Behind the Scenes at a Broadcasting Station
By CARL DREHER, "Radio Broadcast", November 1923
There are times when quick decisions and rapid work are demanded of the operating personnel at a broadcasting station. The average listener-in knows little of the complications, and of the incidents both amusing and trying that make up the operator's daily life. Mr. Dreher, who is in charge of the Radio Corporation's New York station, says: "Looking at the apparatus in all its complexity, and revolving in one's mind the number of things that can go wrong, one is surprised that it ever works at all." People, too, cannot always be relied upon to do the things expected of them. How the artists, as well as the apparatus, are handled so as to maintain a smooth and satisfactory program for the broadcast fan, is told in this article. THE EDITOR.
A CERTAIN broadcast listener was disturbed one day by the testing of a couple of amateur phone transmitters in his vicinity. For about half an hour two zealous experimenters recited each other's call letters, the story of Mary and her lamb, and a list of the defects in their modulation, which were many and various. Although the amateurs were on their legal wavelength, this conversation mingled inextricably with the music from a commercial broadcasting station whose program interested the listener. Like the situation in Kipling's ballad when two strong men meet face to face, in radio, when one is close enough, there is neither East nor West, wavelength or frequency or tuning just QRM. The broadcast listener, vastly and understandably annoyed, did not pause to analyze the facts of the situation. He sat down and wrote to the broadcasting station:
"How do these private talks get into your amplifying room to be broadcasted, instead of the advertised programs?"
"Why . . . don't you close the doors between the studios?"
Having been a radio man for many years, I have little respect for myself or other members of the fraternity. Still, they have more sense than that; they really have.
Complaints also come in by telephone. The conversation usually begins as follows:
"Something's wrong with your modulation. Are you listening in?"
Informant is assured that three men are listening in, and that it sounds all right at the transmitting end. After a few minutes of conversation it develops that the receiver is howling. The trouble is not usually at the broadcasting station; if it is, the operators are aware of it. When there is something rotten in Denmark, the Danes are apt to know it.
THE JOB OF KEEPING A STATION GOING
THE ARRANGEMENT OF STUDIO AND APPARATUS AT AEOLIAN HALL
Fig. 3, in its several divisions, shows what may be seen in the revolving mirror of the oscillograph. There are three straight vertical lines, the left-hand one being the zero line, the right-hand one marking 100 per cent., with a median line indicating 50 per cent. A wavy line formed by the reflection of a beam of light on the revolving mirror, by the extent to which it fills the space between the two extreme marks, indicates the measure of modulation. In Fig. 3a, the modulation is low about 10 per cent, corresponding to a pianissimo passage in music. In Fig. 3b, the modulation is 60 per cent. a good, audible value, with adequate margin for most exigencies. Fig. 3c, illustrates a bad case of over-modulation.
But now, instead of continuing our description in the regulation way, let us proceed from this bare outline of the equipment, and fill in the details by telling the story of a composite day in a control operator's life.
AN AVERAGE DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE CONTROL OPERATOR
WE WILL call him Jim.
Jim wakes up at about ten o'clock in the morning,for he worked the evening before till after eleven, and probably took out his girl, or a plurality of girls, after that. He breakfasts in bed while glancing at the radio programs in the morning papers.
However, we are not concerned with Jim's activities until, after two o'clock, his limousine rolls up to the AEolian Building. Ascending in the elevator, he observes a number of musical celebrities, for this building is one of the chief musical centers of New York, and makes a mental note of the latest fashions in flowing scarfs before getting off at the sixth floor and entering the control room. Here some of his own colleagues are already seated, earnestly discussing the rotten modulation at all the other stations in the country, the faults of the announcers, means of making broadcasting pay, and the grave error of the executives of the company in not immediately doubling the salaries of the whole staff.
KEEPING IN TOUCH WITH THE ROOF
HELPING THE PERFORMER "GET OUT" WELL
THE control operator is aided in his work if he knows most of the songs that are apt to be rendered, and has enough knowledge of musical composition to know a few seconds ahead when a fortissimo passage is coming. This is in fact one of Jim's qualifications, and it preserves him from ever being caught flatfooted when the artist pulls out the stops and takes it on high to mix three metaphors and under these conditions it would take an earthquake to over-modulate when Jim is holding down the channel. To a certain extent, also, he may rely on his judgment of the artist's vocal capacity; but this is apt to be treacherous.
WHEN TUBES GO BAD DURING A PROGRAM
Jim's real troubles begin when he has an outside event to broadcast. All that the public knows about it is the announcer's request to stand by while the program is switched from the studio to such-and-such a place umpty-ump miles away, a 15-second pause, and the voice of the announcer at the new scene of action. But there is a great deal of action behind the scenes.
In the studio there is a well-known pianist. Owing to slight but cumulative delays in the program, the studio is running five minutes behind its schedule.
At 8:30 a symphony orchestra of one hundred pieces is to be broadcasted, the wires have been in for several days, they have been tested a few hours before the beginning of the concert, and since 7:30 Jim has been on the line at intervals, talking to the pick-up men, listening for extraneous noise on the wires, and so on.
It is 8:29. The pianist is in the middle of his last selection. "Say, Jim," comes the voice of the chief pick-up man, "I've got to have the air. They're going to start."
"It's only eight twenty nine and a half," replies Jim, stalling for ime. "He's on his last number. Just a second and I'll give it to you."
"I can't wait a second," declares Bill, on the outside. "We've got 8,000 people here. The conductor's glaring at us. For heaven's sake give us the air."
In the intervals the wire is used for conversation regarding the wire line transfer between the control room and the pick-up point. If Jim neglects to pull the switch, this stage business goes out on the air. Occasionally this happens, and the radio audience hears.directions like: "Change to 440 loop; this wire's getting noisy," or, "Hey, haven't they got any string instruments in that orchestra?" But this is a rare occurrence.
So the program runs its course vocal numbers, instrumental numbers, jazz, opera, talks, recitations, symphonies, time signals, bedtime stories, plays, anything that the program manager has reason to believe will please some considerable fraction of the audience.