11 April 2012

"30 seconds on this, then we need a minute into the ads..."

Double shifts this week - mid-mornings in Bradford, drivetime in Wigan. Nine hours of radio a day, including a tiny chunk of pre-record while I dash from one studio to the other.

Today is even more extreme however; after the drive show finishes at 7, I'll remain in the studio until 10, pressing the buttons and ordering takeaway pizza while football commentary comes down the line.

The technical operator - the T/O, as they're known, and it's always a slash rather than a full stop separating the initials, for some reason - is the faceless hero of every radio station. They are required less than they used to be thanks to networking of stations and updated technology, but nonetheless they are vital and stations can't often run properly without them.

When I started out, computer playout systems only contained the jingles and adverts. The music was still on CD, encased in a protective plastic box and shoved into a Denon player, therefore if you ever needed to pre-record a programme (in my case, once a year - when the group of stations was hosting its annual awards) you needed to make sure a T/O was willing and available.

As I was on the nightshift back then, this wasn't easy. T/Os were casual, paid a small fee shift by shift, and had full-time jobs to hold down elsewhere. Engineers, bank clerks and driving instructors had little sidelines as button-pressers at their local station and luckily for me, the driving instructor had a quiet day of bookings ahead so agreed to come in to "play out" my nightshift while I attended the awards.

The process was laborious. Once permission had been granted and the T/O booked, you then decamped to a studio with a copy of your music log for the given date, put together and printed off with a hurumph of reluctance by your head of music. It was then a case of recording dry links into the computer, trying to make them sound as 'live' as you could. Timechecks were impossible to get accurate, but if you felt confident you could do the odd 'nearly 20 past three' routine, giving you a good three-minute leeway. Nobody on the nightshift was especially arsed about what time it was anyway.

Once each link was done, they had to be clearly labelled ("!!!2AM HOUR LINK 01" - the exclamation marks crucial as they would put the links automatically at the top of the file) and saved into the system. Then you had to write the same file name on the music log, indicating to the T/O which link to play and where. It was then up to the T/O to find the links and play them out over the records. One error meant I would be gleefully nattering about the great new single from the Manic Street Preachers while some dirge from Alice Deejay was actually playing out; hence why you didn't piss off a T/O, as he had the tools to make you look a prize berk. If they were responsible professionals they didn't do that, of course, but I expect radio people have at least one story of a scorned T/O exacting some kind of revenge.

Later, as the technology developed, the need for a T/O to play out a self-contained music show was reduced as the music was now on the system, which meant you could load the whole show yourself and press a button that guaranteed everything would play out in sequence. The only thing that you needed to keep an eye on was timings, especially as off-peak hours meant IRN bulletins and therefore you had to be on the nose. This is how a lot of shows work to this day.

Nowadays, the T/O is needed only for outside broadcasts. Every weekend when you hear a football commentator in a gantry banging on about a striker's eight-game goal drought, there is someone in the studio making sure he sounds good and waiting for the cue to play the adverts and then chat to him off-air, ready for the next swathe of instructions. These guys are also recording the commentary as it goes out and quickly cutting and pasting goals and incidents into new files, ready to be replayed in the post-game hour. It's a tough job. It's a skilled job.

The relationship between a presenter out in the field and a T/O in the studio is a tentative one. The presenter is in charge in theory but the T/O is in charge in practice. I've been in studios when OBs have been going out and I've overheard presenters totally monster their T/O down the line when something has gone wrong, and I've seen T/Os walk out in disgust at such actions too. When I commentated on football, I tried to be civil and cool with T/Os - especially as they were friends as well as colleagues - but sometimes the strain of the occasion did prompt a harsh word or two. Fortunately, all soon calmed and we were still mates when the show ended. And a good T/O will make a presenter on an OB sound amazing, especially when the task of closing the show bang on time comes up - the presenter is doing his final spiel, trying to be articulate and authoritative to the last, while the T/O in his headphones is counting down from 30 seconds. From each of them, it's an art.

T/Os are capable of making you laugh too. One non-footballist who was T/O-ing a football show I was hosting also had the job of telling us latest scorers and scores on the talkback button for us to announce on air. His stab at pronouncing the Swedish striker Fredrik Ljungberg's surname will live with me for a very, very long time. I'm not sure I ever properly stopped giggling for the whole programme.

No T/O for my overlapped shows this week, as the bits of pre-recorded output are self-contained on the playout system. Sometimes I wish there was a T/O as, for all its sophistication, a computer can go wrong. A good T/O never does. Tonight I have to be that good T/O so the listeners only have to worry about their team's performance, not the radio programme bringing them it.

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