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Technical Difficulties

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Two of the most dreaded words in broadcast news are "technical difficulties." Equipment problems can never be entirely eliminated. There will always be computers that freeze up and phone lines that go dead. With a little preparation and organization, you'll be able to handle those "technical difficulties" and get through your cast with minimal disruption.

Prevention is the best medicine

Many on-air snafus are due to the carelessness that accompanies haste. Perhaps the most prevalent mistake involves playing the wrong cut. When stations used tape, mixing up carts was something that could easily happen, so emphasis was placed on properly labeling and ordering the carts.

Nowadays, sound files are stored and ordered on computer, but we still occasionally hear the wrong cut being played. Utilize all the ID information available for the sound files by including the name of the speaker (the newsmaker for an actuality, the reporter for a voicer or wrap), the number of seconds the cut runs, a slug (story title) that matches a story title on the script, and perhaps even the outcue and a further identifying number that matches a number written at the top of the script.

For example, you have a 10-second actuality of Middleville Mayor Jane Smith discussing plans for the city to build a downtown parking garage. The cut runs as follows:

The sound file ID should include the following information:

ID:01034  PARKING020:10

Similar information should also appear in the script. The script should have a line break to indicate when a cut is to be played, and information on the speaker, the outcue and the duration should be given. Here's an example of what the script accompanying the previous cut might look like:

Having this information on the sound file and in your script will help ensure you play the right cut at the right time.

Sound ideas for the digital newsroom

Most computer audio-editing programs automatically assign a file or ID number to each sound file, but the file still requires a slug for further identification. The slug should contain a word immediately followed by a number indicating which particular story uses that file.

For the story about the proposed parking garage, let's say this actuality is the second of three actualities taken from the interview with the mayor. One of the actualities will be used by the reporter in a wrap, the other two in scripts to be read by an anchor. So there are three scripts to be created from this story, and this particular script and its accompanying actuality should be slugged parking02 to distinguish it from the other scripts and sound files (which would be slugged parking01 and parking03).

And don't forget to include further identifying information, such as outcue and length of cut, to mark each sound file. The more information in your script, the better. This will help ensure that the sound file you select to accompany the story is the correct one.

When technology fails us

In the tapeless newsroom, anchors often read their stories off computer screens. If the computers fail, neither the scripts nor the sound files will be available. It is crucial that a printout of all the scripts for the cast be taken into the studio. A frozen computer screen won't then lead to a frozen newscast.

When I worked as a writer in Detroit, I was expected to type a few bare phrases summarizing a cart's contents, and that summary appeared at the bottom of the script, separated from the on-air story by a double line. This summary was provided in case problems arose with the cut. The anchors (who, in an all-news format, had 5-hour air shifts and may not have heard the tape before it was brought into the studio) needed that summary to ad lib when the cart failed. If computer problems hit in the middle of a sound file, having a brief, written description as a backup will help you pull out gracefully from the malfunction and continue with the cast.

Snap, crackle, pop

Telephone connections also fail, or the quality of the connection may be too poor for broadcast. Poor quality connections are becoming more prevalent as more and more stations send reporters out with cellular telephones, whose quirks can at times be maddening, and phone interviews are conducted with folks using VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) connections, which also may bring problems with sound quality. If you have a hard time in the studio understanding the words of the speaker on the other end of the line (be it a newsmaker or a reporter in a live shot), your listeners...many of whom are in automobiles...won't fare any better. End the telephone interview or report immediately with a graceful apology to the listeners about sound quality and "technical difficulties," and move on to the next story. No matter how important the story may be, if the sound is incomprehensible, the value for radio news is worthless.

The possibility of "technical difficulties" in a cast should remind anchors always to bring into the studio more stories than they would normally need. If you're giving a cast that runs 3:30, bring in 5 minutes of copy and sound. If you have a 5-minute cast, bring in 8. A problem with a computer screen, cart machine or telephone line could easily cut a full minute or two from your cast. You need to be prepared to get through the cast in a professional manner, and it is far more professional to complete with confidence a variety of different news stories than to try to return to a tape or a phone report that failed the first time around.

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