There was a bit of noise about dead air recently on ADN that reminded me of one of the best bits of the recent Hearsay 2015 audio festival in Ireland. Dead air, in case you didn't know, is silence, usually on broadcast radio, but the term has been adopted for podcasts, which is radio to all intents and purposes. It is far more prevalent in podcasts because people can be very lazy about going back and doing even cursory editing to get rid of those long pauses while someone thinks of something witty to say.
Anyway, this bit I was reminded of was a session called Musings on Music, and was presented by Sarah Blake and Ronan Kelly, both professional radio people with RTE, the Irish national broadcaster. They presented clips from stories and we talked about the kind of music that might be appropriate, or not, and then listened to their individual approaches to adding music to those clips. It was fun, and informative.
Dead air came up in a discussion of a story that Sarah had made, following a chap with possible sleep apnoea as he spent a night in a sleep laboratory. You could hear him gently breathing, snuffling occasionally, and then he stops breathing, I forget for how long, maybe 45 seconds or thereabouts. And just listening to the clip, with no music, was pretty astonishing, because you hold your breath, and you hold your breath, and you hold your breath and still the chap hasn't made a sound. Very dramatic when he finally does gasp back to life.
So, here's the problem. Most broadcast transmitters actually have a dead air switch. After, I think, six or seven seconds of silence something trips and transmission switches automatically to a message or music. And the switch has no way of knowing that the silence is a bloke who has stopped breathing rather than a malfunction somewhere in the transmission chain.
What to do? Some kind of music or sound effect is absolutely necessary to keep the programme on air.
Here's where my memory fails me. I know there was talk of old-fashioned ticking alarm clocks and Satie-type piano noodling, but I cannot for the life of me remember the actual solution. I do remember that it worked, but not nearly as well as the dead air of someone not breathing.
C'est la vie.