On Sunday mornings, I watch the clock. There are particular times that I’m looking for: 6 minutes past the hour, 18 minutes past the hour, 38 minutes past the hour and 58 minutes and 30 seconds past the hour are good examples. That is when breaks are scheduled in Weekend Edition, and that is when I’m on the air.
At about two minutes before my cue I put on my headphones. I review the log to see what buttons I’ll be pushing during the break, and whether I will have to speak, either to tag a promo (which is to give information about when an upcoming program will air on our station) or to do a station ID or weather report or provide information about upcoming events in our listening area.
I look up the weather and performing arts events when I arrive at the station a little before 6:00 a.m. First I unlock the music library, remembering to put the keys in my pocket after locking them in the library one early morning several years ago. My cell phone and my purse were also in the music library, which meant that I had no money in addition to having no keys, and no access to any of the rooms in the station that had a phone.
I finally located a pay phone by the theater department and, having no money, called 9-1-1. I explained that it wasn’t an emergency, actually, but that I couldn’t think of any other recourse to get back into the music library in time to get my keys and get on the air at 6:00 a.m.
The 9-1-1 operator tried calling one of the producers at MTPR, but she slept through numerous calls. In the end, the operator called someone from University building maintenance – a crabby man who berated me for locking my keys in the room when he arrived to open the door. I haven’t done that again since then, and was somewhat relieved to find out that other board operators have done similar things like locking their keys in master control, although possibly not at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning when they were in the building alone.
In any case, the first thing that I do when I unlock a door at the radio station these days is to turn the lock on the back of the knob so that the door will remain unlocked, and pocket my keys, just in case. I have to put my keys in my pants pockets to keep them from jingling around when I’m on the air.
Which I’m just about to be, in two minutes. I determine the order of the buttons I will have to push to play a recording with the program sponsor, and any program promotions before I speak. I like to speak at the end of a break so that I can modulate my words, if necessary, to bring us back to the program on time, particularly when there is a “hard start” (like there is on NPR programs that are streamed to the station live). If I miss the start, I will cut off the beginning of the news program, which people don’t tend to like.
About 30 seconds before the break, I place my left hand on whatever button I’m pushing next, and my right hand on the lever to pot down the volume on the program that’s running so that I don’t play it over the promo or sponsor. Sometimes a music bed is embedded in the program, which allows you to do just this, but other times, there are national promotions going on in the background that you don’t want your local listeners to hear underneath the local announcements. It has taken years for me to figure out when there’s a music bed in a program that I can leave running under a sponsor or promo. Most of the time, these days, I get it right.
I have been working for the radio station for about ten years now. I started out as a librarian, volunteering to read on the Pea Green Boat (a daily radio program for children). When Michael Marsolek took over as program director, he invited me to apply to become a substitute board operator, which would allow me to fill in as host for the children’s program when the regular host (at that time, Marcia Dunn) was unavailable. When Marcia retired, I served as the interim program host of the Pea Green Boat and Children’s Corner until Annie Garde was hired to take over.
I continued to substitute for the Pea Green Boat and the Children’s Corner, until I had children of my own, which keeps me busy during the after school hours. Then I began filling in on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when my husband was home to watch the kids. I’ve had a few regular weekend shifts, and other periods where I would go months between shifts. But whenever it seemed like I hadn’t been on the air in ages, something would change, and another opportunity would crop up – the most recent being the retirement of Marguerite Munsche which has extended my late morning Sunday shift into nearly a full work day.
My voice is only heard briefly, once or twice an hour, although a lot of things are going on behind the scenes. After I make sure all of the doors are unlocked, and turn on all of the lights, I pull the mini disks for program sponsor recordings. I play about 20 of these during my seven hour Sunday morning shift, and then I pull the ones that Joe Korona will need for his shift from 1:00 – 6:00, so I usually have a stack of approximately 30 mini disks lined up at the beginning of the day. Sometimes we’ll play the same one more than once, so I constantly have to review the log to see if I’ll be putting a disk that I just played back into the stack to play again later in the morning.
Which recordings are played during which shows are determined by the businesses who sponsor the programs and are recorded and scheduled by the development office. The development staff is also we call if the number on a mini-disk doesn’t match what the log says that it’s supposed to be, or if a disk is blank.
