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Radio gets visualised on its own terms

Radio prides itself on creating images with words and sounds instead of relying on pictures. But in today's visually aware world audio-only broadcasters have to consider their visual profile and are now installing video systems in studios.

Radio has been at the forefront of many technological innovations, taking the lead that television has often followed. Stereo, surround sound, data systems, digital editing and production workstations, automation and higher resolution audio have all been proven first in radio and are now commonplace in its picture-based rival. But in a multimedia society seemingly dominated by image, sound broadcasters are borrowing a few tricks and techniques from TV to secure their place on computers, smartphones and mobile devices, as well as the good old wireless.

The BBC has built new studios that have vision equipment integrated with the expected audio aspects from the beginning, rather than being added later. The new facilities for Radio 1 and 1Xtra were designed to be visually striking as well as practical and feature video technology intended to show what is going on but not get in the way or turn radio into cheap television.

Joe Harland (pictured) is head of visualisation for BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra. During his presentation ‘So This is What Radio Looks Like!’ at the Radio Academy TechCon in Salford, Harland observed that a newspaper critic had complained about the job title, saying “head of visualisation” for a radio station was the equivalent of being head of stairs in a bungalow.

Harland argued that visual radio is nothing new, pointing to the “football grid” of the late 1920s and ’30s that allowed listeners to pinpoint where the ball was during a game by looking at a drawing of the pitch divided into squares while an announcer working alongside the commentator called out the number of the square in play. Later there were broadcasts of Top of the Pops on BBC1 during the 70s and 80s with a simulcast on Radio 1to add stereo FM sound.

In recent years there has been the webcam for basic shots of presenters in the studio. A more adventurous take on this came in 2005 when the then Radio 1 breakfast show presenter Chris Moyles broadcast from a canal boat, with a camera and a laptop providing the visual aspects. Back in the studio Harland said the challenge was get away from the “security position” style of placing a camera, having it high in the corner of the room. “By doing that you end up with amazing examples of male pattern baldness,” Harland commented. “We need to be as good visually as what the listeners are doing.”

Harland explained that Radio 1/1Xtra moving into the new Broadcasting House in London gave the opportunity to “do visualisation” from the start. “You need to have it embedded as part of the production process,” he said, “and although the studios look nice they don’t have to look like TV studios.”

BBC news and sport channel Radio 5 Live has been working with visualisation systems for some time, both in its old London studios and now at its base in Salford. The camera switching system was designed by BCD Audio and is activated by the microphones, with the cameras automatically showing the person speaking. Harland said Radio 1 wanted the automated capability but also the ability to switch it off so the presenter was not in vision all the time. “If the Chart Show DJ is announcing the band who are guests in the studio is number one, the audience wants to see their reaction, not the presenter,” he observed.

The Radio 1/1Xtra studios feature Studer OnAir 3000 consoles and VCS automation on the audio side, with multiple Sony pan-tilt-zoom cameras, a controllable lighting rig, hard disk video recorder and a Blackmagic Design routing system. Camera selection is through a custom software program called TriggerMix.

According to Harland preparation of pictures has to be as much a part of the radio workflow as the sound, with material turned round as quickly. “With the growth of the mobile market we need to be able to say that if a listener has a screen – of whatever type – we are on it.”