By-ways of the Programmes 

25 May 2017

By-ways of the BBC


Now and again, the BBC advertises for an Admirable Crichton. It looks for a trained musician with the skill of a sound engineer and the qualities of a diplomat — a man who can read an orchestral score, who knows the needs of microphones and the limitations of transmitters, and who sympathetically understands the caprices of artistic temperament. It wants another studio assistant.

There are such men and the BBC finds them. The job the studio assistant has to do — as all broadcasters and few listeners know — is one of the most important in British broadcasting. Of the assistants employed in the British service, six are concerned exclusively with the Empire transmissions, and with the exception of electrically-recorded programmes, the news bulletins, and talks, there is no broadcast heard by the listener to Daventry that isn’t passing — all but literally — through their hands.

Some years ago, the BBC defined the work of its studio assistants as “balance and control.” The definition was hardly comprehensive enough to describe their work fairly, and because there are the indispensable control-room engineers, there was confusion of reference.

“Balancing” a broadcast consists of choosing the positions of the one or more microphones that may be used; indicating suitable positions for artists, chorus, orchestra, sound effects, in relation to the microphones (these positions being recorded in chalk on the carpet); adjusting the position of screens, if their use becomes necessary; and assisting in the presentation of the broadcast with the producer or conductor, and with the announcer.

That summary implies that the assistant spends most of his working life in a broadcasting studio. In fact, the principal scene of his job is the control cubicle that adjoins all the principal studios of the BBC. There is a black desk in the cubicle, placed below the window that looks into the studio; on the desk is a microphone and a “mixer.” This mixer is a unit from which project large knobs, as many as there are sound-channels from the associated studio. Three, four, five separate channels may go into the mixer; there is only one channel out of it, and that goes to the engineering control room elsewhere in the building.

The studio assistant sees the broadcast through the window of the control cubicle adjoining the studio, and hears it from a loudspeaker by his side

The microphone on the desk is for “talking-back” purposes. By flicking a key on the mixer, the producer or the assistant — they sit side by side at the desk — may talk to the artists in the studio through the studio loudspeaker; the artists’ replies (and performance) are heard on a loudspeaker in the cubicle.

If the broadcast that the assistant is balancing originates in more than one studio, then he works at one of the dramatic control panels, which are, in effect, the big brothers of the less-elaborate mixer. Each studio is balanced separately; then their outputs are balanced at the panel. The assistant has a voice in the choice of studios for a broadcast, because his work has placed him on intimate terms with the acoustical characteristics of the various rooms. At Broadcasting House, the assistants are familiar with the sound vagaries of about twenty studios. “Vagaries” is a reasonable word—the acoustics of a studio are dominated by the number of people occupying it.

The other part of the assistant’s job — controlling the sound output from the studio — is governed by the fact that the range of sound that a transmitter can handle is frequently less than that produced by a musical unit. It is the assistant’s responsibility to bring the change of volume within the capabilities of the transmitter — and it is, for very obvious reasons, absolutely essential that he does so artistically. Hence the need for men with an expert knowledge of music.

An elaborate arrangement of marked carpets at St. George’s Hall. The section on which each artist should stand when broadcasting is fixed at rehearsal, and then noted in the performers’ scripts

So, for most broadcasts of music, the studio assistant takes to his mixer the orchestral score of every item in the programme, and the skill of a musician. Throughout the concert he will sit at his desk, his hands on the mixer-controls and his eyes on the score, following the music bar by bar; anticipating crashing chords, soft passages, pauses; reducing the volume of this part and increasing the strength of that, fading out that microphone and fading in this, but all the while retaining the true proportions of the whole, so that what the listener hears is an accurate reflection of what the composer intended.

The routine is roughly the same during the broadcast of a drama or feature programme — with the important exception that in these broadcasts the producer is at the assistant’s side. Each understanding the other’s requirements and problems, theirs is teamwork in its best sense.

Says the producer at rehearsal : “I want that effect to fade gradually,” or “Let’s have the musical background louder behind this speech,” or “That cymbal crash must come right on top of the last sentence — give Effects a cue-flick there.” “O.K.,” says the assistant, and makes weird marks on his copy of the production script.

