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Broadcasting From Home: A Special Series

Over and over we heard the same reply: “Everything has changed”

Debbie Feinstein WTOP remote closet
Major-market news, 2020 style. Debbie Feinstein of WTOP.

Radio organizations around the world have faced a technology challenge of unprecedented scope: how to maintain on-air and business operations when their facilities are off-limits or their employees are sent home.

Air talent were suddenly told they’d be hosting programs at home or expanding voicetracking. Engineering and IT teams rushed to provide support from the office while many were forced home themselves. Virtualization became an even hotter topic than it was. Technical managers were called upon, on short notice, to outfit hundreds or thousands of team members with remote gear and cyber-secure computer hardware.

For some organizations, this involved modifications to existing infrastructure and processes; for others, it was a dramatic change. How are broadcast organizations around the world handling this? 

This series is organized in three parts. The first, below, discusses changes in workflow as reported by broadcasters and our supplier sponsors. The second focuses on specific solutions and products. In the third we asked our sources to forecast the long-term implications of these changes.

Please comment to me on this or any Radio World stories. Email me at radioworld@futurenet.com.

PART 1: Broadcasters Confront Workflow Challenges

Radio organizations across the country and around the world were affected by coronavirus. The stories were everywhere.

NPR’s “Tiny Desk” concert series had to go remote. In Phoenix the “Kim Komando Show” shifted to remote work. The FCC barred visitors to its headquarters. In Washington, news biggie WTOP sent many of its approximately 200 employees home, equipped air talent with remote gear, broke up anchor teams into separate studios and started vigorous cleaning. NAB cancelled its annual show and rolled out a Covid-19 response kit. RadioDays Europe and CABSAT and IBC were postponed. Minnesota Public Radio canceled all events. Health Info Radio was introduced by a company in London. Companies announced layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts. On and on it went.

“I’ve talked to a lot of friends and colleagues and they all agree that their whole mode of operation is upside down,” said one manufacturer.

What follows is an exploration and sampling of the impact on radio operations and particularly audio workflows.

Brian Lehrer WNYC. Photo by Wayne Shulmister
Brian Lehrer, WNYC. Photo by Wayne Shulmister

–  “Everything has changed,” said Steve Shultis, the CTO of New York Public Radio, home of WNYC(AM/FM), WQXR, The Gothamist, WNYC Studios and The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space.

“Approximately 98% of our staff is working from home, including talent. The only staff coming into the office on a regular basis are a minimal body of broadcast engineers and broadcast maintenance engineers, facility engineers and some office support staff.”

All other work groups — reporters, show producers including podcast and digital-only stream production, call screeners, membership/development staff, marketing, digital developers, sponsorship — work and produce from home.

“By far the greatest concern for us was to protect the health and safety of our staff,” Shultis said. “For anyone that we still require to come into the office/studios, we segregated this staff into three teams such that no one crossed paths with each other and we perform cleaning between team change-overs. To form these teams, we scaled back operations, eliminating attended overnights and used that staff, as well as our performance space and remote concert technical staff to form a skeleton screw for Master Control operations and anything else that we still needed to perform at the facility.”

Shultis said the station had to make a difficult call. Very early on, well before March, management was told by the newsroom staff that they had reason to believe that the virus was already present in New York City and recommended that New York Public Media close its doors to any outside entities including guest talent, sales visitors and others.

“We took the recommendation to heart and from that time on performed all live and taped interviews remotely and cancelled all of our many upcoming shows in our public performance space,” Shultis said. “These were hard calls to make in the early stages of the pandemic, when many venues and entities around us were still open and doing business as normal.”

Chris Crump of Comrex complimented New York Public Radio for how it mobilized. “They did an amazing job getting their presenters comfortable in their new home studios. WNYC engineers made safe, socially distant ‘house calls’ to get everyone set up and prove out the reliability of our gear to their on-air staff. They shared a few great stories with me that were similar to things I’ve been hearing from broadcasters all over the world.”

–  Bloomberg News has over 2,700 journalists and analysts in 120 countries. “Although our technical operations come from our world headquarters in New York, we are well-versed in working with many of those remote locations daily,” said Charlie Vollmer, technical operations team leader at Bloomberg Radio.

