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A tale of two radio stations

Technology has dramatically expanded the ways radio is transmitted and listened to. It has also changed how programmes are made, but despite this the radio station is much the same as it has always been. Yet there are subtle differences between small stations and big stations, as Kevin Hilton explains.

Technology has dramatically expanded the ways radio is transmitted and listened to. It has also changed how programmes are made, but despite this the radio station is much the same as it has always been. Yet there are subtle differences between small stations and big stations, as Kevin Hilton explains.

Ask most people to picture a radio studio and they’ll describe a DJ wearing headphones sitting in a room in front of a mixing desk, turntables either side, talking into a microphone. On the other side of a glass partition will be a (usually) uninterested engineer at a console, watching meters and occasionally adjusting a fader, while a producer at the back of the control room checks running orders, looks at stopwatches and drinks coffee.

This basic model goes back to the 1930s and has changed little over the years. The big change has come from the proliferation of radio stations, bringing services of different sizes and scale catering for sometimes very specialised or localised audiences. This can mean much smaller budgets for equipment, so while the kit used will not deviate hugely from the original template it will be tailored for its market and housed in smaller stations with fewer studios and most likely no control room.

So here is a rough, step-by-step guide to what goes in a radio station, comparing and contrasting the small local/community/college/hospital set-up (Small Scale) with the bigger local/metropolitan/regional/national group operation (Large Scale).

Incoming circuits
Small Scale: commercial services will usually receive feeds from independent news agencies over satellite links; in the UK this often means an Astra dish to receive signals from IRN (Independent Radio News). Codecs are most often used for incoming football reports – a key part of any local broadcast. If IP devices are too expensive there is the POTS (plain old telephone services) codec.

Large Scale: at this end of the market dedicated feeds between central broadcaster centres and news providers were the norm, but in these technologically aware and financially sensitive days that is less common. Andrew Riley, managing director of installation company Oxford Sound and Media, says he expects the permanent line/satellite feed to “die before too long”.

Increasingly the replacement is the standard FTP site. News clips and scripts are loaded up, allowing journalists to choose what they want to create in their own bulletins.

Broadcasters now favour MPLS (multi-protocol label switching) networks for incoming contribution lines, including sports commentaries and music concerts. These are managed connections running on ATM, IP or Ethernet, which are guaranteed in terms of service and reliability.

The phone-in remains an integral part of radio at all levels. Call-management systems can be built into the overall automation system but a widely used stand-alone device is PhoneBOX from Broadcast Bionics. This can handle IP, working with the SIP format, T1/E1, ISDN and analogue lines.

In this high-tech age the telephone hybrid might seem like an anachronism but this warhorse is still an efficient way of getting phone calls on air. Among the most popular is the range from Sonifex, comprising the analogue HY-03 and the digital DHY-03.

Despite its tenacity, Riley believes the end is in sight for the hybrid. “If telephony is coming in on voice over IP circuits then calls can be decoded inside a PC or switcher and then made available on the general network,” he explains.

Reports from journalists in the field are most likely to arrive attached to emails as WAV or MP3 files, or are sent to a general FTP site. Once material has come into a station it needs to be logged on a storage system, ready for journalists or producers to begin work.

Editing and storage
Small Scale: at this level stations tend to start out using hard disk storage. The PC wins over the Mac here because it is cheaper and more people will be familiar with the way it works from having one at home.
Free downloadable editing programs, notably Audacity, are popular, not just because they don’t cost anything but because they do the job. The Aviary suite of online editing and picture manipulation tools is also proving popular and, like Audacity, comes in multitrack versions.

Of the higher-end, paid-for cutting systems Adobe Audition and the LE version of Pro Tools are used for production work, but Andy Bantock of installation company Station Z sees these as the “next step”.

Large Scale: specialised editing equipment with local drives or networks are preferred by these stations. Adobe Audition, Pro Tools and even Audacity feature in news rooms and production suites, while an editing system that was designed specially for the radio market is SADiE. The latest version is SADiE 6, a native system. The first taker for it in the UK is Bournemouth University’s Media School. “Until now we have only been able to give our MA students the opportunity to learn SADiE,” comments Professor Sean Street, director of the Centre for Broadcasting History Research at the Media School. “But because this new software can run on existing computers and laptops, we will be able to teach this technology to all our radio students.”

Once programmes and voice clips have been edited they are loaded into the automation system alongside music tracks, promos and, if the station is commercial, the all-important adverts.

Automatic play-out systems
Small Scale: this technology might be thought to be either economically beyond the reach of this sector. On the contrary, says Bantock, automation is almost of greater importance to community stations because the volunteers that run them are not always able to be live on air all the time.

This is why voice tracking has proved invaluable for this end of the market. Presenters can pre-record
their links, load them into the automation computer and program it to broadcast a complete show on a specified date and time.

P Squared’s Myriad is as popular a choice for smaller stations as it is with their larger equivalents. WideOrbit, previously Google Radio, is aimed more specifically at the lower end. Another low-cost application is ZaraStudio, while there are many free programs that can be downloaded from the internet, including Rivendell, an open system developed and made available in a similar way to Audacity.

