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05 March 2012 @ 12:35 pm
The Real LJ Idol: "Radio Days"  
Radio Days
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)

If you enjoyed this entry, you can vote for it along with the other fine entries here

nodressrehersalnodressrehersal on March 5th, 2012 09:36 pm (UTC)
Ah, memories. My husband used to be an on-air personality and news reporter at a couple different radio stations when we first got married.

At one station, the end of the night programming was called "dream dust" - music to fall asleep by - he could slap on an lp and let it run for the duration.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 5th, 2012 10:08 pm (UTC)
I miss the days of programming music shifts-- the artistry in the transitions from one piece to the next, or introducing listeners to the only version of Janacek's Idyll that sounded like anything.

Mostly, I miss having access to that huge record library!

But since I still have nightmares about things like screwing up the station ID (two stations had 91 as their frequency, and the third had 90) or having the music run out while I'm away from the control room (in dreams, 'away' is usually something like "out on the bikepath" or "halfway across town"), I guess it's all still with me. ;)

Edited at 2012-03-05 10:09 pm (UTC)
Danmuchtooarrogant on March 5th, 2012 10:40 pm (UTC)
I loved this. I've never done radio myself, but have friends who have, and always wanted to. You did a great job describing the various trials and tribulations, and really gave me a sense of what you had to deal with.

My favorite line:
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?"


Great job!

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 6th, 2012 01:17 am (UTC)
Radio was a lot of fun, and there were a lot of "interesting times" that went with it. I whittled this entry down from 1740 words by dumping a third story, but it didn't really match the prompt that well,so... all for the best.

There are tons of other unrelated radio stories I might someday tell. And I suppose it's like any other profession or hobby-- my collection of Orchestra Stories is pretty vast, too. :0

That one quote... I swear I didn't say that. Not exactly that. Probably. But it doesn't matter, because that's what the guy heard anyway!
(no subject) - muchtooarrogant on March 7th, 2012 02:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on March 7th, 2012 02:19 am (UTC) (Expand)
iamthesea on March 6th, 2012 12:28 am (UTC)
Absolutely loved this and the whole take on this prompt!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 6th, 2012 01:18 am (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad the prompt came through, because it wasn't one of my favorites, but it seemed to fit a LOT of the seat-of-your-pants experiences that come up in something like live broadcasting.

Glad you enjoyed this. Thanks for reading!
medleymistymedleymisty on March 6th, 2012 02:41 am (UTC)
This was very entertaining and informative. :) The thing with the tape on the reel for the symphony reminded me of the marks on movies to let the projector person know when to change reels.

I didn't know that about having to broadcast. That's interesting.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 6th, 2012 02:51 am (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed it!

The marks on movie reels are helpful, but the slips of paper are better. You know when the reel is SUPPOSED to end, but the visual reminder is really helpful.

Those also tell you that someone has verified the end of the recording. Or, in the case here... has not! D'OH!
cindy: spn - dean facepalm (by mixedbatch)tsuki_no_bara on March 6th, 2012 03:33 am (UTC)
this made me giggle and facepalm. (because putting the switch for the backup generator in the men's room is such a brilliant idea. >.< ) also it sounds like under the circumstances, "could you come into the men's room with me" is very possibly the first thing you did say to that guy. good thing he said yes. :D
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 6th, 2012 03:37 am (UTC)
because putting the switch for the backup generator in the men's room is such a brilliant idea. >.<

It's a lousy place even if you're a man-- you have to make this big 360-degree loop through four doorways, and it's still never going to be fast enough. Why not seal off the closet on the men's room side, and add a door on the hallway side? It seems so obvious.

under the circumstances, "could you come into the men's room with me" is very possibly the first thing you did say to that guy.
It might be. I could swear it isn't, but... *koff*... you never know. That's definitely what he heard! :0
devon99 on March 6th, 2012 06:29 am (UTC)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. interesting and genuinely amusing.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 6th, 2012 07:40 am (UTC)
Thank you!

One of the hardest things about broadcasting is that you can't just quit and shut things off when the going gets tough. And if there's a screwup, the audience tends to assume it's the local person's fault.

Once, when I was running the board during a live Metropolitan Opera broadcast, the Met was hit with a long and fierce rainstorm that damaged the uplink satellite transmission. I spent an hour answering phone calls about why the sound was so crappy, and having conversations like, "But weather doesn't affect satellites!" "It can affect the uplink and downlink signals, and that's what you're hearing." Gah!
(no subject) - devon99 on March 6th, 2012 09:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on March 6th, 2012 09:16 pm (UTC) (Expand)
ruby_jelly: SPN0502Charuby_jelly on March 6th, 2012 09:28 am (UTC)
Thank you, I really enjoyed reading this, and thinking back to an incredibly short, but exciting stint in student radio!