“Before the pandemic hit, most of our staff would report to their local newsroom on a daily basis. By mid-March, almost all of our on-air staff was working from home globally. We’ve traded in-person collaboration for video conferences and phone calls. We’ve all had to heavily rely on instant messaging during live programming as opposed to talking to each other in real time through the other side of the glass.”

Bloomberg Radio creates over 27 hours of unique radio content across its platforms each weekday; throughout the pandemic it hasn’t missed an hour, Vollmer said. “This is all a credit to the infrastructure investments Bloomberg has made over the years, paired with some incredibly intelligent, dedicated and hard-working staff across all aspects of operation.”

Vollmer said the first step was to design and implement a process to actually run the radio operation from home. “We pared it down so an op could successfully operate the board using only a laptop connection to the office.”

The next step was sending equipment to each member of the on-air staff. “That led to plenty of unforeseen challenges as we had to walk each and every person through setting up our kits in their unique and personal environment.” Key components include Wheatstone and Comrex gear, as described later in this ebook.

In the end, Bloomberg created 60+ custom broadcast spaces that are in use as of late May. (Read about Bloomberg’s New York home.)

–  Bonneville’s Sacramento cluster usually has about 100 people working to serve four stations at its main location. Its workflow includes RCS Zetta for automation, RCS Selector for ad scheduling/ingestion and Microsoft 365 Cloud Platform for business operations.

Director of Engineering Jason Ornellas said most employees already had some remote access to VPN but that the capacity had been lightly used. So when access to the building was suddenly limited to engineering and some air staff, Ornellas and his team had to scramble to expand VPNs and disseminate laptops to support the migration.

To outfit team members at home, they built a dozen home broadcast kits, each with SKB case, foam cutout, Rodecaster production unit, Atlas mic stand, EV RE320 mic and Tascam headphones.

“The Rodecaster gave our on-air talent the flexibility to have control of levels, have a button bar for hot keys and liners, integrating phone calls. And we created a VPN where they could pull their VoxPro files.” (Learn more about how this cluster and several other radio organizations responded by watching the Radio World webcast series “Broadcasting From Home,” available on demand.)

–  In San Diego, J.R. Rogers and Bill Eisenhamer are market technical operations director and chief engineer, respectively for the five-station Entercom cluster. The station has SAS and WideOrbit infrastructure, and is a big user of Tieline remote products.

Their morning shows preferred to go live if possible rather than voicetrack, so they now are using a mix of Tieline Report IT app on tablets as well as physical codecs, with producers back at the studio. The engineers gave each talent a Sescom microphone/headphone adapter to plug into the tablet and a set of Audio-Technica sports headsets, and they connect via the app or codec. In the studio they use three Merlin Plus codecs, which allow six mono streams each for a total of 18. The engineers set aside has a couple of ViA codecs for special circumstances as needed.

Though producers are currently in the studio, the engineering team decided to prepare for a completely remote situation if needed. Their SAS surfaces communicate with 32KD frames via Dante, so Eisenhamer says now he has the capability of running a Rubicon console completely remote if needed, and he’s testing to allow producers to take calls live remotely. The SAS Remote Console has a button panel that can be configured to control the broadcast delay.

–  Fox News Radio began taking planning steps in late February, according to Vice President John Sylvester. It soon had nearly 80% of its staff working remote daily.

Depending on the job, each staff member was given remote access to Adobe Audition, Amazon Workspace, Slack, Zoom, iNews for writing and editorial newsgathering, and VPN access to the broadcaster’s ENCO automated audio systems, plus various other tools and software applications.

All audio feeds are sent to and managed by the company’s network operations center in New York and backed up in Washington, using a cloud-based platform that gives everyone access to the content in real time. Many of its network radio reporters and anchors, spread around the country, have Comrex Access units and headset microphones. Teams were supplied with additional Blue yeti microphones for stories to be filed and uploaded. Others in the field use Tieline gear.