Once the mini-disks are pulled, I load digital storage with the pre-recorded programs that we’ll be playing for the next hour or so. Some programs come in several segments, with breaks between sections for announcements, so I can only load about an hour’s worth into the system at a time. Each time I play one, and delete the file, it frees up space for another digital audio file that I’ll be playing in the future. These have to be chosen carefully from the database, since each program has short promotional introductions, and sometimes recordings for several dates in the system. The board operator has to make sure that the program they are loading matches the log exactly.
When it’s time to go on the air, I find myself straightening up in my seat and taking a few deep breaths. I make sure I know which buttons I’m going to push, in which order, and what I’m going to say if I have to say anything. I also need to know what time the program will resume so that I can keep everything running on the right schedule.
Most listeners will not be sitting riveted to the radio for seven hours straight on a Sunday morning. Nonetheless, I try to provide some variety in terms of station IDs. We are required by the FCC to read these every hour on the hour, so on a long shift I’ll sometimes read the list from top to bottom, sometimes from bottom to top, and will often play recordings of other people reading the station IDs.
However, some of the program sponsor announcements and promotions of upcoming shows have to be read exactly the same way each time. In those cases, I hope that varying the pitch and timbre of my voice, or the music that’s playing in the background can still provide some variety.
The most important trick I’ve found for successfully hosting a radio show is to be fully present in the moment. I used to worry so much about what was coming up that I would repeat the order of events to myself and found that narration still spinning in my head after I had already started to push buttons. This lead me to second-guess myself, thinking that I still had to do something that I had just done, or worrying about something that was coming up in the next break before I had finished the current one.
I now try to break the day into smaller pieces. While I still like to pull all of the mini-disks and load all of the audio files into the system as far as possible in advance (which gives me time to discover if anything is missing or if any of the files are mislabeled), in any particular moment, I try to keep my attention focused on the very next task that I have to do. Even the shortest sponsor recording runs for five seconds, which is plenty of time for me to turn my focus from the button I just pushed to the button I’m going to push next.
After each button push, or announcement, I record what I’ve done in the daily log. I try to do this in real time as well. Push button, write time. Do ID, write time. But sometimes it’s possible to project at exactly what time I’ll be playing a particular piece, particularly if it follows a national program that is timed to end at a particular second. This system also allows me to figure out how much time I have left in my shift, since some of our local programs run for approximate (not exact) lengths of time.
What we don’t want to happen is for a program to end early, and to have nothing planned to fill the blank space between when the program actually ends and the time that it was supposed to end (and the next program begins). There are tricks for this, too. I like to have an instrumental CD nearby for these occasions or for more serious ones (in which the equipment freezes up and we’re not able to play whatever was scheduled). Lost dog and cat announcements can also fill a minute or two. I keep the weather report and hourly temperatures nearby in case I need extra filler, and we’ve all learned to do the station IDs at a pace that can last anywhere from 21 – 45 seconds, depending on how much time we have before the next program starts.
Before I worked for a radio station, I never gave any thought to all of this. I would hear a voice on the radio and imagine the person behind the mike casually yakking away and spinning tunes as he or she saw fit. Working on the radio has made me into a different kind of listener as well. I can tell if a program host is trying to fill a long pause, and I know exactly what happened if a program promotion is accidentally being played on top of a sponsor announcement or regular program.
I appreciate all of the time and energy it takes to plan even a morning of pre-recorded music. Every week, the program director has to time every piece of audio down to the minute and make sure that it’s listed clearly on the program logs. The development office has to constantly find people to record sponsor announcements and make sure that they’re all labeled and filed correctly. The pre-recorded program hosts have to plan their shows, and come in and record them, and the engineers set all of that up and edit out any mistakes afterwards. The brave souls who do live shows have to do research about the composers and performers that they’re playing and have to make sure that they have just enough music and talk to fill the amount of time that their program is allotted. The people who run the board during the news in the morning have to constantly switch between the national news feed, their own microphone, and the microphone of the studio in which the news broadcasters are sitting, and they have to play the news theme and promos and sponsors between segments and it all has to be timed just right to bring you back to the network for NPR.
A lot of work goes into bringing you the radio you hear on the air every day at Montana Public Radio and it takes a lot of money to make it happen. If you haven’t already, please become a member of MTPR if you’re a listener, and if you’re not yet, consider tuning in to hear me on Sunday mornings.