Putting the Worst Swear Word to Air: My Dumb Delay Button Drama
Panelling involves coordinating everything to allow a show to go to air by operating the studio panel’s faders, mics, ads system, CDs, sound levels and switches. When you are a panel operator, it’s your job to make sure that the talk-breaks are kept to the designated length by giving the host/s the wind-up and countdown while also making sure the right songs are played and the news goes at the top of the hour by opening up the news feed line.
You also generally have to work with the show’s producer (if they have one) who is probably not in the on-air studio but sitting outside at a producer’s desk, taking and vetting the calls. Radio show callers are often called “Punters” by radio producers and hosts. Obviously not every punter who calls the hotline goes on air, so the producer’s job is to speak to everyone off air and get the best ‘talent’ to go on the show. Being not terribly good at buttons and switches and computer programs and broadcast equipment in general, I really have no idea why I so often ended up in the role of panel operator throughout my career. Often it’s purely for the fact that this role is often seen in radio as the most basic, talentless function of any station, and is often given to the casuals, the up-and-comers or the would-be announcers who are not talented enough to get their own shows. Being effectively a junior announcer at the station, I was shifted with a lot of panelling at 2ZQ.
In truth, panelling is a very difficult role, and one which takes a certain amount of skill, insider knowledge and training as well as the ability to think under pressure and deal with problems on the fly. These days there are countless courses and uni subjects that cover panelling, but back in my day I learned everything I knew on the job.
Most stations that put callers live to air (rather than pre-recording them and playing them back) use a function called “delay”. A seven-second delay means that what the audience is hearing is actually audio from seven seconds earlier; this prevents things going to air that shouldn’t such as swear words or profane or offensive comments which could jeopardise the station’s broadcasting license. The delay is built up during the announcer’s talk breaks by a machine that steals little bits of audio, building up to a seven-second advance of what is actually happening in real time. If the announcer (or panel operator) hears something going to air that shouldn’t they immediately “dump” the on-air feed and play a station sweeper or a song, and they switch back to real-time audio, effectively covering the mistake.
If the delay function is used correctly, the audience would hear (for example) a caller being cut off mid-sentence, then perhaps a sweeper saying something like “2ZQ – The Station that keeps you in the know!” followed by the announcer coming on and saying something like, “Oops we seem to have lost that caller! Now on to the next call… hello Dorris?” If it’s done right, the listener should be none the wiser that their ears aware about to be assaulted.
The problem was – I really wasn’t sure about how to correctly use delay.
I’m pretty sure that Phil would have shown it to me at some point, but I couldn’t actually get my head around it. It was one of those functions which you only expect to use once in a blue moon – particularly at 2ZQ where the show content was fairly G-rated, unlike some of the more prominent AM stations where shock jocks talked to angry listeners all day about contentious subjects and got them all riled up. I certainly never expected to need to use the delay button in the fishing show.
One Saturday we were taking random callers. The fishing show had not been given a producer to vet the calls, so we pretty much just took callers as they came, trying to speak to them quickly during the ad breaks and news updates to make sure they had something worthwhile to say. I can’t remember exactly what the segment topic was, but for some reason we put what sounded like a lovely old man to air. He sounded positively aged, with a hoarse and croaky voice, and a soft, gentlemanly manner. I’ll call him Albert, because I can’t remember his real name.
Back in the studio, Cameron the host says, “We’ve got a caller on the line… Hello, Albert?” Albert croaks a soft hello, probably saying something like how much he enjoys the show and how he listens every Saturday. Cameron continues, “So Albert, I’ve been told that you’d like to share a fishing joke with us on air today, is that right?” Albert agrees in the affirmative. For two excruciatingly long minutes (a veritable lifetime in radio), Albert proceeds to tell this incredibly long-winded but sweet sounding joke, about a father and son going fishing. The joke wanders along at a slow pace, but Albert is such a sweet-sounding old codger that we don’t dare interrupt him.
Finally we’re reaching what we’re hoping will be the punchline, which is lucky because the half-hour news was about to start. We were all getting ready to respond to Albert’s joke with heart-warming guffaws, and then award him a feel-good prize of a Shimano lure set or some other fishing-related prize. On and on the joke goes; Albert is doing the voices of the father and son in different pitches, putting in a considerable amount of effort with his joke telling. I’m giving Cameron the countdown, letting him know that we’re only a few seconds away from news time. Cameron is looking pensive, but still trying to listen attentively to the joke and to Albert, so we can get that feel-good radio moment.
Finally the punchline arrives. In a sweet voice, with soft tones, Albert is doing the voice of the ‘son’ in the joke. And here’s the punchline…
“… So the little boy throws it back and says to his Dad, ‘But you said fish smell just like Mum’s c***!’”
Horror. Pure horror!
Albert hung up straight away; obviously he’d been playing us for fools the whole time! Cameron looked at me. I looked at Cameron. His in-studio guest looked at me. I looked at the guest. I totally panicked! I knew that I was supposed to dump the caller, but how? My mind was racing at a million miles an hour and all the microphones in the studio were still live to air. In a flash I pressed a whole sequence of buttons, all out of order and all wrong and the general consequence was that the swear word, the worst swear word, went to air, crystal clear, during a family show!
I turned bright red and became very flustered. Cameron, like the simple man he was simply shrugged his shoulders, apologised to the listeners and moved on with the show, announcing that we’d be back after the news. What else could he have done?
Later in my radio career I would come to hate, absolutely hate jokes going to air. You can’t trust a punter, not even on a bloody fishing show.