Tech Focus: Broadcast Education — Audio Makes Gains, But Slowly

Returns on CRAS’s investment in infrastructure restrained by entrenched culture

Several educational institutions have made significant investments in broadcast-audio training, some with sports at the core of that focus. Few, though, have gone as far as the Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences: with two campuses in the Phoenix area, CRAS has made a six-figure capital investment in the broadcast component of its 11-month course of study, the crown jewel being a BMS Navigo 42-ft. expando remote-production unit fitted with professional gear like a Studer Vista 5 console.

As important, CRAS not only has established internship programs with major sports networks but has integrated them into its curriculum, with regular visits from A1s and technical managers from Fox Sports, ESPN, and NBC Sports. Its remote unit has also been able to connect with some of those networks’ own remote-production units onsite at the Arizona MLB Diamondbacks and NBA Suns games and, most recently, at the Phoenix International Raceway for NASCAR races. CRAS’s graduates are coming away with as real an experience as possible in an educational setting. So have their postgraduate experiences been commensurate with the effort and investment?

A Slow Process
CRAS Director, Student Services, Rachel Ludeman, who oversees the school’s internship department, reports placements with the NBA’s Texas Legends and with Fox Sports. Students have received EIC positions with such companies as All Mobile Video, Mobile TV Group, and Game Creek Video. However, A1 and even A2 positions are harder to come by.

Inside CRAS’s 42-ft. Dolby Atmos mobile unit at NBC Sports’ NASCAR production

“The pathway for an A1 or A2 role is a unique road,” she explains. “There’s not a formalized process for getting a position like that. Engineers who have an A1 or A2 position are most likely freelance. It seems to be a matter of right place right time, networking, and building enough experience to get to that position.” On the other hand, the EIC route, she says, “seems to be the best foot in the door.”

One issue is the percentage of students who choose to focus on broadcast during their time in school. For students of typical college age, broadcast competes with music and new media, which tend to win out. Currently, about four of the 48 students in each class cycle opt to specialize in broadcast.

“Broadcast is a very specific, technically demanding avenue that only a few of our students end up taking,” Ludeman observes. “And our challenge is, when a student shows interest in that line of work, who is looking and are [organizations] needing someone at that same time?”

A recent example of serendipity happened in February, when Fred Domenigoni, A1 for Fox Sports’ Diamondbacks broadcasts, reached out to CRAS for someone who could cover for him on a Phoenix Suns pre/postgame show that he also mixes.

“We were able to connect Fred with one of our very recent graduates,” says CRAS Director, Education, Robert Brock. “After shadowing Fred a few times, the graduate did the show solo as the A1. That kind of mentoring for the A1 role is difficult to find, so I was especially impressed that Fred extended that offer.”

CRAS Administrator Kirt Hamm is a bit less sanguine. Though pleased with broadcast sports’ uptake of interns and graduates, he’s disappointed that the calls for new blood to replace an aging A1 workforce that sparked the school’s original investment in television audio four years ago haven’t materialized at the level he’d hoped to see. “We’ve had some successes but not as much as we thought we’d see, based on the comments we were hearing from the networks themselves at events and meetings.”

Lost in the Big Picture
Audio appears to be an underappreciated area of broadcast education in general. Tommy Booras, an instructor in the communications department at Tennessee State University in Nashville and chair of the Sports Division of the Broadcast Education Association, notes that, although some universities do put an emphasis on audio in their agendas — he cites St. Cloud University in Minneapolis and Ball State in Muncie, IN, in particular — audio tends to be fairly low in the curricular hierarchy even in broadcast-technology programs.

“Students [in those programs] seem to focus on [becoming] talent or even on camera operations or postproduction, and graphics also gets a very big push,” he says, adding that the BEA’s Sports Division was established less than a decade ago (the organization itself was founded in 1955). “I never really hear students talking about audio. They may not think it’s all that glamorous.”

Structural Issues
Some of Hamm’s frustration comes from the fact that the networks have long taken graduates from university broadcast programs and have built their entry-level culture around summer internships between traditional semesters. CRAS, like many other for-profit schools that award certifications and diplomas rather than degrees, can have a new round of interns ready every three weeks. The institutional culture of the networks simply can’t process interns at that pace, he explains.

In addition, at state schools and other four-year institutions, many broadcast students eye talent rather than technical positions. Consolidation in the broadcast industry also may be affecting hiring rates, as are changes in production models, such as at-home production, that require fewer boots on the ground for sports productions.

Hamm acknowledges those dynamics but notes that, even if a show is being mixed from 1,000 miles away, the number and complexity of sports events is increasing, and broadcast sports will still need A2s to place the shotgun microphones on the ground and hold the parab mics.  “And those are the people who are coming out of CRAS, entry-level people who already have those skills and are ready to put them to use.”

The Importance of Proximity
Fred Aldous, longtime Fox Sports audio consultant and senior mixer, has advised and helped develop CRAS’s broadcast-audio curriculum since it was launched. He’s equally disappointed by the slow uptake of graduates onto pathways that will lead to A1 positions at both network sports departments and regional sports networks. He concurs that broadcast culture is more attuned to the summer-intern cycle than to the rolling graduation rates at for-profit schools. But he also suggests that geography may play a part, as well.

“There are relationships in place between a few networks and nearby schools,” from which broadcasters’ audio departments, located in large media-center cities, may be attracting interns, he points out. “That’s a challenge that we’re facing.”

However, Aldous also notes successful placements with remote-production providers Game Creek Video and the Mobile TV Group. “Those aren’t A1 positions, necessarily,” he says, “but they do get graduates of audio programs started on a career track.”

Hamm is optimistic for the long term. He recalls how difficult it was when he came to the school in 1992 to find recording studios to take its graduates as interns. Now there are hundreds of them as placement resources.

“It’ll just take more time,” he says. “It’s a slow process. But we’ll get there.”

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