How to prevent a technical failure from destroying your broadcast


Scott Detrow does his best with what he has, helped by WESUN editor D. Parvaz. (Susan Davis / NPR)

It was a Sunday morning routine at Studio 31 at NPR headquarters in Washington, DC Weekend edition producers loaded files for broadcast and made last-minute music button selections, while engineers auditioned audio that was about to be broadcast to hundreds of stations across the country.

Suddenly, less than an hour before the air time on June 13, the audio became inaccessible due to a technical failure. The communication channels that NPR staff use to contact each other and member stations have also been disrupted.

“Over the years, we have overcome various technical challenges in live streaming,” recalled executive producer Sarah Oliver, who has been to Weekend edition since 1997. “But that morning was unlike anything imaginable.”

Eric Marrapodi, who runs NPR’s live special programming, was taking his son to a year-end baseball party when he saw a message about the collapse and rushed to the studio.

“When I got there it was pure yardage,” Marrapodi said. “Who can we get on the air and what can they say? “

It was the worst broadcast crisis in Weekend edition could remember, at least from a Saturday in the early 1990s when, according to veteran show producer Ned Wharton, “someone cut all the reel-to-reel tapes,” including one with “a profile of Captain Kangaroo that someone worked really hard at! “

It was an accident: someone was “scooping” tapes – cutting them with a razor blade to free empty spools. And yet the airing continued because producers were able to loot shelves for parts lined up for other shows.

What made this latest crisis worse is that content is now stored digitally.

But because of the quick thinking, the improv and what the reporters at NPR do so well – live hits – the show aired and covered the news of the day.

There were a few silences and other hiccups spread all over Sunday weekend edition‘s six hours of programming. “But if you hadn’t noticed them, you wouldn’t have known there was a problem,” said Sharahn Thomas, vice president of content operations at NPR.

Indeed, most listeners didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary – or if they did, they didn’t email NPR about the broadcast.

I was the editor of the National Desk on that extraordinary day, and after speaking with a number of people involved, I came up with six takeaways on how best to respond to technical failures – especially now that a large part of what is broadcast is stored and digitally manipulated, making the potential for calamity greater than ever.

1. Think standing

Fortunately, WESUN had planned to start the live broadcast on President Biden’s trip to Europe and the new Israeli government.

As the show’s calming jingle played and the pre-recorded billboard played from the CTO’s computer (since the studio player software was offline) at 8 a.m. ET, the production team knew that she had about 20 minutes before facing the abyss.

Associate editor Jim Kane appealed to correspondents to call and speak to host Scott Detrow, who was replacing that Sunday for Lulu Garcia-Navarro, on the hot topics they were covering.

Kane also activated an emergency conference line that would remain open throughout the day, allowing editors across the organization to follow developments.

But when reporters started calling, they couldn’t send scripts to the host because the internal messaging and communication systems were down. Therefore Weekend edition editor D. Parvaz sat next to Detrow in the studio, answering questions sent to him via text message and turning them into interview scripts. Marrapodi was doing the same outdoors, taking notes on a computer, or sometimes with just pen and paper, taking pictures of them with a cell phone and texting them to the host.

Eric Marrapodi took notes on the fly and texted photos of them to host Scott Detrow.

“It took the problem-solving skills of everyone on site in those first few minutes to keep moving forward and running the show,” Oliver said.

Still, there were times when Detrow had to ask questions on the fly, and he did so with serenity and a sense of humor as he spoke to reporters who had dropped everything to lend a hand.

“The next basketball game this morning is Joe Palca, science correspondent,” Detrow said, as they struck up a conversation about the global picture of COVID-19. “I don’t know what your original plans were for this Sunday, but I’m happy to have you now. “

As attention began to shift to Weekend all things considered (WATC), which airs at 5 p.m. ET, the editors have summarized in a Google document and shared it with the stations.

From the start, the blackout posed a huge challenge for NPR Newscasts, which not only broadcasts early-breaking news, but also headlines twice an hour for WESUN. There was no tape, so the anchors had to work with fully written scripts without access to wire services.

“We were literally in a tech shooting hole together on June 13,” Newscast executive producer Robert Garcia wrote in an email to staff later in the week, praising the producers for devising a way. ” Record audio in Slack channels so that it can be played over the air. “We didn’t miss any casting. We didn’t miss a single message.

