Roman Mars: This is 99 percent invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Sam: Ready open on Roman. Open? Go.
Roman: When I’m not making radio, I listen to a lot of radio. More than most people can imagine.
Sam: Set a down clock for four thirty, please.
Roman: My earbuds are constantly lodged in my ears so that I can press play and listen to radio at any moment that doesn’t require me to talk or listen to an actual human being in the real world.
Voice: Okay, Well now is the moment in our show where we endorse….
Male Radio Staff: Manager never signed by Torey Malatia.
Radio ad: Audio newspaper for a visual world.
Alien-like voice: answermethispodcast.com
Voice: This show is produced by speaking into microphones.
Jason Isaacs: Hello it’s Jason Isaacs.
Audience: Hello Jason Isaacs.
Male Radio Staff: Stand by to open Julia.
Roman: Whether I’m walking on secret stairs or doing the dishes.
Roman: Or driving the car.
Julia Barton: You’re there but you’re somewhere else too.
Roman: We producers aspire to create driveway moments, TM. Stories so good that listeners can’t leave their car until they’re over.
Julia: I think part of what makes a driveway moment is the end of that moment. When you realize what time it is, you could’ve been staring at a clock all along. But for a while, for once, it had no power over you.
Roman: That time distortion field is one of public radio secret awesome powers, which is why it is such a shock when those of us go from being radio listeners to radio producers, like me and my friend Julia Barton here. The audience is hearing this.
Julia: It’s hard to believe he’s not nervous…
Julia: But this is what radio sounds like on the inside.
Monika: I’m thirty-two seconds short of what I’m supposed to have. So what I would do is I would just play fifteen seconds of this song and when while I play these fifteen seconds you will…..
Julia: I visited NPR’s headquarters in Washington DC and sat in on the live roll of All Things Considered, their flagship afternoon news magazine show. There are clocks all over the studios. Big, red, digital clocks. Huge, round, analog clocks, special software, and calculators.
Roman: Time calculators. Where sixty plus sixty equals two zero zero.
Male Radio Staff: Hi.
Monika: Met. Bren wanted me to play only fifteen seconds but you wrapped up forty-five seconds earlier. So now I have to play a long time. Is it okay?
Male Radio Staff : Yeah. I mean we don’t have a choice really. Do we have enough to dead roll it?
Monika: I don’t think so.
Julia: Monika Evstatieva directs all things considered four days a week. To me its the scariest job in the world.
Roman: That fear is built into the design of a program like All Things Considered. It’s the show clock. The show has a set clock. It’s a template from which it almost never varies. Every show that broadcasts, or aspires to broadcast in the public radio system has a clock. Basically, it looks like a pie: it’s round and sliced in lots of weird ways. Some of the slices are very thin. There’s fifty-nine seconds for the program opening, we called that billboard. Fourteen seconds for the funding credits. A fatter slices five minutes for the newscast. The biggest slices are lettered A, B, C and D and they are the segments. That’s where the stories and interviews live, and they have to fit together.
Male Radio Staff: One minute to close.
Monika: I remember I was very scared of the clock. It took me years to figure it out completely.
Julia: The clock is your master for the two hours the shows rolls out. Everything has to be ready. 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 are called posts. You have to hit the post. Nothing can go wrong.
Roman: But of course things go wrong every day. Someone reads to long, an interview runs to short, you might hear the dreaded dead air. Or someone rushes to hit the post.
Julia: Then listeners can hear the clock. He who can’t be named in public radio.
Roman: And then the spell is broken.
Greg Dixon: When you look at this document you see something very regimented. And we’ve talked about how it is very regimented in terms of things happening at a particular second. But the goal is for people not to really know its there.
Julia: That’s Greg Dixon who also directs All Things Considered. But like most show directors, he never actually looks at the diagram, the program clock.
Greg: This visual representation was hard for me to reference quickly. I have a piece of paper where I lined out every single time when things started and how long they’re gonna be. It was my cheat sheet and I brought it into the studio every day.
