I still remember the studio clock in my first radio job, in Dundee. The (almost) silent thud thud thud of the second hand, which ruled my entire on-air life. News on the hour, of course, but also travel bulletins and commercials: it was my responsibility to make sure it all happened on time. No producers or studio engineers to blame. Not like those feather-bedded egotists in national radio who have someone to do everything for them, including spell-chekc their articles.
BBC Editorial Guidelines (which you can read for yourself online) run to 215 pages. This should give you some idea of the myriad things programme-makers have to consider before something airs. But the great unwritten rule in all of broadcasting is not about the law, fairness to game show contestants or doorstepping interviewees: it’s about time. When every other guideline has been scrutinised and dealt with, every editor, producer and presenter has to worry about: will it fit?
Editors at PM, in addition to worrying nonstop about 215 pages of guidelines, also have the responsibility of filling the 59 minutes, 33 seconds we have between the long pip at five o’clock and the presumed start of the Big Ben chimes at 6 – though as I’ve noted in this column before, Ben tends to play fast and loose with the concept of accuracy. From first thing in the morning until that first chime, editors are battling with time: just like Doctor Who except there is no sexual tension with their assistants.
The day begins with estimates of how long each item might last, but those calculations change. Reporters might return from a story to reveal there was more/less to it than first thought, so they’ll need extra/less air time. Interviews I record can go well (it can happen) or badly (you’ve heard the show), and I’ll emerge from the studio demanding either double the allotted airtime, or that the entire thing be canned. Producers who’ve listened to reports and interviews might conclude the item is worth two minutes, while the editor thinks it’s worth five. The battle is always about time and every day there are casualties.
Recently when the Prime Minister made a Commons statement about the Algerian hostage crisis, we took the rather unusual decision to broadcast all of it – more than five and a half minutes. That’s a lifetime for a single bit of audio from Parliament. All day we debated whether or not it was the right thing to do.
Normal practice would be to select short bursts of his words and add a script in between, summarising the rest of his statement. But we thought the circumstances demanded a different approach. Since the crisis began, reliable information was scarce. Three days in, the PM’s words were the first detailed, on-the-record account. The statement was measured, information-rich and revealing. We judged that listeners would appreciate hearing the whole thing. So we played all of it. While it was being broadcast, the editor and I exchanged glances that said, in sequence: “Are we doing the right thing?”, “This is going on a bit!”, “Are we doing the right thing?”, “Stop staring at me you freak.”
Did listeners like it? I don’t know. There was a flutter of Twitter approval, and only one email to our inbox. It asked, “Where have you gone?”
Eddie Mair hosts PM on Monday-Friday at 5:00pm and co-presents iPM on Saturday at 5:45am - both on Radio 4