–   Workflows have been “radically changed,” said Jose Luis García Hernán-Pérez, vice principal of technical media at Radio Nacional de España, or National Radio of Spain. Approximately 80% of its workforce were on telework by May. Those who cannot telework are on a modified shift “detention” schedule.

“The main challenge has been preparing and configuring, in record time, a large number of computers and audio coders to facilitate teleworking,” he said. “At the moment, more than 700 technical devices are in use.”

Each journalist has a remote kit with computer for recording and editing, an audio encoder for live interviews and a mobile phone. RNE uses Prodys ProntoNet, Nereus and Quantum codecs as well as AEQ ALIO and Venus codecs.

“Technicians can also remotely connect with the different control devices like digital audio arrays, audio coders, computers, servers and audio consoles. All the connections are made in a secure way through VPN protected by firewalls.”

RNE has a Dalet digital desktop production system that provides some provision for teleworking; journalists can connect from home to access the system. However, remote audio editing was constrained in the past by connection delays and lower quality. He said this problem has been resolved by the new HP ZCentral application, which enables a fast connection, clean sound and, additionally, the use of USB control remotely. “Our journalists are delighted that they are teleworking almost the same as if they were present at headquarters.”

–  Rob Quicke, founder of the College Radio Foundation and College Radio Day and professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey, wrote in late April about the impact on college stations.

“Right now, most college radio stations studios are empty. The music director’s office is silent. The newsrooms are shut down, and the lounge area has empty sofas and chairs, with things left out on desks and tables, such as open magazines with half-read articles, unchecked lists of tasks that needed to be completed before spring break, and schedules for shows that will likely never take place. It’s like stumbling onto the Mary Celeste, a place that has been hastily abandoned on short notice.”

However, Quicke wrote, “Many students involved with college radio have quickly adapted and are finding new ways to create radio and find a way to communicate that to their audiences. It’s heartening to witness their passion combined with sheer ingenuity, to create and share content that provides information and comfort to a listening audience.”

He said team-oriented and social media tools such as Discord, Skype, Zoom, MS Team, Facebook Live and SoundCloud are being used in various combinations to create and share content and support sharing efforts like the College Radio News Network (CRNN).

(Read more about how college radio organizations have responded.)

–  Remote operation is all in a day’s work at Learfield IMG College, which holds sports rights for more than 100 universities and colleges, and is one of the largest users of Comrex gear. Tom Boman is vice president of broadcast operations, and Randy Williams is chief engineer.

In normal operation, its two operations centers are busy with team members working at numerous cubicles right next to one another, each essentially a small radio station producing a broadcast. Teams in the field carry Comrex Access NX portables; back at the operations centers, producers and board ops mix the network commercials, billboards and imaging to produce a finished product that’s sent to affiliates over satellite or internet stream. This includes terrestrial radio partners and outlets like TuneIn and Sirius XM.

The cancellation of an entire sports season was a massive challenge for IMG Learfield, with a great deal of ad inventory sold but no basketball or baseball or softball games to air it on. From a programming standpoint, that meant creating new content ideas on the fly like spring football specials; repackaging classic past games; and rethinking and repurposing podcasts.

Many of the play-by play-talent had their gear already with them. “Going to IP made it relatively easier for talent to do their own engineering,” said Boman.

The organization is also making more use of Comrex Opal, an IP audio gateway that enables guests to connect to the studio by clicking a link, which is particularly helpful where talent didn’t have gear with them. He emphasized how easy it is for non-technical users to operate this via laptop or smartphone.

Chris Crump, senior director of sales and marketing of Comrex, said as more users settled into remote operation, the company has seen interest in Opal increase. “If you have an updated browser — Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox or Safari — it actually has an Opus coding algorithm and a G.722 coding algorithm in it. So essentially you have a web browser that has an audio codec, with your smartphone or your computer being the interface.”

–  At college station KTSC(FM), which seeks to train students for real-world radio, Station Manager Jenna Mangino said operations flipped to remote beginning a week before spring break.

Jenna Mangino, right, station manager of KTSC(FM) Rev 89, is interviewed by TV reporter Dez Rowe via Zoom for a segment about remote operations.
Jenna Mangino, right, station manager of KTSC(FM) Rev 89, is interviewed by TV reporter Dez Rowe via Zoom for a segment about remote operations.

