10 November 2008

"That was a transmission issue beyond our control..."

I've acquired a new Sunday morning show on Pure 107.8 FM in Stockport. It's a laid-back 10am-1pm slot and handy for me as I'm in the town doing the club gig the night before anyway, so a quick kip in the car is all I need prior to going on air.

I did the first one at the weekend and, of course, it was Remembrance Sunday. This is always observed impeccably by the radio industry, with the general way of going about the build-up to 11am being roughly the same from station to station - tone down any wacky content from 10.30am, play slightly more chilled music up to 11am, then observe the silence and play something suitably sombre and slow afterwards.

For our part, Pure did a grand job. Eva Cassidy's version of Fields Of Gold, then one of the station's volunteers read Flanders Fields in a wonderfully poignant manner. This took us to the silence at 11am, and then John Lennon's Love eased us back into regulation programming.

There is invariably one practical problem caused by the obligation to observe the silence - the prospect of the transmitter believing you have gone off air. If you ever happen to observe the silence with a radio station on in the background, you'll notice that the sound of birdsong, and maybe the odd passing aeroplane, is remarkably loud on your speakers amidst the hissing noise which radio equipment otherwise picks up as human respect for those who sacrificed their lives fills the airwaves.

The reason for rather loud birdsong is because the presenter has turned the levels on the satellite feed from the cenotaph up to maximum. This is so the transmitter recognises that there is output coming from your radio station, as anything beyond 30 seconds of silence prompts a back-up CD to kick in from the transmitter site.

These back-up CDs are a lifeline for when a building needs to be evacuated or when equipment goes wrong, especially at non-peak times when automated or pre-recorded or networked programmes are going out, meaning that the building is entirely empty. Unfortunately, they do have a habit of coming on when a station is observing the silence, as the birdsong levels are often not loud enough for the transmitter to register.

This has happened to me, a few years ago, when I was on a Sunday morning shift and was horrified to hear the back-up CD start fewer than 40 seconds into the silence. The only way to stop it is to restart something in the studio, as it then realises that output has returned and automatically resets itself, ready for the next time there's - literally - a breakdown in communications.

The other problem with back-up CDs is that often they are hopelessly out of date. The music on them may reflect what the station was playing at the time the CD was made but once it goes on air during a technical mishap, the station's music positioning seems to have made an almighty change for no apparent reason. Years ago, workmen sliced through underground cables in Manchester which rendered numerous radio stations off the air for a whole day. Our back-up CD at Imagine FM came on, playing some music we'd ceased to play ages before. Once the repairs had been done, I received calls on the breakfast show saying how refreshing we sounded (!) - but that it got a bit boring hour after hour.

That's another problem. An all-day cut in power or equipment can mean the same hour of music being played over and over again on the CD. I never wanted to hear When You're Gone by Bryan Adams and Melanie C ever again by the time the outage had finally come to an end, and I wasn't massively keen on the song beforehand. I'm still not.

And yet another problem is that the radio station needs to be identified during an outage, but an out-of-date back-up CD is likely to feature old jingles or sweepers, since when the positioning statement may have changed (ie, from "Today's Best Music" to "More Variety") and the package itself has been modernised or altered, often with a new v/o artist.

Radio stations should update their back-up CDs every six months or so, and immediately whenever they get a new jingle package, but only for the times it is necessary. For what it's worth, I'd always make sure the duty transmitter engineer switched off the array of radio station CD players before him just before 11am on one Sunday of each year.


Louis Barfe said...

"I don't need to remind you, Alan, that dead air is a crime". I've often wondered how radio stations prevent the auto backup kicking in. And it seems that sometimes they don't. Hurrah.

Mark X said...

Of course, there's the memorable incident with Mark and Lard's final Radio One show, where they messed up switching the transmission back to London, leading to forty seconds of silence and the backup CD kicking in. I also remember noting that around 2002, MTV2's video backup system used to kick in from time to time, meaning there'd be an awkward shift from the latest rubbish nu-metal offering with lots of grumpy American teens frowning at each other to a promo from the Sugababes back catalogue. Brilliant.

Given there's presumably some kind of computer set-up in place at these transmitters, would it be reasonable to suggest some kind of date-based override? IF [TIME NOW] =>10:30 11/11/200x AND [TIME NOW]=<11:30 11/11/200x THEN [DON'T PLAY BACKUP DISC] or something? It might startle you all to discover that I'm not actually a computer programmer.