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Walkie PA

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.

Fucking special editions.
Nobody wants walkies. Shotguns are WAY better.

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.”

Why is the girl in the car so happy? The cashier at the window is totally ignoring her order!
No crew member will ever be this happy if you give them one of these.

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…

I could've used a picture of Timberlake and Jackson, but I decided this was a family-friendly blog.
Totally a compliment.

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.

For this reason, some people buy their own surveillance mics. Also, if it’s yours, you know it’s clean. Or at least, dirty with your own ear gunk.2

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.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Well, actually, they don’t “happen” to be cheaper. They’re cheaper because nobody wants them. Supply and demand, people. It explains everything in life.
  2. Ew.
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7 Responses

  1. Hi, why not just have everyone use a Walkie Talkie app? Shameless plug: http://voicepingapp.com. If people use their own phones, maybe they wouldn’t lose them. Plus no need to return/sign out/sign in. Most walkie talkies apps work with headsets too.

    Only problem is that everyone must have a supported phone with data plan. Or maybe just have 20 sets for these who really do not have these devices.

  2. I’d never been on a set with a dedicated walkie PA before until last November. Actually he was the production truck driver, and was responsible for the the pop up tents, propane heaters, tables, chairs, coolers, putt-putts, and the walkies.

    I remember meeting him for the first time. He stood at the tailgate of his truck, and pointed to the open pelican case full of walkies.

    “Walkies here.”

    He then gestured to the slats inside the truck to which he’d clipped all the spare batteries.

    “Hot bricks – up. ” He pointed to the higher slat.

    “Dead bricks – down” He pointed to the lower of the two slats.

    Then he went into his truck and napped.

    He was part of the LA crew here on a brisk morning in San Francisco. I asked another SoCal PA if this behavior was normal.

    “The first thing he says on any job is ‘I don’t do lock ups, I don’t do crafty, I don’t do runs. I sit in my truck and if you need something from it I’ll bring it out,’ ” came the response. “He keeps getting work…”

    *********

    Later that same month, I got a job driving a production cube for a weeklong shoot. Little did I know that just because I drove it I would be solely responsible for its contents. That is how I found out I was walkie PA.

    I’m sorry, but it is incredibly hard to keep track of the walkies for even a single day, while juggling all the other PA responsibilities. I managed to do a checkout sheet the first day….after that it was all downhill. I got a very interesting L&D email after we wrapped….

  3. Burger King headsets are fine for people who sit or just stand in one spot all day long, but for everyone else — which pretty much means everybody on the shooting crew — they’re a complete pain in the ass. For juicers and grips, the walkie-to-headset cable on a BK headset constantly gets hung up on equipment while we’re working, making a hard job that much harder. Eventually the headset gets damaged or thrown away in a fit of rage… which is why I don’t know any juicers or grips without their own personal surveillance earphones. You can spend eighty to a hundred bucks on one from a reputable retailer or twenty bucks from one of those mysterious individuals who periodically make the studio rounds with a bag full of cheapo CIA-style headsets — I’ve used both, and haven’t found much difference. Given the beating they take day in and day out, I’d be reluctant to invest a hundred dollars in one — but that’s just me.

    The best headset, of course, is no headset at all — I hate the goddamned things, and walkie-talkies in general. Back in the good old/bad old days, the only time I got saddled with a radio was up in a condor while manning a BFL all night long. Down on set, the crew yelled and/or used hand signals, but those days are gone for good. Life on set is a much more complex world nowadays.

  4. sounds so incredibly backward as a process. Check in, check out. Too much paperwork also (hence the mistakes). Surely, one day a PA will come along and revolutionize that, and make it a faster, more efficient and accurate process that will be a lot less painful for you all. Until then, I await the day….

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