Medford: a place for ... broadcast technicians?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics this week reported the Medford area has the highest concentration of broadcast technicians in the country.
That comes as little surprise to those who track the radio and television industries.
For decades, the number of broadcast radio and television stations in Jackson County has, on a per capita basis, far exceeded the rest of the country.
Geography has something to do with it, because the Rogue Valley is close to 300 miles from Portland and more than 300 miles from Sacramento. So does topography, where the Cascades and Siskiyous and their surrounding valleys require expansive translator networks.
"We have to have a concentration here to maintain equipment that is 15 to 20 years old," said Bill Whitt, chairman of the Society of Broadcast Engineers' local chapter. "With new technology, there is equipment that needs updating and retrofit, but in this economy you just can't do that. As long as the technology runs, it will be maintained."
Every major TV network has a broadcast affiliate based in Medford. Beyond that, there is a public television station, a regional Christian station and a variety of low-power entries. On the radio side, there are two large commercial clusters, a smaller one, powerhouse Jefferson Public Radio, a regional Christian radio system with nearly as much reach, and a handful of others.
BLS figures show there are 70 broadcast technicians in area. Although such positions account for fewer than one in every 1,000 jobs in the area, the concentration here is more than four times the national average.
A contributing factor, said Perry Atkinson, president and general manager at TheDove radio and television, is change of ownership.
"When a group buys radio and television stations, each owner brings in its own crew and then realizes they have to make adjustments," he said.
As a result, engineers might be displaced, but they don't necessarily leave the area.
Atkinson and California-Oregon Broadcasting Inc., owner Patsy Smullin are the deans of radio and television operations in the area.
"The new owners find they spend too much to buy and then can't maintain the stations."
Often they turn to third-party engineers to maintain towers and equipment.
While the national average annual wage is $41,360, or more than $20 per hour, the local average is $24,130 and the average hourly rate is $11.60, which puts the local engineers nearly the bottom of the pay scale in the country.
"It's consistent with the general pay scales here compared to larger communities," said Ron Kramer, a broadcast consultant and former JPR executive director. These stations are increasingly less profitable than they used to be. Compared to 2014, if you went back to 1974, you wouldn't have seen quite as much of a disparity because stations were making more money and were able to treat their people better. Because of general staff reductions, stations are often serviced by contract engineers. People don't have many options, so it puts (downward) pressure on wages."
KTVL vice president and general manager Kingsley Kelley said full- and part-time employment might contribute to some of the wage disparity.
"It's certainly something our owner, Sinclair Broadcasting, reviews each time they acquire a new station," he said.
The lower figure isn't surprising in light of overall BLS wage figures that showed Medford area workers earned an average of $19.85 per hour in May 2013, roughly 11 percent less than the U.S. hourly average of $22.33.
"It's what the market is paying there, and there could be a lot of reasons for that," said David Kong, a statistician with the BLS in San Francisco. "In general, wages are lower in Medford for some reason."
He said even in computer, mathematics, architectural and engineering fields — the types of jobs that are generally higher paying — local wages are lower compared to other regions.
"I think it has to do with the mix of occupations and concentrations," Kong said.
Not surprisingly, health care practitioners and technical occupations produced the highest hourly average of $41.27, followed by legal occupations at $41.22. The average wage for health care practitioners and technical occupations in the Medford area was 15 percent higher than the national average, while health care support staffs paid on average 9 percent more than the national average.
Like the rest of the country, however, office and administrative support workers comprise more than 16 percent of local employment.
The May 2013 figures show retail sales topped the local occupation list with 3,060 workers. In addition, there were 2,390 cashiers, 1,850 registered nurses, 1,610 general office clerks and 1,480 big-rig truck drivers.
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.