At 5 a.m. each weekday, I show up at work with five hours of live radio ahead of me — four hours of NPR’s Morning Edition and one hour of the BBC World Service’s Newshour.

In my last post, I described how live feeds of these programs are made available to WAMU. But our goal is not just to rebroadcast these programs out to our audience; we want to insert local content like newscasts, feature stories, weather, promos, and underwriting.

So how do we seamlessly and cohesively insert all this local content within these national programs? This is where program clocks come in.

The clocks for Morning Edition and All Things Considered are arranged quite differently. Source: Capital Public Radio

The clocks for Morning Edition and All Things Considered are arranged quite differently.
Source: Capital Public Radio

What Are The Program Clocks?
Nearly every public radio show has a specific routine not only for when the show starts and ends, but when each segment starts and ends, and when specific elements within the shows are supposed to occur. To convey all this information to stations in a clear way, networks create a “clock” — a graphical pie chart laid out similarly to an analog clock, showing the relative lengths and specific start/end times of each critical element of the show. These elements can include when segments occur, when local breaks are scheduled, and when embedded newscasts and national funding credits take place.

Some clocks are relatively simple. For instance, on a national talk show like The Diane Rehm Show, there are just three segments with a short one-minute break in between them, since the focus is on the full hour of conversation across the show. Aside from airing some local promos and underwriting during the short breaks, member stations aren’t going to alter the national show much if at all.

However, Morning Edition has a complicated clock with a LOT of segments, newscasts, and local breaks, because the program is designed for stations to be able to customize it to some extent to cater to their local audience.

The program clock that controls Morning Edition. Source: NPR

The program clock that controls Morning Edition.
Source: NPR

Examining the Morning Edition Clock
Morning Edition is a two-hour show that broadcasts live between 5-7 a.m. Eastern time. The show then repeats several times through the morning (these repeats are called “rollovers”), until noon, allowing stations to cover all of their morning drive, and allowing the later rollovers of the show to serve stations on the West Coast. Of course, NPR will make updates to these rollovers to fix errors from the live feed, and to insert updates to breaking news.

Each hour of Morning Edition follows the same clock, which contains five segments per hour. These segments get referred to by a letter and the hour of the show, i.e. the A1 segment starts at 5:07:30 a.m. and repeats at 7:07:30 a.m. Each segment can have one long story, or sometimes two or three stories.

NPR also feeds national newscasts within the show, and these are updated live every hour. In fact, NPR produces an hourly newscast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which feeds from :01 past the hour to :06 past the hour. This newscast is embedded in most NPR programs, including Morning Edition. There is also a cutaway in the middle of the newscast at :04 past the hour, which enables stations to choose to break away from the national newscast and air local news.

Morning Edition also contains short, 90-second national newscasts at :19 and :42 past the hour. These only air within Morning Edition and are intended to provide quick recaps of the current headlines for listeners who are only tuning in briefly, since listeners tend to listen for shorter lengths of time during morning drive than they do later in the day.

The clock also indicates where NPR inserts national funding credits, which partially subsidize the cost of the show. All of these credits are fed within the show at set times and must be aired by local stations. However, some of the credits can be shifted around within a range of time within the hour, which accommodates stations airing local content. For example, the D segment of Morning Edition is a short 4-minute segment which many local stations will frequently replace with a long-form local story. As such, those stations have the flexibility to air the funding credit that would normally precede the D segment at a more convenient time. (NPR also provides audio recordings of all their funding credits to stations to play locally for this reason.)

Finally, the clock indicates several places within the hour where NPR feeds a music bed for filler. These are all opportunities for local stations to air breaks including promos, local underwriting, news and weather updates, etc.

So What?
Knowing the network clock for the shows that I work on is important, and eventually the time-posts that I rely on become second-nature. But the clocks only tell us what the network is doing. As the local broadcast engineer on Morning Edition, I work with our local anchor to figure out how to make the clock work for us.

So, how do we do that? More on that in part 3.

P.S. Public radio stations do take the clocks really seriously.