What Would Happen If...?

What-Would-Happen-ifBy Craig Jackman

In light of the atrocities on and after September 11, you must have been asked the question by now. In case you haven’t, let me ask it. What would you do if you suddenly couldn’t access your building? It’s a question that you have to have an answer to, because, as we now know, it can happen to anybody, anywhere, anytime.

It doesn’t have to be due to terrorist bombing, anthrax, smallpox, or any other headline grabbing action that we’ve been hearing about since 9/11. It could be due to natural disaster (hurricane, tornado, flood), or a fire, or an accident. Maybe everyone’s favorite fear of someone invading your building with a gun and turning it into a crime scene. For example, my building is located close to the airport. It could be an engine or wheel falling off a plane. There’s a rail line nearby and there could be a chemical spill there. Residents of the northeast will recall the ice storm of five years ago. My building backs up to a major power corridor that could be flattened. For sake of argument, assume that you can’t get into your building for more than five days, and you have zero notice. What do you do?

The first thing you have to do is get back on the air somehow. Perhaps your automation system has been mirrored off-site. Then it’s PC Anywhere and you’re running without jocks in moments. Perhaps you have a backup studio ready at a transmitter site. In that case, you’re a living “WKRP in Cincinnati” episode. In our case, there’s a box at each transmitter with a couple of cheap CD players, a notepad mixer, a mic, a Walkman, and some cables. Quick and dirty for sure, but we’re back on the air as soon as someone gets a handful of CD’s to the transmitter site. Figure half an hour to get back on the air. It would be up to the PD to get enough jocks and CD’s to the transmitter hut to keep the station on the air. There’s no stingers or intros, just music brought from home and a voice.

We have reciprocal agreements with the other radio stations in town, allowing us to use their facilities in case of an emergency. It’s not something we can plan on exclusively as they may be in the same situation we are in. If not, they have to keep running themselves. The four-station cluster in town doesn’t really have extra studio space to lend us. I suppose that they could lend us one production studio for a couple of days, but that’s certainly not enough to keep the five stations in my building on the air.

Since radio is part of the advertising business, not the music business, the next thing that would have to happen is to get some spots on the air. Hell, if your building just burnt down, your company is going to need money to rebuild, as insurance isn’t going to pay for everything. The obvious way to get spots going again is live copy. The sales reps and traffic staff might be working out of their homes, so communication may take awhile, but this is the easy way out. What else are you going to do?

If you are lucky, dedicated, or just planning for a career outside radio, perhaps you have a home studio. The jocks then come over to your house and production continues “normally.” You don’t have to have the full studio treatment to get things rolling though. A decent home computer (Pentium and up) with a sound card and CD-ROM will do in a pinch. A quick trip to Radio Shack for a mic and cable will get voice into the computer. Audiograbber or similar CD ripper software will get music digitally into the computer, or another cable from Radio Shack to get analog audio into the computer. Of course, you’ll need some kind of audio editor software to put it all together. Add computer speakers or headphones off your sound card to hear what you are doing. All of this can be done in a heartbeat. The cables aren’t going to cost very much at all, and the software bits you need can be done with freeware, shareware, or demoware. Remember, at this time all you’re trying to do is keep some kind of revenue coming in; you’re not trying to do RAP Award winners, although you may luck out and be smiled upon by the Creative Gods. For production music, given the circumstances, you could get away with bending the rules and using copyrighted music. You’d have to redo them at the first possible opportunity, but you would do that anyway just to bring the quality back up to normal.

You then have to get your on-the-fly spots on air. If you have a CD-R drive, you can burn them all to CD and haul them out to the transmitter site. If there’s a deck at your backup site, you could use cassettes, through that would be a nightmare for the harried freaked-out jock to cue.

Since you’re reading this and not doing it on the fly, you actually have time to think about what you want to do, and how best to do it.

