Interview with Broadcasting/Audio Engineer, George D. Graham

Interview with Broadcasting/Audio Engineer, George D. Graham

Mr. George D. Graham is a producer, Public Radio host and programmer, music writer, and recording and broadcast engineer. Mr. Graham is one of the original founders of WVIA-FM, who designed and constructed the radio station's technical facilities. He is a familar voice to public radio listeners, as the host of Mixed Bag (WVIA-FM's longest-running locally produced program), All That Jazz and Homegrown Music.

Mr. Graham has written on music for various publications, on technical matters for Broadcast Engineering magazine, and he has produced numerous albums starting in 1972. He is a member of the Audio Engineering Society and a graduate of Duke University's Electrical Engineering program.

A resident of Carbondale, PA, he brings both his musical and technical backgrounds into the production of his programs, writing and producing his Weekly Album Review series, as well as engineering and mixing the Homegrown Music series.

Mr. Graham & His Career

How did you discover you had a talent for what you do?

I have always had a dual interest in both music and electronics. I was better with the latter than the former. Years of piano lessons during elementary and high school years did not make much of a musician out of me, since I hated practicing. But it did give me a basis in the fundamentals. But I was good at electronics. My father was a TV repairman, who inspired the interest. I was also a real hi-fi enthusiast in high school, and built and tinkered with a lot of systems.

Tell us about your professional career. How did you get your start? How did you advance to where you are today? What has been the "driving force" behind your career?

I was attracted to radio as a medium since elementary school, first as a source of music and programming, and then as field that combined my two interests of music and electronics. In high school, I did a lot of volunteer work in the audio/visual aids department, and at college (Duke University) I was immediately drawn to the campus radio station, while my major was electrical engineering. During college, I was involved with a major upgrade of the campus radio station, and did a lot of the engineering and construction work for that. So it allowed me to pick up a good deal of experience. I served as both the program director and chief engineer (during separate years) at the Duke campus station.

Just after college I returned to my home area on a visit, and learned that the regional public TV station (WVIA) was going to be putting a radio station on the air, and were looking with someone with just my experience. So through fortuitous timing, I became one of the founders of WVIA, where I still work, 30 years later. I have remained there because the station affords one the opportunity to do a lot of jobs, engineering, production, and on-air work.

You specialize in both on-air work, and production. Describe your position and what this is and why you chose to focus on it.

My official position is "senior producer/host," and listeners know me as an on-air person, but I do about much production, including music recording and mixing (studio and remote), writing and producing both short form and long form programming, and serving as non-classical music director for the station. Recently, I have also been producing a TV series based on the Homegrown Music radio concerts. I also do engineering work on projects such as studio and transmitter upgrades, and plant audio quality control. I do these different jobs, because I like to pursue by different interests, and the public radio environment allows one to do that. Commercial broadcasting generally does not allow one to pursue as wide a range of different activities.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments and favorite projects and why?

It's probably most gratifying to hear from listeners on how music to which I have introduced them as affected their lives. Of my broadcasting activities, I am probably most proud of the Homegrown Music series, which I produce and record each week, with performances by regional musicians in the station's studios, along with monthly live concert broadcasts. Homegrown Music last year marked its 25th anniversary as an uninterrupted weekly series, and has presented over 600 bands and artists, essentially creating an album's worth of music each week. It's encouraging to see a number of the performers go on to become well-known, and to see groups assembled specifically for the series. And it provides a lot of interesting music that is available in no other form.

Who are the individuals that you respect most in your field, working in the world today and why?

I respect the general professional attitude conveyed at National Public Radio, and their attention to detail, especially when it comes to the presentation of sound. As a radio host, I am impressed a lot with Jim Wilke who does the syndicated all night weekend jazz show on PRI, "Jazz After Hours." As recording producers, George Martin (Beatles) and Manfred Eicher (ECM Records) remain heroes, each forging a completely new sound and way to use the studio.

The Actual Work

Tools of the trade. Digital vs. Analog? Computer Sound Engineering? Microphones, sound processing? Your advise on choosing equipment.

In Public Radio one learns to use the tools one has available. It is not a field known for its fabulous facilities. But my experience has tought me that a good engineer and or producer can make a great recording with fairly modest equipment, and some monumentally bad recordings have been made in multi-million-dollar facilities by very well-paid people who supposedly have a "star" reputation.

