We do things after we're done hosting! (#4 in 'Things you didn't know about local public radio hosts')

#4 in a four-part series on things you didn’t know about local public radio hosts

Undercover radio journalist. All in a day’s work.

Undercover radio journalist. All in a day’s work.

We do things after we're done hosting!

I can't speak for everyone, since some people only work part time, but most of the public radio hosts I know are full time, and continue to do work well after the "on air" light goes off. Maybe that's reporting or web stuff or editing or design or something completely different or some combination thereof.

My post-hosting work falls in the "some combination thereof" category, with a mix of reporting, recording and editing (of station podcasts), and web stuff.

Reporting is my passion, though, and lately I've been making more time for that. A couple months ago, I did a story for NPR on the historic flooding in my area. A couple weeks before that, I did a story for NPR on the unlikely origins of the NFL. I've also done about a dozen spots for NPR's newscast unit. (Spots are roughly one-minute brief reports. NPR airs these during their hourly newscasts. During morning and evening drive times, though, NPR actually does two newscasts in one hour…I digress.)

Mainly, though, the reporting I do is local. Just last week, I finished an odd story about an entrepreneur in my town who uses a low-wattage radio signal to promote his business, even though that radio signal only reaches a couple blocks. There are certain stories that are made for radio, and this was one of them.

Another thing that hosts and non-hosts alike do is what's called a tape sync, short for tape synchronization. (Tape is what we call audio.) These are done between reporters/producers who are miles away from each other.

What a tape sync allows public radio (and podcast) reporters/producers to do is interview someone miles away, while still getting that source's voice on high-quality tape (i.e., not phone tape). It can give listeners the impression that the interviewer and interviewee are in the same room, when in fact they are tens or hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.

How is it done? It's actually quite simple. I'll give the example of a tape sync I recorded for NPR on the day of the 2018 midterm elections. All Things Considered wanted to interview Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, who represents my local district in the U.S. House. The NPR host was in Washington, D.C., while Bustos was in Rock Island. Not a problem. Bustos came to the studios of WVIK, where NPR interviewed her over a phone line, which I piped in through her headphones in one of our recording studios. At the same time, I recorded her voice with one of the studio mics in the room. While she was being recorded, her responses were also being fed into the phone line, so that the NPR interviewer could hear her.

Once the interview was done, I sent NPR the audio file, which they then synchronized with their host's audio. The handover and synchronization all took place very quickly, as the interview was broadcast just one hour later. If you’re curious, you can listen to it here. If I hadn't just explained that it was done remotely, I bet you would have had no idea that Ari Shapiro and Congresswoman Bustos were more than 700 miles away from each other.

Not all tape syncs are conducted with the guest and tape syncer in a studio. Many are conducted at a location convenient for the source. For example, when I interned at WBEZ, the NPR member station in Chicago, I was sent to the office of the City of Chicago's head attorney, inside City Hall. The attorney couldn't make it to WBEZ's studios on Navy Pier, but because the interview was long-form, WBEZ still wanted high-quality audio. As the attorney talked to the host (who was in the studio) on his desk phone, I held up a portable microphone to his face. Once the interview was done and I had returned to the studio, I sent the audio file to the producer, who then synchronized it with the interviewer's audio.

Not all remote interviews with high-quality sound are done through tape syncs. Often they are conducted live through a technology called ISDN, which stands for Integrated Services Digital Network. It is a souped-up phone line that allows two people to talk in studio quality audio, live. How it works, I do not know. Why it is called Integrated Services Digital Network, I do not know. All I know is that ISDN lines are expensive, and that not every station has one.

I am only now realizing that the vast majority of this post is about tape syncs. Oh well. Now you know how to do tape syncs.