From mutter-box to megabyte - how radio has changed in 15 years
Nearly fifteen years have gone by since I made my first programme for Radio Prague. It was about Czech Cubist architecture, and I interviewed the rector of Prague's architecture faculty, lugging my huge, heavy recording equipment to the fourteenth floor. If you'd asked me about digital recording at the time, in my mind I would probably have conjured up a pianola reel.
Such have been the huge changes in radio technology in the last few years, and so much more so in a country trapped for decades in a technology time-warp.
In the course of my first years at Radio Prague in the early 90s, I never recall seeing a computer. In time a few trickled into the offices of our bigger bosses. Then suddenly, a Czech-American colleague called Nora, started badgering us with her new-fangled Californian ideas about this thing called the Internet. We were all very sceptical, until one day she turned up with a big box with lights and wires, and told us it was called a server. An ambitious small Czech company had leant it to us, and no-one from the radio's management even knew about it. That was how Radio Prague online was born.
We used to write our stories on heavy, no-nonsense Soviet typewriters. Because we had to have three copies - all signed by the big boss, just as in the old days - we would get through huge quantities of carbon paper that made everything grubby and smudged, and all our edits were scribbled in using a pencil or biro.
Our news stories would come from the "dalnopis", a rattling Heath Robinson contraption at the end of the corridor, that would spit out an average of about two five-line stories an hour. This was our only information source, so being on news duty was a pretty easy shift, and "breaking news" was an alien concept.
Today it could hardly be more different. As we sit compiling news at our PCs we are bombarded with thousands of different sources. Headlines hit our screens as events happen, and we have to work fast.
The craft of radio has changed even more. No longer does everything have to be transferred onto bulky quarter-inch tape. Working with a razor-blade and sticky-tape, by the time you had edited an interview you would be surrounded by a veritable spaghetti of discarded fragments of sound. As we got more experienced, we learned to hang on to a breath or a bit of background sound - usually just a couple of inches of tape - to insert somewhere to hide an awkward edit. The real radio veterans would work through a tape with the deftness of a weaver.
Today the same process takes just a few minutes on the computer. If you get an edit wrong, you just press the "undo" button, and if you want you can mix half a dozen different sounds together effortlessly, a process that used to require a studio, a whole battalion of tape recorders and a mixing desk that looked like a prop from a 1960s sci-fi film.
The other extraordinary change is how we get sound from place to place. When I was filing from Prague for the BBC in London in the mid-1990s, I used to send my reports on reels of quarter-inch tape that I would stick into a large padded envelope, and send off on a wing and a prayer by courier to London. I would also use that most wonderful machine known as the "mutter box". It was like something from a Cold War spy kit, and made it possible to attach your recording equipment to a phone line - by carefully unscrewing the receiver and fixing crocodile clips to the wires inside.
Now you can send sounds and pictures and probably even the kitchen sink - broken down into bytes and pixels - anywhere in the world at the click of a mouse, and wait as it flies through cyberspace. If our colleagues in Warsaw or Bratislava want to send us an interview, all they have to do is upload it as a sound file for us to pick up. It is this kind of technology that has made international co-productions like our weekly magazine Insight Central Europe possible, and it's easy to forget that only five years or so the technology wasn't even available.
So have we lost anything on the way? Well, maybe one thing has gone for ever - that sense of experience and adventure, as you go into the old green baize studio, shut the heavy door behind you and wait for the red light to come on. Cyberspace and megabytes can't really compete with that ultimate radio experience.