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Priming the pips in studio 40B

Chris Aldridge Chris Aldridge 19:48, Friday, 8 May 2009

The control desk in studio 40B at Radio 4

I'm sitting in the Radio 4 Continuity studio - or 40B as it's officially known - counting the minutes till the final pips of my shift when an e-mail arrives from Anna, our message board moderator. Someone's posted a comment about me: they've picked up on a couple of things I've said on air that they found amusing, which makes a nice change. In fact they've slightly mis-quoted what I said and I think their versions are funnier... although not the kind of thing I could have said on air.

And that's the essence of this job. Knowing what to say, when to say it, how far to go and when to stop and simply be silent; less is sometimes more.

I see my role as being the listener's friend - yours I hope. You and I are both fans of Radio 4 and - since I don't have time to hear our programmes in advance - are sharing the experience of listening together. I have a slight advantage in that I know exactly what's coming up in our schedule and I want to convince you to stay and share these wonderful programmes with me.

You'll notice I referred to listener in the singular. Yes, the research gurus tell us we're reaching an audience of nearly 10 million a week but in my studio it's only ever two people: you and me... and occasional honoured guests who come armed with cameras.

I guess the studio has the look of a flight deck about it but the views aren't quite as exciting; one of the downsides of being in a BBC secure area is the absence of daylight. But I do sit facing studio 40A, my second professional home: this is known as Long Wave Con and carries those bits of our output which are broadcast on split wavelengths - Yesterday in Parliament, the Daily Service, Test Match Special and the Shipping Forecast.

Probably just as well that the views are relatively uninspiring as I should be concentrating on the six computer screens facing me and the sound desk at my fingertips.

Beyond my desk lies some sophisticated sound processing, designed to ensure that the Radio 4 sound maintains the right dynamic range and subtleties demanded by our wide array of programmes, the transmitter network and... you. I am the last human being in the broadcasting chain and but a fader slide away from taking Radio 4 off air. And yes, it does keep me awake some nights.

Those six screens help me decide what goes out through the desk and on the air, most importantly the one with the schedule. This is the masterwork evolving from Tony Pilgrim's planning, our Operations Team who check and process all the programmes, and our Promotions Team who make all the pre-recorded trails you hear through the day, often using Announcers - currently I'm locally known as R4's voice of Fertility having promoted documentaries on the children of sperm donors and Life as an Old New Mum.

But back to that schedule screen. Once again the power vested in me is awesome; with one careless use of the keyboard I could wipe out the next episode of The Archers, move Woman's Hour to the middle of the night and replace You and Yours with some stand-up comedy. But in the interests of my BBC pension I restrict my actions to inserting late arriving programmes (e.g. the recent Case Notes special on Flu), adding extra trails and doing my sums.

Maths is a vital skill demanded of an announcer. In any one hour I must add up the time occupied by programmes, trails, scripted announcements and news then subtract that figure from 59 minutes and 55 seconds; what remains is up to me to fill in the most succinct, entertaining and promotional way possible.

This is a near-perfect job if you're a Radio 4 addict like me so long as you remember the golden rule: don't listen to the programmes - at least not too closely. You may be enjoying the thrilling denouement of the Afternoon Play but if I'm sitting in Con I must be 'reading the road ahead': is my newsreader ready to go and levels checked; is the Moneybox Live studio ready and tested to follow the news, have I a suitable pre-recorded trail cued and ready, are the pips primed and - oh yes - what on earth am I going to say?


  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks for a very interesting blog Chris.

    "And that's the essence of this job. Knowing what to say, when to say it, how far to go and when to stop and simply be silent; less is sometimes more."

    One advantage of radio - for the listener - it's a pity that your peers in television continuity have lost the art of less is sometimes more, but then there is less opportunity on radio for the marketing dept. to mess with programme credits and/or continuity announcements...

    "Maths is a vital skill demanded of an announcer. In any one hour I must add up the time occupied by programmes, trails, scripted announcements and news then subtract that figure from 59 minutes and 55 seconds; what remains is up to me to fill in the most succinct, entertaining and promotional way possible."

    Yes, back timing is an art that many do not appreciate, either how vital it is and just how difficult it can be to time 'X' number of words to the second (is crashing the pips still considered a capital crime?...).

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    Crikey !! I thought you just did the 'commentary', I didn't realise you were 'driving the bus' as well ! And they say men can't 'multi-task'...

    You're a better man than I, Gunga Din..

  • Comment number 4.

    You could wipe out the next episode of The Archers?

    Mmm. Buy a kitten. Release it on the console. Often.

  • Comment number 5.

    Very interesting Chris. I didn't realise your power and in no sense do I think it is ever abused. Sometimes however you and your colleages are a little thoughtless to a small section of the listeners.
    These are those who do not regard "Sailing By" with the reverence it obviously holds within the R4 heirarchy and enjoy the sound of a well rung peal of Church bells. Last Sunday night you, or one of your colleagues faded out Bells on Sunday after about 25 secs of its allotted 3 min to give 2 min of Sailing by. Not Fair.
    Can you pu a notice on the wall of 40B Mon - Sat only "Sailing By... Sunday - Bells on Sunday up to Maritime forecast.

  • Comment number 6.

    Thanks Chris for a fascinating look at your work.
    One thing i
    I don't understand.......why is the sound volume of the programmes so varied....The Archers for instance is always quieter than almost everything else....I started a thread on the Archers message board a little while ago and was astounded at the degree of agreement with my comment. Is there anyone with you on duty who acyually listens to the volume?....you mention a rack of equipment concerened with the dynamics of the sound,but it needs a real person to actually do the job.
    Best wishes

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks everyone for the responses so far - it's been fun to share something of our clandestine world, and there's more to follow from my team.
    To answer a couple of specific matters....
    Michael o'weardale mentions the Bells - or lack of them. I do sympathise and recognise that Radio 4 provides a rare opportunity to celebrate something that is so much a part of our national soundscape. The scheduled slots for the Bells are in fact 2 minutes on Sunday morning (approx 0543)and 1 minute following Thinking Allowed (approx midnight-45), and on the Sunday you mention there were 45" bells played in that late slot, followed by part of Sailing By. The late slot is a tricky one: we have to fit in Bells and Sailing By without playing so little of either that we render them nonsensical, and my team do try to make the balancing act work. But I will post a gentle reminder that we should strive to keep as much of the Bells as possible, so thank you for pointing it out.
    Pebill has an interesting point about the Archers sound levels. The announcer in Con does have responsibility for keeping an eye on the sound levels but we do rely on the programmes being properly balanced by the time they reach us. One observation I have - as a listener - is that the weekday evening Archers always follows the 1830 comedy, which by its nature can sound quite loud and compressed; the events in Ambridge are bound to have a wider dynamic range by comparison and we wouldn't want to erode those subtleties. However given your comment and those on the Archers boards we are looking into that issue at the moment, possibly with a view to adjusting the equipment mentioned in my blog.
    Do hope I've been of help and that you enjoy my colleagues' revelations over the coming days....

    Chris Aldridge, Senior Announcer Radio 4


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