Deeper Read: Breakfasters In Lockdown
From setting up makeshift home studios to upside-down webcam settings, Breakfasters’ Daniel Burt describes the highs and lows of co-presenting Triple R’s weekday morning show in trackies.
WORDS DANIEL BURT
A global pandemic causes one to take stock, and not just from supermarkets. The year 2020 – which is somehow both barrelling along and interminable – continues to provide ample opportunity for existential reflection. What is it in your life that you hold dear, or used to, before intimacy became punishable by the state? With greater dependence on screen time, is the distinction between work and leisure increasingly what liquid’s in your mug? And if an announcer is alone for months in a confined room with the only life-form present to listen being a suspicious mould patch on the ceiling, is it still technically an outside broadcast?
Amid the tumultuous year, Breakfasters and programs up and down the grid found a way of going on, albeit mutated like the virus that afflicts us. Sarah, Geraldine and I were early adopters of social distancing, regularly eschewing hugging or physical affection even before coronavirus. As concern intensified, so did precautions. Wearing gloves made us look less like we were performing radio than radiology. Calls into the studio began to seem ominous, as answering might mean picking up more than the phone. Guests once welcomed warmly were greeted instead with an awkward elbow bump, or foot tap, before being banished from the room altogether.
Soon after, we spread across two studios, with regular contributors and guests phoning in – a setup which rendered conversing as a group during songs impossible. The opportunity to share spontaneous trivia, gossip and off-air inanities might not seem, by definition, important, but its absence – like in any workplace – was keenly felt. Although the three of us were separated only by the length of a corridor, it turns out running commentary is not actually worth running for.
Anticipating the rule that “if you can work from home, you must work from home”, preparations began on transitioning to makeshift studios. Triple R IT savant Jack Knight took my disinfected box of miscellaneous cables, microphones, computer hardware, audio equipment and set to work Frankensteining my home setup. I watched in awe as he meticulously and over days troubleshooted an impressive supply of technical issues, always with an eye to creating an easy-to-use system and replicating as best he could the studio experience. The fact that I could bring all his hard work and the show undone with a single spilled coffee is in part what makes live radio so exciting.
As with most workers at home in isolation, the first to go was the pants, then the shoes – replaced most mornings with a tracksuit and ugg boots. During the show I also kept the door shut, the blinds drawn and the lights off, my face illuminated by the dim glow of computer monitors. While this made me appear over webcam as some kind of basement-dwelling UFO truther, my instinct was to eliminate all distractions to better focus on the people and tasks that make up the program. This attempt at sensory deprivation was also to trick myself into believing that there remained a certain performative glitz, as opposed to the more provable reality that I was hunched solo on a hot mic in the space where I usually do my taxes.
Another domestic variable was our newborn Gabriel, nicknamed Chubfish in utero, who had since gotten into the swing of these strange quarantimes by waking up in the middle of the night crying. Fortunately in lockdown, he has been conspicuously sweet-natured and only demanding after 9am, when he is often plonked on my lap for nappy-changing even before the outro theme has stopped.
More disruptive has been the inevitable wifi and tech hiccups that can befall Breakfasters in ways and in moments you least expect. There was the morning when Geraldine and I couldn’t hear Sarah, but Sarah could hear us, and the listener could hear everything. Listening back to what sounds like us icing out Sarah on-air is the most accidentally rude I’ve ever been. There was the wave of panic when my usually reliable microphone inexplicably failed until I fluked a workaround 30 minutes into the show. Or the time when my laptop display was upside down, which we soon fixed, but the camera remained flipped so I appeared to others as dangling like a bat from above. Throughout the morning, Geraldine winced, expecting a mess every time she saw me sip from a drink.
One of the prominent drawbacks of our new remote processes is the diminished music, which can’t be heard with any enjoyment or clarity through headphones at home. Marking the start of the show, the Graveyarders were gradually phased out, compounding the isolation. Ordinarily by 9am, I had caught up with friends, met new and interesting people, was buzzing having learnt a whole lot and got a music fix. Now, there was something maudlin at the end of a show, the cold finality of hanging up a video call as opposed to walking out of the studio together. Moreover, previously innocuous coughs could now portend the start of a cluster. Did a day off signal a positive diagnosis? If a loss of taste is a symptom, am I sick or was that just a crap sandwich? Like microscopic speech droplets, much of our routine was up in the air.
Our universes shrank as coronavirus consumed everything. Split in lockdown between Brunswick East, South Gippsland and me having relocated to the Mornington Peninsula, talk breaks necessarily lingered on Where Have You Been What Have You Seen, measuring iso-privilege and the banalities of home taking on exaggerated importance. The immense volume of information locally and around the globe saw every news item and media segment dedicated to COVID. Guests gave an insight into how artists, institutions and industries were adapting. Nerves were fraying, but the regular contributors and the station as a whole was there as a totem to normalcy – as much for the benefit of listeners as for ourselves.
A lot of collective reflection rests on what changes to our lives and practices might, or should, take hold. One lesson about this experiment in remote broadcasting, forged through unprecedented circumstances, is simply that we’ve proven to each other that we can. At some point, that’s going to have to be celebrated. Preferably one day not over Zoom.
Daniel Burt co-hosts Breakfasters, on air Mondays to Fridays from 6am to 9am. This article originally appeared in The Trip, Triple R's triannual subscriber magazine.