Mic it up…

…I’ve established that it’s the microphone which defines exactly what radio is. That’s because notions of ‘broadcast’, transmitters’, ‘wireless’ and ‘transistor radio’ have, I think – over the past three decades – become either confused, redundant, or both.

Mic Light (2).jpg

Pic: (c) Martin Cooper

The microphone is the instrument which captures the human voice. Through the mixing desk, the compressors, the limiters, and the transmission equipment the voice is carried towards the listener. It picks up everything: the rustle of paper, the breathlessness of running into the studio in time to start the broadcast, and the excitement of the very immediacy of radio

In almost one hundred years it’s the only bit of kit that’s remained essentially the same.

Wolfman Jack was using a Neumann in the 1960s and 70s. Some say they’re still the best – particularly the Neumann U87, which is used by many UK national and commercial stations.

I’ve used a Rode NT-2 (that’s the legacy model, not the NT-2A if – like me – you’re an anorak about these things)…

Rode NT-2 USE (2).JPGPic: (c) Martin Cooper

…Which gives a warm, rounded, ‘BBC Radio 2’ type sound to the voice.

Through it all, as the ‘platforms of delivery’ for radio have changed from AM to FM to DAB to online, the microphone has remained the defining, iconic piece of technology that sums up exactly what ‘radio’ is – and always will be…

Still the BBC has expert studio managers willing to show you how to use your microphone to best advantage. As Giles Aspen says, “Without them we’re not going to hear anything.” Quite so.

Rosko books (2).JPGPic: (c) Martin Cooper

Emperor Rosko in his 1976 book devotes a whole chapter to “voice reproduction”, and gives mention to the Neumann U87. In closing the chapter, he advises “In the studio it is unlikely you will have much say in the matter [of choice of microphone] as the engineers will have picked the most suitable one for the acoustics of the studio.” (Rosko and Johnny Beerling, Emperor Rosko’s DJ Book, London, Everest Books, 1976, p. 60).

The microphone brings a sense of intimacy to talk on the radio. Our public conversations are pitched so that the person or crowd in front of us can hear. Whereas on the radio, the microphone allows us to talk closely with our listener. Paddy Scannell reckons that means we have to be sincere when we’re on air:

“What is expected, in all cases, is the projection and presentation of ordinariness as a case of the real thing, the genuine article. Hence, narratives – both fictional and factual – become increasingly naturalistic in all aspects of their production. In other words, artificial, mannered or stylized performances are rejected on radio and television – except as pastiche or as send-ups.” (Paddy Scannell, Radio, Television & Modern Life, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1996, p. 74).

However, let’s not forget that even though it’s a medium with an intimate feel, our radio talk is a public discourse. Paddy Scannell has written elsewhere about this, and Hugh Chignell has summarised the notion of ‘broadcast talk’ in a useful volume (Hugh Chignell, Key Concepts in Radio Studies, London: Sage Publications, 2009, pp 9-13).

So, whilst pictures are vital for telly – and without them it’d be a blank screen, broadcast talk is the primary code of radio. It is what we do: talk on the radio. The key, however, is that our talk on the radio is conversation made to be overheard. It’s like, but not the same as, ‘normal’ conversations at home or in the office. It’s subtly adapted to sound similar, but to have that third edge: the listener. And in this process it’s the microphone that completes the work of conveying the meaning.

Twenty-one years ago Alan Beck, a lecturer in radio drama, said, “The microphone is everything. It becomes: your listeners; the other characters you speak to; and when interiorizing, your ‘me’ inside speaking to the ‘I’ of your outer body” (pp. 57-58). He went on to urge radio actors to “play the mic” and to “discover your relationship with it” (Alan Beck, Radio Acting, London: A&C Black, 1997, pp. 61-64).

That’s still true today for all of us working in radio. Time to get friendly with the mic…

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