Special Report: Broadcast-Audio Education Spotlights Opportunities

Within the increasingly wide array of media academies and programs offering technical education for careers in professional audio, broadcasting in general gets scant attention in the curricula, and broadcast audio gets even less. Most programs and schools focus on music recording and mixing (although audio postproduction is addressed in some classes). Rob Jaczko, chairman of the music production and engineering department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, puts it succinctly: “At present, there is no formal curriculum targeted to broadcast. There’s just no demand for it.”

At the SAE Institute, which has five locations in the U.S. and more than 60 abroad, broadcast-audio education accounts for one week of a 36-week course, or less than 3% of class and lab time, according to Franklin Rodriguez, who teaches at SAE’s Miami school. The broadcast-audio study plan comprises four days in which students learn the history of broadcasting and microphones and other gear more or less specific to broadcast and do a day of practicals, including creating radio-show podcasts. Rodriguez says that only a very small percentage of graduates have gone into broadcasting.

A Specialized Niche
The situation isn’t totally bleak, though.

For one thing, there are dedicated broadcast schools. The American Broadcasting School, which has been training students in general broadcasting since 1970, is geared toward turning out announce talent who will have a basic grasp of audio-console operation. But, according to Director of Training Larry Gable, the school hosts live broadcasts of local high school sports at its main campus in Oklahoma City and has sent several graduates on to audio-mixing career paths.

“It’s a very specialized niche,” he says of mixing sports audio, “but schools like these are where you can become aware of it as a career.”

But the biggest departure from what could be a dismal state of affairs can be found at Full Sail University in Orlando, the largest of the for-profit media academies. The school implemented a basic broadcast-sound course into its curriculum nearly nine years ago.

Five years later, Director of Sports Audio Corey Jacobs expanded the course to a two-month, 96-hour offering, with a study plan devised in part by Dennis Baxter and using the Olympics sound designer’s Television Sound Engineering textbook (Baxter also teaches advanced classes at his TVSound Workshops). Baxter provided the class with natural-sound recordings from Olympics broadcasts as well as microphone maps of various events. Fox SportsNet has also provided multi-track recordings of college baseball broadcasts for students to remix.

Big-Media Relationship
But the most striking aspect of Full Sail’s broadcast-audio program is how it has leveraged its relationship with ESPN as a result of network parent Disney’s large presence in the Orlando area. Disney’s theme parks and other media operations have long been a regular source of internships and employment for Full Sail’s students and graduates, but, two years ago, Jacobs specifically reached out to ESPN Senior Technical Audio Producer Kevin Cleary about both lecturing to the broadcast-audio class and establishing an intern-placement relationship.

“When we looked at the [sports-broadcasting] numbers, we realized we wanted to get into that field for our students and let people see what we were doing,” Jacobs says. “Kevin came and was impressed with what were trying to do, especially with the fact that we had sports-audio-broadcast professionals teaching the course.”

Since then, Jacobs says, several dozen graduates have gotten jobs working audio for ESPN, NASCAR, and Major League Baseball and sports. The school has established an intern program with truck builder NEP and has a relationship with communication-systems supplier RTS that creates an education module for intercom communications. One of ESPN’s A2s at the Summer X Games in July was a graduate of Full Sail’s program.

An Eye-Opening Experience
Full Sail’s program is a bright spot in the education landscape for broadcast audio. “I’ve seen some of their eyes light up like saucers” when students realize they can fulfill their career expectations in sports audio, says Jacobs, now course director for AV Technologies, reflecting a merger of departments at the school.

Why a Full Sail-style experience isn’t more widely available could be due to a number of factors. For one thing, not every school has such proximity to a major media entity like Disney. But there is also a feedback effect at work here: for-profit schools tailor their curricula to meet the expectations of students who are, after all, their customers. If demand is sparse, as some schools say, there is little incentive to enhance the broadcast-audio component of a curriculum. Worse in the long term, it also means that there are few alumni to come back and evangelize sports-broadcast audio as a career.

“We unfortunately haven’t had many alumni make it into broadcasting, and, since the instructors here don’t have much background [in broadcasting], it’s been difficult to find contacts in this field,” says Paul D’Errico, director of education at the SAE Miami campus. “As a result, we’ve had a low percentage of broadcast-related workshops and guest speakers.”

The Healthier Alternative
The irony, of course, is that the music industry offers graduates of these schools and programs less and less of a future, with sales declining and labels continuing to fold. The broadcast industry, on the other hand, remains comparatively robust. Combined broadcast and cable revenues in 2009 amounted to more than $104 billion based on estimates from NCTA and NAB, versus a music business worth less than $12 billion and dropping.

Furthermore, sports broadcasting is the tip of the technology spear in legacy media. It was sports broadcasting that put 5.1 surround sound audio on the consumer map, even as surround music fizzled. The first 3D television networks are coming from ESPN, not MTV.

Even so, these schools have no shortage of successful music mixers, engineers, producers, and studio owners who willingly visit to lecture and teach. Replicating the bridge that Corey Jacobs and Kevin Cleary have built might be a good first step to instilling in students a sense that there might be something beyond music as a career choice.