How to Break Into Broadcast Technology

Radio, television, and online streaming services need engineers

21 March 2018

Breaking TV news stories, live televised events, and streaming services such as Netflix and Pandora are all made possible by broadcast engineers working behind the scenes. They ensure that the sound and images are of high quality, and that the lighting, equipment, and transmission systems work smoothly without a hitch. And because everything now runs on computers, IT skills are a must.

That’s according to Senior Member Jim Leifer, president of the Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE) and a 30-year veteran of the radio and TV business. He’s now the senior manager of broadcast operations at American Tower, a wireless and broadcast communications infrastructure company in Woburn, Mass.

“Working in broadcasting is not your typical 9-to-5 job,” Leifer says. “Every time someone turns on the radio or TV, there has to be something on the air. That’s the responsibility of broadcast engineers, and it requires careful planning and execution by people working around the clock.”

And with the latest mobile devices, smart televisions, and streaming services, the broadcast industry entered a new era, notes Member John Ferder, secretary and treasurer of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). For more than 20 years, Ferder was director of studio and postproduction engineering for CBS. He worked on “60 Minutes,” the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

The two engineers have advice on what’s required to make it in the industry today.

THE SKILLS YOU NEED

For those graduating university or for engineers who want to make a career change, knowledge of communications systems, high-frequency and optical electronics, or microwave theory and techniques is a must. And with the increase in streaming services and ultra-high-definition broadcasting, today’s broadcast engineers also must know how to deal with data networking, network system integration, and video encoding, Ferder says, and they need an understanding of IP for video production and transport.

Such tech skills are becoming mandatory in today’s environment, Leifer agrees. To be successful, he adds, engineers must also be able to think on their feet and solve problems quickly when something goes awry during a broadcast. “The most successful broadcast engineers I know are consistently able to resolve issues efficiently,” he says.

Doing well requires strong project-management skills, he adds. Engineers might be charged with building or designing equipment or even an entire studio—which involves communicating with engineers, setting priorities, and translating technical issues to nontechnical colleagues and third-party vendors. “Engineers without strong project-management skills struggle to move up in the industry,” he says.

Flexibility is important, notes. “You won’t be doing the same thing every day. Today it might be an issue with the computer server, tomorrow a transmitter, the next day with your project’s budget.”

Project-management skills and flexibility really come into play during breaking news events and power outages.

“You need a Plan A, B, and C,” Leifer says. “For example, how will the network switch over to another studio? Having contingency plans in place is critical.”

FOOT IN THE DOOR

Job opportunities exist in local media markets as well as at international broadcasting companies and video-sharing services including YouTube. Some broadcast engineering jobs handle sports or political events. And non-media companies, like Google and Microsoft, hire broadcast engineers too.

“With so many changes in the industry going on, everyone is busy,” Leifer says. “Job openings are everywhere.”

A host of opportunities are available even in industries you might not expect, such as cybersecurity, health care, and government, says Ferder. He suggests signing up for broadcast engineering communities on LinkedIn and similar websites as well as professional associations—such as the IEEE Broadcast Technology Society, the SMPTE, and the SBE—to access job listings and networking opportunities.

These groups also offer professional-development courses, which Ferder recommends for those looking to get more experience. Taking such courses and earning certifications shows potential employers that you have the knowledge to do the job. Ferder also suggests mentioning in your résumé and cover letter previous roles that might be applicable to a broadcast position.

Both Ferder and Leifer got their starts as maintenance technicians at studios where they learned about the equipment and the workings of broadcasting. Working as a technician, Ferder adds, is another way to move into the field.

“Broadcast is a fun and exciting business,” Leifer says. “If you crave a deadline-driven, fast-paced position, then this is the best job in the world. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

This article is part of our March 2018 special issue on the future of television.

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