BBC - Careers In Sound
What goes on behind the hallowed portals of Bush House and the BBC's radio training department? Read this and find out...
The BBC is one of the few established training grounds for careers associated with sound recording. Janet Angus reports on their Radio Training Department at The Langham, London.
Always an awe-inspiring place, the BBC is true to form at The Langham where their Radio Department is situated on the fourth floor, commanding breathtaking views across London's West End. The RTD 'processes' large numbers of operators and producers every year. These students are not solely BBC staff either - personnel from any recognised broadcasting institution anywhere in the world is free to utilise the training facilities offered by the department. Overseas clients, in fact, are almost specially catered for as, often, the overseas technical facilities will not be as advanced as those employed by the BBC itself.
First port of call was the office of John Turtle, head of the Radio Training Department. He attempted to explain all the various different types of training available in the department, but we've concentrated on the most popular ones for clarity's sake.
Essentially, the department caters for the training of new producers and broadcasters for the national regions, ie. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, including community radio as distinct from local radio - for example, Radio Orkney and SSV/BFBS which caters for British forces overseas.
At the moment, in BBC Radio, the operation of the studios is done by people called Studio Managers, in the London control room by Technical Operators and in the regions by Audio Assistants. However, the structure of titles is in the process of being changed and now at a junior level the functions of the Technical Operators and the SMs merge with a working title of Radio Sound Assistant. Confused? Let's start at the beginning.
When you apply for a place on a training course you effectively apply for a staff job. Traineeships last for a period between two and three years depending how advanced you wish to become and where you specialise. Recruitment seems to be fairly arbitrary. To qualify you are simply required to prove an interest in radio and sound. For example, if you have been active in hospital radio, local radio or perhaps a university campus radio, this is very much in your favour. Although the intake is not solely graduates, it does tend to be more often than not the case. John Turtle did, however, emphasise that this was not a prerequisite. If you are a graduate, they are not particularly interested in what subject you read - anything from physics to history, music and drama.
It is, apparently, not the case that the Music Studio Managers are required to have music degrees, or music college diplomas, although it has been my experience that they all have, and the fact that a thorough knowledge of music is essential to the nature of the job means that you do probably need that sort of musical background and foundation. On the other hand, as John pointed out, it is perfectly possible to be required to work on a programme in Urdu or Chinese without understanding a word of what is going on!
Studio Manager and Radio Sound Assistant (RSA) schemes kick off with a one week period at the Langham Radio Training Department where trainees receive corporate induction and are shown around the BBC studios where they are going to work. They also encounter a certain amount of immediate hands-on practical experience: editing tape, working tape machines such as the standard Uher 4000 Report series monitor recorder (they are working exclusively in mono at this early stage). Other practical experience is pretty basic such as the operation of playbacks - both tape and record.
After this it is off to the Midlands to Wood Norton Hall near Evesham where the Engineering Training Department is headed up by Dr. Alan Owen. Here the SMs will spend four weeks and the RSAs nine weeks learning about the actual science of sound, the theory of the job, as well as the workings of the London control rooms and the continuity suites.
So what is a continuity suite? Essentially, it is just what it says. Every radio programme is linked via the London control room to a continuity suite which holds all the different programmes together, be it from another studio or an Outside Broadcast unit or whatever. In the suite there is an announcer on one side of the glass window with turntables and tape machines to provide continuity links, and on the other sits the operator, the RSA. Not only are they linked to the London control room, they are also linked to a transmitter and thus constant continuity is maintained. These small studios have other uses too, for example Radio One is broadcast almost entirely from a continuity suite, and similarly Radio Two.
Back to the courses, and after Evesham it is a return to The Langham: seven weeks for the SMs and six for the RSAs. "If you were learning to play the piano, to draw an analogy, at Evesham you would have learned all about how it works and then back here you would learn how to actually play it," explained John. "The day to day practical application of your newly acquired knowledge."
Trainee SMs spend two three-month assignments at Bush House and Broadcasting House, London, after which their reports are assessed. They are then subjected to a final test which consists of putting together a programme under the direction of a producer and that's followed by an aural theory examination. If you pass all this you are home and dry. If not, your case must be reviewed to establish whether it is worthwhile from anyone's point of view to continue. Surprisingly, the failure rate is very low. You would think that with such a non-selective recruiting method it would be higher, but it seems that it is very rare for someone to be declared a lost cause.
The RSAs, on the other hand, spend less time at Bush and Broadcasting Houses but in addition they take in the London control room, and are then put through very similar tests at the end of their course.
For the purposes of this article we are concentrating mainly on one particular group of trainees. The RSAs operating in stations outside London such as Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Belfast, Cardiff, Swansea and Bangor will be required eventually to work in both radio and television as well as probably outside broadcasts, since the size of the unit is that much smaller and it is more practical for people to be involved in a wider sphere of operations.
