Musician Wannabe Turned TV Engineer

Hill absorbed an interest in technology in dad's TV shop


W. Ardell Hill

Ardell Hill got his education in TV engineering the old-fashioned way: through osmosis. When his father opened Hill's Television in Mobile, Ala., 11-year old Ardell found himself playing the role of dutiful son and burgeoning engineer.

"My job," Hill recalls, "was to go to the shop and sweep the floors, chase the roaches out of the TVs and polish some tubes."

He also had a chance to learn the ins and outs of how TVs worked and how they could be fixed. "I started absorbing the knowledge from the local TV engineers who would work at the shop as bench techs."

Hill's interests, however, expanded beyond the technical. Like many a teenager, he found himself drawn to creating music, but he realized that his musical skills didn't meet his skills as a sound technician. Seeing an opportunity to create his own business, he began fixing audio equipment for local musicians.

At the time, Hill was attending college at the University of South Alabama, where he not only took classes but also taught basic electronics classes and even found time for music on the weekends. Nonetheless, in 1968, he was called to the Vietnam draft. Poor vision, however, made him ineligible and allowed him his next adventure: a year in California pursuing his musical interests and indulging his inner flower child.

"I did my foray into rock 'n' roll in California," a foray that included serving in the road crew for such artists as B.B. King, the Doobie Brothers and The Eagles.

In 1970, he was called home because his father was ill and the business was suffering. He was soon putting his technical skills to work for a local hospital, building an educational-TV facility for critical-care-nursing training. It was then that WALA-TV Mobile signed him up to help the station make the move from film to tape. It was an interesting time. The station engineers, he found, resisted the taped material because it didn't meet their quality requirements.

"They were fine with out-of-focus film because the quality of the electronic signal was great," he says. "They didn't mind that the picture was washed out and the sound was garbled. But, if you put the electronic video signal in and they could see the problems on the scope, then you couldn't air it because the quality wasn't good enough."

Hill was at WALA-TV Mobile until 1979, when Hurricane Frederick opened up a new opportunity. All the news personnel in town had great war stories from shooting in the dangerous conditions, and many out-of-town stations came through looking for new employees. Hill was recruited and worked at a station in New Orleans until he made the move to his current home base: Media General.

He joined Media General's WFLA-TV Tampa Bay, Fla., and subsequently watched the company grow from a single station into a group of 26 TV stations and 25 newspapers. Since those early days at WFLA-TV, he has done just about everything outside of selling advertising or appearing on-air. "I've been the guy who had to go out to the transmitter and make it work, do sign on, and even shoot video for news."

And, while his focus is technology, Hill can still see the big picture at Media General. "I understand what my company's mission is and the building blocks we have to achieve that mission," he says. "My role is to support that effort every way I can. I got into the news side in a way that made me an advocate from the earliest days."

His decision making process follows a simple philosophy of butts and chairs: "Put your butt in the chair and then assess and analyze what it is you're doing," he says. "Looking from that perspective, you can get closer to making the right decision."