How The Sausage Gets Made: The Broadcast Clock
Note: The following is written by Sarah Fentem, a reporter who will be joining WBAA next month as a reporter/host.
There’s a fun, old saying that compares the news business to a meat factory. As in: everyone loves to eat a juicy ballpark frank, but it’s unlikely those same people would want to go to the slaughterhouse to see exactly what goes into making those yummy hot dogs. Similarly, everyone loves to listen to the news, which, on the surface, is ordered, pristine and tidy (especially on programs such as All Things Considered). Behind the scenes, though, there’s chaos, confusion and sometimes a lot of blood on the floor (Ok, maybe not that last one.)
The truth: What you hear (or read) is only half the story. Behind the scenes, there’s a whole other layer of the news business, one concerned with putting all the information and news together and delivering it to the public. The unsung wizards that make this magic happen are called producers and directors (in radio and television) and page designers (in print). In print, their job is all about managing space. But in the more nebulous world of sound, these people are tasked with managing something a lot more ephemeral: time.
Hardcore NPR listeners (especially ones who listen in the mornings) pick up on little patterns they hear daily while listening to public radio. (“Oh God, I need to be out the door before they read the funding credits at 8:05 or I’m gonna be late!”) These same people have picked up on one of the fundamental aspects lurking beneath pretty much all the NPR flagship programs: The broadcast clock.
The broadcast clock is a pie-shaped template the represents an hour of a given program (most of the clocks you encounter during a Google image search are for Morning Edition and All Things Considered.)
For example, here’s the clock for a typical hour of All Things Considered:
The big gray segments, A, B, C, D and E, are where all the interviews, segments and longer-form news stories live. Most of these are broadcast live from NPR headquarters in Washington, DC.
While we here in local public radio love the gray segments, we spend most of our time worried about the black slices of the pie: the newscasts. Newscast 1, at least in our newsroom, is national news. (That’s when you hear, “From NPR News in Washington, I’m Craig Windham with these headlines…”) The national cast is usually where you hear big-deal stories that are often still developing. They’re short and usually elaborated on during the ABCDE Segments.
Then, the moment of truth: The local cast. During the day, local newsrooms at NPR member stations across the country (such as WBAA!) are working hard to bring you stories to deliver during this slot. It’s very short–most local casts are shorter than three minutes long and some can be as brief as one minute. These casts are what we call a “join”–It’s when national takes a break and hands it over to us to report our own news. Because all these stations across the country are coordinating their schedules with the “big” station in Washington, the casts have to be very, very precise, ending at exactly the right time. (In radio, this is called “hitting your post.”) If you look at the clock above, all those little lines that separate the “pieces” are, in fact, “posts.”
The problem is: Even if producers and reporters are really careful, sometimes the newscasts within our own little segment come up short or long. While both aren’t necessarily preferable, short is easy to fix on the fly. That’s when you employ those two handy stalwarts of the public radio cannon: fill music and weather forecasts. If you hear a verrryyy long weather forecast during All Things Considered, that means the local team was probably a story short by deadline.
Sidebar: There’s a story in the NPR lore about the first time Neal Conan directed Weekend All Things Considered. He ended the whole show *four minutes* before the final post, and the producers had to scramble to use the longest fill music they could find…which happened to be a bunch of whale calls. Yes, those listeners were subjected to four whole minutes of whale music!!
Alternatively, if the newscast ends and abruptly cuts to another story that’s being broadcast from headquarters, that means someone went OVER their post. Ideally, the local and national stories are put together seamlessly. When you consider the amount of cooperation that’s needed to make that kind of show happen, the fact you don’t usually notice the broadcast clock while you are listening is something I would consider a daily miracle.
Last year, NPR decided to change up the broadcast clock, adding more national newscasts. Stations across the nation celebrated, in only the way public radio employees can: by baking an NPR-themed cake.
If you’re interested in hearing more about the history of the broadcast clock, I highly recommend you check out the segment 99 Percent invisible produced a few years ago, which proves to be one of the best depictions of behind-the-scenes radio producing I’ve ever heard.