Transmitting Stories: Then and Now

The wardrobe in the Beirut hotel room where the NPR crew worked was converted into a recording booth

hide captionThe wardrobe in the Beirut hotel room where the NPR crew worked was converted into a recording booth. Shrapnel had hit the room, causing a broken window and the gouge across the wardrobe door on the left.

Marty Kurcias, NPR

Covering the Siege of Beirut

Marty Kurcias was part of a three-person NPR crew that covered the Siege of Beirut 25 years ago, in the summer of 1982. Read his account of his time as audio engineer for the team that included a correspondent and a producer.

Using alligator clips to send recordings through the phone.

hide captionFor decades, this is how radio reporters hooked up to the telephone to transmit sound — by "clipping on" with alligator clips to the two metal prongs housed in the mouthpiece of a handset.

Marty Kurcias, NPR
A satellite phone

hide captionA satellite phone deployed in Baidoa, Somalia, in 1992.

Marty Kurcias, NPR
Tom Bullock files a piece from a roof in Baghdad in 2007.

hide captionNPR's Tom Bullock files a piece from a roof in Baghdad in 2007.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR

In 1982, during the Siege of Beirut, the state-of-the-art technology available for transmitting reports to NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., was more than 100 years old. It was invented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell: the telephone.

On NPR in those days, a good deal of what you heard in any given program was acquired via telephone, be it a reporter's story or an interview with an expert. There was simply no other way to get audio from distant locations in the timely manner required for a daily news program. The quality of the sound was always an issue, however, and NPR technicians expended a lot of effort to improve the intelligibility, using various filters and audio equalizers. International phone lines were inherently bad.

In Beirut, we had a little help from a device I brought called a Comrex, which attached to the phone and electronically manipulated the audio frequencies to improve the sound of our reports.

But the primary problem was getting a phone call through to NPR. There were a limited number of circuits from Beirut to the outside world, and it could take re-dialing for hours before you latched onto an available line. NPR would also be trying to dial in to us from Washington. Considerable angst was expended on this daily trial, because without a telephone line, all our efforts that day would be for naught. News rarely keeps until the next day.

The telephone let us down a few times and we were unable to transmit our stories. As luck would have it, the phones went out on the climactic day that the siege ended and PLO fighters started evacuating by ship.

It was a great day for sound, as part of the event included the guerillas shooting their guns into the air, a custom that often accompanies celebrations.

Faced with the hopeless phone situation, we decided I would leave the next day for Israel and file the story from the first working telephone I could find. Bill would stay behind to cover the imminent presidential election. Deb had already left for London a few days earlier.

I packed in a daze and the next day, set off south for the border with our driver of many weeks, Elie. The acquisition of a mandatory border pass resulted in detours and delays, such that making it to the border before it closed at 5 p.m. that day was in doubt. We came upon a long line of cars. An Israeli army convoy had been ambushed on the road up ahead and it was going to be a while before the road cleared.

Time ticked by and Elie became more and more concerned about his ability to get back to Beirut before a curfew closed down the road north. So we got out of the car and asked around, eventually finding someone who would take me to the border. Elie and I had an emotional goodbye and then he turned his trusty Mercedes around and headed back to Beirut.

The border had been kept open to allow the army convoy through, and my ride deposited me and my pile of equipment at the checkpoint. I passed through without incident, but my problems were not over yet. I had to get myself and this six-foot stack of audio gear and luggage to a working telephone. I trundled it to the side of the road and stuck out my thumb. To my amazement, someone stopped within a few minutes and delivered me to the nearby Gesher Haziv kibbutz, where I managed to secure the very last room in the guest house. The place was crawling with journalists.

I hastily unpacked the gear I needed and called in to NPR to file the story. A quirk of the hotel switchboard resulted in a maddening delay, but I finally got it sorted out and filed our story. Mission accomplished.

The telephone remained the primary means to file a story for another decade.

In 1992, NPR sent me to Somalia, where I pioneered our use of satellite phones. We sent audio up to a satellite, which was then downlinked in the United States and sent by ISDN (high-quality phone circuits) to our studios in Washington. The audio quality far surpassed a plain telephone and was a real breakthrough in the sound of NPR's foreign news coverage, freeing us from our dependence on telephone service.

At first, satellite phones were large and cumbersome and about the size of a footlocker. But, like most technologies we have seen over the past several decades, they soon became faster, smaller and cheaper. Today, our correspondents abroad use laptop computers containing software for everything they need to record and send their reports by satellite phone back to Washington.

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