Says the assistant: “We’ll have to bring that ’cellist nearer,” or “There’s too much brass in this,” or “So-and-so will have to stand farther back if we’re to get this ‘distant shout’ over properly.” “Right,” says the producer, and stops the rehearsal that those things may be done.

At some time or another every assistant comes in contact with a temperamental artist — an artist, maybe, with a tendency to stray from the chalk mark; with the conviction that for his voice to reach the corners of the world he must shout; with an acute susceptibility to praise or criticism. It is for the assistant to handle him so that he and the artist, thereafter, are lifelong friends. A thoughtless remark at rehearsal may ruin a broadcast.

But not all the studio assistant’s work deals with the studio. He may be responsible for a broadcast from an outside point. Then he will visit the source of the broadcast to balance the microphones, and later, with a mental picture of the scene and a continuity script to guide him, will control the programme, not at the source, but in Broadcasting House.

When there are no broadcasts needing the services of the Empire studio assistants, they listen to electrical recordings of shows they have balanced. And the criticism of the most disgruntled listener cannot equal the pungency of their own condemnatory comments.

All the studio assistants are experts on one or more instruments. One day, perhaps, the Empire sextet will find themselves in a studio playing for listeners. The thought is a plaything for the mind — because who, then, would dare to balance them ?




The scene was a quiet stretch of one of Britain’s beaches. There were two or three figures at the water’s edge, and on the road bordering the beach, the vehicle that had brought them. On one side a breakwater pushed its way out into the sea, the waves alternately revealing and concealing its top. Near the point where it vanished under water, a man, precariously poised and in imminent danger of falling into the sea, seemed to be making futile efforts to catch with something held in his hand one of the seagulls that wheeled screaming, overhead. At last one of the figures on the beach waved an arm, and the man on the breakwater began his hazardous scramble back to dry land. He had made his capture, though the seagulls wheeled in the same numbers as before.

Interior of one of the mobile recording units showing duplicate recording positions and associated switch gear

It was their screaming that had brought that man to the edge of the breakwater; and it was their screaming that he had captured. The object in his hand was a microphone, connected to the vehicle on the road, and even as he jumped, damp and breathless, on to the sands again, the cries of the gulls — trapped on records — were being stowed away in the vehicle on the road, and the BBC’s mobile recording unit had completed another job of work.

The picture is not overdrawn. In order that feature programmes, news bulletins, and other broadcasts may be provided with those illustrations that listeners to Daventry and the Home stations have learned to expect, the “crew” of a sound-recording van must be ready to overcome obstacles of all kinds and endure discomfort, inconvenience and, sometimes, danger.

There are four of these recording-vans, three of them carrying two complete sets of recording apparatus. The “crew” usually consists of three engineers, a programme official, and the van-driver. The programme official is responsible for the “presentation” part of the work, and delivers any “actuality” report that may be necessary. As is usual with the BBC’s mobile units, the equipment in the vans is arranged on racks running along both sides of the interior. A blank disc consists of a circle of aluminium, either twelve or thirteen inches in diameter, which has been sprayed with cellulose in which the grooves are cut by a special needle, working inwards from the edge in the ordinary way. The disc is mounted on a turntable actuated by an electric motor, and on the larger type a maximum of four hundred grooves may be cut. One such disc plays for four and a half minutes.

Provision is made to record the inputs of up to four microphones, and the number of records made on any given occasion is limited, of course, only by the number of “blanks” that the van carries. That number varies according to the nature of the work on which the van is engaged: twenty-five would probably be sufficient to cover a topical event; five hundred would not be too many for the purposes of a tour of part of the British Isles.

And such tours are an important part of the recording units’ work. Recently, for example, one of the vans tapped the resources of Northern Ireland for material — a job that took six or eight weeks to complete — and another made a similar quest in North Wales. One of the most ambitious journeys yet undertaken was a visit to Sark, in the Channel Islands. Most districts of England, Scotland, and Wales have been covered in this way, and listeners have been able to enjoy the fruits of the units’ labours in programmes such as “Summer Over the British Isles.”

When enough material has been recorded to give a comprehensive impression of local life, the records, duly labelled, are taken back to London to be stored in the central library there.

While two of the units may be away in the country at the same time, the others are kept available in London so that last-minute demands for recordings of topical events may be met. Such recordings, as listeners know, provide the news bulletins with graphic illustrations, and the making of them is usually an exacting test of the enterprise and resource of the recording engineers. The first essential, obviously, must be to find positions for the microphones that are both unobtrusive and near the source of sound. Solving the problem is often an adventure — as those who made recordings of the scenes in the Cambridgeshire Fens during a time of flood can testify.

