Episode 88: The Broadcast Clock

There’s a term that epitomizes what we radio producers aspire to create: the “driveway moment.” It’s when a story is so good that you can’t leave your car. Inside of a driveway moment, time becomes elastic–you could be staring straight at a clock for the entire duration of the story, but for that length of time, the clock has no power over you.

But ironically,  inside the machinery of public radio–the industry that creates driveway moments–the clock rules all.

monikacalc

At NPR’s studios in Washington, DC, there are clocks everywhere. Big red digital clocks, huge round analog clocks. There’s even special software and time calculators, where 60 + 60 = 2’00.

(All Things Considered director Monika Evstatieva during a live broadcast in NPR’s Studio 2A. Credit: Julia Barton)

Each show has a ‘clock’, a set template, from which the show almost never varies. Every show that broadcasts—or aspires to broadcast—in the public radio system has a clock. This is the All Things Considered broadcast clock, which NPR and stations across the country refer to on a daily basis:

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It’s actually a pretty cool piece of visual design, but one which functions best when it is never seen. This template is used twice every weekday: ATC Hour 1, from 4:00:00pm through 4:59:59pm ET; and then for ATC Hour 2, from 5:00:00 through 5:59:59pm ET.

Here’s how it works: at the ‘top’ of the hour, there is a 59 second “billboard,” which announces what’s going up in the program. Then there’s five minutes for the newscast, which is itself divided into two segments (“Newscast I” and “Newscast II”). Then there are the “blocks”–A, B, C, and D–which is where the stories and interviews (or “two-ways”) live.

Segments can’t run long by even a second, because most of the local stations are automated to cut off the national program where the clock says they can. These times–the dividers between the sections on the clock–are called posts. You have to hit the post. Nothing can go wrong.

Though, of course, things go wrong every day.

Monika2

(When Julia visited ATC, a live interview segment accidentally got wrapped up 35 seconds early. Then it was on Monika, the director, to figure out what to do. Credit: Julia Barton)

Taking care of the clock is so ingrained in the director’s psyche that a common side effect of the job is waking up in the middle of the night fearing that you’ve blown the post–these are called “director’s dreams.” To cope with the anxiety, ATC directors make their own cheat sheets to help them memorize every queue of every hour of broadcast.Visit any studio that does a regular live feed with a broadcast clock and you’ll likely find a cheat sheet one somewhere in the studio.

TOTN sheet

The director’s cheat sheets at ATC  have been used so much that they’re in tatters. They have since been laminated.

ATC sheet

(Note the correction in the “Top Cast” in the upper right. It’s not “1:00″, it’s “:59″)

When NPR began in the early 1970s, show clocks were much less regimented–or they didn’t have clocks at all.

One of the early champions against the fixed clock was Bill Siemering, a founder of NPR who helped design the network’s overall sound. He came up with the name All Things

Considered (original title: A Daily Identifiable Product). Siemering wrote the mission statement of NPR, which is enshrined in the halls of NPR (note the text on the walls).

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(Credit: Interior Design)

Siemering liked a clock that was more free-form, because it allowed for spontaneity and unpredictability. But spontaneous and unpredictable does not always make for compelling radio. Done wrong, and you wind up with laughably bad “Schweddy Balls”-grade public radio.

When Siemering left NPR in the early 1970s, NPR chose to have more subdivided clocks. The constraints forced the shows to get tighter, which some say makes NPR stronger. One person is Neal Conan, former host of Talk of the Nation, who maintains that the earlier, freer days of NPR were not as halcyon as some may remember them.

 These days, podcasting allows for shows such as this one to be free of a post, and go on for as long or short as is fitting for any given story.

me clock with 99

Reporter-producer-editor (triple threat!) Julia Barton visited NPR’s old headquarters at Washington, DC, where she spoke with ATC directors Monika Evstatieva and Greg Dixon, and former Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan. Julia also spoke with public radio’s patron saint, Bill Siemering.

Many thanks to All Things Considered Executive Producer Chris Turpin and the other powers-that-be at NPR who gave us unfettered access to the shop during Julia’s visit.

(Note: Julia visited NPR while they were still at 635 Massachusetts Ave, NW. They have since moved to 1111 N. Capitol St.)

More network clocks! And more! And more!

Music: ”Io, Apollo, And The Veil”- Metavari, ”The Wind Up Bird”- Tunng, ”Standard Error”- Orcas, ”Paintchart”- ISAN, ”Snow Tip Cap Mountain”- The Octopus Project, ”Black Blizzard/Red Umbrella”- The Octopus Project

59 thoughts on “The Broadcast Clock

  1. Do you have persmission, then, to show a Fresh Air or WWDTM clock too? The contrast from the newsmags is always interesting.

    • 1. Slate Culture Gabfest, 2. This American Life, 3. The Bugle, 4. Radiolab, 5. Answer Me This!, 6. Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, 7. Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo Film Review (BBC Five Live)

  2. Just as a point of interest, and with no disrespect to anyone: I directed Morning Edition from 2000 to 2012. After the first few weeks of training, I never used a “cheat sheet” and instructed all forthcoming directors that it wasn’t a good idea to have it in the studio. I always emphasized: memorize the clock. If you’re looking at your cheat sheet you’re likely not looking where the action is and you will inevitably get caught. You’re supposed to be thinking about what you’re doing, not looking it up.

