(Pictured: If know what these are, you may have what it takes to be a broadcast engineer.)
A friend posting on Facebook the other day told a quick story about a broadcast engineer she’d once known—and that was all it took to get me thinking about some of the broadcast engineers I have known.
My first paying job was in Dubuque, which was a large-enough operation to have three engineers. The chief was a very nice man and extremely helpful. But he wore a tie and spent a lot of time in meetings, so if you needed something done, you went to the assistant chief, a quiet man with a shambling gait and a wry sense of humor. He would periodically come into the main studio where the transmitter controls were and perform adjustments to make sure everything was operating within FCC parameters. When he was finished he’d say, “That’s close enough for government work.”
The third engineer was a guy I nearly killed one day.
When a station’s studios are in one physical location and its transmitters are in another, there’s a studio-to-transmitter link (STL). In days of yore, it was a wired link or a telephone line; today, it can be a digital connection via a T1 line. In Dubuque, it was a broadcast link, and one hot summer afternoon circa 1982, it died. The only engineer on duty that day was the third one, Don, who’d been at the station since God was a boy and had been promised a job for as long as he wanted to work. He had been working in the engineers’ shop downstairs when something shorted out on the bench and fried the STL. It wouldn’t be a quick fix.
I was on the air at the time. I could see that the transmitter across the river in East Dubuque, Illinois, was still operating, but nothing I was doing in the studio was getting there. Don came upstairs and explained what had happened. The protocol in the case of a catastrophic failure was this: box up a bunch of carts containing music and commercials, unhook the studio cart machines, put everything in the van, and go across the river to the transmitter site and use the emergency studio there until repairs could be made.
The 22-year-old dipshit I was back then would not have taken this calmly. I am sure that I fumed as Don slowly unwired the cart machines. And I may have urged him to hurry, perhaps gently, but perhaps not. I loaded up the music and commercial carts and anything else I thought we’d need over there, grabbed the keys to the van, and raced out to the parking lot. Don eventually came tottering out with the cart machines, and we started for the transmitter site.
Traffic was heavy, and it was clearly going to take longer than the usual five minutes to get there. As I navigated the van and cursed the drivers in front of me, I noticed that Don, in the passenger seat next to me, was breathing heavily and did not look well at all.
“You OK, Don?” “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, obviously not fine. “I’m just a little winded.” “You gonna make it?” I asked. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
We eventually got to the transmitter site and into the ancient emergency studio, a relic of the 1940s, an old control board with dials and buttons made of Bakelite plastic, equipped with giant transcription turntables. We brushed off the dead flies and set to work, Don slowly wiring up the cart machines, then going out to where the transmitter was and doing the necessary voodoo to get the emergency studio live. I watched his labors with great concern hoping he wouldn’t drop dead on me, and that if he did, he’d do it after the studio was operational.
Long story short: we got the station back on the air from the transmitter, and Don didn’t die until 2011.
Radio types amongst the readership, some of whom are broadcast engineers, are hereby encouraged to share engineer stories in the comments. I bet yours are much better than mine.