The unit spent a week in Cambridgeshire — a week in which the “crew” had very little sleep. The bursting of the banks of the dykes was hourly expected when the floods were at their height, and nobody knew where the burst would occur. As the reports came in, so the unit moved to the point of greatest danger — and getting near that point meant travelling flooded roads, crossing flooded fields, wading through mud. And all the time the microphone-cables had to be kept dry. The feared inundation of the countryside, happily, was averted; but many records of the ceaseless efforts to avoid disaster were made on the spot every day. Towards the end of the week the engineers had to contend with another difficulty: their batteries ran out. There was no time for recharging them locally, and no facilities were available on the particular van in use. An urgent SOS for replacements was telephoned to London. But it was too late at night to obtain BBC equipment, and so a member of the Recording Section spent hours hunting for garages where he could borrow car-accumulators. He required sixteen. Ultimately, by borrowing one here, another there, he obtained them, then made the journey to Ely. He arrived there at 6 a.m.

On another occasion, recordings of sound effects at the bottom of a Cornish tin mine were required. The van was driven as near the top of the mine-shaft as was practicable, and then sections of cable were joined together to enable the microphones to be dropped to the bottom of the 450-ft. shaft. Approximate positions for the microphones were found, the customary activities of the mine went ahead, and the recording apparatus was switched on. But no sounds reached the van at the shaft-head. The engineers spent nearly six hours in the cage before the trouble was diagnosed — water had entered the joints in the microphone-cable and a short-circuit was being caused by particles of tin.

But, whether they be of competitive events, of picturesque activities, or of a description of what it feels like to wear a gasmask in a gas-chamber (as one commentator had to do), the records are made, and are delivered to Broadcasting House on time. They may have been hours — even days — in the making; but there is no reflection of the time spent and the difficulties overcome in the smooth account, only a few minutes in length, perhaps, that reaches the listener. How that comes about, however, is another story.




There is a dash of the uncanny about Room 437 on the fourth floor at Broadcasting House, for there, at will, they revive voices that have long been silent and resurrect tones that thrilled a past generation.

Room 437 is a store house of famous voices that, fortunately, were still active when the phonograph was invented. Many of the records made by those voices have passed into the BBC’s possession, and so in the collection of 5,000 historic records that has been assembled may be found the voices of Tennyson and Gladstone, of Florence Nightingale, Sarah Bernhardt, and P. T. Barnum, of the U.S.A. Presidents Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt. Collectors would pay big sums for some of the records that lie in Room 437 — if they were for sale.

Their home is also the receiving and editing room for all the records made by the BBC’s mobile recording unit. Facing the shelves on which the stock is stored is a bank of half a dozen gramophone turntables. The specially designed pick-up over each is connected to a control panel in another part of the room, which, in turn, is linked to loudspeakers and the engineering control room four floors above. With this equipment, every “master record” delivered by the mobile unit is prepared for broadcasting. As a newspaper sub-editor cuts “copy” to fit the available space in his pages, so the staff of the BBC’s Recorded Programmes Section cuts unwanted sound from the recordings, and builds up a sound-picture to fit the time allotted for broadcasting them. The process has been brought to so fine a pitch that it is possible to omit single sentences and even single words.

A device known as an “editing clock” — an invention mothered by the necessity for editing the records — is the secret of the process. Operated by electrical means, it indicates on a dial the grooves in which the pick-up needle is travelling, and so enables each groove (there are 100 to the inch) to be isolated for treatment.

Inside the Recorded Programmes Room, showing the bank of six gramophone turntables with “cue panels” conveniently placed

The six gramophone turntables may work individually, simultaneously, or consecutively, and the pick-up of each is so designed that it can be set to fall on the exact point at which the story presented by the records begins, continues, or ends. As a duplicate set of discs is cut simultaneously during every recording, a pick-up does not have to be lifted, moved forward, and dropped again in order to omit an unwanted passage on any one disc — both of the available discs containing the passage are used for the broadcast, the first going out of action at the point where the omission begins, and the second being brought in at the point where the omission ends.