  3. Thanks for another enlightening show. It was great just to hear Neal again. Listening to TOTN, I really could hear how well he controlled the time of the interviews.

    Roman, I don’t suppose you can convince Neal to start his own podcast? :)

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  7. I was struck particularly by a phenomenon mentioned in this lovely episode: Dreaming of the clock.

    I don’t work in audio – or anything even similar to it – but I instantly recognised this phenomenon. For me, it’s dreams of either AutoCAD, or more recently Revit. Or if I’m lucky, Sketchup or 3DMax. My subject of work is architecture but the medium through which it is so often considered is most commonly defined by what we might call the ‘user interface’, and that’s what I guess our brains are filtering through when they force us into dreams of it all. For the radio producer it’s the clock, for me it’s AutoCAD’s God-awful UI. (The Sketchup nights are infinitely better for me – not only 3 dimensions, but the blessed benefits of perspective!)

    At any rate, I’m sure it’s not just radio producers and me who experience this. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that it’s the clock which dominates their dreams, though, and I wonder what surprising UI systems torment people of different professions. I know athletes are focussed on physical performance, for instance, but what’s their day-to-day visualisation technique that then interrupts their slumber? What about chefs? Or doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians… I wonder!

    • I wonder why they use complicated 3D programs when there is a special tool called “The Broadcast Clock Creator”.

    • Ahh, the dreams! I once spent a summer tree planting in Northern Canada, where you have to carefully space 9 or 7 trees within a 3 meter radius, acre after acre. Many of us would have dreams of doing this all night, then do it all day. The worst were on hot nights, when you would open your eyes in an overheated tent, the sun would be up, you look around, determine where you should plant the trees, then wake up slightly, feel the horror of the dream, then go back to sleep. A few hours you would awake and find it was not all a dream…

  8. There’s exactly 4 minutes left in the podcast at the precise time that you mention Mr. Conan had to play a whale song to fill the last 4 minutes of his first live broadcast. Thought you could sneak that by us, eh?

  9. As a director who worked for four years with Van Williamson on Morning Edition I concur — you have to memorize the clock.

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  11. After I listen to most podcasts — yours, CBC WireTap, Harry Shearer’s Le Show, and others — I delete ‘em from my podcast app. But a few shows earn a permanent place: this is one of ‘em. Maybe it’s just the fact that I worked in radio in the ’80s that makes it sentimental to me.

  12. I haven’t worked in radio for 30 years, but I still have “director’s dreams”. You don’t mention the payoff, though: the thrill of successfully hitting an absurd number of time cues in a tightly clocked hour, and that wonderful final ad lib that somehow ends with a perfect network ID just as the light that shows your control room has the network winks out.

    • I enjoyed that feeling as well. But for me it’s no real surprise, as I found 99% Invisible through Radiolab. And Radiolab via This American Life. Slate’s Culture Gabfest I just started listening to at some point because I loved their Political Gabfest (which I found independently, looking for political podcasts). I can’t remember how I found Bullseye, despite it being the most recent addition to my list (of the shows in the montage).

      On the suggestion side: If you like the Culturefest, I’d say the odds are very high that you would enjoy NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. The rapport and humor among the four hosts is second to none. I’ve been working through their entire archive, listening to all kinds of topics I don’t care about because the chatter is so much fun. I think the Political Gabfest folks have a very strong rapport as well, and has occasional moments of great humor, though that isn’t quite their modus operandi which appears to be the case with PCHH.

      Back to our hosts here, I loved 99% Invisible from my introduction to it because of the mellifluous voice of Roman Mars. And unlike my comment on PCHH, I will listen to every episode of 99PI not *despite* some of the topics being things I am not particularly interested in, but because Roman and the team make everything they talk about interesting. I can’t even say that about Radiolab or (blasphemy!) This American Life. They are almost always on the mark, but sometimes they do stories that just don’t hit the spot. I don’t think 99PI has ever really missed that mark.

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  14. What a fantastic, thought provoking, overlooked topic. And an interview with the great Bill Siemering, too! I’m with Bill on this one. Being so subservient to the clock is not the best way to serve listeners and stations that automate during one of public radio’s flagship programs are not serving their listeners to the greatest extent, either. Having to fill or cutting a story because of time is inefficient. Stories should end when they’re over and should continue when they’re not over (with limits, of course). That’s why there are editors! Thanks for starting this conversation.
    David Polk
    WFMT Chicago

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  16. Wow. Once upon a time when I was broadcasting via shoutcast from my basement to my friends another friend of mine decided to do a show from *his* basement too. We figured out that if I stopped broadcasting and he started exactly 10 seconds later then the server would splice the streams into a continuous sound and the listeners would never notice the difference. That discovery launched me in to a phase of obsession about scheduling, matching up these “marks”, but we never read any literature about how real radio stations did this sort of thing. INstead we came up with our own vocabulary, our own system, and though I didn’t have the resources, I dreamt up a system for the future which implemented round-shaped schedules for one hour segments that were divided up into colored strips. I am absolutely floored that what I thought up in high school turns out to be exactly what the real radio directors do. Floored. I still have all my original sketches from that project. Roman, if you’re interested in seeing them, I’ll be happy to send them along. :)

  17. Would you mind posting your 4:30 version, too. I’d like to hear how you choose to edit The Broadcast Clock to accommodate a broadcast clock.

