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Dangers of that live mic

Television viewers of a certain age would remember an RTÉ light entertainment show called The Live Mike. As well as showcasing the considerable comedic talents of its eponymous host Mike Murphy, it launched the career of the late Dermot Morgan, star of Father Ted.

A pity, then, that its title didn't become part of its legacy. For if a felon's greatest crime is getting caught, then a broadcaster's greatest weakness is forgetting that your best friend, the very thing that puts you on the air, has an absolute ability to bring you down in flames.

In the way of a gunsmith who'll tell you to treat every firearm as if it's loaded, I got my riding instructions early on. Respect your microphone, was the mantra, handle with care. Think of it always as live.

It's a discipline that can be hard to employ in the heat of the moment. Back in the early days of RTÉ's Olympic coverage, some commentary would come, by arrangement, from the BBC. It worked like clockwork until an event on the track clashed with their News from London.

Though the athletics was no longer live on the BBC, the commentary continued for highlights later, but nobody told the men with the mics they still had an audience in Ireland. A false start provoked a colourful outburst that would not normally have been heard on air. The phones were hopping in Donnybrook.

Something similar befell a young radio journalist whose fledgling career nearly went up in smoke as a result. A rushed report was being filed by phone for inclusion in a news bulletin that was about to begin.

Just as well it wasn't live, for the correspondent in question fluffed his lines halfway through, blurted out "S**t, I' ll have to do that again," and went back to the top.

Trouble was, in the confusion back at base, the necessary edit never took place and our man's contribution went out in all its glory, false start and four-letter word included.

The trick in those circumstances is to say nothing, and start again. The worst that can happen then is that you sound like an eejit for saying the same thing twice.

A colleague from my radio days in London certainly knew the value of silence. On the way to the studio to read the 15-minute sports bulletin that was part of the teatime music show, he stopped off to answer a call of nature.

His arrival in front of the microphone was timed to perfection, but as his cue light flashed, the awful realisation dawned -- his quarter-hour of script was either in the bathroom or back on his desk. It certainly wasn't where it should have been.With great presence of mind, he sat shtum. The DJ resumed with honeyed words about a technical hitch, played another disc, the script was located, and the bulletin began, just a little late.

Outside broadcasts can provide a rich harvest of the unexpected. The adrenalin rush, the sustained concentration, the excitement of the event itself -- when it's over, a collective sigh of satisfaction, then the trusty lip mic that's done its duty, clamped to your face, is carefully laid down. But not always turned off.

The boxing boys in Beijing had just completed their session when they were joined at their post ringside by a North American coaching acquaintance who wasn't best pleased with what he'd seen. The invective that he let fly was picked up by the still live mics, sufficiently clearly to prompt call and letters of complaint.

You can't forget, either, that even if the mic isn't live to air, it could still be picked up somewhere. Many's the laugh we've had, high in one foreign grandstand or another, hearing the banter from the studio floor back at base.

By and large, though, broadcasters are a disciplined bunch and what gets on the air is what's meant to be there . . . most of the time. Of course, there's the odd slip. The magazine Private Eye has run its Colemanballs column in their honour for decades.

It was David Coleman, the now retired BBC commentator, whose occasional verbal gaffes inspired it. Closer to home, we have dangerhere.com. In general, there's no malice aforethought, tongues just become a little twisted.

There is an element of "there but for the grace of God" about all of this. Everybody's had a moment of one sort or another.

My nemesis was a track event, the final of the Women's 800m in Seoul, six Olympics ago. Back then, before the Fall of the Wall, the shorter distances were dominated by women from the old German Democratic Republic.

The year before the Seoul Olympics, 1987, two East Germans had fought it out in Rome for the right to be champion of the world. One was blonde, the other brunette. You couldn't possibly mix them up. Or could you?

Cometh the hour, I came a cropper. Right through the second of the two laps, live from South Korea, I had the world champion in front, till the challenge came in the final straight, and the Rome result was reversed as Christine Wachtel took her revenge for the year before on her compatriot Sigrun Wodars. Wachtel the blonde, Wodars the brunette.

After they'd crossed the line, the screen filled, as usual, with a close-up of the winner. . . the dark-haired one! There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. That second golden rule of broadcasting came into play -- if you're in a hole, stop digging, or, in other words, shut up.

Thankfully, most of my blushes were spared by the fact that the event took place in the middle of the Irish night, when the audience was small. By the time Bill O'Herlihy introduced a recording of the race in the breakfast round-up the following morning, the deft editing skills of our colleague Niall Cogley had made the thing presentable.

Come to think of it, it would have sat well as a sketch in Mike Murphy's old show.

Which deserves to live on in its title as a watchword for broadcasters -- beware The Live Mike.

Indo Review