At The Langham there are many studios where all sorts of different situations are simulated. With equipment of many different vintages still in use throughout the Corporation, it is necessary that any employee should be conversant with any of the equipment he or she is likely to come across. Similarly, some of the more under-developed countries will certainly have inferior facilities and since 50% of the training schemes cater for overseas visitors, the equipment must also be provided.
I was shown around eight studios of varying standards and functions. The first was a control room which had a bit of everything: lines to Broadcasting House as you would find in a regional control room; facilities for checking receivers for transmission, although since nothing is actually transmitted from here it is used more often for taping programmes off-air for training purposes; there is a simulation of the auto transmitter switching service; and a simplified editing channel. This central control room connects all the other studios at The Langham together.
Next was the first of many continuity suites: an old mono facility which by its very basic nature makes the functions plain-for example, the announcer has an over-ride facility since he has the final responsibility on a programme and that must be matched with overall control.
The adjacent studio was very up-market with a Neve stereo console and Telefunken M15A tape machines alongside the standard BBC turntables. Here, training may encompass balancing a 5-piece acoustic music group ("We don't cover amplified music here because they do that later on elsewhere"), or a play with a small cast of perhaps four, plus news and current affairs programmes.
Next was an External Services-type room with what John described as an ancient Type B Mk 1 console as its centrepiece, complemented by Leevers Rich tape machines. Not a lot more to say here. The next room is employed mostly by the overseas students, for whom it was designed, containing the type of equipment you would most likely find in an overseas radio station. It is essentially a stereo continuity suite which may be configured for either two self-operating DJs or the more usual operator/announcer combination described earlier on. Both sides have an Alice mixing desk, although the announcer's has more channels since he will be bringing in other studios. The rooms are furnished with Russco turntables and Revox tape machines, supplemented with a trolley-bound Ferrograph. There is also a cartridge machine which appeared to have temporarily gone for a walk.
The next studio we came to was described as a "Bush House type self-op" which was very simple with a small mono mixer mounted in a table top. The following studio was more adventurous altogether, being the department's main drama and music studio "with our very own beer-proof piano and effects door!". The recording area is quite large and separated off in the Live End Dead End fashion most popular in professional music recording studios today. The two areas may be divided off by means of a heavy curtain, if you require total separation. The control room equipment was much more up-to-date with a large stereo Calrec console as its centrepiece and walls lined with Studer A80 and B62 tape machines and BBC gramophones - or 'grams' as they are quaintly known.
A quick flit into another small studio (Type D, whatever that means) for current affairs and news, and finally we came to rest in the Lecture/Seminar room which not only has an enormous control room with the largest and best range of equipment, but also two studio areas. Here we met Terry Attwood, a senior instructor of the Programmes Operations Department, presiding over the nameless console. I should say that since most BBC equipment is built entirely to their own specification, it is usually neither here nor there who actually made it - it is still the same. For example, the monitors which they use throughout the Corporation are BBC designed and licensed to two or three manufacturers.
In addition to the tape machines and consoles etc witnessed in all of the previous studios, this one accommodated the effects trolley which contained an Eventide Harmonizer, Dolby A noise reduction, AMS digital delay line and Klark Teknik equaliser.
Terry's function is to take care of the operations side of things (whereas John tends to look after the production); teaching operators to make radio programmes with particular regard to quality, balance, structure and associated practicalities, as well as filling in on any theory which the trainees may have escaped at Evesham.
The operations and production aspects of radio sound do tend to merge eventually when the trainees have qualified and start working, but during training they are kept fairly separate. Terry's training scheme places a good deal of emphasis on the hands-on side of things. Ninety percent of the work is practical, incorporating programme exercises from the very elementary to the extremely complex; one microphone and one 'gram' to large combinations. He also tries to give his students an insight into the concept of radio recording - all the dos and don'ts. "You can do all sorts of things on film and television that you can't possibly get away with on radio, like moving the sound picture around all the time. There is a limit to what the listener will put up with, he will only work so hard to listen to a programme before he gets fed up and simply switches the radio off. We try to teach the trainees what does and doesn't make for good broadcasting."
Staffing levels in the department are high. Around 60/70 operations students will pass through their care every year, and about 100 on the production side, with the student/teacher ratio being kept to 3:1 wherever possible. "The training is very studio intensive," Terry said, "cramming in as much studio time as we can, dovetailing the studio time available in order to gain the maximum mileage."
Which just about sums it up. The courses are very intensive - don't entertain the thought of applying unless you are totally dedicated - and very thorough. If you can't put a programme together at the end of the course, you should give in gracefully and go and work in a bank.
The BBC is probably the largest and best radio training organisation in the world, which is why most of the world comes to them. All the BFBS stations receive regular annual visits from instructors, and the department at the time of the HSR visit was currently ensconced in training Radio Nepal personnel in studio and transmitter operation and maintenance! It takes all sorts.