BBC Radio 4

    Priming the pips in studio 40B

    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?


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