Wednesday, 19 September 2012

On the Mic - Surrey Life - September 2012

Here is my September column for Surrey Life magazine. An ode to my BBC microphone. 

I rather like my microphone. Not the studio one at BBC Surrey, but my reporter mic. 

It’s gun-metal grey, about eight inches long, perfectly balanced and heavy, with a rigid metal mesh protecting the business end. It has presence. And it’s very, very good at doing what it does.

My microphone was issued to me when I got a new job at the BBC, with all the ceremony a bored studio engineer could muster. 

For him it was just another bit of kit. For me it was a symbolic moment. I had somehow managed to wangle an on-air gig at the greatest broadcast organisation in the world. 

I went down on one knee, bowed my head and raised my palms upwards.

“Don’t be a cretin, Wallis.” said the bored engineer, putting the cold graphite wand in my hand. “And don’t break it.”

That was more than eight years ago. In that time I have used the same microphone to interview Bruce Willis, Halle Berry, David Cameron, David Attenborough, Mick Jagger, Madonna, Jarvis Cocker, Amy Winehouse, Dame Judi Dench and a couple of hundred other high-profile people. I have taken it into the penthouses and bowels of almost every five star hotel and crummy music dive in London. It has faithfully recorded the musings of politicians, actors, sports stars, broadcasters, doctors, nurses, farmers, protestors, firefighters, police officers, chefs, comedians, soldiers, teachers, students, parents, children and completely random passers-by. It has heard tales of heartbreak, outrage, injustice and joy. 

More than anything else it has become my passport to a conversation with the single most interesting person in the room. And it hasn’t let me down once.

All things must pass

Several hundred years ago, when I started out, reporters would struggle out to jobs with "portable" analogue reel-to-reel tape machines. These recorders were encased in sharp-edged, solid wooden boxes and weighed so much they had to be strapped to the side of a horse. 

Then along came DAT. DAT recorders had user interfaces inspired by the sleek, black obelisks in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It meant your machine might be switched on and might have recorded your interview in perfect digital quality, but there was no way of actually knowing this. Or ever finding out where inside the machine your interview might be. 

Now we’re in the future. When I arrived at BBC Surrey, I was presented with a heavy duty reporter microphone very similar to my own. Except this one had a solid state mp3 recorder inside it. No wires, no fuss. 

Three years on, we don’t even need to attach our micro-mp3 recorders to the insides of chunky specialist kit. The mic on a smartphone can do the job. And a smartphone, with the right app and a few sweeps of the finger, can edit, convert and dispatch an interview back to base for immediate transmission before slotting back into your jacket pocket.

Very cool. But I’m still using my old microphone. 

I like it. It doesn’t crash, freeze, run out of battery or make me feel faintly ridiculous when I’m holding it under someone’s nose (try interviewing someone with a phone and you’ll see what I mean). But that’s not really why I prefer it.

With modern technology nowadays, we can all be reporters. I like my BBC microphone because it makes me feel like one.


October's edition of Surrey Life is on sale now, at £3.15 a snip. You can find some of my previous columns below:

August 2012 - on the Olympics
July 2012 - on being on holiday with three small children
June 2012 - on joining a gym
May 2012 - on making live radio
April 2012 - on being ill

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