I sometimes get asked how I got into radio. After all, it’s not a ground-breaking technology and you don’t see radio technologist jobs advertised every day. It’s now been thirteen years since I first got involved in radio
I felt compelled to document this journey here, not because I’m anything special or unique – but because when I started I would’ve found it helpful to read this sort of thing. Blogs about radio tech were pretty rare (and probably still are rare). And also, eventually I will forget more details, so I figured I may as well write it down while I still remember the key points.
This article was first drafted in 2016, but I never completed it. I guessed today is as good a day as any to tidy it up and hit the ‘publish’ button.
It’s 2007. I’m in Year 8 at school, and I’ve been trying to become a web developer. Most days after school, I do little web projects on our old Dell Dimension 3000. Internet forums like Tizag (now shut down, with no archive) and Whirlpool help me connect with others and develop my skills in PHP, MySQL and HTML/CSS.
After building a few personal projects, and wanting to start earning a little cash, I send letters and emails to few local businesses asking them if they’d employ me to redevelop their website. A couple of people reject me (one doing so very rudely), most ignore me, and one person replies asking for my help. That person was David Bunt, then Chairman of local community radio station 2CCR (Cumberland Community Radio). They were going through a turbulent time and had completely replaced their board of directors the year before. They needed a new website to reflect the change in direction.
We negotiated a fee ($300), discussed the requirements, and I built the site over a few weeks in my after-school time. When the site launched around April 2007, I don’t think I’d physically met anyone or visited the studios (except for one Sunday evening in 2003, when I won a prize and had to go to the studios to pick it up).
The site in early 2007 (not created by me):
This is what I replaced it with around April 2007:
It’s not great, but I think it was an improvement over the older versions. It used magical things like CSS (no tables). There was no CMS or database, but I did build the template in PHP. After it’d launched, I was invited to the station to have a look around and take some photos to put on the site. I met a few people, including Jeff Ruitenbach – who showed me around and eventually invited me to become a member and volunteer.
The station at this time had exactly three computers (one in each of the two studios, plus one at reception). The ones in the studio did a bit of ad-hoc playout (announcers brought in content on USB sticks). There was no network, and no internet connection. The overnight content was a CD-stacker in random mode. There were a couple of people who’d offered to look after tech, but there was a lot to be done and these people were time poor.
In July I become a member of the organisation, and between July and November 2007, I’d started helping out with a few basic things like setting up StationPlaylist Creator on the studio PC’s, fixing the logger, moving overnight automation to PC, and connecting the computers via a little network switch. I’d met Tony Jenkins, Scott Lloyd and a host of others. By November I was on the newly reconvened Programming Committee and the on-again-off-again Technical Committee. Every couple of days after school, I headed to the station. It was conveniently located on the path between school and home.
I also did a few short on-air stints, and although it was fun, I realised fairly quickly that my forte wasn’t in on-air presentation and my time was best spent elsewhere. I have a distinct memory of filling in for a weekly local-news roundup show. I was very young, and ill informed on local issues. This occasion proved to me that 2CCR was a place willing to let me “have a go”. Thankfully, we don’t have any archival audio from this era.
What I did enjoy particular from my stint on-air were the two Christmas Eve lunchtime specials I presented with my family and some friends. I can’t remember which years I did this, but it was important to me because I got to work like a ‘real’ presenter and use the studios as they did. On one of those occasions I found and fixed some weird phase issues with some channels and came to understand a lot about studio ergonomics. I also got to do the Christmas Day music selection and clocks (it was almost 100% automated Christmas Day), which was lots of fun – I didn’t know much about radio programming, but in hindsight I realise I created reasonably solid hourly clocks with hits, current, re-currents and some gold categories (I didn’t know about these terms then, and called them something else). I love Christmas.
Around April 2008, I did what I consider to be my first “really cleaver” broadcast thing: I automated the hourly news feed. See, the station had been taking it’s news from Macquarie Radio via an old AM receiver. There had been some agreement in place to allow that, but the details were lost over time. Long story short, they had to move to the CBAA’s satellite news service. A local contractor installed the satellite dish and receiver, but I had the job of connecting the audio feed.
Instead of just sending the feed to the desk, I instead connected it to the input of the automation computer. Along with some timed events (the news was exactly 3:00 minutes every hour with an outro bed we could fade out), I completely automated the thing so it played every hour even when there were no volunteers to put it to air. Unfortunately, there was still no internet connection at the station, meaning no NTP time sync on the computer. Every week, on a Tuesday afternoon, I had to reset the clock manually or else it’d drift to far and start cutting things off!
Around June that year came a very important time for me. I met Richard Fleming, a actual professional broadcast engineer whom David had contracted to help us refurbish our original studio. He did the majority of the install, but was kind enough to let me help with much of it. I learnt how to punch down multi-pair cable onto Krone blocks, solder D-connectors (albeit slowly and with low precision) and use magical devices like Balancing Amps, Distribution Amps, Hybrids and even a semi-professional broadcast processor. I didn’t understand what a lot of our broadcast gear did until he explained it to me.
