it's sports, news or general talk, all that jabber presents some
interesting challenges to the engineer responsible for maintaining a
good and intelligible sound. Some of the more common problems have
easily obtainable solutions in the talk radio venue. A station's sound
is its signature, and a format based on the most versatile instrument
— the human voice — presents its own challenges to maintain
the quality sound with a variety of voices.
The first component of the signal chain is the microphone. This
single piece of equipment can make the most difference in obtaining a
quality sound. One common problem is that the more microphones that are
open in a room, the greater the chance for unwanted sound reflections
from walls, windows, tables and chairs. When combined, these
reflections create a hollow sound that sounds like the program is being
produced from the bottom of a well. This problem is amplified by guests
that speak softly and sit too far from the mic. Acoustic treatment can
help reduce the unwanted reflections, but this approach doesn't
eliminate the problem. In reality, a perfect acoustic room is not
practical or economically feasible. Education is the first line of
defense for poor mic technique. This is accomplished by having a good
cardioid mic, flexible mic booms and well-educated talk show hosts and
A directional microphone can reduce the unwanted reflections by
attenuating the sounds coming from of-axis sources. While a tight
directional pattern can be used, guests that are not comfortable on a
microphone may accidentally move outside the mic's pickup area. The
trade-off is to install mics with looser patterns for the guests,
followed by instruction of basic mic technique.
Producing a talk show from the road is now a simpler task thanks to
POTS and ISDN codecs and their associated data channels. Here, the
Carey Brothers of On the House and their guest Dom DeLuise use a Comrex
One weapon in reducing the well-like sound is an automatic
microphone mixer. The Shure FP410 or SCM810 are two examples. These
mixers will attenuate microphones not being used and are highly
transparent. When set up properly, the hollow sound is minimized if not
completely eliminated. The SCM810 also has a microphone mute connection
for each input, which is useful as a cough switch. The mixer is
initially set and rarely needs adjustment no matter what type of guest
speaker you have. There are rare occasions where guests do not have
good mic technique at all. However, even in these circumstances, the
resulting audio with the automatic mixer is still far superior than
without. Models such as the FP410 are ideal for remote talk shows.
Because it uses a noise-adaptive threshold, it takes into account
constant room noise and only turns on the microphone spoken into and
does not randomly turn on channels with room noise. This also reduces
feedback on a PA system used at a remote location.
Microphone processing, when used properly, can help achieve a good
overall sound. We tend to use one compressor/equalizer combination for
all the microphones instead of the traditional one processor per
microphone method. A sub-mix of the microphones is passed through the
processor. With an automatic mic mixer, the processor can be placed
directly on its output. Depending on a station's configuration, it may
be possible to route the mics into their own mix bus and process
through a patch point or via a return feed. This sounds like a long
path for the audio to travel but the results will prove to be
satisfactory. When using multiple microphone processors, particularly
in a small space, the unused microphones can increase the gain of the
unwanted, indirect sound. With multiple open mics, this can quickly
result in the hollow sound I mentioned earlier. Setting a gate or
expansion threshold on the processor can reduce or eliminate this, but
it may need to be set at a level that while high enough to eliminate
the hollow effect, it may produce unwanted effects when the mic is in
use. Soft-spoken people sound like their syllables are being clipped.
This problem is eliminated with one compressor. There are many good
processors on the market, and it will depend on the sound you and the
station are trying to achieve as to which one will be right for your
Go to the phones
On the other side of the talk-radio conversation is the caller.
Although your budget will determine what type of telephone hybrid you
use, a top-of-the-line one offers digital signal processing, auto
nulling, a gain-controlled caller output, caller equalization, and a
variable, full-duplex/half-duplex control. The typical talk format
spends about 40 minutes per hour talking with callers. This can easily
justify the expense of a quality hybrid. The DSP hybrid can achieve
superior send-audio rejection, making the caller audio cleaner without
the talk show host audio sounding like it has been phase-shifted and
flanged. A consistent caller output level is critical in a
good-sounding talk show. If you think of all the different types of
phones there are and the paths they take to get to the station, it is
easy to see why the caller level can vary so much. If anything, the
consistent level of audio from the caller will relieve the show's
producer from having to adjust the caller audio for every call.
