Recording the records 

5 July 2022 tbs.pm/76243

 

When BBC local radio launched in 1967, an agreement about paying for the music broadcast by stations was reached between the corporation and the agencies representing artists and publishers. The arrangement was an up-front annual lump sum to be paid to the Performing Rights Society (PRS) and Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL). The BBC was responsible for managing the ‘needle time’ allowance for each station.

For many years, the allowance was one hour per station per day, a reasonable allowance when the first stations were broadcasting for only a few hours, but a problem for presenters and management when stations increased their hours and started broadcasting in mid-morning and afternoon.

The radio paperchain

The BBC’s promise to provide PRS and PPL with detailed reporting meant setting up a time-consuming and complicated system. It required every item of music broadcast by each station, including the composer(s), publisher, record label, prefix and suffix, duration and whether the music item was commercial or in an exempt category, to be noted on handwritten forms.

The exempt categories included music used to illustrate an audio package, a new record release reviewed by a station for the first time, live music, film soundtracks, music recorded by the BBC, and records imported from other broadcasters across the world in a reciprocal agreement with the BBC. Every piece of music, no matter how short in duration, was written down in longhand. For a really creative audio package which included several music inserts, the logging took longer than the package!

 

 

Not surprisingly, the reporting was not always entirely accurate. Presenters who were ‘self-oping’ either tried to fill in the logging sheets whilst on air or had to remember details such as durations afterwards. The justification for using certain tracks such as ‘illustrative’ were tenuous, to say the least. There were some very imaginative offerings such as ‘Sunshine Superman’ to follow a weather forecast – or to even introduce a weather forecaster!

Every week, all the music logging details – sometimes more than a one hundred sheets – were tied together and sent to BBC Local Radio headquarters. Then the ‘fun’ started. The poor souls in London had to decipher every written word, and those they couldn’t read because they had been scribbled won in haste, live on air, were returned for checking. However, in the intervening weeks, it was often impossible for presenters to recall the precise details of what they had played.

The first IT experiments

When the first mini computers came onto the market, some radio stations began thinking how this recent technology could one day replace the tedium of handwritten music logging. In the early 1980s, with only a few Amstrads to play with, it was limited to ‘thinking’ about what could happen. Then in 1987, three stations – Leicester, Stoke-on-Trent and WM (Birmingham) began to experiment, at first, independently.

 

 

The three stations approached the challenge from different perspectives. Leicester considered whether the ‘new’ mini computers such as the Acorn/BBC Micro with its ‘View’ word processor could be used to input details of the music broadcast and print out reports. Simultaneously, Stoke was investigating connecting timers to their desks, triggered by the faders so that durations could be recorded accurately; and Radio WM was planning to create a music library catalogue by identifying every record with a unique barcode.

Putting it together

These unofficial experiments would not have progressed without the IT skills of a Radio Leicester engineer, Philip Bakewell. I had asked Phil if my ideas of printouts were practical. He suggested using an Acorn/BBC-B Micro (which we had on station) and some peripherals which would need to be purchased, but not from the station’s meagre budget.
I sent a memo to Peter Redhouse who was the General Manager, Local Radio. He forwarded my request to the Head of Engineering with the following comment:

‘May I endorse the suggestion by Stephen Butt of Radio Leicester that we experiment with the BBC computer for music logging? The cost seems moderate; the benefits could be impressive.’

He added, having looked at the details of my request for an ‘Acorn View bracket word processor module costing £52 less 4% BBC discount’, and a ‘ROM expansion board at £47 less VAT’:

‘I can’t imagine what such things are – or do – but they seem very inexpensive.’

Owen Bentley, Senior Manager, Local Radio, was copied in on the correspondence. He was aware of the experiments at Radio WM and Radio Stoke and told us to form a project team under the leadership of the late Jeremy Robinson, Programme Organiser at Radio WM. Jeremy had previously been involved in re-organising the record library at Radio Bristol.
The key to the success of the project was Leicester’s Philip Bakewell. Phil brought together all the vague ideas and made them work. Radio Leicester functioned as the testbed for Phil’s system. While a track was playing, a barcode on the record sleeve was zapped with a reader attached to each studio desk. A timer started and stopped whenever a record fader was opened or closed, and Phil’s bespoke software linked the data and produced accurate printouts. Instead of endless handwritten logs, the system only needed the track details to be entered once, thus creating a record library catalogue.

 

BBC Micro

The BBC Micro

 

Making it professional

Phil set up his own company, Emsoft, and created ‘SABLE’, an acronym for Station Automatic Broadcast Logging Equipment. Later, Phil’s company developed PLG – Play List Guide – which selected music for programmes based on various inputted criteria. This elegant system, which has been regularly updated, can be used to establish a ‘station sound’ by enabling stations to adjust the pace and style of music from hour to hour, as well as the mix of genres. It also allows for the scheduling or station idents/jingles and trails/promos.

To some extent, PLG was able to ‘learn’ whether its scheduling was acceptable to presenters because of the feedback it received as presenters adjusted and modified the selection or deleted a track from a running order. Some of these actions changed the priority by which the software selected tracks. A track frequently rejected would not be selected again or would next be programmed at an opposite time of day.

 

Courtesy of E M Computers Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

 

SABLE/PLG also works alongside commercial playout systems such as Radioman as an invisible system. Presenters can view the music selected for their programmes, override some of the selections if necessary, and integrate the music with any pre-recorded inserts. The log of the programme as broadcast is automatically recorded, with the option for a presenter to add any additional details.

When BBC local radio started working towards a network-wide music policy, SABLE/PLG enabled a central music programmer to update the PLG selection policies on all stations. Most recently, the system was further refined when stations moved to music playout from networked servers rather than those local to each station.

For more than half a century, BBC local stations have attracted creative people and talented innovators. Perhaps because the stations had a degree of autonomy, they were able to experiment and innovate, and often find inexpensive solutions to challenging problems.

 

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Liverpool, Saturday 13 August 2022