Roman: And according to Greg Dixon, he brought it in much longer than he actually needed it.
Julia: Until it was in tatters. But those crib sheets, and, you will find them everywhere in broadcast, are a bridge to the place where the clocks actually lives.
Monika: But you can wake up, wake us up in the middle of the night and we can be like 59, 5, 28, 12 28, 128, like, 7 48. We know we can go down the entire hour without ever stopping because we know it by heart. And of course, we had dreams about it.
Roman: AT NPR they’re called, directors dreams.
Monika: You lose control. You cannot regain that control and you have lost sense of how much time is left in the segment. How much time is left for that piece and usually, it’s like the worst panic attack. You wake up and your sweating, and you can’t believe that you just had another directors dream.
Roman: I’ve had those, were among the board announcing morning edition on KALW. The sliders don’t do anything, and the buttons just don’t book right and so rather than try to do anything, I’m just paralyzed with fear.
Julia: Oh yeah. In my dream, I’m doing a newscast with no copy and I just have to talk and talk and talk and talk and talk like an idiot until the clocks goes down. I haven’t even seen a down clock in ages.
Roman: Now with podcasts there is no time scarcity. No interlocking gears of local and national broadcasts and that changes everything. But we always make a version of this show that fits inside the NPR clock. The C segment of Morning Edition to be exact. Four minutes and thirty seconds exactly.
Sam: Over by one forty-three.
Roman: So I’m gonna have to figure out a way to take all these ideas or at least some fraction of these ideas, and cram them into a show that’s less than five minutes. And sometimes that really, really sucks. But you’d be surprised how often I actually really like the brief radio version of this program.
Roman: The first time, I really internalized the difference between doing radio and doing podcast was when people would tell me that they wanted my stories to be longer. In the entire decade of radio, I produced prior to this podcast. no editor has ever asked me to go longer.
Julia: Yeah, I was your editor Roman and I can vouch for that.
Roman: You were so mean to me.
Julia: I was so mean. Four thirty, sucker.
Roman: But podcasts have no constraints, you can be any length. The only constraint is the content. And people always tell me they wish this podcast was longer but I think this show would suffer if it went on too long. And maybe there’s a need for a clock even if the clock isn’t strictly required. Constraint, or maybe restraint in this case. Makes for better art.
Julia: When I started thinking about the broadcast clock as a piece of design. I wondered how it all got started in public radio. NPR came together in the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s. When network news was king and those broadcast shows, of course, had a clock.
Roman: But public radio news wanted to be something different. Because of this guy.
Bills Siemering: I’m Bill Siemering and I was the first director of programming for NPR.
Julia: Bill Siemering! He came up with the whole idea of All Things Considered. Which of course, everyone in the business now refers to as ATC.
Bill: In the original mission statement, ATC was called a daily identifiable product.
Julia: But you decided that wouldn’t be a good name for these show going forward.
Roman: Bill Siemering was among the earliest designers of the public radio sound. That sound included lots of audio and voices from the world outside the studio. And it called for documentary style approach, even to same day news. For that Bill designed a very open clock.
Bill: We didn’t have a lot of breaks throughout it. And it just frustrated some people because they thought they wanted a very fixed clock. There was a clock, but it was not that tight. It was tight where we had joins with the stations but otherwise, it was not. And I think that’s one of the things that made it interesting to listen too because it wasn’t predictable that way. And you let the stories, the stories were leading. They’re like the piece.
Roman: The old ATC clock only had a few slices and a lot of open space. In there one story might be two minutes followed by another that was twenty minutes. It was open. It was kind like a podcast.
Julia: But as Bill was saying there. Not everyone appreciated that.
Roman: There was a conference two weeks after ATC rolled out. And the station managers just called Bill Siemering to the carpet for his fluffy loose sounding program. And there was something else that they really didn’t like. And this is a digression here but there is a podcast, so we get to have digressions.
