Last Friday saw the closure of one of the smallest galleries within the Science Museum: 'On Air'. Sponsored by Capital FM, this featured a tiny radio studio and had a set of computers with some interactive software. Mostly, if you walked past it, you'd just see a bored-looking explainer (the museum's term for the staff who are on hand in the galleries to offer 'live interpretation') sitting at the desk playing music. If you went in and inquired, though, then the explainer would give you a ten minute demonstration of how the 'radio station' worked.
I only took part in this once - a few years ago, before I started working at the museum. I'd been working in student radio, at Rare FM, for a while, and so was pretty familiar with how radio stations worked. I was in the museum with my brother, and so, partly out of geek curiosity and partly, if I'm honest, to show off, I asked if we could both take part in the 'workshop'. The set up involved being given a loose script, choosing a couple of music tracks from a couple of compilation CDs, and then going into the sound-proofed booth where the mics were to do the 'broadcast'. Outside the small room, visible through the sound insulated glass window, the explainer would work the desk and cue you into the links.
I can't remember what the scripts were exactly, but I think there was a mock news bulletin (which my brother stumbled through), a weather report and some fairly standard 'that was'/'this is' links. Needless to say, I went off-script a bit and attempted to interview my brother, much to the amusement of a small audience of bystanders who gathered around staring through the glass at us gormlessly. To wrap up our piece, I remember introducing a track, and in an attempt to play up to the crowd, pretended it was a request by a small boy in a green T-shirt who was watching us. Startled, he ran away, shocked at the sudden switch from being the voyeur to having everyone look at him.
Coming out of the booth, the explainer played back the whole sequence to us from the DAT tape. I was fairly used to listening back to my own radio shows, but I know from having trained lots of new DJs that listening back to yourself can be entertaining, informative and mortifyingly embarrassing when you first do it. One of the differences between the workshop and the training sessions I used to run in the tiny Rare FM studio is that I was training people to become 'self-op' DJs, who have to drive their own broadcasting desks. This set up is fast becoming normal in professional radio too, as presenters become more technically adept and want more control of their own show. It must also be a lot cheaper, too, to not have to employ an extra person to do this role. The On Air workshops weren't really long enough to show people how to slide the faders and cue the music, but I imagine that a lot of people would have wanted a go. The Science Museum is known for having buttons to press, after all, and a mixing desk is full of enough knobs, faders and buttons to make any small child's eyes light up.
The computers lined up on the desks on the other side of the room ran an 'interactive' which let you do some basic music mixing, choosing instruments to layer onto a short composition. It probably seemed fairly dated now, when software like GarageBand is easily available, far more complex, and almost as easy to use, but I'm not sure how far back ago it was written.
On Air has been closed to make way for part of our new Launch Pad (the famous hands-on gallery that's currently in the basement). Some experimental podcast-based workshops are being trialled for school groups, but I doubt that the museum will ever have a gallery dedicated to radio broadcasting again. The radio DJ in me sees this as slightly sad, but with a low footfall, it was hardly the most popular gallery in the museum.
So long, On Air - let us look forward to the new Launch Pad instead.