I had a chance to visit the studios of The Sound (KSWD, 100.3 FM) last week as a fly on the wall of the Mark in the Morning program. Primary host Mark Thompson was in town for some events related to the Orange County Fair so Sound programmer Dave Beasing thought it would be a good time to come up; Thompson normally does his part of the show from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina vis the magic of computers.
I figured I better dress up for the occasion ... instead of shorts and a t-shirt I went all out and wore jeans and a t-shirt. Thompson, on the other hand was in shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops, more often walking barefoot around the studio as the morning’s events unfolded.
I was fascinated to find that the show had less prep work than I had anticipated ... and at the same time, more prep work than I had anticipated. In different ways, of course.
The day’s program was fully structured down to the minute as to the type of material -- comedy bit, interview, music, etc. -- to be presented. Yet nothing was in any way pre-rehearsed. Even a recording of a comedian’s opinions on clowns or an old sound bite of Thompson himself was scheduled, but not pre-played. The crew actually had no idea what was going to be said; that information was exclusive to show’s producer who provided the audio clips.
“I do that on purpose,” Thompson explained. “I want the reactions to be real. When you hear laughter, or anything else for that matter, it’s real.”
Also real is the reaction when things go wrong. The show is planed down to the minute, but that doesn’t mean it actually happens as scheduled. Segments may run long, stars to be interviewed may be late. While I was observing, Parker Posey (Starring in “Irrational Man”) was delayed and her time ran into time that was for Simon Pegg (“Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation”). Thompson decided to interview them together, and for a time Pegg interviewed Posey. Live radio at its best, though it could have turned into a real fail had the stars not been so gracious to each other.
The main studio features screens everywhere. Direct access to the internet, the main program screen which controls the music and commercials played (a computer version of the old cart system for radio old-timers), a television showing current news and a web-cam enabled computer that normally acts as the feed for Thompson when he’s back home in Charlotte. Andy Chanley runs the main board, Gina Grad (who has one of the most infectious laughs I have ever heard) is constantly able to look up information via her own iPad, and even Thompson is constantly checking things on the net or via the show notes he keeps in a pile in front of him.
Things you may not know:
• Little is discussed ahead of time, other than what comes up next. Thompson calls it “improv radio,” even as he claims to hate improv.
• The show actually only runs until 9; the 9-10 a.m. hour is a “best of” from each morning’s program. “We found that the typical listener listens for a very short time,” says Thompson, “and the audience in later hours is totally different than the earlier hours.”
• Even the end of the program, where the show is “turned over” to “Uncle” Joe Benson at 10 a.m., is pre-recorded before hand, in a different studio. That the entire thing is seamless is a testament to the talent of the producers and modern computer-based recording equipment.
My take on the whole thing: Thompson, Grad, and Chanley may be the most interesting -- and intelligent -- program of its type on the radio.
I had hoped to blame my editor, but alas, it was all my fault. Reader Ralph Westfall asked, “Saw your column in the Long Beach paper. It didn't say how serving Southern California for 93 years correlated with a 47th anniversary. Maybe like a guy in a bad marriage? Joking...”
As I said, it is my fault. I should have said KNX is celebrating its 47th year as an all-news station, though it went on the air in 1922.