“Fail to prepare. Prepare to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin
That’s a phrase radio and every single task we do as beings on this planet lives and dies by.
- Forget to buy milk. You don’t get breakfast.
- Don’t plant seeds. Harvests won’t grow.
- Didn’t read the map. You’ll probably get lost.
You get the idea.
Everyday I have to prepare a radio programme and everyday I have to assume that it won’t go to plan. It sounds a bit cynical to think like that, but assuming that what you’ve prepared will get you through an entire show without a hitch is not the smartest move to make.
I do of course have a running order for every show I get to produce. It gives an detailed idea to the presenter about what should be played where, what to promote and throw ahead to or reference. It’s a fairly straightforward document which acts as a road map for the duration the presenter is in the driving seat behind the microphone.
However, behind all this careful planning is a back up for everything I have prepared. It sounds extreme, but if something fails on air – whether that’s a guest suddenly not being available, a technical hitch or even a piece of audio that has gone astray – there’s always a plan to replace what’s gone wrong.
Usually it might be something as simple as a back up phone number for a guest who’s phone has run flat out of battery or is stuck in traffic and can’t make it to the studio in time. Otherwise, it could be a story to replace the missing item in the schedule or even a commentary piece from a journalist to fill the void. If there’s nothing available that looks like it could be a good replacement, I have a fall back option at looking at what else has or will play out on the network and play a clip to point to a show that listeners might wish to listen to. Regardless, there’s always a back up.
I take my readiness from former BBC Radio 1 and pirate radio broadcaster Kenny Everett, who wouldn’t go into a studio without at least two A4 pages of paper filled front and back with ideas to fall back on.
This is all very easy preparation, and I previously mentioned that it’s just a small part of my programme preparations – these back up items may not even see the light of day, but I would always rather have them available.
Writing and preparing for things not going to plan is all very well and good, but there are occasions where it doesn’t matter if you have 10 back up plans, nothing can prepare you for a state of emergency.
I remember being early on in my radio career and witnessing how our team responded to the horrendous attacks in London. It was 2005 and everything ground to a halt on air as we tried to make sense of what was going on. Bombs had been set off in several places across the capital, the London Underground was shut down and there were no phones to contact people. Chaos doesn’t even begin to describe what unfolded that day.
Our response as a radio station was to keep people updated. Programmes were quickly overhauled; guests were bumped off the schedule and replaced by experts; news bulletins happened every 15 minutes; music was quickly and carefully replaced to reflect the mood and staff adapted to new roles swiftly to aid the radio output.
Radio and television become lifelines for people who are stranded in these dreadful events. Your responsibility, whether that’s as a producer, journalist, broadcaster, researcher or even a receptionist, rapidly becomes ever greater and every update has to be checked and on point before it hits the microphone.
When those moments are happening and unfolding, all you can do as a producer is remain calm and do the best you can with the situation you are in. Keep in contact with your news team and programme controller/director as ultimately they get the final say in what happens next in your broadcast.
I only got a chance to reflect on what had happened after my shift finished that day in 2005. There was nothing I could have done to prepare for it.
In all the shows I have to record now though, I do consider and pick the tracks we play with care. In an out of hours situation the last thing I would want is to be blaring something about it being a beautiful day and nobody around to stop it as a story breaks.
This is just a small insight into how I prepare a radio programme for air, others will have their own ways of doing things, but ultimately failing to prepare properly for a broadcast, whether it’s live or recorded, can leave your listeners reaching for the dial for something else to fill their day with.