Backtiming Back In Time

Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

Radio studios are quite glamorous places to earn a living, all things considered. If you are even halfway technically minded, there is something quite thrilling about your working environment being a LED-drenched palace of glowing buttons, dancing meters and multiple busy viewscreens. Clocks tick away, dials move, and people sit there with their faces gently illuminated by some very expensive technology.

A studio, yesterday

That said, I also like to consider myself lucky that my career began in the mid-1990s during the crossover from an entirely different era. A more earthy, direct, analogue era where things were magnetic, plastic rather than solid state and had plenty of moving parts to go wrong. Because just like driving a stick shift car as opposed to an automatic, where you somehow feel much closer to the engine and at one with your vehicle, back then it was far more of an art to create things live rather than just pushing a button and waiting for the computer to do all the work.

This is particularly resonant when I sit and play out pre-recorded shows (all on a computer these days naturally). Because my first ever job in radio was to deal with a weekly recorded programme back in the analogue era. Along with all the heavy lifting that entailed.

Dees Sleaze

It is a shame I never kept one of the old rotas which listed me as being in charge of “taking Rick Dees” which was certainly not as violent as it may sound at first glance. This was preparing for the weekly Saturday night broadcast of the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40, an American chart show which was syndicated around the world from Los Angeles where it was produced, and which was taken by a handful of British stations in the UK.

As I would only learn in later years, what we broadcast was a heavily condensed version of what at source was a four-hour marathon, shipped to broadcasting stations on a bundle of CDs which contained both the full produced show and the dry elements should they want to stitch it together themselves. Somewhere in the bowels of Metro Radio in Newcastle, it was the job of a producer to take this show and wrestle it together for British consumption. And perhaps most importantly reduce it to three hours and ensure the countdown all still made sense. Once this task was complete, the show was dubbed onto reels of tape and couriered to the offices of Satellite Media Services for onward distribution.

Until the late 1990s SMS had an effective monopoly on audio distribution to the UK radio industry. Everything, from news bulletins through to adverts and networked shows, came via their studios and over the dedicated satellite link that connected stations had installed. Every Thursday at midday their stereo “Programmes Channel” would carry the weekly feed of Rick Dees to the network, and it was my job to be in place in the studio at that time to effect the recording.

Because yes, we were only set up to do this by hand. I’d haul the huge 12-inch reels of tape (three in total – one for each hour) out of the drawer where they were kept and lug them into the off-air studio. The first would be carefully laced up onto the reel to reel player which occupied more than its fair share of studio space, ready for the feed to begin. A couple of minutes before the hour the SMS channel would broadcast a tone, against which I’d set the studio levels and a portion of which I’d record onto the start of the tape for reference before waiting for the clock to tick around.

Midday on the dot, the feed of the show would begin. I’d hit record, watch the spools gently turn (7.5 inches per second speed) and then basically sit there for the next 45 minutes and hope nothing would jam. I’d eat lunch, or pop next door into the on-air studio to chat to the presenter and generally try to look busy. Once the hour had finished it was time to hit stop, rewind the tape and lace up the next one ready for the next hour.

The feed of the third hour would also end with the weekly programme trail in which Rick himself would extol the virtues of whatever special guests he would feature. I’d have to hope that the SMS engineers would leave the tape at their end running long enough for there to be enough music at the end to allow me to edit in one of the “Saturday night – only on The Pulse!” lines that Dees had recorded years before. I’d record this trail onto a handy Sonifex cart and deliver it to the racks in the on-air studio before stowing the tapes back in the drawer in the office ready for the weekend.

Just Can’t Wait ‘Til Saturday

That was really only part of the fun. It wasn’t generally my job, but sometimes I’d be invited to cover the Saturday evening shift. A large part of which involved actually broadcasting my carefully recorded show. And this was a whole new part of the operation.

