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Switcher directs her last satellite broadcasts

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. - Tech Sgt. Chalanda Roberts poses for a photo Nov. 2, 2015, inside the broadcast control room at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center. Roberts served for five years as a regular Air Force technical director for the Air National Guard's satellite enlisted professional military education. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith/Released)

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. - Tech Sgt. Chalanda Roberts poses for a photo Nov. 2, 2015, inside the broadcast control room at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center. Roberts served for five years as a regular Air Force technical director for the Air National Guard's satellite enlisted professional military education. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith/Released)

McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. – Staff Sgt. Chalanda Roberts, TEC/TV broadcast journalist, manages a switch board and Master Sgt. John A. Anderson, right, TEC/TV broadcast operations manager, handles camera placements during a live broadcast of Chief Master Sgt. Michael Kennedy, the first sergeant functional manager for the Air National Guard. Kennedy spoke interactively with more than 800 First Sergeants via the Warrior Network at the I. G. Brown Training and Education Center here, March 7, 2013. (National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Kurt Skoglund)

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. – Staff Sgt. Chalanda Roberts, broadcast journalist, manages a switchboard and Master Sgt. John A. Anderson, right, broadcast operations manager, handles camera placements during a live broadcast March 7, 2013, at the I. G. Brown Training and Education Center's television control room. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Kurt Skoglund/Released)

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. -- It's her last switch as well as her next switch: after videography missions with Army infantry in Iraq, then conquering a broadcast control room comparable to a major television studio's, one Airman said that she hopes for something challenging.

Tech Sgt. Chalanda Roberts just began her last technical direction here of the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center's satellite Airman leadership school before her reassignment to the Defense Media Activity.

"We're the ones controlling everything the audience actually sees," said Roberts.

The broadcast studio airs the Air Force's enlisted professionally military education instructors and their lessons for the next month to students at 15 Air National Guard bases. Roberts and a studio engineer both make sure it airs without a hitch.

"There's a lot to it," she said.

The woman behind the curtain

Roberts is one of four Airmen qualified as a technical director, or a switcher. They take turns managing satellite broadcasts, including ALS and NCO academy. The term comes from switching between cameras, slides and microphones as well as queuing up video segments, photos and screen graphics so that they appear seamless on live television. They also guide two instructors though earpieces and teleprompters from a control room that overlooks the broadcast desk.

"I want to make sure they look good at all times," said Roberts.

She explained that switchers manage on their own what it takes three or more workers at a civilian television studio. "We do it all," she said.

"You see all of these keys and buttons flashing," Roberts said about the control room's panels.  "There are at least 100 of them. The most challenging part is trying to do it all; everything needs done now, because we are live. You want these students to get the information."

From Chicago to the world

Roberts's original plan was no plan at all: she joined the regular Air Force without a designated career field, but her first assignment in videography at Langley Air Force Base garnered her application and acceptance into the military's one-year television, radio and film program at Syracuse University.

It was after that when she joined combat camera in South Carolina.

"I fell in love with the Air Force all over again," said Roberts.

She deployed and embedded with the Army in northern Iraq, donning their uniforms, jumping off helicopters and capturing their combat patrols. She said that their village visits often put her in a room full of Iraqi women, while the Soldiers met customarily with the men. "The women would gravitate to me; try to put lipstick on me," said Roberts. "That was always cool."

She said that she slept in the dirt, out there, the only woman among them. "I was able to hold my own, and the guys said that."

Then, after some aerial qualifications, she flew, and she documented missions from Al Udeid and Haiti, among other places. She said that it all never crossed her mind when she grew up in Chicago.

"I don't how I got the job, but I loved it," said Roberts. "Never in million years would I have thought I'd get that experience."

There is a mannequin at the Enlisted Heritage Research Institute on Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base whose name is Chalanda Roberts too, she said. She donated its uniform to help embody a minority of combat camerawomen and their service. Their exhibit displays photographs of her in the field.

Getting to Tennessee

Roberts arrived five years ago with little experience in a broadcast studio, outside of technical school. 

"I was pretty nervous when I saw the studio, but now I feel like I'm pretty good with most of the equipment in there," she said.

Her biggest challenge: adjusting to a smaller base and not constantly deploying, she said. She found mentorship in her first supervisor, also a former combat camera operator.

"Chalanda can learn things really easy," said David Barlow, retired master sergeant and TEC's graphics manager. "She can watch you do something once and really, truly learn it. She is creative, she likes to challenge herself, and she will think of something different."

According to Barlow, Roberts's professional development in the studio could serve her well at the Defense Media Activity, which holds another satellite broadcast studio similar in capability and reach. "It is definitely going to be a plus for her."

This is good place to learn and shadow, said Barlow. As you cannot just learn the studio and then you know it, you have to stay current on it. Buttons get routed different, and there is a lot of multi-tasking. Everyone has his or her own way in managing it all.

"He's a really good teacher," said Roberts.

The next switch

Roberts will travel to her new assignment with her husband and son after the holidays.

She became a mom during this assignment. Her son is in daycare and her husband works nights, so they can support each other, especially during football season. Putting on a Paw Patrol video helps keep her son occupied as well as helps her husband watch the game until she gets home from evening broadcasts, she said.

Roberts's family attended her promotion ceremony last year, as well as supported recent deployments to Dover Air Force Base and her own studies at NCO academy.

She said that she hopes they can drive up together to the Fort Meade area, south of Baltimore, before the move, to help limit their hotel stay. "Try to pick out a couple of spots that we want to live."

"I'm leaving here better than I came, for sure," she said.