posted by James Reel
We radio announcers can listen to ourselves any number of ways. Of course, there’s the old hand-cupped-to-the-ear technique made famous by Gary Owen (an actual DJ at the time) on Laugh-In back in the late 1960s. But we also have many technological options. Here in the KUAT-FM control room, I can punch one button and hear the signal from off the air, just like you do. Punch another button, and I can hear what I do in pristine mono, something I never do. Another button allows me to hear myself in “audition” mode, my voice coming back to me through my headphones without ever sullying the airwaves. The bottom button in that particular row engages the “program” monitor, which lets me hear everything that’s coming out of the control board before it goes to the equipment that sends it out over the air.
You are no doubt captivated by this information, so here’s more. Several months ago, when our engineers installed some digital transmission equipment, there was suddenly a delay between what we do here in real time in the studio and what you hear on your radio at home. (There are good technical reasons for this; it wasn’t a mistake.) Initially, the delay was about 11 seconds, but now it’s down to just one second or less. Even so, that’s enough to create an echo when I listen to the air monitor, meaning that it’s unlistenable when I’m talking. So for many months now, we’ve been listening to everything on the program monitor, the one that eavesdrops on the signal before it goes out to the transmitter. And that means that we don’t hear problems that you hear, like our own transmitter being off the air. You’d think that when we occasionally glance at the computer screen that shows those readings that so fascinate the FCC—plate voltage, current and power output—that we’d notice if everything looked dead, but no. When the transmitter goes off without being turned off by a human being (for instance, when it’s struck by lightning, or loses juice from the electric company), the computer keeps displaying the last readings it got rather than zeroing out.
So, as you may have guessed, I have no idea what’s going on.
A few days ago, the engineers installed what looks like the flashing light you used to see on police vehicles, back when the light was a single dome rather than a bar across the top. There’s a big sign next to it that says “CHECK AIR MONITOR.” No doubt this would be a fine alert … if it hadn’t been installed behind us, out of our range of vision. Let’s just hope it puts on a light show that we can’t miss, even with our backs turned.