A remote voice tracking system had been created earlier by WideOrbit in which students use a Dropbox folder to submit audio files. “Once the files are in the folder, the system knows to scan the folder and anything that’s named properly will match the corresponding positions that have been pre-scheduled in the log,” Mangino said.

“With this simple process, it allows students to use their own equipment at home to create voice tracks and drop them into the system and have them inserted instantly.”

KTSC likes Cleanfeed software. “It functions as a browser-based ISDN quality line that allows students to record multiple voices for sports shows, podcasts, public affairs shows and morning shows. It works with Google Chrome, is secure, and allows the user to send an email invitation to the guest or other host/DJ. They can accept and all join and it records each voice on a different track. The final download mixes all tracks together and then the file can be manipulated in Audition.”

Without a big budget, the station couldn’t provide remote home-studio kits. “Several students already had the gear needed and had studio-grade microphones. Others purchased cheaper mics; a $50 Insignia USB recording microphone from Best Buy did the trick for one student, others used Yetis, laptop mics, gaming headsets, cell phones or anything else they could get their hands on. Some students had Adobe Audition, others learned how to use Audacity, which was used to record voice tracks and the nightly health update.”

Some students had Chromebooks and others worked with Mangino to either record audio on their phones and then send the file to her to produce and air, or they would record on Cleanfeed and she’d produce it and mix it down for airing.

The station uses Zoom for meetings and hopes to add Tieline gear to allow students to produce live shows from home in the fall.

VENDOR VOICES

Radio World also asked the manufacturing sponsors of this series for their own observations about the impact on workflows and how their clients have responded.

Robert Ferguson, support engineer for Wheatstone, said, “Use of remote applications, for access to broadcast devices, and other software for business purposes, allows collaboration in near real time,” he said. “From online meetings, to instant messaging, to IP-based hardware and software codecs, the tools were there, and are now being expanded upon with current needs.”

Broadcasters as a whole have done a tremendous job in keeping audiences informed, entertained and engaged, said Ferguson, despite not having their familiar studios, in-person promotions and the benefit of face-to-face communications.

“I think broadcast engineers and IT folks are the unsung heroes in all of this. They have been charged with getting staff connected from remote locations, keeping and maintaining existing facilities and transmission plants, while also trying to keep themselves healthy in a trying time.”

Market size, population density and geography all play into how hard some stations were hit, said Doug Ferber, vice president of sales for Tieline.

But in areas with bigger populations, the virus has been very disruptive. “The main studio automation is being put to the test. Salespeople officing from home. Air personalities broadcasting live and voice-tracking from living room studios. The engineers are the only ones left in the building.”

He too credits the engineers who scrambled, with little notice and maybe not a lot of preparation, to keep live content on the air. “We have seen solutions that range from economical short-term fixes to sophisticated high-quality and longer-term set-ups.”

Demand for gear to support journalists working at home was clear to Reto Brader, CEO of Barix. “At the same time remote broadcast from events has been greatly reduced,” he said. “This change in workflow asks for a simple setup at home for broadcasters providing highest quality audio links over the internet.”

His company produces Exstreamer 500 broadcast codecs as well as new SIP OPUS-based codecs for remote contribution to link the home office with the studio.

“Another long-term trend is that more people want to have their own internet radio kind of service,” Brader said. “From streaming a worship service to providing a community radio stream from the town government to its citizens, streaming has taken a vital position in communicating with people.”

Dan McQuillin, managing director of Broadcast Bionics, said, “Radio has never had more difficult operating conditions, but radio equally has never been more important. Many of the broadcasters we work with have done incredible and creative things. This [situation] is abnormal, it will not always be like this. But necessity is the midwife of invention.”

McQuillin was flying to visit WNYC when he got a text saying the station was closed and could not accept visitors. The station had already been looking at a possible upgrade to its older talk show system. He says broadcasters who have moved toward pure IP audio and virtualized solutions had the greatest agility when the crisis erupted. Software can be remotely reconfigured and IP workflows can be dynamically rerouted. He also noted that users like Bauer Media in the U.K. have been moving to the use of glass console surfaces which can be very easily reprogrammed and configured.

