The old way: NPR technicians slice audio tape with razor blades. Above, Marika Partridge holds one close at hand, in her mouth.

For NPR audio editors: out with the razor blades and bandages

Originally published in Current, Dec. 15, 1997

In little more than a month, Jan. 19, [1998], NPR aims to stop editing its hourly newscasts with razor blades and begin using computers. This is a major step in the digital transition for NPR's Washington headquarters, which planners boasted was "the last great analog facility" in American radio when it opened almost four years ago.

In the meantime, only some of the network's cultural offerings have been edited on digital workstations, using about 10 high-end Sonic Solutions software.

Now, for its much larger news production staff, NPR is installing its first six Pentium-powered computers using a simpler and less expensive digital system from Dalet Digital Media Systems--a French brand used by the BBC, CBC and several European public radio networks.

Because of the system's new capabilities, it opens to question the job definitions of both production assistants and technicians. NPR execs are scheduled to meet with the technicians' elected representatives this week--continuing talks that began in the summer.

Simple tape editing is now done by editorial staffers, including reporters and production assistants, while technicians come in to do mixing, audio processing and other postproduction work. But some editorial staffers have the skills and desire to do the tekkie tricks and some technicians want to do some of the basic cutting, according to staffers.

"A looming question inherent in the technology is, 'Does each and every crossfade require an engineer for execution?'" says Mike Starling, director of engineering and operations. But NPR doesn't want to risk the collaboration of editorial and technical staffers that "gives us a lot of synergy and a lot of great radio."

BBC and CBC adopted digital editing "under quite different circumstances," says Jeffrey Dvorkin, v.p. of news and information, who came from CBC this summer. BBC was combining its TV and radio news operations and CBC was having to cut its staff.

NPR is not under these pressures, but can use the technology to "do more without sacrificing the quality," Dvorkin says.

When audio material enters the building it will be available simultaneously to many producers on the in-house computer network without getting dupes made, as they are now. For newscasts, the system "will make it much easier to grab clips from different sources, put them into pieces and do simple mixes very quickly," Dvorkin says.

After the newscast unit switches over, the next will be a weekend show, possible Sounds Like Science, and then part of Morning Edition, says Starling. The second phase will complete ME, create at least a digital toehold in every work unit including bureaus, and add All Things Considered, a program that sometimes has 60 tape cutters working simultaneously. Ideally, he says, NPR will run as many workstations as the 130 analog editing desks it now uses.

The system also be used in assembling live and taped programs--initially as a substitute for the cart machines that dispense underwriting credits and the like, and eventually for assembly of entire programs, according to Starling.

Though switching to digital helps sound quality in some ways, it is not without compromise. To reduce the need for high-capacity wiring and equipment, the Dalet system compresses its audio four-to-one for storage and transmission. Starling says engineers will be listening closely for "fairly ugly artifacts" including chirps and bleeps, that can creep into radio programs when a compressed program is decompressed and compressed again for satellite transmission.

He expects that NPR will have the option to keep some or all productions uncompressed. The 10 or 11 Sonic Solutions systems now used for musical programs compress the sound for handling.

To Current's home page

Earlier news: Minnesota Public Radio makes big switch to digital editing, 1995.


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