In recent years, I have been moving increasingly toward acoustic music, and ironically, it's a field in which fewer and fewer recording engineers being trained today have much experience. And in acoustic music, probably he most important starting point is a good microphones -- high quality condensor mics make a big difference.

As for the analog/digital dichotomy, the quality of digital processing has improved to the point that few of the arguments the original analog holdouts used are any longer valid, except for those who like to hear the distortion, noise and other artifacts that were the shortcomings of analog in the first place, and such a "lo-fi" approach seems to be tendy in some circles.

Regarding the use of computers for editing and processing audio, again the quality of the software and hardware has progressed to the point that any initial shortcomings of the digital approach in terms of the so called "warmth" of the recording are no longer a concern, and the versatility digital provides is a great advantage. It has also reached the point that digital is now less expensive than analog.

On a basic level, what kinds of skills does your profession demand? Do you feel that all skills required by your profession can be taught academically or by experience, or is some of it based on intangibles such as intuition?

Basic skills, and perhaps more importantly, theory, can indeed be taught. But one does need a combination of almost a life-long interest and a degree of aptitude to progress in the field. While I do not use as much of my electrical engineering training as those who pursue engineering (design) as a career, the strong theorical background has proven invaluable to me for understanding why things work as they do, and how to achieve the best results. I know that many who pursue recording engineering do so from a musical aspect, and want to avoid as much of the theory as possible. I would definitely recommend some technical courses that provide a fundamental understanding of the processes and technology involved. It also makes one much more adaptable to new technologies as they come along. The equipment may change, but the underlying theory does not.

Some, of course, are technophobic, and I would argue that that attitude can be changed, since it does serve as an impediment, even to those who would want to pursue on-air broadcasting.

What are the greatest stresses and anxieties in your professional life? What are the greatest rewards?

In broadcasting, probably the biggest anxieties are caused by deadlines. If a broadcast is scheduled for a certain time, your audience will not tolerate any kind of excuse that it was not ready in time. Your production/program/project needs to be completed properly by airtime no matter what. Live broadcasts of music performances, especially techncially complex remote broadasts (which I do several times a year) can be particuarly challenging. But if pulled off well, can also be exhilarating.

How much freedom and autonomy do you have in your current positions?

A remarkable degree. Of course, public radio affords some of that, and it also helps the I was a founder of the station. I can basically initiate and execute any project I feel would be good for the station and the audience, within the general parameters of the station's programming.

How does this compare to other Public and Commercial Institutions?

It is probably a greater degree of freedom than many other Public Radio stations, and a much greater level than any commerical operation.

How familiar are you with commercial broadcasting? What can you tell our readers either first hand, or on where to find information on a career in the big commercial world? What are your opinions on the pros and cons of such a career.

I worked in commerical radio part time while in college, and have a number of friends in commercial radio. While commercial radio can be rewarding (especially financially, compared to Public Radio), in recent years, with the relaxing of ownership restrictions, there are a lot fewer opportunties for growth. With fewer larger companies owning more and more radio stations, and many of them being programmed centrally or my way of computer distribution of music and voice tracks, there are a lot fewer on-air positions, and many fewer positions for programmers. The days of a radio host programming the music on his or her show on a group-owned commercial radio station are virtually gone.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education, including schools attended and degrees or certifications earned. What did you like and dislike? How has your education benefited your career?

I attended public high school and graduated with a B.S.E. with an electrical engineering major from Duke University (Durham, NC). As I stated above, the theortical technical education, as well as the training in design principles has proven to be very useful especially in my technical work and even recording engineering, even if I don't use it every day in the normal course of my on-air work. And, of course, the general "liberal education" has a value that can't be overstated.

In retrospect, is there anything that you know now that you wish you had known before you pursued your education in the field?

Actually, I don't think so. From high school, I expected to get into a technical field, and Duke's approach was a general, theoretical one, rather than one aimed at a specific field.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing broadcasting, or sound engineering training?

The practical bottom line is that there are currently more people pursuing careers than there are jobs. The radio job market is shrinking, as mentioned above, and the recording studio field is experiencing some hard times, due to the proliferation and increasing quality of artist-owned project and home studios, who are making their projects there, rather than at full recording studios. But technical people are always in demand, so a solid technical background can be a definite leg up.

