My friend Mark Evanier in Los Angeles asked on his blog today why Dodgers games on the radio are now out of sync with the live event:
Is it being done intentionally to discourage people from listening to Vin Scully on the radio while they watch the game at the stadium or on TV? I can’t imagine why Vin Scully would need to be broadcast on a delay, nor can I fathom why anyone would care if you listened to him this way. Can anyone clear this up for me?
A reader named Dave Sikula wrote to Mark and explained that the game (and all other live programming) is on delay because radio owners are afraid a prohibited word will be accidentally aired and they’ll be fined by the FCC.
That’s true, but it’s not the complete answer. There’s also the technical matter of broadcasting in HD.
Although the technology hasn’t really caught on with consumers, most AM and FM stations in the major markets now have an HD signal, and the digital processing inherent in transmitting that signal creates an extra delay of just over 8 seconds. So, even if there were no content-control delay, you still wouldn’t be hearing Vin Scully’s call of the Dodgers game in real time. And when you hear the top of the hour tone on my show just before the hourly newscast, the combination of the two delays puts that tone some 14 seconds after the true top of the hour.
However, there’s one positive side effect of the HD signal for those of us doing the shows with airborne traffic reports. Before, when we were only using the content-control delay (the one with the “dump” button that we very rarely had to use), we couldn’t go to the guys who do our traffic reports from a helicopter and a plane without coming out of delay. They were monitoring the over-the-air signal, and if we kept them in delay, they’d hear their own voices coming back at them several seconds later and likely spiral out of the sky and into the Earth. To avoid that nasty scenario, I had to pause each time while we dumped out of delay, then introduced them, had them do the reports, and then we’d start building up the delay again during a commercial break so it was there when I went back to taking phone calls or whatever.
Now here’s the benefit of the HD signal — even on AM, it comes with a sideband signal that we use to send them a pre-delay audio feed directly from the studio, which we couldn’t do before, and which they hear through an HD receiver. That way, we never have to dump out of delay and they still get to hear everything we’re doing in the studio as it happens. Considering we do “traffic and weather together every ten minutes” in the last two hours of my show, that’s a dozen times a day we no longer have to worry about going in and out of delay. On the other hand, it means that when they describe an accident they’ve just spotted on Highway 40, you won’t know about it until 14 seconds later.
Note that there is an even longer delay when you listen to my show live online because that digital processing of the streaming audio takes even more time.
Interestingly, many people with Dish Network or Direct TV were already out of the loop when it came to watching games on TV with the sound down so they could hear their favorite radio play-by-play guy describe the action. There’s a delay inherent in the signals bouncing to and from the TV satellites that would add a couple of seconds, too. Radio broadcasts are almost all done via ISDN phone lines, which move the audio much more quickly. So, for instance, during a Rams game, you could hear Steven Jackson go off-tackle and gain four yards, and just as the whistle blew at the end of the play, you’d see the play start on TV.
One other quick story. When I did mornings at WYNY/New York in the mid-80s with Rick Harris (no relation), NBC had never had a morning show that took listener calls on the FM station, and they were scared to death someone would say something wrong. Thus, we were prohibited from taking those calls live until they installed a delay unit. Rather than ordering a new stereo unit from Eventide, their engineers borrowed two mono units from our AM sister station WNBC, wired them in (one for the left channel, one for the right), and told us to go ahead and try it.
The next morning, when we began the show at 5:30am, we punched in the delay system and went about our normal morning silliness. In less than a minute, every hotline number on the phone bank was ringing like crazy. We were still talking on the air, listening to ourselves in pre-delay and thus didn’t know what was wrong, but it had to be something major, so we went to a commercial break quickly.
Off the air, Rick answered one hotline and I answered another, to find the chief engineer and the program director both yelling at us to dump out of delay immediately. It turned out that the two mono units weren’t slaved together, and their delay wasn’t in sync. None of the engineers had considered this possibility, and they hadn’t tested it on the air until that moment.
The effect was to create an echo from the left channel to the right channel that was unlistenable. We turned the units off completely and had to do yet another show with no live phone calls. Two days later, a stereo unit arrived, the engineers put it in, and everything worked just fine — except we had an airborne reporter then, too, which meant going in and out of delay all morning for his reports.
I was not all that surprised when NBC got out of the local radio business less than two years later.