2. Say “no, thank you”

When the call went out for live hits, many NPR reporters responded that it was overwhelming the studio’s control room.

“The phone lines were full of reporters calling,” Oliver said. “It was a good problem to have.”

Technical Director Stu Rushfield recalls how “those constant phone calls made it almost impossible to hear what we were actually doing on the air right now.”

For Marrapodi, it was comparable to a major current situation.

“It’s difficult because at first you beg for anything,” he said. “But then you get to a point where everyone has come together and all of a sudden you’ve gone from nothing to having too much.”

Which means staying calm, making instant judgment calls, and saying “no” to well-meaning people you might have jumped for joy to hear a few minutes ago.

The board of directors for the WESUN show had originally planned.

“Indecision is the wrong decision in the breaking news,” Marrapodi said, adding that he had been influenced by the book, Extreme property: how the US Navy SEALs lead and win, written by two former SEALs, on leadership in the heat of the moment.

3. Train for it

Marrapodi, which coordinates live coverage of major planned and unplanned events, recommends that all live shows periodically have a training exercise simulating a fire or server failure so that staff become familiar with response procedures. emergency.

Thomas, who oversees newsroom operations at NPR, also emphasized training, but cautioned against expecting the same to happen again.

“You never know where the next disaster will come from,” she said.

She recommends having a plan detailing who is responsible for what, where the backups are and how to get people into the studio.

And print it.

“What doesn’t fail is what’s on paper,” she said. “It may sound very rudimentary, but it’s what will save you.

4. Your audience will forgive you, up to a point

Kelsey Page of Audience Relations recalls a few emails from online listeners with questions like, “Where’s the audio for this morning’s show?” Weekend edition (June 13)? But she didn’t hear anyone notice any changes in the audio or content.

Perhaps this is largely because broadcast technology was able to track down the file containing the Sunday Puzzle, a feature of the show since 1987.

Working from the estimated time and date of recording, Daniel Shukhin of audio engineering located it in a network drive where certain mixes are recorded.

“Although it wasn’t the final version, it was close enough,” Shukhin said, to be aired on the air.

Probably the main reason why listeners didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary about Weekend edition this Sunday, said producer Samantha Balaban, “was because the puzzle was released.”

5. Rethink storage and backup

As the day wore on, engineers were able to locate more files, allowing producers to remix other segments – to the point where WATC was able to air his originally planned show – although he had also prepared an alternate version that would have included all of the live hits, just in case. Morning edition did the same for his Monday show.

So, should we make backups of everything that is scheduled to be released? And, if so, on what – USB sticks? SD cards? Reel to reel tapes like the ones that saved Saturday weekend edition at the time?

Thomas says support isn’t as important as having a systematic file backup plan and sticking to it, although your mind may be on more immediate requests.

“We’re caught up in the day-to-day and have news cycles that don’t leave us much time for introspection,” she said, “but [a plan is] what will get you through.

6. Balance transparency and security

Reporters appreciate the transparency, and Detrow’s candid on-air commentary on the technical issues of that day came straight from the excellent hosting playbook.

Detrow too tweeted about the issues about 10 minutes into the show, leading some reporters to respond in the thread with offers of help.

Later that day, Rushfield, the sound engineer, tweeted a dramatic thread about that.

Some fear that giving too much detail about technical issues could reveal vulnerabilities that bad actors can take advantage of.

Rushfield said he believed his thread “engendered great goodwill among our listeners and stations, who celebrated the teamwork it took to keep the train on track. And it almost certainly did. leads to some sort of surge in donations of listeners to their member stations, if the responses over are true. “

Marrapodi said it can be exciting for the public to know that journalists are facing unforeseen problems.

“On air when the going gets tough you have to be honest with the audience and let them know that you are still in control,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s helpful to explain what the problem is.”

This is a matter of TMI. The most important point is that what in the analog age might have been undisputed good practice must now be weighed against the risks inherent in digital newsrooms.

Many thanks to Sarah Oliver, Ned Wharton, Samantha Balaban, D. Parvaz, Daniel Shukhin, Stu Rushfield, Robert Garcia, Eric Marrapodi, Jim Kane, Sharahn Thomas and Kelsey Page


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