Backstage at A Prairie Home Companion
A look backstage at one of America's most-loved radio programs
With the broadcast mix engineers sitting on stage - right next to the production - much of the broadcast mix is prepared while listening to headphones. There are monitors over the console, but they can't be turned up too loud during the show. Some monitoring and mixing is handled on the speakers, mainly so Hudson and Scheuzger can save their hearing from non-stop headphone use. But their experience also comes into play to create the broadcast mix. The broadcast engineers have been involved in the production long enough to have a good feel about where to set levels.
However, headphones do have one advantage: They are a consistent point of reference. When the production takes to the road, the listening/mixing environment changes. In these cases, the headphones provide a known listening environment.
There is a sound booth in the back of the hall, and for years, the broadcast mix was created in this booth. While this provided a more ideal mixing environment, it restricted communication between Keillor, who makes changes as needed on the fly, and the broadcast feed. The broadcast mix position was moved to the stage for one production because of some specific set up need, and it has stayed there ever since.
During the rehearsal, I watched an ongoing stream of program revisions come through. There's a printer in the racks behind the broadcast mix, and production assistants have temporary setups on stage right during rehearsal to accommodate the regular changes. The fine-tuning goes on continuously.
The crew rehearses on Friday to run through the material for the Saturday night broadcast. Those segments are not in order of the final show, but they provide the technical crew a chance to hear segments and set preliminary mixer scenes. After this run-through, scripts are edited and tweaked for the rehearsal on Saturday afternoon, and a rough program order is created. But even during the Saturday rehearsal, the scripts are tweaked up to (and even sometimes during) show time.
The final broadcast program order is set about an hour before air time. And while the order is set, it's not easy to know how a live audience will react. Also, the pace of a scripted piece may go faster for the live audience. Sometimes elements are cut, sometimes elements are added back in. The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band has a song or two at the ready if needed. For the broadcast I attended, the show's musical guest, Nick Lowe, had four songs prepared, three of which were sure to be on the program. The fourth was a standby if it was needed. Lowe ended up playing all four songs.
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