Large Scale: at its most extreme and computerised the technology can be a radio station in a broom cupboard; voice tracks are recorded in a small voice booth and then either put together with individual tracks and clips to create programmes, or simply link complete shows.

The BBC’s drama and comedy digital service Radio 7 is a prime example of this, while many other broadcasters use full automation for overnight transmissions.

Most commonly automation is used for “live assist”, with material triggered by a presenter. Among the systems favoured by Large Scale stations are Genesys, RCS Master Control, which incorporates the Selector music scheduler, ENCO DAD, Dalet, Netia, Radiomation, VCS Engineering’s dira!, the system that now runs BBC national radio, and the increasingly ubiquitous P Squared Myriad.

These are now about much more than playing out music. They are used in newsrooms and have applications for tracking commercials and all the business elements that go with them. Today’s radio automation has become a station-wide enterprise system, linked with the general IT infrastructure.

“The techniques of producing content and distributing it have changed drastically,” observes Raoul Cospen, director of marketing at Dalet Digital Media Systems. “A large organisation needs to save money and make better use of assets, distributing them to more platforms than radio, including the web and mobile phones.”

To cater for this Dalet introduced the Brio, an IT-based input and output video system. This works with the company’s established Enterprise Edition automation technology and is able to record or convert material in a range of formats and resolutions.

Dalet’s Radio Suite HD was recently installed across all channels broadcast by Radio Nacional de España (RNE) for both news and music production. This includes six music stations and covers 65 sites using more than 1,600 systems.

In France RTL Radio is using Netia’s Radio-Assist 8 software package to produce sound clips, news, music, jingles and commercials. The program is on approximately 300 workstations, allowing the broadcaster to centralise and automate its round-the-clock transmissions.

A major part of this is multimedia material, with video, images and text as well as audio, all identified and managed by metadata. Netia’s product director for audio and video, Mus Rezzoug, points to the increasing number of radio stations that are putting videos of interviews or performances on their websites, giving listeners an added dimension to what they’ve already heard.

“This part of the business is growing,” he says. “Radio stations are able to make money from different outlets and are using their websites as part of this. What they’re doing is not just about audio any more but video as well, so from the technology side we are giving them the right tools to manage pictures as well as sound.”

As the power of automation systems increases there is the chance that the traditional heart of the on-air radio studio, the mixing desk, will be swallowed up in the technology, with its job done by mix engines, matrixes and user interfaces. But for the time being the trusty old console retains pride of place.

Small Scale: this is the last bastion for analogue in an ever more digital world. Bantock says there are many reasons for this but the primary one is money. “Digital radio desks are still considerably more expensive than their analogue counterparts and it’s difficult to justify this to the accountants,” he comments.

The Alice AIR2000 and Series A are still in service with small-scale stations but other brands are now established in this market. D&R Broadcast offers a USB version of its Airmate desk, while the Sonifex S2, an analogue desk with digital inputs, is increasingly popular.

Sonifex supplies packages based around both the S2 and the S1, bundled with outboard equipment and an automation system, either P Squared Myriad or Auto Plus, distributed by Westcountry Broadcast.

The smart money is on community stations bypassing AES/EBU altogether and going straight to audio over IP. The leading supporter of this technology for consoles is Axia, which launched its latest, the iQ, during August.
European users of Axia Element desks include Irish “super-regional” FM station i105-107, based in Athlone, the historical home of radio in Ireland, and English commercial station 96.4 Eagle Radio, which covers Guildford and the surrounding area.

“The Element desks are easy to use, yet have a vast array of features making our lives that bit easier,” comments Peter Gordon, programme director of Eagle Radio. “The installation was quick and easy and IP networking saved us a fortune in cabling.”

Large Scale: the big boys are fully embracing digital and while Calrec Audio and Klotz Digital originally led the field, the market is now dominated by Lawo, DHD, Studer and Stagetec.

Among the new on-air desks launched this year are the DHD 52/SX, Lawo’s Sapphire and the On Air 24radio from Stagetec. Riley at Oxford Sound and Media comments that with the coming of digital, consoles are much more than a means of mixing for broadcast. “We’re looking at how it controls the whole chain,” he says, “from contributions to transmission. They’re now as much routers as they are mixers.”

As well as what equipment and technology to buy, there’s also the question of where to put it. Custom-built studios with top-notch acoustics come with a high premium, so broadcasters have to cut their acoustic treatments according to budget.

David Wood, managing director of Studio Schemes, says not everyone can afford completely floated studios and the days of on-air areas sandwiching a news booth are more or less gone.

At the community level close miking can cover a lot and stations will retrofit better acoustics if the money is available. But Bantock of Station Z says that listeners to this level of radio are usually more forgiving. “The chances are that if an ambulance siren is picked up by a mic at the station, the listeners are probably going to hear it for themselves eventually and probably see the ambulance going past.”

Different worlds indeed.