The Broadcast Clock

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.

Girl: Sure.

Alien-like voice:

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.

Sam: Open

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…

[Audience cheering]

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.

[background music]

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.

Bill: Right.

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.

[background music]

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.

[whale sounds]

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.

[background music]

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.



“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

  1. Public Radio Nerd

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

    1. Sam here: Fresh Air, along with Prairie Home Companion and This American Life all have floating breaks, meaning that the segment lengths vary from show to show. So in these cases, the broadcast clocks will probably not be that revealing–look at the Prairie Home clock here.

      Secret insider tip: Garrison Keillor’s cue to stations that the break is coming up is “Powder Milk biscuits.” You can see that on the clock.

    1. roman

      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.

    1. you are so right! like a script to a play , one must memorize and never have to think about the clock ..

      Bob Seay ME host WGBH

  3. coolsonh

    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? :)

  4. 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!

    1. Oleg

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

    2. Dave

      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…

  5. JeffJ

    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?

  6. Julia Holmes Bailey

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

  7. 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.

  8. Peter

    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.

    1. It’s true, the Clock can be a benevolent god. We all miss the thrill and team spirit of live broadcast over in digital land.

  9. Mr. Mars I am a huge podcast listener and I recognized many of the clips you played BUT not all. Will you share those and maybe more of your favorites?

    1. Sorry I see the earlier list but more recommendations most welcome! You guys are in my top 5 recommendations to others when they ask me :)

  10. Richard

    Mr Mars, that opening montage contains almost all my favourite podcasts. I am home at last.

    1. Steve Grossberg

      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.

  11. David Polk

    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

  12. 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. :)

  13. Sam from St. Paul

    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.

  14. mtrphx

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

  15. Kevin Rice

    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.

    1. 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.

  16. 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

  17. Dara Harper

    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

  18. Charles Cousins

    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.

  19. Rory

    Awsome episode :)
    Why are some of the times something like 1m:59s or 59s and not something rounder like 1m or 2m?

    1. 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.

    2. Rory

      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!

    3. 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.

    4. 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.

    1. Andrew

      “Along with the new clocks, NPR would also impose stricter limits on how much stations can customize the newsmagazines by inserting content from other national networks. NPR has proposed barring these insertions unless the added content has local relevance.”

  20. Discovered 99PI on Ted Talks and I can’t get enough :) I’m an aspiring radio producer, so not only is this show extremely interesting, but it’s also a great example of production.

    Thank you!

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