One of the first things I was ever taught to do as a “professional” broadcaster was to successfully back time the recorded show. If you owned a calculator which did hours, minutes and seconds – great! If like me, you were a poor recent graduate, you just had to do it all by hand.

Each hour of the programme had to finish on time to take the national news (for reasons which will become apparent). How you managed that was often the result of some on the fly creativity and what would hopefully be a happy coincidence between the length of each hour of the show (which differed week by week) and the number of adverts and trails that were scheduled. So for each hour of the show, you would carefully count back from the top of the hour… take off 12 seconds for the news jingle, 90 seconds for the last break, 12 minutes for Part 4 of the show etc. to eventually arrive at the ideal start time for each third of the programme.

Hour 1 was always straightforward, as there was no need to take the news at the start. You knew when the previous live show needed to finish, what time to start the final ad break and when the top of the hour “Legal ID” would play to start the Weekly Top 40 on time. You would press Play on the carefully laced up and cued up tape, stopping it every 10 minutes to play the ad break, during the course of which you would manually cue up the next band of the programme. If all went well and you hadn’t messed up the calculations, the tape would end a little over 90 seconds before the top of the hour and the final ad break would play.

Then the fun would begin because the next few minutes were a genuine race against the clock. Stopping the tape and hitting ‘rewind’ and watching the spools spin round at speed. You knew you had until the end of the news bulletin to rewind the tape, lift it off the machine, locate the tape for the second hour, lace it up (under this pin, over that one, past the heads and onto the take-up spool) and cue the first part of the next hour, all before the two minute IRN bulletin had finished. And that, my friends, is why you always had the news during these taped shows on a Saturday night. Because that was your window to swap the tapes over.

This is where the back times (as they were called) never quite worked. Because the start of Hours 2 and 3 was fixed in time at 2 minutes past the hour. And if your total running time of programmes and commercials didn’t come to 58 minutes you had to get creative. Of all the lessons I learned during the first weeks of my career, this was the most important. How to get Rick Dees back running to time.

If you were under that was easy. You could insert another programme trail into proceedings, or if it was just 10-15 seconds or so which needed to be accounted for, be relaxed about how tight the broadcast was. Let a second elapse between adverts, be slow off the mark starting the show back up after the station jingle. Straightforward. More often, however, you were over time. Without adjustments, the programme would crash through the next news bulletin.

Fixing this was actually easier than it sounded. As long as the show had not been produced with a lengthy spoken link at the end of each part, it was possible to just fade it out early mid-song. 45 seconds over time? Not an issue, have a station jingle standing by (or better yet a whispered ID) and use it to mask your fade out and cut to the ads. In one move you were now running to time (and could relax a bit) and the audience was none the wiser. Ideally you’d do this at the end of Part 1 and be back on schedule as soon as possible. But sometimes the last song would end too soon and Rick would spend the last two minutes of the part being wacky or doing something that Steve Wright would copy six months later. So you would move on to Part 2 and attempt the same again, praying that this time it would work. Because if you were still behind by the time Part 3 began you could be forgiven for getting nervous.

Hence my manual gearbox comparison above. None of this was rocket science really, and once you’d learned the tricks of the trade it was like riding a bike, but it somehow felt like real broadcasting. You were in hands-on control, your timing skills the difference between the station sounding superb and missing the start of the news. Or worse still, having to yank the show off air mid-link. And I was lucky enough to start my career learning how to do this. Because in the old analogue world you had to. This was how you made radio.

These days I line up a recorded radio show by dragging and dropping files into a computerized schedule. A piece of software shows me how long it will run, at a glance how many seconds I am over or under and if needed will time stretch things on the fly to make it all fit. It is liberating, slick and has fewer moving parts to go wrong. But for those new to the industry, it is all they will ever know. They will thrill at the sight of flat screens, glowing buttons and computer programmes with exotic names like Myriad, Zetta or Burli. But they will never know the adrenaline rush and blind panic of realising you’ve laced the tape up with a kink in it, 30 seconds before IRN is due to finish.

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