Turning this into a Sam and Dean story, eh? lol :)
ruby_jellyruby_jelly on March 6th, 2012 09:35 am (UTC)
Oops! I didn't realise this was part of a comp! Good luck! Seemed as if poll tovote, was closed. Is that right?
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on March 6th, 2012 08:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on March 6th, 2012 08:02 pm (UTC) (Expand)
basric: Basric Shinebasric on March 7th, 2012 07:19 am (UTC)
Original and well done.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 7th, 2012 05:39 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Every profession has its quirks, and they tend to be very behind-the-scenes to everyone else-- as you know!
when all you know seems so far awaypoppetawoppet on March 7th, 2012 03:58 pm (UTC)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 7th, 2012 05:39 pm (UTC)
:D Thank you!
sarcasmoqueensarcasmoqueen on March 7th, 2012 06:53 pm (UTC)
I've always wanted to work in radio.

"Hi. Could you come into the men's room with me?"


The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 7th, 2012 07:18 pm (UTC)
It was a lot of fun! And it's never too late to give it a shot...

That quote... I sure hope that's the most unaware thing I've ever said. I'd hate to think there's something worse! D'OH!!
lawchickylawchicky on March 7th, 2012 08:23 pm (UTC)
Great story! My dad used to have a local radio show :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 7th, 2012 08:32 pm (UTC)
That must have been fun! At the last place, we had some community volunteers who did things like musical-based shows, or other special features. They'd come in with their CDs and LPs and someone would run the studio and help them edit it.

Back at my first station, there were more community people who had live shows of various kinds. But at the last (much larger market), the station wanted much more control of the "product". Nobody but the officials announcers were allowed to talk "live"-- it was that anal. :0

Edited at 2012-03-07 08:33 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - lawchicky on March 7th, 2012 09:02 pm (UTC) (Expand)
similiesslipsimiliesslip on March 7th, 2012 11:11 pm (UTC)
Wow, I found this very interesting. One of my first majors was Journalism and I wanted to work on the radio.

Sounds stressful too though!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 8th, 2012 12:21 am (UTC)
If you were a journalist, the temptation to want to work at NPR would be huge. Their news shows are never dull, and they uncover a lot of important information.

It does get stressful, though. For me, since I was a musician and a classical announcer, my nightmare was having to cover the evening news shift at the last station. Someone else (an intern) would prepare the materials, but then you'd be left with 5-12 sound cartridges that went with specific stories and a bunch of slips of paper. The cartridges went into a 3-slot machine, and I was always deathly afraid of pushing the wrong button or getting them out of order. Five and half minutes of nerve-wracking concentration, every time.

And then there's all the random things that happen in daily life, like satellite problems or uplink feeds that are damaged or late. Listeners always assume the person talking on the radio is responsible for every screwup that happens. :0
Myrnamyrna_bird on March 8th, 2012 12:47 am (UTC)
Enjoyed this very much. A lot of interesting information i didn't ever think of too. You rose to the occasion, both at that job and writing this story!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 8th, 2012 01:01 am (UTC)
Thank you!

There is a lot that goes on behind-the-scenes in radio and television, and if you're running the equipment you'll eventually collide with some trouble.

Working at one of the smaller places (like a public radio or TV station), Murphy's Law says that it will almost ALWAYS happen when you're the only person there. :0
(no subject) - myrna_bird on March 8th, 2012 04:02 pm (UTC) (Expand)
whipchickwhipchick on March 8th, 2012 06:14 am (UTC)
This is great! I love the combination of compelling stories with high stakes and a peek into this interesting world. I've been to a lot of public radio and campus radio stations for various interviews, and I'm always fascinated by the behind the scenes aspects, but this still sheds a lot of new light. Great piece!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 8th, 2012 06:34 am (UTC)
It all looks fairly professional and low-key from the outside, doesn't it? But it seems like disaster is just waiting to strike when you least expect it.

I remember being on the air one day, and the needle on the LP that was playing just went, "Whip!" right to the end of the record. For no apparent reason. And I sat there for a second, just going, "What? WHAT?" before turning the volume down, moving the needle back, and trying to pick up where the record had left off.

Stuff like that, it seems, is just out there waiting to get you. And in broadcasting, your problems are rarely private. :0
Pika the Brazen Ninjaporn_this_way on March 8th, 2012 07:33 am (UTC)
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.

This would be an awesome thing to put on a resume, just FYI :P
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on March 8th, 2012 05:48 pm (UTC)
Haha! I guess it depends on, a resume for what? :0