Things you didn't know about local public radio hosts: we operate our own boards

I was going to put together a post called “Five things you didn’t know about local public radio hosts”, but as I began writing that, it went on and on and on and I realized it would be one excruciatingly long listicle. So, I’m breaking it up into five separate, hopefully palatable posts. And by separating them, it’s not technically a listicle, right? Good. I don’t want to think of myself as a listicle writer. Without any further ado…

“Master control” room at WVIK in Rock Island, Illinois

We operate our own boards

A board is the electronic console that controls what you hear on your radio and, more importantly, what you do not. There are many sources of audio that we could put on the air—NPR's satellite feed, the microphones in the studio, a computer program that loads small bits of audio (sound bites…although in radio, we call them actualities), and so on. But to air all of that at once would not sound pretty. As hosts, it is (part of) our job to control the board, deciding what sources of audio drip in to our airwaves, and what do not.

One example of this is the top-of-the-hour newscast. When it starts at exactly one minute past the hour, a local host will make sure the NPR feed is toggled on so that NPR's national newscast gets onto the host’s local airwaves. But once the clock hits exactly four minutes past the hour, when I am hosting Morning Edition at my station (WVIK in Rock Island, Illinois), I will cut off the NPR feed by lowering the slider, while turning on my studio microphone so I can begin my local newscast. The national NPR newscast is actually still going on at this point, but during Morning Edition, most local stations will cut away from the second half of the NPR newscast—which contains less prominent/pressing news—in order to give local news. Once I'm done with my local newscast, I rejoin NPR by turning off my microphone and turning back on the NPR feed. (It's actually a bit more complicated than this, but essentially that's how it works.)

All of this is to say that as hosts, we are doing far more than just talking into a microphone. We're pushing buttons. We’re adjusting volumes (levels, actually). We’re multi-tasking. This is often the reason why things will, on rare occasions, go wrong: dead silence for five seconds, or two sources of audio talking over each other. With one person tasked with talking and engineering simultaneously, human error is going to inevitably surface. Then it's our job to get things back on track.

I should note that not every host operates their own board. At some larger stations, a host may have a producer or engineer on hand to operate the board in another room. And at NPR—with exception to the top-of-the-hour newscasters—the national hosts do not operate their own boards.

But by and large, most local hosts are “riding board” solo. I have also heard hosting referred to as “driving.” And really, it does feel like driving…just instead of a steering wheel and acceleration, it’s a million buttons and sliders. And, just like driving, if I were to crash and burn, many people would notice. I am also monitoring traffic. But I don’t need any gas to finish the drive. Just coffee.