real lj idol | week 17 | 1342 words
Bringing a knife to a gun fight.
When you have a choice, you enter a situation prepared. The Boy Scouts have their motto, and the rest of us have our own version: anticipate, lay the groundwork, and gather what you'll need.
But sometimes, that just doesn't cut it.
In one of my past lives, I worked as a public radio announcer: ten years, three affiliated stations, and a number of unplanned adventures.
Most of what you remember from a job like that is the semi-disasters. Those could include running the wrong week's episode of a serial program, or setting up the wrong satellite channels (especially at airtime). Signing a TV or radio station onto the air late is practically a cardinal sin—I never did this myself, but the fear of it gave me insomnia every time I had a sign-on shift waiting in the morning.
But all of those can be avoided by the usual methods: using two alarm clocks, double-checking your work. It's the sideswiping unknowns that'll get you instead.
The station where I worked in college broadcasted many weekly symphony programs, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The incredible Sir Georg Solti was the CSO's conductor back then, so if I happened to be the local announcer when the program ran, I considered myself lucky. It meant I'd be more likely to actually listen to the music instead of having it on in the background at home while studying.
We recorded the broadcasts earlier in the week, for later airing. All reel-to-reel recordings were supposed to be verified, including spot-checking the middle of the program and marking the ending and beginning with slips of paper (visual cues for whoever played the tapes on air).
One Wednesday night, I pulled the Chicago Symphony reels out of their boxes and noticed that there were no slips of paper in the second reel. That was a bad, bad sign…
When you work as a student or night/weekend announcer at a public radio station, you are often the only person there. When trouble happens, you can call the Program Manager or one of the other staff people, but they won't appreciate it. They usually can't do anything more than you can, anyway.
I rewound the last Chicago Symphony reel, and discovered that the recording had shut off early. We didn't have the last part of the concert, and by then, there was no way to get it.
This wasn't like going to battle with weak weapons—this was like having no weapons except for the crap you were wearing and whatever you could find lying around on the ground.
Well, I didn't have the complete concert on tape. But I did have the station's record library.
By some incredible stroke of fortune, the station had a vinyl LP of the Chicago Symphony playing the final piece from that week's program. I decided I would transition over to that from the taped concert, and then just back-announce the LP when it finished.
There might have been a couple of listeners who thought, "Hey, what happened to the end of the Chicago Symphony concert?" But nobody complained, so it all worked out.
When I first started working in radio, there were no CDs. We had vinyl LPs, which were so prone to picking up dirt and scratches that one of the first lessons for student workers was how to handle the LPs without damaging them or leaving fingerprint residue.
But while CDs were cleaner, LPs had one advantage: if the power cut out, the turntable needle would stay right where it was. CD-players would either return to the beginning of the track, or dump the program all together. I discovered this when the radio station where I was working got hit with a persistent windstorm.
That was on a Saturday, and as with most Saturdays, I was at the radio station alone.
Broadcast radio is a creative field. You expect that creativity to involve announcing recordings for the audience and providing insight or anecdotes about the composers, the music, and the performances. You don't expect it to mean using music, annotation, and carefully edited phrases to miraculously fashion a four-minute interview that disguises the fact that the featured Bulgarian conductor speaks almost no English and can only connect about six words together at a time.
You don't expect it to mean coping with ongoing power fluctuations when you can't simply take the station off the air.
A power "dip" that makes lights flicker is enough to stop a CD-player or a turntable. When the power comes back on, the turntable jolts up to speed again and keeps going. It doesn't sound very nice, but it's better than completely restarting a music track. After a few brief outages and an unpromising weather report, I started whipping through the music library to find LP versions of the morning's music and used those instead of CDs.
But after awhile, even playing LPS that stopped and restarted the music in annoying spurts wasn't enough.
I called the station's radio engineer to see if we had any other options. If a station can broadcast, it must, or it risks losing its license. It turned out that there was a backup power generator for our building. Using it would reduce the overall broadcast signal, but we'd still meet FCC requirements.
All of the hardware required to switch over to the backup power generator was in a closet embedded in the men's bathroom. That should have served as a warning about the overall sexism at that station (I quit working there three years later). At the time, I simply boggled at the stupidity of putting that equipment on the other side of the sealed wall right across from the control room door, instead of cutting a doorway in from the hall and putting the equipment on the closet's rear wall.
The equipment's location meant was that there was no graceful way for the announcer to cut over to the backup power if he or she was the only person at the station—because getting from the control room to the bathroom and into the closet would take about five or six seconds, and that was a lifetime of "dead air" (one of the worst offenses in broadcasting). You really needed to have another person there to help.
We had an arts' reviewer who volunteered at the station, and who sometimes came in on weekends to record his features. As luck would have it, he came in that Saturday morning. From then onward, he insisted that the first words I said to him were, "Hi. Could you come into the men's room with me?"
I'm pretty sure it wasn't quite that awkward, but maybe he was right. I was pretty single-minded that morning.
We went into the closet, and I turned on the backup generator and showed him where the switchover button was. Then we worked out the timing of the changeover, which would be mid-announcement after I'd given the station ID.
We chatted for awhile, as the record wound to a close, then reviewed the strategy and took our places. My helper wasn't a very tech-savvy guy, but he pulled off his end of the operation perfectly. We made the switchover with no noticeable interruption. Faraway listeners might have wondered why the signal suddenly dimmed, but it couldn't be helped.
The rest of the morning went more smoothly. The storm ended a few hours later, so we were able to return to main power before the generator ran out. No listeners called to complain. In broadcasting, that's a key measure of success.
When disaster strikes, you do the best you can, no matter how poor the tools at hand. Sometimes that means faking up the end of a recorded program, or patching a botched single-channel tape into stereo and hoping it doesn't sound too bad.
And sometimes, it means leaving some little old man with the lasting impression that you're the kind of person who invites strangers to follow her into the men's room.
All in a day's work.
Jargon translation (please let me know if more is needed)
Public radio: non-profit (non-commercial) radio
Affiliate: a local broadcast station in a larger broadcast network.
FCC: Federal Communications Commission. In the United States, this government organization oversees all radio and television broadcasting.
Dead air: failure to broadcast content (silence in radio, black-screen in TV)
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