On Being a Broadcast Engineer
By Bob Burnham

What leads a semi-normal everyday kid into a lifetime of techie work?

Over the years, I have realized there are actually people who would love to do what I do for a living. People have actually said that to me. The reality is there is actually no way to totally define and understand WHAT I do by people outside the industry. Fact is, it has been a very long and twisty path that led to now. I didn’t take the traditional approach, nor do I take the traditional approach to anything. But that’s me. It might not be you.

That combined with the fact that in 2010, there simply IS no easy or overnight path into Broadcast Engineering unless your family owns a radio station!

The “traditional approach”, however, CAN be a good starter path that can work well to getting on the road. It may include getting some sort of technical degree or formal training. There is no substitute, however, for hands-on experience. If someone won’t give you that hands-on experience, then you have to create your own. I did both. The only path to becoming a GOOD Broadcast Engineer is to gain that experience, and accept the fact you will learn something new every day, will find yourself specializing in certain areas, but you will never learn everything.

Also, be advised there are bigger salaries and greater job security in other technical fields. But if one has embraced the industry as a whole, then perhaps Broadcast Engineering is where you want to be. If you’re in it strictly for money, it might NOT be what you want.

In my case, I went totally overboard as far as practical experience.

I realized, for example, when I was about 12 years old, that a $15 Lafayette Radio battery-powered mixer could actually be turned into a serviceable broadcast console if enough extra switches and gadgets were added.

So what did I do? I ripped the guts out of a perfectly good audio mixer, stuck them into a bigger “box,” with extra buzzers, whistles and even a meter. I also realized that if I ripped the guts out of ANOTHER mixer and added some stereo pots, I could have a stereo console. Simple, right? Well, I was just a kid who had to find out for real. And when the thing actually worked, I was excited!

Those mixers were only 1-transister circuits that ran on a single 9-volt battery. Soon enough, I was duplicating the circuit with better quality components. As a teenager, I ended up building my own audio console from scratch that evolved. Soon, as decent quality op amps become available, I would put more advanced home-brew electronics into my consoles.

Next, I bought Lafayette’s tube type phono oscillator which put a few milliwatts on the AM band. Eventually I got bored with that, but not before a friend and I would spend hours making DJ tapes, and ultimately taking over the student radio station during my senior year of high school.

After those years, in my life, everything became bigger, more powerful and in some cases, more dangerous, but these were all things that led to what I do now…natural curiousity was a big part of it.

Those interests were concurrent to my interests in related areas. “Old-time” radio programming was another area that I stumbled into by accident, hearing old shows being rebroadcast on an area station. This happened in a 2-story “shack” built in my parents backyard. “The Shack” (no relation to today’s Radio Shack stores) was built from surplus construction materials. It had actual shingles, a slanted roof, carpeted interior, intercoms and a radio and speakers built into the walls, all by me!

I had an “air conditioner” that consisted of a discarded phonograph motor with a hand-carved wooden fan blade. A block of ice sat behind the fan. It wasn’t very efficient!

The radio was a junked chassis that someone had thrown out (again tube type).  The set was mounted on a home-made panel centrally mounted on the second “floor” of the shack. A carpeted ladder led to a trap door to the second floor.

For the receiver, once I replaced some capacitors, and added fresh tubes I ended up with a high quality receiver that was my connection to the outside world. The programming on the AM band fascinated me back then, and I wanted to be a part of it and would be soon enough. “The Shack” along with countless projects since then would be a key source of my early education.

Thinking back on the programming being aired...
There were no computers for home use at the time, but the Detroit area was rich with some of the best broadcast talent in the prime of their careers. The original WCAR-AM (which is now WDFN the Fan) featured guys like David L. Prince, H.B. Phillips and Warren Pierce. WXYZ-AM by then featured Dick Purtan mornings, then Johnny Randall (and later Tom Bigby), Joe Sasso, Eddie Rogers and Dave Lockhart. WJR was another story altogether.

But the point was I heard them all through trashed equipment that I was able to bring back to life in my own self-created environment.

That was the kind of kid I was, sometimes with a short attention span, but what ever interest grabbed my attention I stuck with it for a very long time.

My first job in radio where I actually got paid was WBRB-AM in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. Leigh Feldsteen (Gilda Radner’s uncle) was the General Manager, and I was his mid-day air talent Monday through Friday. I was the youngest full time staff member, and we played all sorts of Wayne Newton, Frank Sinatra and similar records. I would read the obituaries everyday sponsored by a funeral home, and ladies in their 80s would call me for requests.

I had to do a lot of remotes from a beat up remote trailer where the air conditioning rarely worked and the equipment was barely functional, however, sport coats and ties were required!  One day out of frustration, I found myself re-wiring the trailer. Noticing that, the GM offered me the position of Chief Engineer! Bob Seitz was the regular Chief Engineer at the time, a great guy, but he was well past retirement years.

But I didn't stick around...
Instead, I left WBRB eventually for a gig at Ann Arbor’s WAAM. It was early 1979. There, I would be immediately put to work assisting their Chief Engineer installing new audio consoles as wellas doing all the many remote set-ups with "Fat Bob" Taylor.  Taylor would become a good friend. 

In the studios, we were the only station in town at the time with slide pots! I would be a full time on-air dude there too, as well as their Production Director. I would have been happy to have worked there indefinitely, but I got too expensive and the industry was changing.

By the end of the 1980s, it was my ability to fix stuff, and install anything under sometimes adverse conditions that would allow me to survive at all in the broadcast industry.

I was in the right place at the right time, and eventually knew all the right people.

There are a lot of people who gave me the incentive or motivation to continue. You really need those kind of people and to feel accountable to someone other than yourself.
Ultimately, you have to WANT to be the best you can be.

For someone outside of the industry, that’s why a place like Specs Howard is so important. The school really has a mixture of the best people in all departments that collectively have created success for both the school and its students under adverse conditions.

You don’t have to be flipping burgers or making minimum wage at a retail store if that’s not what you want. But you do have to do whatever you need to do to create your world, and it doesn’t come overnight. It might not be exactly what you expected, either.

I never had aspirations of being a Broadcast Engineer. It was a means to an end. I would have been happy being that 6-10 nighttime guy on the radio on the AM band. This was both a creative outlet that had a set of responsibilities that went with it that I was very comfortable with. But change is part of the game, and whether even I will always “do what I do” now is unknown. It’s not a perfect world either…but I have to admit it’s a pretty cool one.

If you want a part of it, get out there and start tearing apart equipment and re-building it into something different….or taking what is so obviously someone else’s trash and turning it into serviceable gear. That’s what I did.

-Bob Burnham
4/2/2010
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