What should students try to get out of their education? What areas should they focus on to be better prepared for the professional world?

Try to take a look at the "big picture," rather than training for one specific job, so as to be flexible when new technologies and media come along. Get some technical background, and take courses in a fairly wide variety of subjects, to widen your background.

What do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs for broadcasting and audio engineering in the US?

For recording engineering, there are good programs at the University of Miami, the Berklee College of Music, and Tennessee State at Murfreesboro. Many colleges around the country offer good communications departments which can be good for learning broadcasting.

Jobs/Career Information & Advice

What are the professional options for someone graduating from a broadcasting or audio engineering program? Is an internship period almost always required in radio?

I would say that experience is probably the first thing a potential employer looks for. That can come, as in my case, from active involvement with the campus radio (or TV) station. Otherwise, internship can be helpful. I should point out, though, that my station, WVIA, we do not put interns on the air. They work behind the scenes. But this policy varies at other stations.

As far a recording engineering is concerned, internship in a studio is considered very valuable, and indeed often a pre-requisite.

What career advice can you give to aspiring students wanting to make a name for themselves, to stand out from the crowd?

Be ravenously curious about your field -- read everthing you can get hold of, and don't be afraid to ask enough questions so that at the end of the day, you really understand not only what to do, but why it is done.

What are common disillusions newcomers to the field have? Have you had your own disillusions, and if so how did you overcome them?

Low pay, lack of opportunities for quick advancement. Each year I see lists of starting salaries offered to college grads with my degree, and after 30 years, I am still making less than what today's grads would be making as a starting salary in the corporate manufacturing and tech fields. I overcame that, by, in my case, realizing that I have the creative freedom that I do, and that I can take a lot of individual pride in what I do. And the respect that I enjoy among the audience and in the regional audio/broadcasting field is immensely gratifying.

What's the salary range that graduating students can expect to start out? How about later in their careers?

In radio, people just starting can expect not much more than minimum wage. The same can also be said of entry-level jobs in the recording field, in most parts of the country. The salaries generally increase with time, but unfortunately, in commercial radio, there is not much job security. If one reaches the level of a hit record producer or engineers, six figure salaries can be achieved, but they are rare, and when becomes an independent producer (which most of the "big names" are) then your employment can be fickle -- a hit one year, and considered out of style a couple of years later. Engineering is more stable, but high-level positions are relatively few.

Many can make a decent living starting their own business, operating their own studios, but like any small business owner, it's often hard work with long hours.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in the field?

It is a definite plus, but experience is probably the first thing a potential employer will look at in a resume.

How is the job market now in your field? How do you think it will be in five years?

Not great, for the reasons stated above. It might improve with an end to the recession that had resulted in a big slump in record sales. Some new technology that will be embraced by the public might also open up the field.

Industry Trends

How have computer advancements, such as digital recording, sound editing software, the internet, streaming audio, mp3 technology, etc. affected your profession? How important is it for upcoming professionals to be well-versed with computer technology?

Digital technology has profoundly affected every aspect of audio engineering -- recording and broadcasting. No one can have much of a hope of a career in audio or braodcasting without a solid background in computer work.

Internet streaming and mp3 are in a great state of flux right now, with record companies lauuching largely successful efforts to shut down mp3 sites, and require royalties from Internet streamers (resulting in most radio stations ending their streaming of programming). Where that leads is anyone's guess. But I think that the Internet has yet to reach its full potential to change fundamentally the way audio is distributed. Whether it will be permanently hobbled by legal tactics of the mult-national media companies to preserve their oligopoly remains to be seen.

What are the greatest challenges that your profession faces?

Short term, the consolidation of ownership of radio, and the collapse in CD sales. Long term, technology, and its potential unforseen consequences.

What about the emergence of satellite radio, and internet streaming radio. How to you think this will affect the media world?

I am biased toward locally-produced, regionally oriented radio. National programming may hold an appeal to some, but I believe that many people still like the intimacy that radio provides, and its personal touch. This is becoming apparently to me anecdotally from listeners, and the slow sales of satellite car receivers. The same could be said of Internet radio, with the added observation that most Internet streaming has such lousy audio quality.

If you have any questions for Mr. Graham related to this interview, please contact him at graham@epix.net.

Related Articles