Early this year, WOSU Columbus (Ohio) chief engineer Ling Ling Sun was elected vice chair of PBS’ engineering technology advisory committee. It was a rare instance that highlights one of the big issues facing broadcasters: The lack of female broadcast engineers, and the important contributions women can make to stations as they grapple with rapidly changing technologies and consumer behavior.
Sun is one of the few women to rise to the rank of chief engineer at a broadcast station in the U.S. “I don’t know of any others in the PBS system,” says Jim Kutzner, senior director of advanced technology at PBS.
This is particularly unfortunate, Kutzner adds, because the industry desperately needs to recruit a new generation of talented technologists. “A lot of our experts are older and are retiring,” he says. “The industry’s future depends on bringing younger people in.”
Sun’s own career path works as an example of the kind of drive and technical curiosity that broadcasters need in their operations, says Tom Rieland, general manager for WOSU Public Media.
Rieland recalls sitting in an early project meeting on the state-of-the-art WOSU@ COSI studios at the COSI Science Center in Columbus, completed in 2007. “We spent the afternoon going round and round about where to put the tech core,” Rieland recalls. Finally, Sun suggested putting it above the production control room.
“Because the move would greatly simplify cabling and maintenance,” everyone just looked at each other and said, ‘What a brilliant idea,’” Rieland continues. “[Sun] is always behind the scenes listening. When she speaks, people really take notice because they know she will come up with something new….She has a different thought process, a curiosity about technology, which has really helped us.”
Over the years, that curiosity brought Sun first into the fledging broadcast TV industry in China and in the last 20 years to build a new life in the U.S.
Growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, her family didn’t have a TV. And Sun doesn’t remember seeing one prior to her enrollment in the Beijing Broadcast Institute.
She was, however, so interested in the technology that she decided to attend the Institute at a time of momentous change. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the new leadership began the slow process of reforming the Chinese economy and educational system. As part of that effort, a number of universities that closed during the Cultural Revolution were reopened in 1977.
“I was very lucky that the timing was right,” Sun recalls. “I was accepted at university as the Broadcast Institute opened in 1977 and started in 1978,” putting her in just the second class to attend the school.
There, she encountered what would become a familiar problem. “Not many girls wanted to go into technology,” she recalls. “There were only five women in my class…of about 50.”
After graduating, Sun returned to her hometown of Harbin, taking a job with the Heilongjiang Provincial Broadcast Bureau, where she eventually worked her way up to deputy chief of the transmitter division, becoming the first woman to hold that position.
In the early 1990s, Sun started all over in the U.S. when her husband began studying for a PhD at Washington State University. She applied for a job delivering pizzas but was turned down because she did not know how to drive. A kindly manager encouraged Sun to apply for a job in television and in 1992, she landed a job at KWSU Radio-TV Services in Pullman, Wash.
“I had studied English in China, but when I got on the plane to the U.S., I didn’t understand anything,” Sun says. However, she quickly established a reputation for being able to fix equipment because she had no problem reading the manuals.
Armed with some excellent references, Sun landed a job at WOSU in 1996 when her husband moved to Ohio State University to take a fellowship. Immigration problems, however, prompted Sun to move to Canada, where she took a post as a senior maintenance technician at CHtv from 1997-2002.
In 2002, Global Television began centralizing master controls at its stations. Worried that she would lose her job, Sun contacted her old boss at WOSU, longtime chief engineer Tom Lahr. “I was worried he wouldn’t remember me, but he told me to come back,” she says.
As the maintenance supervisor, Sun worked closely with Lahr, Burt Hill Architects and Communications Engineering on the WOSU@ COSI studios at the COSI Science Center in the mid-2000s. Since taking the top job, she has been spearheading a significant upgrade to the studios that will make it much easier to share content and access COSI’s growing archive of productions.
As vice-chair of the ETAC committee at PBS, Sun is at the center of a number of major issues facing public stations, including the impact of spectrum auctions and the move to centralize master controls.
Over the years, Sun’s technical work has helped the cause of bringing more women into television technology. Rieland notes that the studios she helped build have been used for a number of WOSU educational productions designed to inspire women to enter technical fields. “The more encouragement we can give women to start in the industry, the more opportunities they will have to prove themselves the way [Sun] has, and move into the top position,” Rieland says.
E-mail comments to email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below.
Thank you for signing up to Broadcasting & Cable. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.