Bill: And of course, I got this criticism from someone about women’s voices and all that stuff. That on FM women’s voices had the high frequencies and you should see the meter. Bill when women’s voices come on…and that kind of thing.
Julia: Really they said women’s voices were too high for FM?
Bill: That some voices would peak the meter tone.
Julia: Oh my God.
Roman: The upshot, Bill Siemering was out of NPR a year in a half later. And in the years that followed the NPR clock began a long process of becoming more subdivided. The women he hired like Linda Wertheimer and Susan Stamberg are well known. Siemering went on to help turn Fresh Air with Terry Gross into a national program, and he’s the kind of the patron saint of creative, open style public radio. Including this program right here.
Julia: But you know being loose and open can also be its own form of pain.
Neal Conan: People often mention to me the boy. Those were the halcyon days of All Things Considered, and I was there. No, they weren’t.
Roman: That’s Neal Conan whose done everything at NPR. Including until recently, hosting the two hours live Conan program, Talk of The Nation.
Julia: Neal Conan loves the clock. For him its an art form unto itself.
Neal: There’s this little thing that if you’ve never done it, are impossible. If you’ve done it forever, you don’t even think about doing them. You know how long are is five seconds? Five seconds is a long time. You can ID three guests and say goodbye in five seconds.
Roman: So it’s not surprising that when Neal Conan took over Talk of The Nation, he added more time elements, more posts.
Neal: Because it turns out, you’ve said pretty much all you need to say about medical marijuana by the forty, and you should go do something else.
Roman: Unfortunately, Neal Conan is doing something else now. NPR recently canceled Talk of The Nation after twenty-one years and he resigned.
Julia: Neal Conan says artificial constraints make us better. And I know this as a person who edits audio stories. We lose perspective when we’re inside the story just trying to make sense of all our reporting. We can’t tell what’s important anymore. If we don’t have any constraints, we can make boring and confusing stuff. The constraint doesn’t have to be a time limit but at least the clock forces us to have a perspective. It says stop right there and figure out what really matters.
Roman: Of course, the clock can also limit what you say. As we’ll have to do in the broadcast version of this piece. Or it can create nonsense, where you suddenly at the fill time you didn’t expect to fill.
Julia: So there was a day long ago when Neal Conan was not master of the clock. When he first started at in NPR in the late seventies, he had to direct these new show called, Weekend All Things Considered.
Neal: I’d been briefed on the clock by the then director of Weekend All Things Considered, Deborah Amos, who has gone on to (inaudible) there as a reporter. And my questioned her was, “You mean exactly to time?” And I think we ended that first show that I produced about four minutes early, I was so terrified of blowing the post.
Julia: So a while ago, I went to hear Deborah Amos speak. And afterward, I asked her if this story was true. That Neal Conan ended his first live in NPR show four minutes early. And she said they did, and that they had to grab the longest film music they could find in the studio….which was some kind of whale song.
Roman: No super designed subdivided format is telling us when to stop this story. We’re just kind of winging it. But you know, people in radio are always kind of winging it. Whether you’re in a studio shed like mine, where I don’t even think I have a clock in these room at all, except for what’s on the computer. Or you’re in the broadcast palace in DC with clocks everywhere.
Monika: Okay. So we have to do some adjustments but your good. Melissa, you have the line.
Julia: We just hope someone out there is listening.
Monika: Okay. See disaster avoid it. Yeah. She finished forty-five seconds earlier.
Roman: But they’re not listening hard enough to hit the clock monster that haunts the dreams of anyone who has looked into its dark soul.
Monika: Yes. Standby. Ready. Open under.
Woman: All things considered continues in a moment.
Monika: Take route. Ready. Hit break.
Sam: Okay take out Julia but hold Roman open for credits. And go.
Roman: Ninety-nine percent invisible was produced this week by Julia Barton, Sam Greenspan and me. Roman Mars. We are a project of ninety-one point seven local public radio KALW in San Francisco in the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.