“I Need Three Ears” - Adventures in Radio, and Production

by Ian Fish

Every year at Heart FM we organize a huge charity event, and technical nightmare, called “Run For Home” where we take over 1200 of our most dedicated listeners to a secret venue far away. That is, far away in English terms. By American standards it’s the sort of distance that somebody who is used to driving on freeways twelve lanes wide would travel to buy the groceries. In the UK, any journey of twenty miles or more requires the sort of planning and backup that goes into artic exploration — which explains why the Brits were able to discover America in the first place… lots of practice planning just getting around our small island.

Anyway, these 1200+ listeners, in teams of 4, and dressed like lunatics in all kinds of fancy dress (from naughty nurses to Harry Potter characters – photos at www.heartfm.co.uk) are sponsored to get home from the secret send off venue back to Birmingham. This year’s secret send off location was in the center of the famous university city of Oxford.

To cover “Run For Home” on air is a technical headache. There’s the send off (which remember, we have to keep secret so none of the teams can pre-arrange anything), a checkpoint halfway back (Evesham), and all the fun back at the finish line.

With two presenters at any one time covering the excitement of returns, a presenter at the checkpoint and a presenter doing the send off, that’s almost the entire on air staff tied up (there’s a thought!). The engineers are coping with 2-way stereo ISDN lines from the finish line, the checkpoint and a satellite link from the send off, not to mention open talkback between all three sites and the technical operator back in the studio playing in commercials and music!

My role on the day is to co-ordinate the send off as producer/engineer/health and safety guy! Once the teams were told the total money raised (this year the one day event raised over £130,000 – around $240,000) we released them all into Oxford, and I had to rush back to the finish line via the checkpoint!

Once back (Oxford to Birmingham via Evesham is not a quick route on a Sunday; a single lane each way full of tractors, lorries and two hundred year old drivers who can barely see over their steering wheel does not make for a hasty trip), my job is to take to the main stage and let the crowd know what’s going on with my commentary on the local PA, making sure every team that crosses the line gets a cheer, even if the on-air programme is in a music or commercial break.

This means I need an earpiece in my left ear taking a feed of the 2-way radios from the marshals so I can hear which team is coming round the corner and in what vehicle (we’ve had fire engines, hovercraft, ambulances, police cars, heavy duty cranes, helicopters and all kinds of homemade death traps made to try and win the coveted “most spectacular return” trophy). In my right ear, another earpiece, with a feed of the open talkback between 3 remote sites and the studio, so I know when I can talk and when I need to shut up and let the presenters do an on air link without me on the speakers in the background winding up the crowd.

Those of you still with me, and keeping count, will realize that my maximum quota of ears have been used up, leaving me no way of hearing myself on the sound system. If you’ve ever worked on a stage you’ll know how off putting it is not to be able to hear yourself when you talk. If you’re a voice artist, it’s like doing a session with no headphones and your fingers in your ears. If you’re a producer it’s like mixing a promo from the other side of the sound proof door.

As you can imagine, with an outside broadcast (“remote” if you’re American) of such complexity, our engineers were flat out busy dealing with all kinds of technical issues that one of the biggest charity events of the year can throw up. When I enquired if it would be possible to get a little of my microphone mixed into my right earpiece feed, our very busy senior engineer gave me a “do you not think I’ve got enough to do” face, then delivered a line that only an engineer could do: “You can hear yourself in your head can’t you?”

You know what, if you think about it, you can hear yourself in your head. I spent the rest of the afternoon hearing my voice in my head as a cross between Dave Foxx and that movie trailer guy, Hal Douglas. What the audience at the finish line actually got of course was my real voice. There’s a reason why I’m a producer and not a presenter: not bad on a road show PA, screaming with excitement as another team dressed as naughty nurses cross the finish line, but a voice which should never be allowed behind a studio microphone. Like many presenters I know have a face for radio, I have a voice for producing. Sounded good in my head though.

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