Education and Training: High school plus training
Salary: Median—$28,010 per year
Employment Outlook: Fair
Definition and Nature of the Work
Behind the headliners who produce, direct, and act in radio and television shows, there is a cast of skilled workers who put the shows on the air. Broadcast technicians operate and maintain the electronic equipment that makes it possible to transmit radio and television shows. This equipment transmits, or sends, signals through the air. When these signals are picked up by television sets and radios, they are turned into sound pictures.
Radio broadcast technicians generally handle three kinds of work. Transmitter technicians run the equipment that transmits radio signals. They keep a transmitting log and comply with the various rules of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Control technicians keep records of the programs their stations broadcast. They sit across from announcers at switchboards called control desks and signal to the announcers when recorded songs or commercials are about to end. In this way the announcers know when to start or stop talking. Control desks allow technicians to switch from local to network broadcasting. Sometimes radio news reporters who are outside the studio want to get their stories on the air immediately. The control technicians make the proper connections so that such reports can be broadcast from the station. Maintenance technicians set up, maintain, and repair broadcasting equipment. When a station buys new equipment, it is the maintenance engineer who hooks it up with the system.
Some small stations hire one technician to do all of these jobs. Large stations and networks, on the other hand, have several technicians specializing in each of these areas. If the station is on the air twenty-four hours a day, twelve to fifteen broadcast technicians may be employed at one time. However, even though broadcast technicians in large stations specialize in one of the three areas of work, they often shift their specific job assignments, thus handling all the jobs at one time or another. On the job, these technicians are often called engineers.
Chief technicians supervise the work of all the technicians. Master control engineers are responsible for the overall technical quality and transmission of the broadcast.
Transmitter technicians and maintenance technicians work in television as well as radio. Maintenance technicians fix the cameras and many other kinds of equipment their stations buy. Transmitter technicians work near the transmitters, which send out the television signals. Often these transmitters are far from the main buildings that house the television stations.
Because television is both an auditory and a visual medium, television stations need several kinds of technicians that radio stations do not require. Lighting technicians and boom operators spend most of their time in the studios where television shows are performed. Lighting technicians set up the lights in the studios. Boom operators handle the very large microphones that pick up the voices of actors in studios. These microphones, called booms, are hung on long beams that move over the actors' heads. Every time the actors move from one spot to another, the boom must follow them. These technicians must see that the booms are always in the right place.
Camera operators take moving pictures with television cameras. Videotape is used in television in somewhat the same way that film is used in the movies. However, television shows are not as heavily edited as the movies. Only one television camera is connected to the video recording device at a time. Reshooting can be very costly, so camera operators must be very alert to the "cues," or instructions, their directors give them. Camera operators wear earphones so that they can hear directors' cues.
Directors sit in separate control rooms at a distance from the studios. Next to them sit technical directors, who work at switchboards that have dials, buttons, and switches. They control all their equipment through these switchboards. When a director uses a camera, the technical director throws a switch so that only the signal from that camera is picked up. Technical directors are generally responsible for the special effects for their shows as well.
Working alongside technical directors are video control technicians and audio control technicians. They ensure that the camera and boom operators pick up the best possible picture and sound during the shooting of a scene. If, for example, too loud a sound is picked up, an audio control technician can lower it from the control room. Stations also need the services of color control technicians. They maintain picture quality by making sure that the colors in the studio are picked up and broadcast accurately.
Audio recording technicians and video recording technicians are found in master control rooms where they operate the computer software and other equipment that records the sound and picture picked up in the studio. When shows are broadcast live, they are recorded at the same time they are aired. Ideally, shows are recorded before they are aired so that recording technicians can improve the quality even further.
Overseeing the signals that a station sends out is the person who runs the master control switchboard. At most stations video control technicians fill these posts. They are responsible for switching from local to network broadcasting. In stations with more than one studio, they see to it that signals are picked up from the right studio at the right time.
Not all television shows are produced in studios. News shows, for example, are shot on location—wherever news stories happen. Field technicians run the broadcasting equipment used outside studios. Sometimes stories shot in the field are recorded and edited before they are aired; at other times, it is important to broadcast them at the very moment they are happening. The video control technician in the master control room is responsible for switching in a live broadcast from the field.
Most broadcast technicians are able to do several of these jobs, and often technicians change duties as needed at their stations.
Education and Training Requirements
High school courses in algebra, trigonometry, electronics, and physics provide a good background for broadcast technicians. Technical schools and community colleges offer electronics training. Advanced training is helpful in obtaining supervisory jobs or specialized jobs in large stations. College graduates with degrees in engineering usually work in supervisory or executive positions.
By law, anyone who operates a broadcast transmitter must have a restricted radiotelephone operator permit. No test is required for this permit. However, technicians who work with microwave or other internal radio communications equipment must have a general radiotelephone operator license from the FCC. To get this license, the candidate must pass a series of tests. Many schools offer courses that prepare prospective broadcast technicians for these tests.
Getting the Job
Broadcast technicians usually start at small stations. Once they have some experience, they can move on to larger stations or to networks. Interested individuals can apply directly to radio and television stations all over the country. Many technicians move to small towns for beginning jobs, and later to larger cities where the bigger stations are located.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Most broadcast technicians advance by getting jobs in larger stations that have bigger audiences. In stations where many technicians are employed, the more experienced become chief technicians. However, most chiefs have college degrees in electrical engineering.
Competition for jobs in broadcasting technology is keen. Computer-controlled broadcasting will limit job growth even as the broadcasting industry grows. Consolidation of radio stations is another factor that will affect employment opportunities. Also, the field is rather small. Almost all job openings will be the result of technicians leaving the job for electronic jobs in other areas. The best job opportunities will be found in small towns and cities.
Most broadcast technicians work forty hours a week and receive overtime pay for extra hours. Because there are few employees at small stations, technicians there generally put in a great deal of overtime. Night and weekend work is often necessary at twenty-four-hour-per-day stations.
Radio broadcast technicians generally work in pleasant offices, and radio work is usually more routine than television work. Technicians who work in television are often under a great deal of pressure. Field technicians in both radio and television work under all kinds of conditions, depending on where they are needed. They must work outdoors in all kinds of weather.
Where to Go for More Information
Broadcast Education Association
1771 N St. NW
Washington, DC 20036-2891
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
900 Seventh St. NW
Washington, DC 20001
National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians
501 Third St. NW, Ste. 880
Washington, D.C. 20001-2797
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings for broadcast technicians vary, depending on job location, experience, and skill. Those who work at large stations in big cities make much more money than those who work at small stations with few listeners. Also, technicians who work at stations that carry advertising earn more than those at public and educational stations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for broadcast technicians is $28,010 per year. The highest 10 percent earn more than $62,850 per year. The median annual salary for audio and video equipment technicians is $32,570. Benefits include paid vacations.