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Forty Years Of Oops: A Look Back At Some Of NPR's Greatest Goofs

Apr 18, 2013
Originally published on April 19, 2013 11:41 am

When you listen to NPR on your local Member Station, the audio always sounds so pleasant and calm. The programming floats along, bouncing seamlessly from one topic to another, from one program to another, going off without a hitch.

Except when it doesn't.

Over the last 42 years, there have been plenty of glitches, snags, slip-ups and utter meltdowns when it comes to using the technical tools for recording and playing audio. A few employees agreed to tell us about some of these less-than-perfect moments.

An Entire Show, Cut to Bits

Weekend Edition Senior Producer and Music Director Ned Wharton, who has worked at NPR since 1989, says his worst technical nightmare was with analog tape.

"Back in the analog days, everything was on tape, and we'd stack up the [audio] reels the night before [to prepare for the show]. Everybody in the building would occasionally recycle tapes. You'd actually destroy them, because you wouldn't want to reuse tapes, because they had all these edits in them. You'd literally just slice it into the garbage, so there would be these places around the office where you'd put what you'd call the salvage pile."

Once, on an overnight shift, someone saw his tape, thought it was a salvage pile, and cut his entire show to bits. Wharton continues,

"We literally had to run around to other shows that had pieces racked up on reels, and we just sort of started grabbing. Pieces that were meant from Morning Edition, Weekend All Things Considered, we just grabbed whatever pieces we could find, and then quickly wrote interview questions, or wrote intros, and did new, fresh interviews."

Just in time to go on the air.

'Arrr, Arrr, Arrr': The Sound of Mis-Fed Tape

Executive Producer of Tell Me More, Carline Watson also had her share of mishaps with analog tapes on reels. She once loaded her tape up the wrong way after doing an interview, and lost it all.

"When I hit play instead of playing, the machine basically chewed up all the tape. And my interview was gone. I tried to smooth it out. I went back to play it, and the sound it made was, 'arrr arrr arrr'. It was just horrible. And I thought, what am I gonna do?'"

Well, Watson did the only thing she could do: she called up her guest, and redid the interview.

"Ree-Whaa-Vasoo": That's Dutch for Tape Played Backwards

By the time NPR moved from using analog tape to digital around the year 2000, Senior Producer Art Silverman had already spent more than 20 years at All Things Considered using analog tape. In that time, Silverman says he's lost tape, misplaced it, and even put pieces in the wrong way.

"Because it was identical backwards and forwards, there were times on deadline where a chunk of an interview was upside down and backwards, and it played on the air that way" Silverman says. "Ree-whaa-vasoo. It sounds like Dutch."

Digital Crashes Too

The switch to digital has been a lifesaver, says Silverman. He appreciates the lightening editing speed, compared to analog tapes. No more using razor blades to trim off ums, ahs and breaths, he says. No more using a white chalk pencil to mark cuts. Still, after the switch to digital occurred, Silverman recalls a time that they did have to rely on their tape recorders again.

"The [digital] system died. It went down near deadline. Some of the newer people thought it was a real miracle that we still had tape recorders all over the place. We just started editing the program on tape."

Morning Edition Senior Producer Barry Gordemer's most recent technical nightmare happened after he got back from an interview, where Host Renee Montagne talked to a chef. Upon returning, he realized his digital files were corrupted.

"The chef took us into his kitchen and he made food for us, and we recorded all of that, and then I loaded the audio into the computer," he says. "Everything froze up, and by the time it was done, the audio files were corrupted and it wouldn't play back. So I had nothing. We couldn't do it again; we missed our window. So, we cried. Or at least I cried."

A Close Call

The worst time to lose something for Gordemer is when he's traveled miles and miles for story. But it's not just this recent iteration of digital that's given him trouble.

"Another time I was out with Renee Montagne. We were in Washington State, traveling down a river with a geologist. We were in canoes and he was showing us evidence of where Tsunamis had hit the West Coast over the centuries."

At that time, NPR recorded audio on DAT, a digital audio tape made of a fragile plastic-like substance called mylar.

"After we got done with the river recording--we figured we've got the next great American radio piece--I look at engineer's face, and he looks terrified. The DAT tape, somewhere during the interview, had snapped."

Luckily, Gordemer says, the engineer was able to patch the tape up, and the audio was unharmed. It was a close call.

Jane'a Johnson is a spring 2013 intern with Morning Edition at NPR West. She is a Sacramento native, with degrees in Philosophy and Cinema Studies. She loves to travel, but hates planes.

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