First, not every sound card is going to sound great, and some sound really horrid. I’ve long slagged Sound Blaster cards as fine for games, but not great for audio. Since I’ve gone and bought a Sound Blaster Live with the digital I/O daughter board, I guess I can’t say that anymore, although I still wouldn’t use the mic preamps on most home computer cards. That means finding some way to get weak mic signals up to line level to patch into the computer. A small notepad mixer or “pro-sumer” mic preamp would be cheap options—if you want to shell out for the esoteric studio grade preamps, be my guest! Check the Engineering storeroom and see what’s gathering dust. A decrepit old mixer or mic processor, even an old Revox B-77 with mic preamps would do the trick. Of course, make sure the engineer knows what you’re doing and why or else you might find yourself a) out of a job, or b) in jail. Remember, you’re just looking for functional rather than something that you’re going to use the rest of your professional life.

As much as I respect the fine people who work at Radio Shack and its parent corporation Tandy, Radio Shack should really be used for convenience rather than quality. Take the time and make proper cables, using quality connectors and cable. None of this molded crap! Plan the signal flow and check for ground loops and unshielded cables picking up RF. Check it now, BEFORE you really need it.

Also, Radio Shack mics are not something you really want to use. (I should know; I have two and got them for use in the band I was in when I was in high school.) There has to be a spare mic at work that nobody is using anymore. Again, check with the engineer or else! If not, a quick trip to your local music retailer will net you a Shure SM-58 or SM-57 pretty cheap. Buy better if you can afford to, but you don’t really need a Neumann. Sure, they’re beautiful, but you just want to get good sounding spots back on the air.

Maybe you have a copy of the audio software you use at work at home as well. Of course, it’s for “instructional purposes only.” Right, whatever, I’m not going to judge the morality of software use. What I am saying is have something that will do what you want. That may be as simple as a 2-track editor or as advanced as Pro Tools. You don’t even have to plan for jock use or training the part-timers. This is at your house on your computer, and you’ll be the only one using it. You might find something you like in shareware. In that case, good for you. If not, buy what you want and can afford. The good news here is that anything you use is going to let you create something good.

If you’re at the planning stage, you can figure out a good way to get spots from your house and on the air at the remote location. If your engineer is putting remote studio boxes together, maybe there are some old boat-anchor type computers sitting around. All you need is the old monitor from traffic (the one with the software background permanently burned into the screen), and an old 486 with a sound card, 100 Mb hard drive (if you use MP3s), mouse and keyboard. Load it up with Winamp, your spots as MP3s, and you’re in business. More hard drive space would be required if you load up your spots as WAVs. Use the playlist feature, and the jocks can sequence a whole stop-set and figure out what they’re doing next as the spots roll. If you have a modem in the old beast, you can even send in MP3s from home. Use an FTP site and let the jocks download the spots themselves, so you don’t have to run out to where you’re broadcasting from. If not, it’s a trip with a handful of floppies or CD-Rs to load in. Load up the old cart machines if you still have them. Like MiniDisc? They’d work too. Before you know it, you have the ability to make your radio station still sound slick, even if it’s coming out of the promo van next to the transmitter hut.

Where the other stations in town would come to the rescue is for existing spots. You have to figure that 50% or more of the commercials you are airing right now are also airing on some other station nearby. I’m quite sure that the least somebody would do for you is to get you copies of whatever creative you need.

Since you’re not able to get into your building, you can’t get to all the station imaging you need. Since you are planning ahead, maybe you should make a backup CD of all the IDs, intros, extros, and jingles that get used on a regular basis. Of course, you should revisit that CD every six months or so to make sure what’s backed up is what you’re going to need. All the production CDs you don’t use anymore can be taken home and stored to create the new imaging you’re going to need, explaining why things sound a little different. Speaking of backups, you do backup all the spots that come in MP3 don’t you? If you don’t, you should, as you never know when you’ll need them again. And while you’re backing them up, run off a second CD.

Oh, if I haven’t mentioned it yet, you have to store all these backups OFF SITE! There is no use in having everything backed up if you’ve left the backups in the studio and can’t get into the building or the building doesn’t exist anymore. Give them to the PD to store if you don’t want to do that yourself.

September 11 and the events that followed changed everything. You have to be prepared for the unexpected. Since this is a business, those who win will be the ones who make the most of a difficult situation. A little prep now, which doesn’t have to cost you or your company a lot of money, can result in big rewards down the road. You can hope as much as you want that you’ll never have to use it, but after the government, the media has to be a prime target. It doesn’t matter if it’s large market or small. And as I said before, it doesn’t have to be a terrorist act that takes your station out of the way things normally work.

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