Although equalization controls for the caller audio may seem
superfluous, it can help if you have especially noisy lines at your
station. Don't bother trying to obtain full-fidelity sound from the
caller. Plain old telephone service (POTS) lines are capable of 300Hz
to 3kHz bandwidth. You can sometimes get a better response, but the
typical response is small. The best you can do is make what you are
receiving sound better within the constraints of the telephone
company's bandwidth. The ability to adjust the hybrid from full-duplex
to half-duplex or anywhere in between can help to reduce unwanted noise
from callers while the host is speaking. A variable adjustment allows
you to adjust the hybrid's ducking response of the caller's audio from
none to all the way. It will also help when callers tend to be
argumentative and the host needs to maintain control of the show. The
host can maintain a level voice and easily override the caller.
Call screening software provides detailed information about the callers
and also supplies a quick communications path between host and
For the best results when conferencing multiple phone calls, use
separate hybrids. Most automatic nulling hybrids will adapt to two
phone lines when they are paralleled as long as the call director
issues a re-nulling command to the hybrid when the second line is
combined with the first one. Mashing multiple lines together works, but
as more lines are added the overall fidelity becomes worse. If multiple
calls are taken at the same time, invest in the proper tools and
install multiple hybrids.
It should be second nature for people in the communications business
to communicate and communicate well. All too often, communication to
the talk show host is sacrificed. This is a crucial part of the talk
show equation. First, some form of call screener software should be
employed. This can be as simple as two computers linked via the RS232
ports running a terminal emulator, to a full-blown network system
running commercially written call-screening software. Call Screener for
Windows from Condron Broadcast Engineering and Assistant Producer from
Telos Systems are two call-screener programs. The software communicates
with the call director to show which lines are on hold, which lines are
on-air and which lines are inactive at the moment. Most software
packages are made to run on a computer network so the information
entered into the system is immediately available to the talk show host.
The networking can also be accessed from a remote broadcast using
The host position should have clear sight lines to the guests, call
screener display and the show producer.
The second most important item in communicating with the talk show
host is IFB. Simple IFB systems can be constructed using a relay that
when activated by the producer, interrupts the audio in one ear of the
host's headphones. Commercial studio intercom systems are available.
Many audio routers have the ability to function as intercom/IFB systems
as well. In our configuration, the producer can talk to the host
whether he is in the studio or on a remote. During a remote, the
producer sees no operational change once the remote site dials in to
the IFB through a POTS line. Another benefit of using an intercom
system is that it is based on a cross-point switcher and any one of the
32 intercom stations can talk directly with the host. The newsroom can
now alert the host of late-breaking items without leaving the room.
Talk radio is a format with a uniqueness that is all its own. The
timely delivery of information is vital, and the communications between
show staff, listeners and the host are crucial. Out of the 40 or so
minutes of talk each hour, any silence can be deafening. Then it is up
to the technical staff to provide the tools so the conversation can
continue effortlessly and without interruption. Hopefully these tips
and techniques will keep your talk station from experiencing silence
for some time to come.
Tom Atkins is director of engineering for Entercom
Communications, Buffalo, NY.
Seven steps to better-sounding talk shows
- By doubling the distance from the source to mic you reduce the
audio level by one-half.
Keep this in mind when positioning mics and speakers to avoid
unwanted sound pickup and comb-filtering effects.
- Avoid giving guests headphones.
Headphones tend to make guests speak more softly and focus on the
sound of the voices instead of focusing on what is being said.
- Install a telephone speaker in the talk studio.
The speaker's level can be set to introduce minimal bleed into the
open microphones, but still provide a suitable level for guests to hear
- Provide a separate headphone feed for the host and
If the guests are given headphones, do not provide the same feed
that the host receives. The host headphones can be supplied with
communications from the show producer without distracting the
- Maintain clean site lines.
If guests are made to feel comfortable, they will speak more freely
and openly. Visual clutter from too many mic booms, monitors and other
equipment makes them feel closed in.
- Instruct everyone about proper mic technique.
Experienced hosts should already know this, but a refresher usually
helps. Don't inundate guests with too much information; give just
enough to keep them on mic.
- Solve acoustic problems acoustically.
Mic placement and technique are the first step in good sound. Avoid
the trap of installing more electronics to overcome an acoustic
problem. For example, instead of filtering the air conditioner rumble
it should be eliminated at the source.