An Engineer in a Throw-away Society

Engineering, a formerly respected profession, has seemingly been changed into a extinct profession in most cases.  I was a 'Radio Broadcast Engineer'...  Well, technically I was a technician.  But the Radio Industry considers both to be the same title.  My job was to ensure the Radio Station ran correctly; All components were in working order, and if need be, to replace defective units with working ones.  I also did get to do some design work, but it was rare.

I had grown up playing with electronics.  Taking computers apart, and putting them back together, chip by chip sometimes.  When I was 16 I had the resistor color code memorized, I knew how a logic circuit worked, and I understood the theories behind digital processing and circuit design.  When I was 18 I took a Co-Op class in High School for my last semester.  Kind of like an Internship, this was a full time job, 8 hours a day  4 days a week.  I was somehow lucky enough to get a spot as a 'junior technician' at a Radio Station in Downtown Toronto.  I quickly got very involved in things and found myself enjoying the workplace environment a lot more then the School environment.  Being my first real job, I really enjoyed this.

The engineering department was similar to my room in many ways.  Unfinished projects laying around, Tools strewen about the place, and papers and books all over the place.  It had an old 70's charm to it.  Similar to what you would expect a Engineering Shop to look like.  A windowless room with a few old desks, and alot of crap.  With a rack room full of buzzing and humming equipment, directly behind the Shop.

In those early days the job was fun.  I got to tinker with things I had never tinkered with before.  And my co-workers were helpful and taught me everything I needed to know.  At the end of the school year, I was offered a job to continue on as 'technician' part time, for a short period until they could find a replacement for someone they recently fired.  Being that I enjoyed working there, I took the job.  Hell, at 18, how cool was it to already work at a major market radio station?

That is when things started going downhill.  Because I was no longer in school, it was assumed that I knew everything I needed to know.  I was still very much learning and dependent on my co-workers for advice.  And I think this sometimes annoyed them.  I really hoped to get more involved with RF stuff; The transmitters, and Antenna systems.  But that was mostly being taken care of, and it was decided that my 'skills' would be better used at cleaning storage rooms, and hanging picture frames.  I also got into mixing and production a little bit, and assisted with many band setups and recordings.  Soon enough I was doing these recordings by myself.  Bands like Matchbox 20, Great Big Sea, Alanis Morrisette, Barenaked Ladies, Styx, Collective Soul, Goo Goo Dolls, Tonic, ... just to name a few.  I rather enjoyed this, but I found that working with artists, as well as working with radio DJ's and the production team, was often not the most enjoyable thing in the world.  They would complain and bitch.  Hell, John Mayer once asked me to crank the Reverb, and after I turned it up a bit, he told me to crank it all the way.  He then said, ok thats good, and then when he went on the air, he complained about the reverb.  What a dick...

I volunteered to look after the Fire Safety system and the security systems.  As I enjoyed that stuff, and it seemed no one really looked after it.  I would check Fire Extinguishers (of which we had about 50) and take care of Key requests and Lock changes.  I was also expected to clean storage rooms, and repair headphones...  Ah yes repairing headphones.  The most common thing to break at radio stations is headphones.  Why?  well, because DJ's like to throw them across the studio.  And of course it was my job to fix them.  Personally it was better to just order new ones in my opinion.  While yes the cost of parts was cheaper then new headphones.  Some of these older headphones had been in circulation for 10+ years.  Imagine how dirty headphones are that have been around for 10 years?  Many headphones were beyond repair.  Requiring many parts.  I simply put them in a large box which filled up of half broken headphones. The most common thing to break was the cord.  A new cable was $45.  Another common thing was the element itself,  If I recall those were $60 each.  A new set of headphones: $150  Often some of the broken headphones had both of these things wrong, and I was often still questioned as to why I wasn't fixing them.  I also had a plan in a way.  If we spent more money on headphones every time one broke, maybe someone would be more strict on DJ's who broke them.  I have had a pair of headphones exactly like the ones at work, which I purchased for myself, which have lasted 5 years without breaking - and I use them a lot!.  The average lifespan of headphones at the radio station was about 2 months.  Anyhow, repairing an endless stream of headphones was not my idea of what this job was all about.  I wanted to get into studio design, and maintain the RF transmitters.

The big change took place around 2004.  We had just purchased about 60 other radio stations across the country, and the company was growing.  My boss was moved up to corporate, and I got a new boss, who was very nice.  A new radio station was moving into the studio, and this ment that we would need to build new studios.  We had 2 design firms come in to design and build the place.  One firm for the studio work, another for the office work.  It was very very fun supervising and taking part in the demolition and rebuilding of the studios.  I even got to help design some of the new studios, and made a few critical design changes to some of the rooms.  This is what I was talking about.  I was loving this job again!.  I was also very free to do what I wished with my time.  No one breathing down my back.  I could plan my day accordingly.

