The training has left the station

Radio technical training is at an all-time low: but what to do about it?

By John Maizels
Posted 18 July 2016, 2.35am bst
James Cridland

Over on RadioINSIGHT, veteran Engineer Chris Tarr is having a good old lash-out at the state of radio engineering skill. He's pointing out the obvious: we have a desperate skill shortage. Chris is looking at the train that's charging towards the radio industry, the train which represents the day when nobody will know how to turn on the lights let alone fix them. The train that has nobody on it who is being well trained in the finer points of broadcast engineering.

Lack of skills in engineering is not a new problem. Don't get me wrong; every day I work with exceptional people in the industry who have amazing skills, and for whom the trip to work in is a joy. They work in radio because they want to, and because it's still exciting. And those people keep us on air.

But think back - if you're of an age, you'll recall the days of Engineering as a major department in any station. When I was a lad, my first job was in a major metro station which had a Chief, a deputy chief, a Senior Tech, two techs and a junior. I was the junior. Everyone in the station had a BOCP or was on the track to get one. Technical capability was taken seriously. My next job in radio was at a country station in a town of 10,000 people. The engineering department had a Chief (who had built most of the gear), a tech and a junior. Such was the way in those days. Three technologists in a station that only had four jocks. I was the junior jock - and, famously, I was fired for pissing off the Chief Engineer. Now I am one.

Spool forward to today, and we have networks where a handful of techs support two, three, eight or maybe 80 stations. Tarr works in a pond rather bigger than Australia, where clearly the shortage of skill is even more dire. He talks about stations off the air for a whole day, or operating at 20% power for weeks. Would that ever happen in Australia?

Today, there's no formal training available even if you want it. No qualifications to get. No certifications on offer. No licensing needed to operate. So no incentive to put yourself through the pain of learning. It suited the industry to allow decay in the education systems which kept a supply of qualified engineers flowing, and now - with exception of a few islands of internally-driven training - the flow has stopped. We've lost the culture that demanded solid understanding of our craft.

And whose fault is this?

Ultimately it goes to those people who make the business decisions on how many staff they need. It's all about risk, and if a business owner thinks that the bottom-line reward is more important than the business risk, and they're prepared to take the risk of no techs, then they've made a conscious decision. It might not be the world's best long-term decision, but they see it as valid. Until, of course, there's nobody left who knows how to turn on the lights and then it looks more like folly.

Broadcasting is a technology business. In a story on, James Cridland asserts that AM and FM aren't dead yet. Assuming he's right, then someone better be around who understands whether mixed polarisation is better than a 4CX1000 run in class A. Or why pin 1 of an XLR is important for phantom power whether the load is bridged or not. Or what you need to derive an AES mix-minus for a hybrid, whether it's connected to VoIP with PoE or not.

The techie you want on hand to keep you out of trouble is the person who understands that last paragraph. Who internalises every piece of theory that I just conflated, and who knows why it's complete bilge. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that the community of people who have that skill at their fingertips has dwindled, continues to dwindle, and maybe we're not so far from the day when the train hits us and the lights do go out.

To be fair, it's not just radio; the TV and video production industry is now populated with practitioners whose theoretical knowledge is wafer-thin, and whose response is pavlovian: the bell rings and they salivate, but when the buzzer goes off they have no training that tells them what to do.

It's a handful of old farts that's keeping the industry afloat, and that can't last for ever. Tarr is right about that. Dammit, the old farts are desperate to pass on their skills. But to whom?

I'll go to my grave asserting that a portable industry certification scheme is one way to encourage learning, skilling, and better quality within the ranks of technologists. But that's not happening this week.

What is happening this week in Australia is Technorama, where community broadcasting technologists get together for a weekend of technology swap, a bit of training, a lot of community building, and a fair amount of chin-wagging. Technorama isn't the replacement for a proper education system, but it's at least a piece of the puzzle.

In fact, community radio stations might be the last true learning sandbox in this country.

Skilling is a shared responsibility, and when the lights go out it's too late.

Has the training left your station?

Ed: In the UK, TechCon is a similar event. It's happening again this year at the end of November. Also, while not focused on the tech, Next Radio, the radio ideas conference, welcomes all types of radio people for a day on 19 September in central London.

John Maizels — John Maizels has spent the last 50 years dabbling in IT and broadcast engineering; radio then television. These days he is a technology evangelist who recognises Ohm as a god, helps TV students to understand the difference between SDI and a sprocket, and believes that every engineer should be forced to feel the pain that they inflict on their customers. He still enjoys doing the occasional VO and is passionate about radio and training. He is a Fellow of the SMPTE, and volunteer President of Technorama Inc.


5 years, 4 months ago

Radio TechCon 2016 will take place on Monday, 28th November in central London - there's a fabulous article all about it here: :-)

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