Echoing that, Marty Sacks, the executive vice president of sales, support and marketing at the Telos Alliance, users with AoIP backbones already have a high level of remote functionality.

“Every workflow is different, so flexibility is welcomed by our customers. You have essentially the same usability as you would in-studio, at home. It’s just a matter of getting broadcasters set up at home.”

He highlighted the importance of support from the factory, adding that Telos’ 24/7 support line has long offered remote setup support. “For our clients, remote setup via Telos Alliance products is probably less stressful than trying to educate remote talent.”

Of course, the features and connectivity of automation and audio management systems are also in the spotlight.

“Now more than ever, broadcasters are relying on their automation systems to keep things running smoothly amid reduced access to their studios and offices,” said Ken Frommert, president of ENCO Systems.

“In many cases, clients are diving into the deeper features of DAD Radio Automation, and discovering that many of the tasks they once performed at the studio could be easily done from the comfort of their homes.”

Even before the shutdown, he said ENCO was seeing a trend of clients moving towards web-based and mobile applications for remote voice tracking and playlist management. “Now, when it’s simply not possible to work from the studio, clients are leaning into these solutions as the new normal, providing a familiar but refined interface to keep working from home offices.”

Frommert pointed to Vermont Public Radio as an example of an effective response. “Workflow-wise, they were able to adapt quickly and began tracking all shows from home studios via the WebDAD voice tracker. Engineering-wise, they were able to keep their engineers safer by eliminating unnecessary travel; instead of driving to the station, they could check system status from a web browser and apply changes when needed. And most importantly, they were able to continue broadcasting without interruption when their audience needed them most.”

The way broadcasters have adapted varies from country to country, said Gustavo Robles, sales director for AEQ, based both on differences in technological skill and in the effects of the pandemic.

COPE Presenter Pilar Cisneros broadcasts from home.
COPE Presenter Pilar Cisneros broadcasts from home.

“But in general terms we see a massive movement to remote broadcasting, and in most cases home broadcasting. Our friends and customers in radio stations very quickly adapted normal operations to remote operations, usually with excellent results. Technology was a key factor in this great transition.”

Robles complimented COPE, a large private radio company in Spain, which has more than a hundred associated local and regional radio stations.

“They very quickly moved to protect employees’ health with protocols, protections, etc., and in parallel they designed a plan to move as much of their normal operation as possible to remote operation, keeping most of the staff working from home. Today it is still one of the best stations in Spanish dial, and audience didn’t feel the difference.”

He also saluted Cadena Ser Guadix, which he said was already working mostly from home in its operations. “In some ways Cadena Ser Guadix was a pioneer and we didn’t know until now.”

Some broadcasters implemented team “shifts,” with groups of employees isolated from one another, to cover their facilities and workflows.

“The policy ‘the show must go on’ took on special meaning for our customers, while most of society was requested to stay at home and anxious for constant and reliable updates about the COVID-19 crisis,” said Pablo Rodriguez, sales manager for Prodys. He said it was important for broadcasters to keep “voices and faces” on the air to help lower public anxiety.

Rodriguez expressed amazement at how quickly broadcasters reacted. “Specifically I’m impressed with RAI, the public radio and TV in Italy. They set up soon remote training of their talent and quickly arranged new hardware for their homes. But similar situations also happened in other countries where our products are widely used like Spain, Poland, Czech Republic, Colombia and many more.”

Changes in workflow are felt even in the cabinetry business. Omnirax Furniture Co.  now has a line called BFH, which stands for Broadcasting From Home, and cites interest in its Podcast Line and MeDesk, among others.

Philip Zittell, CEO of Omnirax, said, “Across the radio industry, shelter-in-place orders have forced radio into a work-from-home model, from air talent and programmers to salespeople and managers. And with the Main Studio Rule abolished by the FCC, any company can find many cost efficiencies by breaking with traditional ways of doing live radio.” He noted that prominent users of Omnirax products include Bonneville Sacramento.

Read Part 2: Tech Tools & Tips of the Trade

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