Engineering Creativity

We engineers have an often ill-deserved reputiation: Charmingly referred to as the Programme Prevention Department by some, and by others as Them Who Keep Making My Headphones Sound Weird. They wouldn’t sound weird if you presenters stopped running over the cable!

Broadcast Mixer

The truth is, engineers (or, if updating your CV: “Broadcast Technology Specialist”) really are a creative bunch at heart.  Often, we’re as passionate as the presentation team about radio, ideas and ways to create must-listen content and as trouble-free as possible.  In my case, just not as bubbly/excitable/outgoing as your average producer who deals with all kinds of people from presenters, managers and the occasional passing celebrity.

Presenters have their studios – We have our basements and end-of-corridor hidey-holes…

Kenny Everett didn’t get to the top of his game by not understanding how the studio worked [source: Ann Charles, Next Radio 2016] – I agree, and had been wondering for ages how best to articulate this to others…  but it’s the same in everday life, like your car: Knowing how to treat it, why it needs fuel in the tank, air in the tyres and why the clutch needs to go down when changing gear.  You get more enjoyment and a longer life from your car when you drive it correctly: Radio studios are just the same – and, like cars, if they start smoking and/or cutting-out, there is a problem to address.

Engineering is also a great way into “radio” as a career – Presenting, producing, internships etc are an extremely competitive field, so why not take your bundles of enthusiasm and apply it to the other end of programme-making?  I always say that engineers aren’t necessarily smart people per se, but simply have a good memory and retain various bits of (often minor) detail about buttons, cables and IP addresses.

OK, you may need to display some smart-thinking when you’re required to take various bits of that knowledge, re-arrange them and come up with a novel solution to a problem.  That’s the fun side of engineering – getting creative, making that programme all the more easier for the presenter.  The boring side, of course, is knowing which of the 48 sockets in a patchbay contains the studio’s post-processing output and how to reset the digital console because somebody has edited the daypart memories and the Drivetime presenter’s microphone isn’t where it’s supposed to be!

In around 2000/1, I recall a piece in – I think, The Radio Magazine from an engineer who was fed-up at being expected to change fax rolls and re-stock the printers with paper when they’d much rather be replacing a worn out “Mic” fader or finding ways to make a outside-broadcast happen.

How do you make an engineer’s day – aside from not breaking something?  Ask them for help: Whether it’s enquiring about the limits of the equipment, something adventurous with telephone/IP lines or just a simple note saying: “I noticed this was loose, but I was able to tighten it without raising an incident ticket or calling you at 3am”

As Bruce Willis said in Armageddon: “I’m sure you got a bunch of guys just sittin’ around thinking sh*t up…” – Well yes, and the occasional woman, too. Not enough, sadly.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a Community Radio station or a large broadcast network – whether 1 “fixer” takes care of things as-and-when, or you happen to have an engineer on-site 24/7.  Problems arise at all stations, just as much when there’s expensive equipment as those with little “Airmate” consoles and a generic freebie playout system.  Quite often, it’s the smaller station that has the most problem because there’s no Air-Crash Policy in place (Ann touches on this in her video above) – What happens if there’s a problem?  A major problem that is: A guest mic not working, playout system crash, lights failure etc.

Mixer LabelsBreakages and Failures

Nothing annoys an engineer more than finding out that something has broken through carelessness and/or mistreatment.  Sure, accidents happen and there are times when a pair of headphones will only work out of the right ear (bad news for you BBC types who enjoy split-PFL), microphone arms start drooping, squeaking or the elastic shockmount falls apart… and woe betide any “DJ” who spills something sugary into the faders on the desk!

Even worse is not bothering to tell us; causing problems for the next team to use the studio.  I wonder if this is because you think you may get into trouble for unplugging something or not being able to restart the editing software?  It’s much better to approach the engineering team and say “I think I may have changed something or caused an audio signal to get lost” (very common these days with digital routing).

Be nice to us – and the equipment – but don’t expect miracles…

How many times have you had the problem of audio sources getting “lost” due to a channel’s A/B button being pressed?  If you are fed-up of getting calls/texts at crazy times for what you think are trivial matters – why not solve the problem with a simple studio “guide” that sits on the desk and is immediately to hand should the operator need to reset everything back to neutral.