  18. Found this fascinating. Would LOVE to see comparisons of commercial radio clocks with NPR’s. Rather think the difference would be down right hysterical.

  19. As the original Weekend Edition tech director, I made the first clock graphic for Weekend Edition on an early Mac, using a program called MacDraft. Of course, the show format was actually created by Jay Kernis (in collaboration with others, I’m sure).

    It was particularly difficult format clock for directors and techs to get used to because it was the first clock at NPR (to my knowledge) to divide the hour in thirds, rather than halves or quarters. It also was the precursor of many modern NPR clocks in that there were far more join and cutaway points than the clocks of ATC or ME of the time.

    You don’t mention it on the podcast, but one other point of the clock — in the days of analog tape — was keeping the ‘rollovers’ (the tape delayed versions of the show for western time zones) on time. NPR’s two-track analog open reel machines couldn’t consistently play an hour of programming without several seconds of drift. The format clock provided an opportunity for the techs in the rollover studio to switch from one machine to another, thereby correcting small time errors and hence keeping the show on time. As the original WE TD, it fell to me to create the specification for how the producers would physically divide the show reels up to allow for this back-and-forth between machines.

    As a postscript, while I oversaw the test broadcasts and pilot, Rich Rarey took over for me as the weekly TD, and made some clever improvements to simplify production of the show reels and still maintain time consistency within the format clock. Of course, the precise timing of digital playback made all of these gymnastics unnecessary a few years later.

    • That’s so interesting, Kevin. Reel-to-reel deserves its own podcast. I only edited on it for a year or two and it made my head hurt. Always admired the razor-blade pros. I know folks at NPR could mix stories live on the air with those decks. Amazing.

  20. Fascinating article. I especially enjoyed the producers’ and TDs’ comments. I’d like to focus on the way the shows are experienced by listeners. For almost all, that is a product of the national content filtered by the local station’s presentation.

    As a station manager, frequent on-air pitcher and occasional fill-in host for Morning Edition, I can tell you that a well-managed national broadcast clock is absolutely essential if listeners are to experience a seamless, integrated flow of national and local material.

    Our local content includes news, local interviews, weather forecasts, time checks (especially important in Morning Edition), promotional messages, underwriter credits, Day Sponsor thank-yous, possibly traffic news, and more — much of it done live. We must have reliable network clocks, committed to internal memory, if we every hope to get this right.

    Fortunately for everyone, NPR’s track record is 99.9&+, or it would never work. The words every local host or producer dreads is a late-afternoon announcement from NPR that “we’re breaking format today.” OK, what essential local element will we scrap?

    Originally ATC developed as a largely national-only program. Morning Edition was deliberately designed to be interactive with local content. Overall it has worked splendidly for stations and listeners, and the growth of public radio since 1979 is a vindication of that vision. Now we must also figure out how to make that vision work in an increasngly on-demand world.

    –Cleve Callison, Station Manager, WHQR, Wilmington, NC

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  23. Hi guys! Just listened to this one twice! I’m using this quote in my yoga class: “Artificial constraints make us better.” To me it speaks to karma, operating within ethical boundaries. Also it makes me think of not over-stretching our muscles or going over the edge in a pose. It makes us better when we are at the edge but not over the edge. Then we have a beautiful pose that looks amazing and feels like perfection…like when you close your show at the last second with the perfect pause. Thanks! Dara Harper, Syracuse, NY

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  26. So sad when ATC went to strict clocks–that’s when the undertising became more important than the news content. The result is anything but “in-depth” content. NPR’s “tentpole” shows sound increasingly like audio versions of USA Today. If you think that’s a good thing, you need to spend time in countries with real news media.

    • This is part of the station/network interaction I referenced in my comment above. Because of satellite delays and other issues involving automation, stations need about a second of silence to make sure there’s a smooth transition between elements when going from national to local. Otherwise one or the other might be cut off.

    • So the Billboard starts at 00:00 and is played at 00:01 because of a delay in satellites and finishes broadcasting at 00:59 but ends at 01:00 for the same reason?
      Thanks for your reply!

    • I believe the 1m59s referred to the length of a segment, not its start time. Start times are pegged to x:00:00. For example, Hour 2 of Morning Edition starts with a billboard at 6:00:00 ET. The billboard ends at 6:00:59. A newscast starts at 6:01:00 and ends at 6:05:59. Our local newscast starts at 6:06:00. Etc., etc.

    • As Cleve says, these seconds of silence are built into the clock so that local broadcasters can move in and out of the national feed without distracting overlap. It really is a gear-like system, with bits of time as the lubricant. It’s fascinating how we industrialized time, and now that whole paradigm is changing in digital.

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