Announcing from the inside 

12 December 2016 tbs.pm/9550

From the BBC Year Book for 1950

BBCYB1950I remember once many years ago when announcing the latest scores of a cricket match, I said that a certain county had ‘scored 8 for 156’. Within a few minutes I had a very large number of telephone calls pointing out my error. To them all I offered my apologies and said it was a slip of the tongue. This sort of slip is happily not very common amongst announcers, but such things do happen and will inevitably continue to happen in the business of announcing.

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Every announcer should bear in mind the certainty that on whatever subject he is broadcasting, whether it be sport, news, variety, or music, that there is assuredly someone sitting at the loudspeaker end listening intently with pen poised over paper waiting to write and point out an error. He can be sure, too, that that person knows more about that particular subject than the announcer. The second certainty that an announcer must carry in his head is that the programme he is dealing with may do one of four things: overrun, underrun, break down in the middle, or never get started. If he can do this he should be able to cope with any emergency that may arise. Nothing is so irritating to a listener as to sit beside a silent radio set. Therefore the announcer must be ready at all times to give the listener quick and accurate information of any technical fault or programme hold-up. If, of course, there is a transmitter breakdown this is not possible, but an apology and explanation should be put out at the first opportunity.

John Snagge (left) demonstrates old microphones to listeners

John Snagge (left) demonstrates old microphones to listeners

In the rotas and schedules dealing with announcers’ duties and programmes, every known factor and possibility are taken into consideration to avoid unnecessary delays or programme hold-ups. Not only is nearly every programme broadcast attended by an announcer, but next to the central control room a second announcer — a continuity announcer — is established who, working in close contact with the engineers, has an overall control of the programme, and it is the continuity announcer who, together with the continuity engineer, deals with an unexpected emergency which cannot be handled by the studio announcer. That is why the voice announcing the fill-up after a programme that has underrun is sometimes different from either of the voices announcing the preceding and following programmes. But, and it is a very big but, even after twenty-seven years of the BBC’s experience, a circumstance wholly unforeseen and never before experienced may suddenly turn up, and then the announcer and engineers have to use their initiative to solve it.

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Another problem every announcer has to face is that of pronunciation, not only of the multitude of foreign place and proper names constantly appearing in news bulletins and programmes, but also of home names and places, small villages, and the curious alternative English pronunciations of the same spelling. Every time the name of Mr. Menzies, one time Prime Minister of Australia, is given there is a stream of protest from indignant listeners to the effect that ‘surely everyone knows that Menzies is pronounced Mingies’. In the case of this distinguished statesman, however, it is pronounced as spelt. Inconsistency of pronunciation of English is well known, but the announcer is supposed to know when faced with several alternative pronunciations which is the correct one to use, and if he does not know there is always someone listening who will tell him! In pronouncing foreign words there are two-opposing views. First, ‘you are talking to British people therefore anglicize’, and secondly, ‘you have the greatest opportunity of telling British listeners the correct native pronunciation’. Personally I believe neither of these theories is correct; our job is to be understood by the greatest majority of people, which often means adapting our pronunciation to common usage, but of course within limits. The names of race-horses in the racing results are given a variety of different pronunciations by the general public. We on our side try to make it clear which horse is in the first three. I often wonder if, in fact, the BBC does influence people into correct pronunciation of proper names. Despite the years that we have consistently pronounced Roosevelt as Rose-velt, I am always hearing people saying Roos-veit.

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Another constant bogey of the announcers is the sudden alteration or even cancellation of a studio programme ‘due to circumstances beyond our control’. What a multitude of mishaps such a phrase could mean: technical breakdown, sudden illness of an artist or transport difficulties delaying the arrival of artist or performers. On many of these occasions the situation is dealt with by a programme producer, but an announcer must be ready and able to read a talk, perhaps on a technical subject and possibly quite unseen. I remember an occasion when a speaker already in the studio, and having been announced, flatly refused to give his talk at all. That situation required rapid thinking and decision. Musicians, too, sometimes have their peculiarities. One night, going into the studio to announce a piano recital, the announcer found the soloist lying prone upon the floor with eyes closed, apparently in a dead faint. Knowing that whatever else he might be able to do, piano playing was not his forte, he rushed to the telephone to try and arrange a substitute programme before attempting first aid. Just as arrangements looked like being completed, the pianist got up and set about some scales. It seems she always relaxed before playing! Of course, there have been occasions when an announcer has created a mild stir by being overheard making some remark not intended for the microphone. These usually cause amusement to listeners.

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From all this perhaps it will be realized that it is not easy to answer the oft-repeated question ‘What are the qualifications of a BBC announcer?’ or ‘What is the art of announcing?’ In general, an announcer is chosen for his general equipment as an acceptable vocal performer, for his common sense, general knowledge and background, and his apparent ability to conform to the general principles of spoken presentation as laid down by the Corporation. Amongst the existing team of announcers are those who were professional soldiers, sailors, singers, a business man, actors, a variety artist, and those who came direct from school or university. The function of each one is not to entertain but to act as the human link between the listener and the broadcast, to bridge the gap between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. In this sense announcers can perhaps contribute substantially to the structure of active democracy by persuading the public that ‘They’ and ‘We’ are identical, and by discouraging the tendency to surrender which is implicit in the assumption that ‘They’ are in charge and nothing much can be done about it.

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Footnotes

  • John Derrick Mordaunt Snagge OBE (8 May 1904 – 26 March 1996) joined the BBC’s 6ST in Stoke-on-Trent in January 1927. From there he became a senior announcer on the National Programme and the Home Service and read the first BBC television news bulletin in 1954.

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1 response to this article

Dr Stuart Russell 17 November 2017 at 10:57 am

Back in the early 60’s I knew Michael Brooke’s mother – a delightful if eccentric old lady of about 80 who resided in a friend’s Bournemouth hotel. We had many an interesting conversation and her grand son visited on one occasion. I remember once the Shepherd’s pie wasn’t up to her standards and she told the waitress “Give this back to the good shepherd!” Lovely memories. There was also another old lady living there who had been a friend of the Norwegian composer Grieg around 1900! Her maiden name was Ida Levvingson, later Mrs Hughes, and was well known for swimming in the sea at Bournemouth – also appeared on “Wicker’s World”

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