By Grainger Editorial Staff 5/25/22
Second of a skilled trades exploration series: broadcast, sound and video technician
More people quit their jobs in November 2021 than in any month in the last 20 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
This shift created worker shortages across many industries, perhaps none more notable than in skilled trades. An analysis of job postings by the staffing firm PeopleReady found that openings in skilled trades increased 50% from before the pandemic to spring 2021.
What does it take to qualify for these plentiful roles in skilled trades, what is the work like and how much can you get paid? Our series, The Job You Want, helps answer these questions.
Broadcast, video and sound technicians help set up, dismantle, operate, maintain and troubleshoot the equipment in all kinds of media. Their responsibility starts with the microphone or camera and goes through the entire system, to the transmitter and eventually the output a user receives.
The connectivity demands of remote work and the growth of digital content production are both good news for the job prospects of broadcast, video and sound technicians. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 21% job growth in this field through 2030. It should be noted, however, that this is not a high-volume field and this percentage means an increase of about 30,000 jobs.
But there is more to the job growth than just the raw numbers. Geary Morrill is the Education Committee chair for the Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE), a trade organization with about 5,000 members based in Indianapolis. He notes that like many skilled trades, broadcast techs are getting older, and a high number of today’s professionals expect to retire in the coming years, leaving a gap both in the workforce and in the institutional knowledge and mentorship associated with experienced workers.
There are a lot of ways into this field. It could start in high school with student-run radio stations, TV stations and webcasts. Technical schools offer a wide range of degrees and diploma programs. You could find tracks for audio engineer, audio production, broadcast production, music technology, digital media production and more.
Morrill said, however, that many applicable two- and even four-year degree programs have been phased out. SBE offers a series of online courses and webinars as one way to help fill in the gap. For those in the military, the Defense Information School has related courses.
Initial training is just a start, however. Whereas 30 or 40 years ago, a broadcast technician might even have designed their own equipment, today’s IP-based technology is mass-produced, more plug-and-play, well-documented and more reliable. However, it’s continually evolving and so professionals need to stay up with the latest and greatest.
Further, working as a broadcast, sound or video technician demands more than technical skill. You’re working with people behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera or microphone.
“We’re a people industry; soft skills are important too,” Morrill said. “Probably 30 or 40 years ago we weren't even talking about those, though they were important, we just hadn't defined them like we do today. That’s an area we’re starting to emphasize more with our membership.”
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) used to require broadcast engineers to obtain an individual license, which was good for a lifetime. Most have been phased out. They still exist for marine radio systems and other niche systems, for example, but if you plan to work in most over-the-air or streaming fields, licensing is not required. States also do not require licenses.
SBE aims to fill that gap by providing certifications which are accepted across the industry. There is no regulatory requirement to get a certification, but some jobs, Morrill said, will expect candidates to have SBE certification. There are four main levels -- technologist, broadcast engineer, senior engineer and professional engineer, which build on each other, as well as computer networking and station operator levels, plus several specialist certifications. SBE certifications need to be renewed every five years, owing to the evolution of the technology.
A second organization, Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association (AVIXA), offers a Certified Technology Specialist program, with additional separate tracks for system design and installation.
What you’ll invest to become a broadcast technician is fairly straightforward. An associate degree is usually a two-year program if taken full-time. Research courses and programs in your area to understand tuition and fees. Financial aid could be available.
SBE certifications are under $100. Morrill said SBE is also developing a program for entry-level candidates called the Technical Professional Training Program for less than $500. It’s designed so a candidate can get a basic core of information to begin working in the field.
There are not a lot of other costs, beyond time. You won’t need to buy technical equipment or special PPE. Union membership and dues could be necessary, especially to do certain kinds of freelance work.
Morrill notes that the lines among the broadcast, sound and video disciplines are blurring. Many radio stations stream video from inside the studio. TV stations and shows produce podcasts. Newspapers are streaming video and audio.
“Look at how many different opportunities there are for people to consume content,” he said. “There isn’t a major production house in the country that isn’t trying to do their own program, alongside what goes on with broadcast.”
Most SBE members work at local radio or TV stations. But you might also run the mixing board for a live concert, do post-production sound mixing for a show or work on a crew for a live sporting event.
“As an example, we had someone come to us at a recent national convention, and they were seeking folks to work with their industry on a full-time basis, but they're on-demand for sporting events and stuff. They were more than happy to take someone at our entry level of certification and train them up.”
In an era of 24-hour media, technicians are needed at all hours. If you find mixing sound for concerts or working on the broadcast crew at a sporting event is a good time, chuck the 8-to-5 idea out the window. Not only are the work hours irregular, there is an added degree of difficulty with live or deadline-driven work. Live production means troubleshooting on the spot.
"If someone wanted a good boring desk job, this probably wouldn’t be it," Morrill said. "But if they enjoy the challenge of dealing with some unique situations and they happen to thrive a little bit on having deadlines to air, this can be a very interesting job.”
A lot of the work is indoors, but live events may require working in the elements. Concerts, of course, can bring loud noise. You’ll work with people, as noted before, and some of those people may lean on your technical ability for more than just the broadcast. Someone might ask you to fix a lock on a door, for instance, because you’ve demonstrated the capability to make things work.
But there is a side to the work that is more exciting, if not necessarily glamorous.
“People tend to forget within our industry, there’s a showbiz component to it,” Morrill said. “That still exists. It’s probably more in TV than radio. Once people get involved in our industry, and they get involved with late-breaking news or sporting events with championships, that (excitement) is still in there.”
BLS reports that the median wage for broadcast, sound and video technicians is just over $49,000, about 10% higher than the median annual wage for all workers ($45,760). Entry-level salaries can be lower, according to ASVAB.
However, SBE does an annual salary survey among its membership. The 2021 survey found that salary averages were about $75,000 for radio engineering to around $82,000 for television. This covers top-level technical management down to entry level.
That same survey showed that about a third of the SBE membership supplemented their salary with contract work. Rates vary dramatically for what you can earn on a film crew or sports broadcast crew on a freelance basis. One consideration may be whether or not you are part of a union, as some jobs are open only to members of particular unions such as National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians or Directors Guild of America.
BLS notes that the career path is often from small markets to larger ones, and from purely technical roles to more supervisory ones. Chief broadcast engineer at a large-market TV station is one example of where a career path can take someone.
“Usually people get in for their technical competence; they will get promoted based on soft skills,” Morrill said. “In our industry, you’re dealing with operators, you’re dealing with talent. Your ability to function with non-technical people and solve their challenges to their satisfaction will have a big impact on your ability to advance. People want to know that you know your stuff and that you’re also reasonable to work with.”
The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.