At one time the pick-ups were dropped and lifted by hand, but it is now possible for them to be automatically controlled. One man seated at the control panel in Room 437 can cause each pick-up to fall on the correct point on the record as the moment for it to do so arrives. And to detect where the “joins” occur would baffle the keenest listener.

The recording mixer and editing panel. A collection of some 5,000 records is stored on shelves lining the walls

The records of outside events and activities made by the mobile unit are not, of course, the only subject of this treatment. Many of the BBC broadcasts are preserved with the aid of gramophone discs, and it frequently happens that rebroadcasts of parts of the programmes so recorded are required. The artistic presentation of the excerpts during the rebroadcast is the responsibility of Room 437.

Two other methods of capturing a programme are used by the BBC — steel tape and film. The steel-tape method is of particular value to the short-wave programmes from Daventry, as it is by this means that “live” programmes — whether originating in the Home or Empire service — required for subsequent rebroadcasting in one or all of the six transmission periods are recorded. Unwinding itself from one large spool on to another — something on the principle of the cinematograph — the tape is electrically magnetised as the recording proceeds.

After rewinding, the completed spool is passed through apparatus that responds to the magnetic variations of the tape and transforms them back into electrical impulses, which are fed to the control room in the ordinary way. If a programme has only a transitory value, the tape can be demagnetised and used again — an obviously valuable advantage. Its editing, however, is a process rather more difficult and drastic than the editing of discs. The tape must be cut with scissors and then rejoined, and, if the introduction of a “linking” commentary is desired, then separate sections of tape have to be prepared and inserted.

Editing recordings made on film is the most difficult process of all. Consequently, its use is reserved mainly for programmes of historic interest or outstanding importance—that is, programmes that must be preserved in their entirety.

Room 437 makes a big and important contribution to British broadcasting. Many of the devices that are used there were invented by the enthusiastic officials and engineers who have a part in that contribution. But they confessed to me that one problem persistently defies their ingenuity — they have yet to make what they consider to be a true-to-nature recording of sea-waves breaking on the shore!




“Ours is the largest working library of its kind in the world,” said the Music Librarian.

“We have to deal with seventy new manuscripts a week,” said the Play Librarian.

“Tell me,” said the Reference Librarian, “does the gadfly sting or bite?”

They all said much more than that, of course. But those quotations are succinctly eloquent of the activity that each controls. There is nothing musty about any of the four BBC libraries (the other, of course, is the gramophone library, which has already been described in these pages); dust hasn’t time enough to collect on their shelves.

Look at the shelves of the Music Library, for example. On them rest 20,000 orchestral items, ranging from music for light trios to works scored for the full symphony orchestra. Over 6,000 of these sets are in duplicate; nearly 2,000 are in triplicate. Then there are the vocal scores — oratorios, operas, musical comedies, etc.: there are 200,000 of those. Add to them the 25,000 titles in the song section, and the 5,000 numbers in the Library of the BBC Military Band at the Maida Vale premises, and you’ll have the justification for the Music Librarian’s remark about the size of his charge — and know why the floor of the Library, on the fifth storey of the studio tower at Broadcasting House, had to be specially strengthened.

Filing a script in the Play Library

At its beginning, in December, 1922, the Library consisted of a few pieces collected here and there, and arranged on a shelf above a kitchen range. At the end of its first six months of life, there were only five hundred items in it — and the Librarian was also a member of the original Wireless Orchestra. But today, a staff of thirty-four people is wholly engaged in dealing with the music that comes in from every part of the world — ranging from one elusive piece, perhaps, that the Librarian has tracked down and captured, through the bulk supplies from publishers at Home and abroad to whole private collections that have been bought en masse for the sake of the treasures that they might contain.

And there are, as well, the parts and scores required for a particular broadcast — a work to be performed by the full BBC Choral Society, for example, may mean the acquiring of 300 or more new vocal scores.

Despite these resources a great deal of music has to be found and obtained, mostly on hire, from outside sources, a task that for the broadcast has been obtained, master copies have been passed to the leaders of the string sections for bowing and marking (markings that are later transferred to the duplicate parts), the parts have been placed in covers and put on the music stands. And after the broadcast the work of collection and distribution to the sources of supply must be undertaken. That is the routine for one programme (consisting, maybe, of a dozen or more items). There may be thirty such programmes in a week.