I was also on call by this time, and full time.  I carried a company cellphone and pager, and was treated exactly like the other co-workers...  as an 'Engineer'.  And this is when I started to get more involved.  I began assisting co-worker on big projects, and even was given a few big projects on my own to work on.  Granted I was kind of nervous about them at first, and found that sometimes it takes a lot longer to work on something then I had imagined.  But I think in the end, I did well.  I designed a radio communication package, which was to be mounted in an airplane, a relay panel which controlled various studio functions, and a tester which tested boards from the studio consoles.  I also managed the installation of a Satellite dish.  But after the rebuilding project tapered off, things seemed to return back to normal.  'Make Work projects' were common.  Aside from headphones, one of the most common problems was minidisc players.  They would screw up and become useless.  Minidisc players are rather expensive...  so they do warrant fixing, instead of throwing them out and getting new ones.  Of all things we could repair, these would be the most obvious right?  wrong!  Instead we would ship them out to a repair place so they could repair them.  On average it took them a month to repair the unit and often costed about 300 dollars.  Sometimes we would just refuse their estimate.  We would often have as many as 3 or 4 MiniDisc units out for repair at any given time.

I would of liked to of tried to repair these myself, but I wasn't allowed... lol,  funny eh.  It wasn't that they didn't trust my to work on them.  It was that there were better things to do,  like hanging picture frames, and clean storage rooms.  There was no time to sit at our nice expensive work bench for hours and ponder over what is causing a digital micro controller not to function.  So work became mindless and routine again.  I often would find myself staring at my computer screen, trying to thing of something I could do which I could put some creative input into.  Often I just did databasing.  Recording serial numbers of equipment and tracking things.  The odd time I was allowed to look after the transmitter site, was amazing.  I loved it.  I would be out there alone, and would ponder over every aspect, and would take note of every little detail.  I really wants to maintain the transmitters on a regular basis.  I rather enjoyed working with such machines.

My pay was shitty.  I had been there for 6 years.  I was on call every 4th week/weekend, and I was expected to provide my own transportation.  Which at my young age, was costing me a fortune.  Insurance, and Lease payments...  I could not afford a place on my own, or further education.  I didn't even have time.  I was drained every day upon returning from work.  Because I never really had an official degree, they used that as an excuse whenever I applied for a raise.  My co-workers who were considered equals to me, at this time, were all making atleast twice what I was making, sometimes a lot more.  Some even had deals in their contracts which allowed them the use of a company car and such.  I was becoming disgruntled.  And I began to slack off more.  However whenever something needed to be done, I was on it, and would finish it.  I began to resent the situation that the company had put me in.  Luring me in young before I was educated, and using me as a extra low paid workhorse for so long.

At this time I was becoming close to my girlfriend at the time.  And the long distance relationship was adding more stress.  However her father had an open ended offer to me, to help him manage a Army Surplus store in Indiana.  Well I didn't want to live in Indiana, but I loved Army Surplus.  And I was seriously considering this change.  When all of the sudden...

It was an average day, I was installing a TV in an office, and needed some help to run a cable down inside a wall.  So I went back to the shop to get a co-worker, lets call him Bob, to help me.  When I got to the shop, Bob was in a serious debate / discussion with John, another 'equal' engineer in the Shop.  So instead of interrupting, I simply relaxed for a minute and checked my email.  It was a hot day and the room I was in had direct sun coming in thru the window and I was quite hot - so the break was nice.  After the discussion Bob had a phone call, so I continued to Wait, while John left the room.  I finally got the chance to ask Bob for the help and he told me that he could help me in a few minutes.  A few minutes later John entered the room and yelled at me.  He was yelling because he saw that the TV install was incomplete.  He then literally dragged me to the room, in front of a bunch of other people in the company, and continued to yell at me to finish it myself, then slammed the door in my face.  It was then that I decided that this was not worth it anymore.  The fun had ended, and I obviously had someone in the department who didn't like me.  It wasn't going to be easy to stick around, especially when that person was a friend of the boss.

I had nothing against my boss, he was cool, and I truly think he wanted to see me improve and wanted to give me a raise.  But I think there were others in the department who feared for their job security maybe, and wanted to back stab me in order to protect their position.  Either way they got what they wanted.  I left.  I choose not to return to a place where I was disrespected for no apparent reason.  And for that,  6 years of my life, and all of my creditability as an 'engineer' went down the drain.  I was told that if I left, no one in the company would ever vouch for me, or act as a reference if I tried to get another similar job.   That was nice of them eh?  So I quit, and took up the offer of managing a Army Surplus store in Indiana.  Of course that turned out to be a bad idea.  A place full of corruption and lies.  But that is not what this article is about.

In the end, I have discovered that technical trades are more about being a person to blame when things go wrong, then about fixing stuff.  A majority of my time working here, was spent doing non-technical things.  The industry is not what I imagined it to be.  And I am left empty, trying to come up with another interest which I could work in.  But I am jaded, knowing that behind every dream job, there is a dark side.  And dream jobs don't usually stay dream jobs for long.