Networks, DTV Audio Group Step Up in Audio Education

By the time Orlando-area resident Tim Bischof graduated from Full Sail’s audio program earlier this month, he already had a résumé that included A2 work on ESPN’s World Cup Virtual Shoots production at the network’s Wide World complex at Disney World and experience on its X Games coverage of motocross events at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Bischof had no aspirations for anything to do with pro audio, but a friendship with Kevin Cleary, senior technical audio producer for ESPN’s event operations, led to his accompanying Cleary to a Daytona 500 race.

“I hung out in the trucks and fell in love with the idea of sports sound,” he says. “Kevin told me about Full Sail, and I went there to get the building blocks for what I’d need to get a job doing this. Otherwise, I might not have known about this.”

ESPN operates a huge internship program that absorbs several hundred interns per year, culled from what Joe Franco, manager of college relations for ESPN, says is more than 10,000 applications annually. Although he has no estimate of the number of interns who set out specifically to train for audio positions, he says, those who are interested in audio train first as A2s and, if they manage to go beyond that, can choose career tracks based on studio or remote operations.

Serendipitous Connection
The raw talent is out there, but connecting it with the industry often depends as much on serendipity as on design. When audio internships can be more precisely measured, it tends to reflect sound’s historically diminutive stature compared with video.

For instance, MLB Network uses interns in the summer, recruited through local university and college media-technology programs, although “none are in audio this year,” says VP of Engineering and IT Mark Haden, who himself attended audio courses at college in Syracuse 30 years ago. MLB Network does some of its own training of freelance mixers, the main source of hires at the network. Much of that training is vendor-based, keeping engineering management and support staff up to date on new gear.

Bob Dixon, director of sound design and communications for NBC Universal’s Olympics coverage, says his department takes two students in their senior year in an accredited university or college’s pro-audio program to the Olympics site, where they learn how to build and troubleshoot audio and communication systems. It’s these specific areas where the academic pro-audio programs tend to fall short, he suggests.

Dixon’s view of the state of formal broadcast audio education programs is a familiar one in the industry.

“I have not yet run across a school that actually teaches audio engineering for television specifically, meaning a knowledge of intercom systems is missing, a knowledge of mixing in 5.1, the setup of announce booths, a knowledge of fiber systems and RF — all are wanting,” he says. “It feels to me like many of the schools that teach ‘mixing’ are trying to deal with jobs that no longer exist,” a reference to media-arts schools’ emphasis on music mixing at a time when there are fewer and fewer opportunities available in a declining music industry.

By contrast, ESPN’s Franco is generally appreciative of the skill sets that audio interns from college technology programs are showing up with. “For the most part, the standards are good,” he says. “There are shortcomings but the quality of the education seems to be there now.”

Skepticism about formal education for aspiring audio professionals is not surprising, since many in broadcast audio today came into the industry when the apprenticeship model held sway. And some of that cynicism might be warranted: the wide range of schools and institutions implies an equally wide range of quality and consistency.

DTV Group Initiative
But an upcoming multilateral initiative might go a long way toward better organizing audio training. Later this year, an online training program developed by the DTV Audio Group will go live. The DTV Online Training Initiative will start off with a module, developed by online education specialist Learning Sciences, focused on loudness-management training. The course distills the essentials of the ATSC Recommended Practices (RP) from the subgroup on Loudness Issues (Techniques for Establishing and Maintaining Audio Loudness for Digital Television) and ends with a quiz, testing how well the student absorbed the material.

The DTV Online Training Initiative is financially backed by a multi-year commitment by Turner Sports, Fox Sports, and NBC, although ESPN, CBS, and YES also support and will follow the progress of the concept. It came about, says DTV Audio Group Executive Director Roger Charlesworth, because of the networks’ increasing reliance on freelance technical talent.

“They see ongoing training as a long-term challenge as the technology becomes more and more complex,” he says. “It’s a way they can leverage their individual training resources across what is a very scattered range of freelancers.”

The course’s curriculum was developed with input from several network technical directors, including Jim Starzinski at NBC Universal, Steve Silva at Fox Sports, Olympics sound designer Bob Dixon, and mixer and educator Dennis Baxter. Future modules are under development and will touch on such topics as 5.1 surround-sound mixing and upmixing.

Charlesworth notes that Tom Sahara, senior director of remote operations and IT at Turner Sports, spearheaded the initiative. “Tom was involved in the Sports Production Safety Group, and we used it as a template for the DTV Audio training initiative.”

The training modules will be password-protected and offered by invitation to selected freelancers, who will take the interactive training course and then complete a quiz at the end. The results of the exam will be available to the student and to the networks, which can use them to evaluate the qualifications of each freelancer for particular assignments.

“It’s a tutorial, not a formal certification,” says Charlesworth. “But it’s very effective way to get the materials most efficiently to the largest number of people who need them and give the networks an idea of the knowledge base of the freelancers they use.”