Without a doubt, one of the most obnoxious jobs on any set is the “walkie PA.”
It’s not like handling the walkies is your entire job; in fact, that’s part of the problem. Checking walkies in and out, getting them repaired, trading out headsets– these things take up a significant amount of your day, yet you’re also still expected to do the same PA things everyone else does, like locking up, checking out actors, and grabbing coffee.
It’s a job nobody wants; I’ve never seen anyone volunteer for it. With good reason.
If you’ve never done it, here’s what being the Walkie PA involves: A few days before production, you label every single walkie (you probably have over a hundred) with white gaff tape. This is so everyone can write their name and/or department on the walkie, in case they lose it somewhere.
You also need to make a chart, listing off the serial number of every walkie you have. Some rental places are nice enough to etch these numbers into the front of the radio; others, you’ll have to take the battery off each one to find the number inside.
When you hand out the walkies, ideally, you should write each person’s name next to the specific walkie you gave them. More likely, you’ll just have batches of 4 to 10 marked for an entire department.
The reason you need to keep such careful track is that walkies are incredibly expensive. Like $800. You want to assure the crew that if a walkie goes missing, you know who lost (or, sadly, stole) it.
The same goes for headsets. They’re not quite as expensive, but still, spread out across an entire crew, you don’t want to lose a lot.
Headsets also become an issue when you’re passing them out at the start of the show. You see, there are two types: surveillance headsets (the kind Secret Service agents wear), and what are known colloquially as “Burger King headsets.”
I’ve also heard these referred to as, variously, “Justin Timberlakes,” “Janet Jacksons,” and “Britney Spears.” I don’t know if these are meant to be complimentary or not…
In any case, besides being dumb looking, they’re uncomfortable, and tend to fall off while you’re working, which can vary from annoying to dangerous. Also, they look dumb.
Nobody wants them, but they happen to be cheaper.1 So, productions will rent as many of these as they can possibly get away with. The walkie PA is then left in the awkward position of telling people, no, you can’t have the comfortable and useful mic; here’s one that makes you look like an $8-an-hour high school drop out.
The PA I’ve been talking about this whole time is a set PA. She’ll do the inventory, pass out the walkies, swap out broken ones for new ones.
But the set PA probably has only a day or two of wrap, if that. Other departments will be sticking around for a couple weeks or more, and they’ll continue to need their walkies and headsets.
This means it falls on the office PA to take stock of the walkies as they get returned. If you’re extremely lucky, the set PA has taken meticulous notes of each walkie that’s been traded out, by whom, on what date, and so on. Every single walkie you get back will be on your list, and every walkie on the list will come back.
In the real world, this rarely happens. Which is not necessarily a reflection on the set PA. Like their AD overlords, set PAs are under a lot of pressure. Over the course of 22 episodes, it’s not surprising they missed a swapped walkie or two.
Which is not to say this isn’t frustrating. You’ll end up spending hours going from department to department, trying to track down that one, single, missing walkie, only to find that it got swapped out back in November. Also, the grips somehow have an extra walkie that came from a different rental house, but they’ve been using it all season, so it must be ours, right?
It’s all very confusing and unfortunate. The thing to remember is that it’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just the situation.
Not that producers understand that. I’ve been reamed on many occasions for “losing” walkies, despite the fact that I came on in the middle of production, and the previous PA hadn’t even made a check list to begin with.
One producer even threatened to dock my pay for the replacement cost of the walkies. This would turn out to be several weeks’ work, for those of you who are bad at math or don’t know how little I’m paid. Turns out, though, this is completely illegal, and the UPM came to my defense. Not everyone in this business is a jerk.