You’ve got to remember, this was 2008, and there wasn’t much information freely available online about broadcast technology. I seem to remember one forum from the era, and it wasn’t particularly helpful for a newcomer such as myself.
Here’s what the original Studio 1 looked like:
Here’s a studio upgrade work-in-progress photo:
The grand opening with David Bunt, Richard Fleming, and a 15 year old Anthony:
After a little while, Richard let me tag along to a SMPTE trade show and visit the new AFTRS install he was finishing off. Later on I’d also get to help at 2SER. Richard was particularly interesting to me, not just because he was a proper broadcast engineer (someone I hadn’t met before now), but because he was also a software developer. He built these cool things like a GPIO interface for our automation system, and dead-air detection software. Later on, I’d end up replicating the engineer/programmer combo myself.
2008 was actually quite busy and a huge year for learning. We installed structured network cabling through the building, rolled out Active Directory, added a lot of computers and servers (mostly second hand) to the inventory, built a new website and installed a new VoIP phone system.
I found this year fascinating because we didn’t ever spent a huge amount of money on our projects. The network cabling would’ve cost around $500, the servers and computers were almost all free and the phone system was only a few grand (we installed it ourselves and paid back the cost in just over a year due to the significantly reduced VoIP calling rates). It was very much run on a shoestring budget, and I had to find cheap but reliable solutions to any problem we had. More than that, I volunteered to help with pretty much all of the day-to-day technical stuff, and all of the projects – so I was well and truly in the ‘thick of it’.
I also re-launched the website sometime in 2008, with a significantly improved design. It launched with a live on-air guide and a pretty decent design. Over time we added live streaming, podcasting and a few other things. I’m still very proud of this one, and think many stations would do well to copy it:
In 2008, Saturdays were a big day at 2CCR. There was a live sports show in the morning with many presenters and guests, a couple of shows around midday with younger people (a lot of people around my age had started getting involved), and the ‘technical committee’ consisted of a bunch of people coming into the office, hanging out, fixing some issues, and just generally causing some trouble.
In 2009, a significant thing happened for me. I did Year 10 Work Experience at Hope 103.2. Through a stroke of luck (and probably God’s provision) I was able to get in for a week of work experience, despite there already being another person doing the same that week (at the time, they only took on one person in any given week). I met awesome likeminded people, including Stephen Wilkinson, Tom Ford, Aaron Wright, and Andrew Morris. Stephen took me on and allowed me to volunteer during school holidays (and sports carnivals).
I got to work on a few little projects, such as building some on-air metadata software and a staff intranet. More importantly, I also got to see for the first time how a professional radio station was run in all it’s gory detail. I got to see all the professional gear that was used, the proper wiring standards, how to do soundproofing, how Audio-over-IP works in broadcast land, how to design studios.
Here’s a photo of me with Stephen and Tom at a Hope 103.2 Open Day in 2011:
I think early 2009 was also the first Outside Broadcast 2CCR had conducted. Not knowing much about OB’s, I spoke to some people and realised the gear to use was from a company in Perth called ‘Tieline’. I called them up and borrowed a pair of POTS codecs. I then proceeded to buy a 100m roll of phone cable, and hunt down unused PSTN lines at each of the three venues. Oh yes, this broadcast was for Australia Day and involved a live broadcast from three locations on one day. The first was Parramatta Park at 6am for the balloons – we ended up recording the voice segments from the middle of a paddock and emailing them back via 3G. The second was Merrylands Pool – we found a spare fax line and flung the cable over the change room building. The third was the Baulkham Hills Council Chambers – again on a fax line, from a distant office building. From memory, we had a panel-op at the studios to playback all the music and spots, and we did all the talk-breaks live from the OB Bus.
Our Chairman at the time worked for Hills Bus, so our remote studio was a gigantic bus that almost didn’t fit into two of the venues:
Later that year, not being able to borrow the POTS codecs again, we innovated a bit and ended up doing a broadcast from the Castle Towers shopping centre via 3G. This was fairly novel at the time. If was the perfect fit for us, as there was excellent 3G coverage in the shopping centre and a lot of phones still didn’t support 3G.
The connection was a uni-directional stream created with the help of Edcast & Icecast, with a 7 second delay back to the studios. This required a bit of coordination to get into and out-of the OB, but we made it easier for ourselves by playing all the music from the venue (in addition to live talk breaks). This was also one of the events I did with Tim Wong-See (he’s since worked at Nova and ABC). Here’s a blurry action shot of the two of us:
2009 also saw me doing a lot more contract web-development work, and was the first time I started using WordPress. Some guys running a blog network in the USA saw one of my blog posts and asked me to help them build some themes and plugins. This was before WordPress had any real CMS functionality, like a menu system or custom post types! It really gave me a lot of experience writing custom software (not just UI’s). I think I created a couple of dozen websites for them over a couple of years.
