Fifteen Minutes in Air Control
From Geri Mitchell in the morning to Gerry Rhode at night, “Air Control,” a room situated on the third floor of St. Louis Public Radio’s studios at Grand Center, is staffed by hosts whose jobs are among the most important in the building, and in the midday, that post is filled by the familiar voice of Greg Munteanu.
As we opened the door to join Greg at 12:50 last Thursday, the words of Don Marsh, host of St. Louis On the Air were playing over the speakers, the lilt of which could be seen rising and falling on the monitor directly in front of Greg, with a red bar indicating the ideal volume threshold.
As shows play, locally as well as those transmitted from NPR, PRI, and others, Greg monitors the sound for consistency. "We have to keep everything that is going out over the air relatively equal,” he notes while pointing at the different levels. Shows come from different sources and may need to be adjusted. If they come in too low, he explains, the processor will be working harder to push the sound, and “noise” starts to occur. If the audio is “coming in hot,” it will distort over the air.
“So,” we ask, “it’s coming up to the top of an hour, where do you look to know what you have to do next?”
There are six computer monitors in the room, each displaying different information important to operations, and Greg points to the digital log, a spreadsheet broken out by time and message, that serves as something of a script for him. As a St. Louis Public Radio listener, you probably recognize the first section as the station's legal I.D.
The FCC requires the legal I.D. to be read on air each hour. At 12:58 the music that ends St. Louis On the Air begins, and Greg puts his headphones back on. At 12:59 he fires his own music bed (so there is no silence in his pauses, he explains), and prepares to read the I.D. and a short underwriting announcement, which is scripted and added to a clipboard next to the log.
The break is timed to the second and must be 1:00 minute exactly. "If I go over a minute, I crash the network," he tells us. It has to be down to the second. With the addition of the stations in the Rolla and Quincy areas, the new legal I.D. is longer. He has to prioritize what to cover during each break, often juggling the required underwriting announcements, which have been paid for through contributions from organizations and businesses in the area, promotions for upcoming programs, weather, and traffic. He covers what he can without trying to rush. "It's nice to breathe in between," he says.
As he reads the underwriting announcement, a large clock ticks down the seconds until 1:00 p.m., the cut off time. Greg finishes at 12:59:59 exactly and things shift seamlessly to a "billboard" - industry lingo for a one minute promo of the hour ahead - and into the national news from NPR. During morning and afternoon drive times, that would be followed by a local newscast from here at Grand Center, which is reported by a newscaster one room away, separated only by a glass window. After the break, Greg removes the underwriting sheet and prepares to report the weather, which is positioned between news and the beginning of Fresh Air.
As Greg sets up for the next break, he talks about host technique and preferences. Different hosts have different strategies, even in how they position the microphone. He prefers it coming down from the top, rather than upwards. "I find it reduces the amount of "s" sounds and it enhances the deep part of my voice." The effect he's describing is called "the proximity effect." The proximity of the source (the speaker) to the microphone will effect the enhancement of the bass.
It’s easy to listen without realizing the number of moving pieces and the amount of planning that goes into seamless radio coverage. Next time you tune into St. Louis Public Radio, listen for the precision in transitions between your favorite programs.