in Washington state or over an hour at a time using Morse code.

We grew restless to advance to a class of license that would less restrict our output power and frequency movement, so we began studying for our General Class licenses. Mr. Kellmer wanted his license as well, so he took us weekly to the community college for an adult education class in license prep. We learned basic electronics, including tube amplifier theory, using an Ameco book, and practiced faster code on an Instructograph paper tape player in an adjacent temporary building.

When we were ready for the exam, we took a 4-hour bus ride to Portland, where the nearest FCC field office was located. I remember that the office staff seemed like they were doing everyone a favor offering the exams. We all flunked the first go-round, Steve (WN7RGR) and I on the code receiving, and Lee  (WN7RGS) on the technical exam. But when we retook the test a month later, we all passed and our “N” callsigns became “A” callsigns.

Ham radio equipment used in the US had been nearly 100% US made, but the Japanese were just introducing their equipment here, and I bought the new Kenwood T-599 transmitter and matching R-599 receiver. They had a beautiful brushed metal front panel but cheap looking meters. With 200 watts, I began talking across the Pacific to Japan, the Soviet Union, Australia, and New Zealand.

Marv had a friend who worked at the local radio station, KRCO (AM), and encouraged me to give him a call to get a tour. During their Sunday afternoon playback of a performance from the Ashland Shakespearean Festival, Mike Toney showed me a gorgeously crafted Collins 20-T transmitter, and a new Gates Yard console and heavy Gates turntables. I was hooked. A year later when he went away to college, I took Mike’s place at the station.

The funny thing is, that largely replaced ham radio for me. I sold my radios to buy my first car, then went away to college, got married, and so on. Like many, now that my kids are independent teens now and I no longer hang out with big transmitters, I’ve come back to ham radio to some degree, and have a nice new bunch of ham friends.

Until recently, broadcasting seemed a lot like amateur radio. Broadcasting used larger transmitters and more substantial antennas, but otherwise they had a lot in common. Broadcast engineers and DJs were often hams who just wanted to get paid for what we loved to do. And we often made our own equipment, especially when it wasn’t commercially available or considered too expensive to buy. You often saw staff-built control panels and audio interface boxes, but I’ve seen homebrew FM automation systems, audio mixers, TV master control switchers, and all forms of interface control systems. The 1950s through 1990s were times when labor was relatively cheaper, there was less competition, and leveraged buyouts hadn’t yet gotten underway.

Today’s broadcast engineer is more likely to have been a computer tinkerer than a ham radio tinkerer. Just as most hams are appliance operators who more configure software and hardware systems than make radios from scratch, so are stations now made with modular computers that require skills to assemble them into working systems, but not at component level.

Ham radio may seem to be increasingly irrelevant in light of the ease of worldwide internet communication, but the number of licensees keep gaining. With the new digital modes, there are numerous interesting specialties to explore. I dabble in summer VHF “e-skip,” PSK modes, and sideband ragchews.But more importantly, I have fantastic new ham friends with whom I share not only Field Day, but life in general.

I have two teenagers who certainly think that ham radio is irrelevant in the internet age, but seem to spend a lot of time sending and receiving short messages on their miniature 800MHz transceivers.

Let’s take a moment to celebrate the hams among us. Some are not active, but many are, and some do remarkable things with their ham hobby. Here are a few in the San Diego broadcasting market you might know:

K6AM John Barcroft, ex-KGB/KPQP Chief Engineer, San Diego
KG6QAN, Mike Curran, San Diego County Board of Education Engineer, San Diego
N6QEK, Steve Frick, Clear Channel Communications Engineer, El Cajon
W6VR, Bob Gonsett, owner of Communications General Corporation, RF consultant, Fallbrook
AB6CQ, Albert Gordon, Del Mar
KG6VFU, Dave Hassell, XETV Engineer, Encinitas
W7GAS, Walter Johnson, Telcom Design Corp. Owner, Jamul
KC6CLN, Tim Lange, Cox Cable Technician, El Cajon
N6OEI, Matt Lunati, Combined Wireless Owner, La Mesa
KD6GMW, Leon Messenie, KPBS Director of Engineering, La Mesa
WA9UGS, Steve Moreen, RF Specialities of California President, San Diego
KG6HSQ, Ronald Patten, broadcast engineer, Fallbrook
KF6YB, Oscar Quintanilla, Cox Cable Engineer, La Mesa
KI6ASX, Paul Redfield, XETV Director of Engineering, La Mesa
KF6ATM, James Schechter, RF engineer, Valley Center
W6GLS, Gary Stigall, TV Magic CTO, San Diego
KF6OGF, Kenneth Tondreau, Grass Valley Sales Representative, Calabasas
K6OBS, Richard Warren, wsRadio Manager, San Diego
AF6AV, Phil Wells, past CE KYXY/KJQY, San Diego
NE6I, Dennis Younker, Cox Cable Video Engineering Supervisor, Spring Valley