The logistics of managing live broadcasts at sports events can be staggering. As radio adopts more wireless devices for remote coverage, frequency coordination becomes a challenge. When the other participants are factored in — television, security, event management and the occasional rogue signals — coordination takes on Herculean proportions.
|Activity at an RF checkpoint. These checkpoints are the first line of defense.
The NFL has been managing frequency coordination at the Super Bowl since 1996. Radio World spoke with the coordinator, and an NFL executive producer, to get the deep background on what it takes to ensure a smooth and trouble-free utilization of frequencies.
Howard Deneroff is the NFL Executive Producer for Westwood One, and has covered the Super Bowl since 1988. He said that the first time that broadcasters used wireless microphones was at Super Bowl XXIII in 1989.
“It was wide open before Super Bowl XXX in 1996, occasionally there was interference, and things were broadcast that shouldn’t have been. Then the NFL stepped in to coordinate frequencies.”
Over the years, as more wireless devices were introduced and media coverage of sports increased, the NFL expanded its role as frequency coordinator to include the regular NFL games, and finally, NFL events. “It was a huge help for us when they stepped in,” said Deneroff. “After that, road trips got much easier.”
The SBE has no official role in the Game Day Coordinators program. However, some of the NFL GDC’s are also SBE Frequency Coordinators. At one time, the NFL and SBE were working together on this program, but the NFL took it in house several years ago.
SHARE THE AIRWAVES
The NFL’s go-to guy for Super Bowl frequency coordination is Karl Voss, who explains that he actually wears several hats. “I am the lead Game Day Coordinator for the Super Bowl, one of the NFL GDCs that handle the Arizona Cardinals home games, a consultant/troubleshooter for the NFL regarding RF issues.”
The logistics of frequency coordination for the Super Bowl are impressive. According to Voss, about 3,500 frequencies are used by about 10,000 radios. In order to accommodate all users, frequencies are often shared both in time and space.
“Users may have access to a frequency only for the pregame show, first quarter or post-game show,” said Voss. “Or they may be short-spaced, and only allowed to broadcast from one side of the field.”
On Super Bowl Sunday, the site is staffed from 6 a.m. until midnight. There are 10–15 frequency coordinators on site during the game, and 50 support staff work shifts throughout the day. Super Bowl Staff are paid by the NFL. Frequency coordinators are paid their normal game rate and the local support folks are paid a nominal rate for their help.
The NFL has developed its own database and software to manage frequency coordination at the Super Bowl. It contains both permanent frequency assignments, such as the referees’ intercom, and temporary assignments, such as radio and TV wireless mic and IFB frequencies. Requests for frequencies are submitted by email. A coordinator searches the database for an available frequency. Once a frequency has been assigned, a confirmation email is generated and sent.
The same software that the NFL uses for Super Bowl is also available to GDCs, although they are not required to use it. There is, however, the expectation that things will go off without a hitch, and that game communications will not interfere with local users use of the frequencies.
“It’s important for the NFL to have a good relationship with local media,” said Voss. He adds that one of the challenges is letting local folks know that they are there to help. “It’s a bit of public relations. We need to assure them that we’re not there to interfere in local affairs or micromanage, but just to make sure things run smoothly.”
This software is a work in progress, and has many features to prevent mistakes and aid with field emergencies, according to Voss: “The database has a list of frequencies in use by television stations in major cities for broadcast and ENG. If we try and assign a frequency already in use, the software will warn us.”
OTHER GAME-DAY CHALLENGES
|Karl Voss is shown training GDCs what to expect on game day.
Other problems can arise on game day with channel designations on wireless microphones. Channel 5 on one brand of wireless mic, for example, will be different than channel 5 on another brand — there is no standardization.
“The software contains a database of wireless mic manufacturers, model numbers, and channel frequencies. If a user shows up with a wireless and doesn’t know the frequency, we can determine that from the database, and try to give them a frequency that will be interference-free,” said Voss.
Even with frequency scheduling software and other advanced technology, human error can creep in to cause havoc.
“A television network requested, and were assigned frequencies for IFB at the Super Bowl,” said Voss. “During the game they experienced a lot of interference. Afterwards, they complained. I sent them a list of the frequencies that they requested. It turned out there were some typos on their request form. We had assigned them the frequencies they asked for, but those weren’t the frequencies they were using.”
The moral of the story?
“Users should always check their email confirmation and make sure the frequencies they’ve been assigned are the ones they’ve asked for. Errors can sneak into the process on both ends,” said Voss.
Another point he emphasizes is the need for strictest confidentiality of the NFL’s frequency database.
“In some cases, confidential information is being transmitted, as in the case of coaches talking to spotters and team officials, or conversations between the game’s referees. In many cases, competing media organizations are at the game. Users would be reluctant to participate in the frequency coordination process if they knew that their names and frequencies might be given out to the public, or to other users.”
Many of the challenges of the job are the result of unauthorized use of frequencies.
“Ninety-five percent of the people follow the process once they understand it,” said Voss. “Many of the problems are the result of communications breakdowns within media organizations.” He adds that those who request credentials for NFL events are often not the ones who show up to cover the game.
“News reporters and stringers will often show up with wireless microphones, and have no idea what frequency they operate on. Usually this is picked up at the checkpoints into secure areas, where they are issued a tag. Anyone without a tag is stopped and brought to the frequency coordination trailer. We try to find a frequency they can use, but if none is available, they are asked to use only wired microphones.”
International broadcasters add additional challenges to frequency coordination at the Super Bowl. There is a separate division of the NFL that works with them, although all media goes though the same credentialing process.
“Many international broadcasters bring their own equipment, which can raise lots of issues. Much of their wireless gear operates in the 700–800 MHz band, which, in this country, is used for cell phones,” said Voss.
|Karl Voss shares this “sanitized” screenshot of the GDC software. (Click to Enlarge)
In the few cases where there are willful violations, there is a protocol to follow.
“We’re not the FCC, and we can’t tell them not to broadcast, or arrest them, but we can tell them it is illegal. If that doesn’t work, we can pull their press credentials and escort them out of the stadium.” He adds that he has never had to remove anyone from a game, “although a couple times I’ve come pretty close.” Voss says that the NFL does cooperate closely with the FCC, and that their officials are sometimes on-site for the Super Bowl.
There are several ways that rogue signals are identified at the Super Bowl. The simplest is to simply listen and track them down based on what they are talking about. “It’s usually apparent who is using the channel when the rogue is saying, ‘hot dogs to Section 214,’ or ‘Camera 15 tighten up on the talent,’” said Voss.
If they are on two-way radios, it is a simple matter to program a radio on that frequency and simply talk to them. “Usually, the ‘rogue two-way magically goes away when the voice of the frequency coordinator comes out of ‘their’ channel,” said Voss. “If they are supposed to be on that channel, then we work out the problem.”
When all else fails, there’s the tried-and-true method of triangulation. That involves several teams walking around with directional antennae, scanner/spectrum analyzers and two-ways to coordinate the search, although he adds, it is also the most difficult.
The role of the NFL frequency coordinator extends beyond U.S. borders. Voss recently traveled to London for an NFL International Series game at Wembley Stadium. “The location is different, but the duties are basically the same,” said Voss. In 2015, London will be the site for three regular season NFL games for a second consecutive season, meaning more overseas trips for the NFL Frequency Coordinator.
In conclusion, Voss notes that the NFL has been at the vanguard of frequency coordination for sporting events. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years, and just recently, some of the larger college games are beginning to see the need. So far, there is no frequency coordination for baseball, except for the All-Star games.”