After three years, 30th June 2010 was my last day volunteering at 2CCR. It’d been a fun journey – I’d learnt a lot, and made some good friends – but the experience had been getting painful over the last 6-12 months. There had always been a certain level of politics, but for me it was getting really nasty and personal. After several personal attack targeted at me (some anonymous, others not – c’mon, who sends personal attacks to a teenager volunteering in community radio?!), and with a general desire to focus a bit more on school and other projects, it was time to move on. I gave a couple of months notice, helped Greg Hill document as much as possible (he’d been helping with IT for a while now), and then walked away. They were nice and gave me a good reference letter.
Leaving was hard, but important. I ended up coming back a few times over the subsequent years – sometimes as a volunteer to help Greg, and other times as a contractor to fix some random problem. Eventually I moved the website to WordPress and handed that over too (I’d still be charging a couple of hundred bucks a year to host the website and essentially manage all the content for them).
1st July 2010 was also the first day I was trading as a sole trader. Until then, I had been using my dad’s company to invoice clients. Now I had my very own business.
2011 was the year I did my HSC. I also came very close to starting a Certificate III in Broadcast Technology. Trouble is, the blocks of classes coincided with my HSC. After a bit of backward and forward, we decided I wouldn’t do it. After the HSC, I continued volunteering at Hope throughout November and December (averaging several days a week). It was great. We got to put in a new VMWare cluster and replace a whole heap of ageing servers.
In December 2011, Stephen Wilkinson (Technical Operations Manager) and Phillip Randall (CEO) offered me a part-time job. This was it. I’d got a job in radio. It aligned with my Christian faith. It was a 20 minute drive from home. It goes without saying: I accepted.
I started working at Hope on 9th January 2012. Funnily enough, my boss (Stephen) was on two weeks holidays starting that day. It didn’t matter too much, as I’d already been volunteering quite a bit leading up to that and I knew roughly what I needed to do.
I never ended up doing the Certificate III Broadcast Technology. We tried again in 2012 (and maybe 2013), but the timing and other requirements never really worked out. Last I checked, the course had been discontinued at TAFE. As it turns out, this hasn’t been the biggest problem in the world as my skill gaps have gradually been filled via on-the-job training. I eventually completed formal post-graduate training in Information Technology Management, so if I ever feel the urge to pursue middle management, I have half a chance.
I left Hope at the start of 2019, after seven years (I worked out on my final day, it had been 3440 days since I did work experience; I sent 9438 emails, finished 1697 Trello cards, and closed 1233 tickets). In that time, I got to work on a wide range of projects (many of them documented on this website), including a rollout of Zetta, a website development project, and major rearchitecting of the network and Active Directory. I was awarded twice by Technorama (a ‘Rising Technical Star’ in 2017, a little unexpected since I had been ‘in radio’ since 2008; and an innovation award for lwSDS in 2018). One of the last jobs I did was also one of my first – rolling out new VMWare ESXi Hosts.
Now, I’m not on the payroll for any radio station. This is a little sad, but I now run my own business full time (Media Realm), where I get a wide range jobs for a wide range of wonderful clients – some for non-profits, some for broadcasters, some for small business, some for churches. I’ve been able to find a happy niche with radio/non-profits.
It has been nice to get a bit more flexibility in my work day (particularly as my church building project has been so time consuming), it’s been good to escape the lingering background dread that comes with being on-call for a 24/7/365 radio station, and it’s good to get a much wider range of experience.
You never really ‘leave’ radio. My radio software products are going better than ever, and are under active development. I have ideas for some new radio-centric software that I want to start work on soon. And each time I walk past my old sub-metro community station, or flick around the FM band, I dream about the future possibilities for hyper-local broadcasters.
All of this is a really long-winded way of saying that I got into broadcast technology by volunteering a lot, working hard, reading lots of manuals, and having the luck of finding the right people at the right time.
Most community radio stations need technical people. Most commercial stations are hiring technical staff on a semi-regular basis. If you want to get into broadcast tech, find your local station and volunteer to help. Be ready for a steep learning curve, politics, and some late-night calls.
IT skills are essential – learn Windows system administration, networking, physical infrastructure setup, desktop support, VoIP, routing, multicasting, InfoSec, and anything else IT-related. Everything in radio is IT, and you need exceptional skills to juggle the variety of systems found at your typical radio station. I’ve found that software development skills are super helpful too.
Read the manuals for common pieces of broadcast gear.
Get a good toolbox (with a Krone tool – you’ll still need it).
Learn how to solder.
Learn how to open pieces of gear (without stripping the screws) and replace circuit boards.
Learn how to find replacement power supplies.
Learn how to drill holes in the sides of little plastic jiffy boxes, and mount connectors on them.
Learn how to work well with others.
Find good mentors.
Learn everything you can.