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Tug Bressler ’03, chief broadcast engineer for Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Media Services (CMS), recently talked with us about his career and daily life managing the technology behind the state’s COVID-19 press briefings. A music recording technology graduate, Bressler supervises a small engineering team responsible for making the technology and workflow behind all broadcast, production, photography, radio and marketing services work. CMS has close relationships with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), Pennsylvania State Police, Pennsylvania Capitol Police, and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to support day-to-day operations that get leveraged during emergency events.
What is your typical week like right now?
Things are continually changing. When this all started, we had to re-think a lot of our continuity of government plans. The infrastructure and operational plans that I’ve been part of since starting with Commonwealth Media Services was all designed around the idea of remote operations in a disaster or emergency. We plan around a lot of “What if,” but “What if we can’t have staff together and need to space them apart?” had never crossed my mind. “What if the press can’t physically be in the room to ask questions?” “What if the Governor is isolated at his house but still wants to be part of a press conference at PEMA headquarters?” We had to quickly adapt our existing technology to meet these new requirements. As chief engineer, my team is responsible for making this all work as seamlessly as possible.
Now that the technology has been adapted, the daily focus is usually on making sure the COVID-19 briefings with the Department of Health and Governor operate well. The tech behind the briefings is controlled remotely over fiber from the other side of town so there are as few people as possible in the actual room where the press conference is happening. The Media Room is laid out with additional cameras, so the sign language interpreter is several feet from the podium rather than right next to it because of social distancing. The streaming is run out of one engineer’s house to multiple Livestream and Facebook accounts. A closed captioner is connected remotely over the internet from their house. Additional captions are provided by an artificial intelligence engine that translates the text into Spanish for a separate Livestream and Facebook feed. Everything is also sent to broadcasters over satellite in HD which includes the signer, English captions, and Spanish captions. My team is responsible for making sure all this tech is working properly and adapting it as the requirements change. That’s all while supporting the tech for a production and marketing team that’s putting out daily social media videos, messages from agency secretaries, and marketing campaigns to help everyone deal with this new normal.
How does evolving technology influence how events are covered? How do you keep up with technology and best practices?
Streaming isn’t anything new to me. While I was at LVC, I helped set up the first attempt at streaming the LVC radio station. I will admit that I had no idea what I was doing at the time and had a lot to learn. I still have a lot to learn. The technology is continually changing. The biggest challenge with the technology a lot of times is the perception of that technology. Just because you can tap a “go live” button on the Facebook app on your iPhone doesn’t mean that same button will work with all the technology we use at the different locations we host live events from. All this takes planning and site checks.
I’m very lucky to have a small team of engineers that are continually researching industry best practices and looking for the newest tech. I’m in a weird place where government, broadcast, production, emergency response, IT, telecom, entertainment, and marketing meet. Talking to friends and colleagues in these fields makes you think differently about technology. One technology that’s designed for live daily broadcast fits in flawlessly with situational awareness during an emergency event.
How do you separate what you’re doing for work while still trying to take care of yourself mentally and spend time with your family?
Family vacations and camping trips help a lot. I’m basically on-call 24/7. My wife and kids will tell you that it’s not unusual for my phone or radio to go off in the middle of the night with someone needing support. Sometimes it’s something like a train derailment while most of the time it’s “Tug, I can’t upload this video for the Governor because I let my password expire.”
How did LVC prepare you for your career?
LVC helped me to become technically well-rounded. They didn’t just teach me what buttons to push to make the technology work; the program taught me the theory behind why the buttons work. This becomes very important as technology evolves because the “buttons” are always new. Having electronics, acoustics, and physics classes explained the theory behind the technology. This laid a very strong foundation in trouble-shooting. The majority of my job is still signal flow and troubleshooting, even when it’s not part of the electronics.
I now really appreciate that the LVC faculty were always open to new ideas about how to do something. The collaboration, specifically inside the Music Department, was always open to new suggestions and embracing student ideas.
What advice would you give others considering this field?
I know it’s cliché, but “don’t burn bridges.” In government, you often see people come back from previous administrations. You also never know when a connection you made several years ago will turn into something relevant today. A former coworker used to always say to me, “It doesn’t cost anything to be nice to people.” When you are told in a meeting that you need to have troops in Iraq take part live in a Christmas tree lighting in Harrisburg, there’s no budget, and there’s little infrastructure in place because the area was just bombed, the personal connections you made over the years with satellite providers, broadcasters, and production companies become very important.