5 August 2008

And he's trying a segueway to heaven...

Reading the blurb about the Radio Luxembourg 75th birthday reunion at the weekend brought out the radio nostalgist in me. I didn't hear a great deal of Luxembourg as the medium wave reception round East Yorkshire was at the crappier end of crap, but it is a great radio story.

Working with Tony Blackburn and Paul Burnett lately (by 'working with', I suppose I really mean 'occasionally being in the same building as') has further rekindled my interest in the medium's past. I have friends who have reels and reels of old Revox tape full of interviews, jingle packages (including never-aired underscores and pre-mix sessions) and programmes in their attics. And in their spare rooms. And in their garages. I don't have quite this admirably nerdish approach to it all, but I do love reading about how it once was.

Here's the deal with the mechanics of radio now; a presenter on commercial radio walks into a studio (sometimes it's the only studio, so has to 'hot seat' with the preceding presenter during the news or the last song) and logs into a computer which displays all his songs, ads and required bits of production, in order. He then presses big buttons on a customised keyboard which play these things in turn. The only faders on a desk he need ever touch with regularity is the one which opens his microphone and the one which brings up the newsreader.

When I started as an amateur in the early part of 1990, a presenter walked into a studio and began a process of cueing up, checking for levels and spinning into its correct starting place a whole host of vinyl records. CD players were only really installed at the BBC by this time. Jingles were played off the iconic Sonifex cartridges which could contain any number of production snippets but you needed to be on your toes as to which one was where on the list. Other stuff would be on reel tapes, the cueing up of which was a laborious, finger-twisting process which could not be rushed even by those actually in a rush.

Inevitably you'd sometimes start a record at the wrong speed (Cuddly Toy by Roachford regularly got me, as it was a 7" single released at 33rpm) and reels were also capable of being unwittingly speeded up or slowed down by a nonchalant, accidental flick of a switch. It was all part of the learning process; it kept you on your toes, taught you the value of absolute preparation before a programme and complete concentration during it, and gave you immense satisfaction when a segueway which involved three different faders being opened at carefully rehearsed times was executed perfectly. Presenters are notoriously self-critical and think they hear errors or bits of clumsiness that in reality didn't happen, but back when the technical side was so much more complicated it was easier to feel pleased on those occasions when you felt you'd done a good job.

You could spend the duration of a three minute record rehearsing and double checking the process of segueing into the next one; a process which to the listener is an unremarkable few seconds - they're more interested in enjoying the next song - but to the presenter is a work of art, a sign of slickness and good production values. "Nobody remembers a good segueway", one of my ex-bosses used to insist. But the presenter doing the segueway does, and technical excellence back then would provide an adrenaline rush and galvanise the presenter into making the rest of the show just as good. Only once the segueway was absolutely memorised, ready for its on-air execution, did you consider doing stuff like answering the phone or preparing the next link or more humdrum necessities like visiting the lavatory. And sometimes you wouldn't have time. Afterwards, he'd listen to his own cassette recording of the show to see whether various segueways were as good as he thought they were.

The first time I was introduced to a playout computer was in 1996 at Hallam FM in Sheffield. I was transfixed by it; and also terrified of it. Even at this late stage, all I'd done was use CDs, vinyl and cartridges, and the only computer I'd ever needed was the one which had the record library catalogued thereon, telling you whereabouts on the shelves you could find the circle of vinyl or the CD. Now I was being asked to learn to use a system which was wired to the faders on the desk and contained all of the station's adverts and jingles. Later, these playout systems would be upgraded by their manufacturers so that the database was substantial enough to place all the music on as well. CDs on the radio, except in specialist shows, became pretty much obsolete from 2000 onwards. Some stations donated their CD and vinyl collections to local hospital radio stations, others kept theirs for the inevitable computer crash. You may have seen how the technology has now become part of club DJ-ing too, as more and more jocks deploy laptops with sophisticated segueway tools and mixing facilities to pump out the sounds. I don't do this, yet. It does mean that in theory, a jock can prepare his whole set at home, plug the laptop in and then spend the evening doing what his punters do but be paid for it. It's clever, but it's also impersonal, especially as it seems to rule out customer requests.

The radio playout systems also have substantial editing functions and remote facilities to play out audio which isn't even on the machine, but attributed elsewhere to the desk. Furthermore, they can keep a radio station on air without a single person being in the building for hours on end by doing its own timing, seguewaying and news introduction, providing its clock is set correctly. Numerous small stations within larger corporate groups in the UK now do this, for obvious but sad budgetary reasons.

And so we're now in that situation where we don't need to touch the faders which actually play out the stuff you hear on air. I grew up, professionally at least, with these systems but there are older presenters out there who seem to resent the technology a little as it takes away some of the 'performance' associated with live, pacey radio - performances such as those by the jocks fortunate enough to work for Radio Luxembourg during their careers.


Anonymous said...

Aah, there was nothing like cursing the person who'd loaded a 20 second jingle onto a 3.5 minute cart... those were the days! I've still got a load of those in a box somewhere... not that I'm one to keep old jingles and tapes at home you understand... (cough).

Excellent blog as always.

Mondo said...

Have you checked out http://www.radiorewind.co.uk/

Loads of Radio 1 and Radio 2 old school jingles, beds and motifs.

I was regular listener to Luxembourg around 79-81. They were always very pro New Wave and even had a N/Wave chart broadcast on Thursday evenings. Steve Wright was on there in his pre BBC days, (still using the same format trivia, magazine articles back then)

Actually - I've just remembered winning a load of Crocodillo sparkling wine (I was 15 at the time) in a 'bits and pieces' style quiz when the Luxembourg Roadshow came to Southend.

Matthew Rudd said...

Oh, I've been using Radio rewind for my nostalgifix for years. It's ace, though they haven't put Charlie Jordan on their 90s jocks list.

Lee Slator said...

That's a very interesting entry to your blog Matthew. As a huge listener of radio, it's a very interesting piece about the tools used by the presenter.

Am I right in guessing that the CD and vinyl players are still available to the presenter for use when the computer system doesn't have the music track in its library?

What about new tracks? Are they uploaded to the library server by an external company?

I'm only asking these out of curiosity. Like I said, I'm very interested in radio

Matthew Rudd said...

All studios have CD players still for emergency and specialist reasons. Vinyl turntables are now very rarely seen in any studio.

New tracks arrive via promo copies from record labels and they are merely recorded and timed on to the playout system by a member of staff.