Amb-Os Media is a partnership of Ambassador Advertising Agency and the principals of SkyLight Corp. It was formed to fund a new satellite FTP platform for Christian radio program producers and radio stations.
Radio World Editor in Chief Paul McLane discussed the project with Amb-OS President Jim Sanders via e-mail.
RW: What is the Christian Radio Consortium?
The development group: Steve Reinke of Focus Satellite Network; Boyd Gafford of Westport Research; Dick Becvar, general manager of Ambo-OS Media; Ken Van Prooyen of RBC Ministries; Jim Sanders, president of Amb-OS Media; and Don Cartner, president of Westport Research. Sanders: It was a somewhat informal group of Christian radio satellite distributors — Ambassador, Salem Radio, Moody Broadcasting, Skylight Network, USA Radio, Focus Satellite and VCY America — which formed in the late ’90s to find a receiver platform that would allow each station to have one receiver capable of capturing multiple networks.
Our lengthy RFP and review process led us to Wegener’s Unity4000, which remains in service for many of these networks mentioned. However, it’s an inefficient platform for program delivery and has many limitations. As a result, several years ago we were prompted to look for a better solution.
After that mission was accomplished, most of the networks were not interested in pursuing the satellite FTP option, so a subgroup of the consortium eventually formed into Amb-OS Media.
RW: What did the recent satellite receiver project for Christian radio stations entail?
Sanders: Focus Satellite Network and Ambassador, as networks, were joined by Ken Van Prooyen of RBC Ministries and Dick Becvar of SkyLight Corp., who is also GM of Amb-OS Media, to create another RFP.
The program began in earnest about 3-1/2 years ago at an NAB convention. We looked carefully at three manufacturers, focusing on the balance between price, performance and flexibility of each system. Concurrently, there were patent issues to resolve which, frankly, consumed more time than we expected.
In the end we’re very pleased with the flexibility of the receiver. Formerly stations were required to capture an audio stream as the Unity4000 fed the audio. Today, we send a file to the Amb-OS AMR-100 receiver, which can be played out live to air, played to capture in their automation system, or copied across their network and imported into their automation system.
We’ve also designed the AMR-100 to be able to decode and stream audio as a replacement for the Unity4000. When a station’s existing receiver has failed (as would be no surprise after eight years), the receiver can stream other networks’ programming, given the permission. There are two stations using the AMR-100 in such a way.
To date, we’ve distributed around 630 receivers but we expect that number to increase to as many as 1,000.
RW: What was Westport Research’s role?
Sanders: Westport Research, based near Kansas City, are a group of gifted engineers who have been highly flexible in the system design and implementation. It was for that reason, and their price competitiveness, we chose Westport.
At the direction of our development team, they’ve been responsible for the hardware and software design of the AMR-100, some of which was extracted from their extensive work for Muzak.
Diagram of the Amb-OS system RW: What was the project budget? How was the project financed?
Sanders: The funding was provided through our partnership. Over the course of five years, Amb-OS will recapture the capital expense from fees paid by programmers who are using our system for delivery.
RW: Out of the “universe” of Christian radio, who are the most notable broadcasters served?
Sanders: Essentially, anyone taking any Christian programming via satellite would be on our list. The most notable, perhaps, would be stations from networks like Salem Communications, Moody Broadcasting, Bott Broadcasting and Crawford Broadcasting.
RW: What satellite and transponder are you on?
Sanders: We’re using AMC3 on transponder 17C, which is the same satellite and transponder as the “legacy” Unity4000 system. This allows us to easily decode and stream as a backup other networks’ feeds. With their permission of course.
RW: The Amb-OS receiver is essentially a satellite-fed FTP site. Why is that approach notable?
Sanders: That’s exactly right. Each receiver has an 80 GB hard drive in it.
A station can transfer a file via their local network to their automation system. This avoids yet another layer of transcoding error and retains the quality of the content. If a station wishes, they can have the AMR-100 act as a playback device and play the audio out just as it would be on the existing Unity4000. This can be triggered based on a timed event or serial command or relay closure. The station can also stream the file via the Ethernet to another distant machine capable of decoding the audio stream. Essentially, there are lots of options.
One of the most important features is addressability. We can talk to any single receiver or group of receivers. We can deliver a custom program every day for every station. The receiver comes with a file transfer utility that will automatically blend multiple pieces into one cohesive file.
There are huge advantages to local identification, especially when this is done without a station needing to fiddle with the program material. For station identification, local events and local chapters, testing market-specific offers, this platform offers a great variety of options.
Also, receivers connected via Ethernet with Internet access can self-heal by “reporting home” when there is an error. Missing bits of audio are sent “automagically.” We run a fully redundant terrestrial FTP server dedicated to supporting the transmission system, in addition to “traditional” FTP servers. We can re-send pieces via satellite or via Ethernet. When it’s connected, we’re able to securely monitor the receiver should there be any problems.
Installation is easy since we’re using the same satellite and transponders as the existing Christian Radio Consortium DVB carrier. The AMR-100 ships with a coaxial splitter and a couple chunks of cable.
We also have the flexibility of creating a live stream ad hoc as we did for the Obama/McCain Civil Forum in August. We have the ability to deliver files of any type — video, PDFs, MS Word documents, etc. We hope to use this as yet another method of distributing any electronic information.
The AMR-100 can be controlled via a simple HTML interface or using our custom user interface. As a result, a station engineer can provide remote support for the receiver without needing to be on-site. This includes simple monitoring such as the receiver’s signal performance.
Best of all for the station carrying our programs, we’re giving them the AMR-100s — there’s no charge for qualified stations.
RW: These receivers replaced Wegener Unity4000s. Are those now obsolete?
Sanders: No. Several networks will continue to use the U4K such as Salem, Moody, SkyLight, IRN/USA, VCY and others.
RW: Does the system offer new audio algorithms for improved quality at the receiver with higher efficiency?
Sanders: Yes, given the fact that we avoid transcoding errors. With our former system, there was a constant A to D, D to A, A to D, D to A and A to D cycle. At this point, the file material stays in the digital domain until the station transmits the file.
We’re using broadcast-standard MPEG-1 Layer II algorithms which are compatible with many automation systems.
The receiver also is supported by our custom User Interface, which allows a station to convert any file to linear PCM/WAV, which is usable in virtually any automation system.
RW: What programs are available now on the system?
Sanders: There are about 230 live and pre-recorded programs we feed. A list is at www.focussat.net/ambos/programs.html.
RW: Is there anything unique to Christian radio that makes this project different from how it would have gone elsewhere?
Sanders: Yes. I think there’s a great synergy and dedication to mission with separate entities working together to accomplish a task no single organization could tackle on their own. That’s been true for both the Christian Radio Consortium and Amb-OS Media.