And, somehow, time must be found for dealing promptly with the requisitions that the Regional centres daily send in; for the very necessary work of maintaining and repairing the music-parts (four members of the staff do nothing else), for the keeping up to date of the Library’s immense catalogue — at which, surely, no musician could look unmoved — and for meeting the demands, from both inside and outside the BBC, for information on musical matters. Responsible enquiries alone employs the whole time of three of the Librarian’s staff.

That is the input. The output goes wherever BBC musical ensembles play, whether in London or at the Regional centres. By the date of the first rehearsal of a programme by a BBC Orchestra, all the music required are welcomed in the Music Library, for they are often the means of making and maintaining essential contacts in the musical world.

The Reference Librarian at her Desk

As the Music Library serves the BBC’s musicians, so the Play Library serves the producers of the Features and Drama Department. Nearly five thousand play manuscripts are stowed away in the neat green boxes on the Play Library’s shelves, representing drama, feature, variety, Regional, and Empire broadcasts — there are no fewer than 1,100 Empire-production scripts alone, by the way.

And it is in the Play Library that would-be broadcasting playwrights would find the answer to their often-asked question, “Does the BBC read our plays?”

Their plays are read—by two expert and experienced readers. And there is a complete record, giving the author’s name, an outline of the plot, and the reader’s comments, of every unsolicited MS. (they come in at the rate of about seventy a week) that the BBC has ever received — including the sketch about poaching by an author who sent three Sheriff’s Warrants in proof of his qualifications! (And it may be as well to add that the “traps” all Editors know — like sticking two pages of a MS. together, or submitting the same work twice at different times — are known to the Play Library, too !)

An average of one unsolicited work a month comes up to standard; the unsuitable ones, of course, are returned to the author with as little delay as possible.

For the one left behind, complicated machinery is set in motion. It goes to the producer most likely to be interested in its production; it goes to the copyright section for obvious action; it is timed by a stop-watch; it goes to the General Office to be typed and to the Duplicating Section to be duplicated. And, finally, it goes into the hands of the production unit: the producer, studio assistant, effects staff, and cast. When the broadcast is over the scripts of the producer, conductor, and effects man (by that time covered with the weird hieroglyphics that the broadcaster alone can interpret) are kept for permanent record.

The Play Librarian must not only be “script-conscious” ; she must carry the production schedule for the next quarter in her head; she must be an encyclopaedia of things theatrical. She must be able to answer questions like these :—

“What caused the ticking inside the crocodile in the Peter Pan production?” “Can you give me details of the decor of this week’s play at the Suburban Theatre?” “Where can I find some information about the … Company of the French stage?”

Strange to say, the Play Librarian does go to the theatre in her spare time!

But it is in the Reference Library at Broadcasting House, where the demands of the fact-hungry are satisfied, that the oddest questions are asked — and answered. Whether it be the tracing of the source of a quotation for a Regional office, or the finding of out-of-the-way anecdotes for a script-writer, or the confirming of facts for a BBC journalist, the Librarian regards each request as a challenge to her virtuosity.

And because broadcasting knows few limitations of subject, there are requests for books on unexpected themes, for newspapers and journals that are never seen on the bookstalls, for publications that were sold to our grandparents. The strings that the Librarian can pull to bring in the replies to these demands lead into strange and unexpected places—because the secret of success in her job is not so much to know the answers herself as to know where to find out. Any reference library will answer queries, of course, but they will demand time to do so; that in Broadcasting House must answer at once — news bulletins and printing presses can’t wait. But, however short the notice, it has never yet been stumped by a reasonable question.

“What is Clause 19 of the League of Nations Covenant?” “What was the date of the formation of the Canadian Mounted Police?” Queries like that are easily dealt with, of course. More difficult, but answered, was “Did the Romans import the raspberry into Britain?” And they have also found out that the gadfly stings. Or did they say bites?… I must ask them again.



About the author

Wilfred Goatman began working at the British Broadcasting Company’s station 5WA in Swansea, where his was the first voice heard on air. He later worked in the Public Relations Department at Broadcasting House in London. These articles were originally written as features for BBC Empire Broadcasting magazine under the pen-name “J. C. MacLennan”, and all nine were collected into the book By-ways of the BBC, published in late 1938 by P.S. King & Son.

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