Reel Radio… old memories

Well I’ve just been published… of sorts.

This is an old quarter inch reel from my BBC junk box. It probably contains some priceless recording from my radio days…
but some idiot didn’t label it!

The lovely people at BBC Alumni (a club for anyone who used to work at the Beeb) have put an article wot I wrote on their front page so other old gimmers, or “coffin dodgers” can wallow in reminiscences.

Me on the BBC Alumni home page

I’m going to recreate it here too. Please read on:

Oh and can I just apologise for all the distracting adverts … WordPress seems to be overloading every blog post with flamin’ ads! Didn’t used to get that on BBC Radio. Anyway:

Phil Kerswell joined BBC Somerset Sound (now BBC Somerset) in their Taunton studios as a reporter in 1989, the year after it was launched as an opt-out of BBC Radio Bristol, with it’s own Breakfast Show.

Phil was on the staff at the BBC and BBC Studios until 2017, including working as Assistant Producer at Point West; then self-shooting observational documentaries for BBC1, and Directing on Bargain Hunt, Flog It!, The One Show, and Countryfile.

He is now a Freelance TV Director and Journalist.

REEL RADIO 1980S STYLE

Looking down at my feet… a spaghetti tangle of brown metallic tape. Panic sets in.

A slithering mass of audio tape intertwined on the floor.

Minutes ago it was safely, tidily, wound onto a small plastic reel. Now it’s been slashed into short lengths. And every piece looks the same.

So which one did I just let drop to the floor? Which one contains that missing sentence to conclude my interview with the Police?

I love the way this photo is titled “tape salad”

My pondering is interupted by a screech.

“I need that package in five minutes for the Newshour!” shouts the Producer.

Gingerly I pick up one length of tape from the floor. Lay it back on the edit block of the Studer tape machine. Trying not to shake nervously as I match the diagonal cut tape to the tail end coming from the reel. I use the corner of a razor blade to position an inch of white jointing tape over the two pieces and press it down with my finger.

Ignoring the bustle around me – the other reporters hassling to use the machine – I use the chinograph pencil to slowly rewind the newly rejoined section of tape tape back onto the reel. Adjust the plastic headphones over one ear, and pray as I hit play.

A sigh of relief as the tape whizzes through. The missing sentence restored to its rightful place. Now it’s a swift, assured rewind again… stick some yellow lead-in tape on the front (yellow at the start of a tape, red at the end). Scribble a label (item name, date, duration, out-words and initials) and drop the tape with its printed cue sheet into the Producer’s “Newshour” wire tray, ready to be played up the line to Bristol.

The year? 1989.

The place? BBC Somerset Sound’s Taunton studio.

Somerset Sound’s Apple logo (c) BBC

Who am I? A newspaper journalist who’s just joined the local radio team, and is still learning the very hands-on mechanics of tape editing.

Station Organiser Mark Hurrell had given me a lesson in using a Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder, and one of the Producers had shown me the basics of editing.

And the rest? You learned as you went along – which made for some very very late finishes.

After a few short weeks of on the job “training”, that was it. I found myself working alongside fellow newbie Janet Kipling as one of two new reporters in Somerset Sound’s Taunton office.

Phil with fellow reporter Janet Kipling
and Breakfast presenter Simon White late 1980s (c) BBC

About the photo above: Obviously taken in the days when I still wore a shirt and tie to work. It was a promo to publicise Somerset Sound, and like so many people in these situations, we were asked to grab some “kit” to make it look more interesting! Behind us is the “booth”, which resembled a shower cubicle with sliding glass doors. It was meant to be sound proofed for people popping in to do a Down The Line with other radio stations. The main thing I remember is the only time I saw this photo published, it had been reframed, to cut me out!

BACK TO THE STORY

We did alternate weeks of earlies (6am to 2pm) and lates (midday to 8pm). In your first few weeks, you could be regularly working til past midnight as you struggled with the delicate mechanics of editing tape (I mean literally cutting lengths of tape with a razor blade and sticking them together… this was a long time before digital editing!). No time back in leiu, no overtime. No EU rules on downtime between shifts!

Usually I’d be allocated two stories by the overnight Producer, who was putting together items for the next day’s Breakfast show. They’d give me a couple of notes about each story, a quick verbal brief and off I went.

A few phone calls to set up the interviews, then grab a Uher tape machine. They should be kept on charge… you’d try to pick one with a decent charge, and a microphone cable that didn’t look damaged (so we didn’t encounter that old enemy “Mike Rattle“).

Then speak nicely to the office secretary, who held the keys to the cupboard with the precious new reels of tape. Beg to be allowed one for each story and one spare, and then book out a pool car and hit the road.

Once the producers knew you were half way competent, the job was simple: Get out there and make two four-minute radio packages (recorded feature items) for the Breakfast show.

Sometimes there would be stories they needed covering, but often the producer (and more important the Station Manager) didn’t care what you came back with – so long as you could provide two lively entertaining items.

The classic tale (and it’s true, I was there) was the reporter sent to Weston-super-Mare on a story. She called in to the Producer, to say she couldn’t find the interviewee on the seafront. He sneered that maybe she should spend the afternoon sunbathing on the beach instead.

She did. It did not go down well.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY SOMERSET SOUND

Somerset Sound started life as a tiny Medium Wave only (1323MW) opt out of it’s much bigger sister Radio Bristol. And that meant reception was crackly much of the time, and on cold dark mornings receded into the mists. It used to be a regular part of the job of a reporter to help anyone you encountered to retune their radios, as no-one could find it.

Can you spot BBC Somerset Sound.. me neither

When I joined in 1989 I had been due to work with the man who started it going, the amazing all round reporter Clinton Rogers (who is still Mr Somerset for BBC Points West) but he had left! Here he is in the early days in Taunton:

Clinton with THAT moustache (c) BBC

Today it’s very modern, with not just FM, but even a place on t’internet and rebranded BBC Somerset:

In 2018 Somerset Sound celebrated it’s 30th birthday. Here’s Clinton reporting for BBC Points West, live from the Somerset Sound birthday party:

Clinton with.. could it be the same moustache?? (c) BBC

Happy Birthday !

Phil Kerswell April 2020

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