Weekend read – especially for old radio hands

My heart punched forward a beat at the sight of simply the name. Nagra. I started in BBC Radio and wore a groove into my shoulder carrying a portable Nagra tape recorder around. And I remember being shown the continuity suite in BBC Radio 4 where Nagras were used to play in clips because they were so quiet and moreover they started instantly. No lurching up to speed, just on, bang, go.

I am choked with nostalgia for this stuff and yet I never knew any of its history. Until now:

Stefan Kudelski didn’t set out to make a sound recorder. He was interested in robotics, and in the 1950s, one of the ways to create robotic memory was to use magnetic tape. As a student, working with that tape, he built a machine that doubled as a recorder. Nobody was interested in the robotics aspect of the project, he said later: “But people were very excited about the recorder that I created. So, I became a manufacturer of recorders. That’s how it started.”

This first recorder, the Nagra, was, in Kudelski’s words, “just a gadget.” The second was “very serious equipment.” But the third one, built in 1961, when Kudelski was 27, was “a good machine.”

The Sound Recorder That Changed Film – Sarah Laskownov, The Atlantic (28 November 2014)

Join me in reading the full piece.

Ideas have their time

I’m working toward various BBC Radio proposals – you get to submit them via producers in what’s called the offers round at certain times of the year – and I’ve done this a lot. The proposals. A lot. I mean, a lot. Quite often an idea will go very far through the process before it becomes clear it isn’t going to fly.

That’s not for any bad reason, it would often enough be that the BBC released notes on what they specifically didn’t want this time around and an idea or two of mine might be exactly one of those. Even then, the usual reason BBC Radio doesn’t want a certain type of idea is that they’ve just done too many of them. But like anything else you do a lot of, you keep doing a lot of them because they work. So sooner or later, they’ll be asking for exactly that type again.


Usually when it’s been suggested that I bump an idea back to next time, whenever next time is, I’ve mentally regarded that as a rejection. I’m not being pessimistic or self-immolating about it, I think it’s factual. Because ideas go stale.

You have a finite time in which the idea is viable and exciting to you. After that, you’re at least struggling to get back the passion or you’re not even struggling, you’re just pretending.

Plus, I think that even the producer who says – and means – to bring it back next time will often not use it then for much the same reason. They’ve got their plate full of new ideas, one from last time will just seem stale.

There are exceptions. I’m involved in one right now. We’ll see how it goes but I’m into it with a passion.

But. Presume that this isn’t going to happen to you, so that you can the better enjoy it when it does. If you have an idea you want to write, write it while you still want to.

Or to put it another way, get on with it.

Six months with iTunes Radio

It’s still not available in the UK but it’s coming and what we’ll get here is a tried-and-tested version. I’ve been listening here in the UK since about December – I have both US and UK iTunes accounts so I can legally tune in – and the service has developed even in that short time.

Primarily, it’s added more ads.

You know that it’s an ad-supported service. Every few tracks, you get an ad. Interestingly, they’re usually video ads so while I often have iTunes way in the background behind a lot of other documents, there’ll be a corner visible and suddenly it’ll start moving. Very distracting.

But it’s become more distracting because at first there were so few ads that you noticed how few there were. Now you notice how many – and at times you notice how often the same ones are played. For a while there I could tell you every line of a Macy’s advert.

We can expect that the same thing will happen in the UK: it feels less that Apple has a plan for how many ads it will ramp up, more that it depends how many it gets. A few firms will try it out at first and then it’ll take off it won’t.

But now it also looks as if there will be more programmes, more actual non-music programmes. Right now it has none whatsoever. But US sources – you think that means rumour sites and it does, but – say that Apple is going to stream the World Cup over iTunes Radio.

Exit William.

I do recommend iTunes Radio but it depends on your starting choice. The way it works is that you type in the name of a song, an artist, a genre or perhaps a decade and you get a station. That station might start with the particular song, it might start with that particular artist, or it might not.

After very, very many different stations, I plucked “4 Non Blondes” out of the air because I like What’s Up. And it’s been a great find: I’m sure I must’ve heard What’s Up on it some time but generally I love everything it’s played me as well.

Sometimes I’m iTunes Radioed out and in principle I like the idea of spoken-word shows but I keep coming back. I just want to see what happens when Apple absorbed its new purchase, the Beats subscription service.

Read more about iTunes Radio on Apple’s site

It’s about time

If you possibly can, get some work in radio. What you learn – it doesn’t teach you this yet you inescapably accrue the knowledge and the experience and the feeling – will change how you approach time.

I recently spent time at a BBC radio station and all this came back to me. One of my uttermost favourite things in the world is how radio splits time in your head. Part of you is seeing the minutes of a show roar by so fast yet part of you is also crunched up in panic over how you will fill the next twenty seconds.

You cannot have dead air. I’m not sure if this is still the case but at one point if you were silent for long enough on a radio station, the transmitters switched off. And it takes a long time to get them back on.

Whatever the technical issues, though, you cannot have dead air. Think of all the times television tries to cover up a swearword by dipping the sound. Usually the bleep, sometimes they dip the sound to silent for a second. And when they do, the entire room notices and reacts.

The driving need to keep the show going and to fill the gaps that are coming up ahead of you like Gromit adding train tracks as he goes, it is beyond overwhelming, it is inside you. It is you. I’m sure it’s the same in television and actually it was in my first TV job that I learnt the average speaking rate is three words per second. (In those days video machines needed time to get up to speed so you’d make a mark on the script so many words, therefore so many seconds, before the vision mixer needed to cut to it.)

But I got it from radio so radio is special to me. And alongside that parallel track of slow and fast time, you also get the shape of time.

I do this now in workshops. I think of things like the top and bottom of the hour. I know this is a hard item – hard as in inflexible, it’s a certain length like a video package – and that I need a couple of soft items – live interviews or discussions that you can just end when you need.

What’s more, seeing time this way helps you with everything: you look for the thing you can do now rather than have dead air. You look for the shape of the hour and of the day. Time runs away from us, time catches up with us, but it is our chief resource and we benefit from using it more.