It’s clear that the pandemic transformed how many radio stations operate. Remote hardware and IT best practices took on unprecedented importance as work from home became commonplace. Technology experts say their companies are still utilizing hybrid mechanisms and that in many cases, tech innovations have made their broadcast operations more flexible and secure.
The massive WFH shift in broadcast created a need for larger bandwidth infrastructure, remote computer management, additional firewalls, antivirus/malware management systems and new access policies. There also has been an increased focus on virtualization and cloud technologies.
Broadcast engineers and IT staff were forced to embrace technology to make hybrid operations as easy and automated as possible at their clusters.
“The real stars of this effort, aside from our amazing employees and technical staff, are the laptop computer and smartphone,” said Mike Everhart, corporate director of engineering for Alpha Media. “The availability of cloud-based applications and mobile apps to support our workflows made it an easy transition.”
He says the company is now better positioned to overcome the major workflow issues COVID caused.
“Hardware and software designed for the mobile environment makes it happen — laptops, smartphones, audio codecs; USB-capable microphones and audio interfaces in the workers’ hands; and VPN-accessible, web-enabled or cloud-based applications like traffic scheduling, automation playout and office suite tools,” he said.
All-news radio operations were especially challenged at the height of the pandemic because of the manpower needed to run those stations. Social distancing for large staffs in on-air studios still has to be considered.
“We now look at everything we do through the WFH prism,” said George Molnar, senior director of technology for Washington’s WTOP(FM) and Federal News Network.
“We’re migrating to Microsoft 365 in part to provide in-the-cloud access and remote collaboration tools. We’ve deployed scores more laptops. Our meetings routinely feature a dial-in line for staff who are working remotely. We’ve beefed up our remote transmitter control systems, too.”
Molnar says the IT and engineering staffs developed realistic and practical mitigations, utilizing equipment like Comrex Access units and Skype, to get the job done during the pandemic, which led to more flexibility without adding unnecessary costs and complexity.
“Even today our hybrid world has reporters, who would have normally come to the on-air studio and sat at a microphone, but instead are now reporting remotely from a nearby small studio in the newsroom. They’re more comfortable, and in some cases the lack of a commute gives them more time to develop their stories. This new model may actually be better than the old way,” Molnar said.
As of May 2022, some staffers continued to work from home but 90% of the team was back in the studios.
“Turns out some reporters are secretly geeks who have substantial setups at home. This, coupled with their willingness to help others, made the transition to WFH way easier and identified a resource for future needs.”
Lamar Smith, vice president of engineering for Beasley Media Group, says as the pandemic unfolded the company deployed a large number of laptops to accommodate working from home.
“Along with deploying laptops came an increased security risk to our computer networks and infrastructure. This required upgrades and changes; some examples are our VPN services, hardware monitoring, hardware tracking, and monitoring of use of the equipment were all deployed,” Smith said.
“These types of items are all critical to keep a heightened approach to the cyber security risks that we all face in today’s world.”
Beasley Media Group has most of its employees back in the office, Smith said, but it implemented several measures to allow for occasional hybrid operations when necessary.
The company was in the middle of deploying WideOrbit Automation for Radio across its markets just as the pandemic began, Smith said. Being a beta tester for WideOrbit allowed for some creative thinking.
“WideOrbit was able to get development very quickly in place for us to use their new remote client software, which allowed staff to interact with our WideOrbit system with all the same familiar software screens that they have been using in our studios,” Smith said. “This has become our standard way of voice-tracking and will remain in place.”
All of that remote work created obvious cybersecurity concerns, Smith said, which meant beefing up security with new VPN services and multi-factor authentication along with very strict firewalls.
“The ways of handling remote on-air personalities, and how their content is delivered, has been innovative, and the effects will be felt going forward,” he said.
Will such changes mean Beasley needs studios with a smaller footprint in the future? Smith doesn’t see the pandemic or hybrid work solutions as “changing the landscape or size” of the company’s studios, but he does expect more use of products to add content remotely.
“These items won’t be to replacing the in-studio operations, but instead, items that will enhance our content.”
Sarah Foss, chief technology officer at Audacy, says the media company had to address data privacy and security at the onset of WFH and implement new processes and train staff to ensure compliance. “We still have a number of home-infrastructure issues that plague our help desk,” she said.
Foss, Smith and Molnar participated in an NAB Show session on this topic. Foss said Audacy has shifted a number of enterprise and operational technologies to virtual and cloud-based to accommodate the ongoing shift to hybrid work.
“For instance, we have recently replaced our entire phone systems to Zoom including business lines for our teams. This, like our shift to heavy use of cloud IT and production tools, allows us to leverage talent wherever they may be in a secure, standardized manner,” Foss said.
Audacy’s technical teams created “bubbles” in each station at the start of COVID and utilized the Slack app to create chat rooms. The company continues to utilize cloud computing strategies as it emerges from the pandemic.
“Cloud is here to stay. Hybrid is the way forward. Period. With our talent, brand managers and production teams working from multiple locations, we have seen creativity and innovation from these groups that we want to leverage across markets,” Foss said.
And as the radio business radically changes based on listeners’ needs, content capabilities and technology innovation, Foss said: “All the Audacy radio markets, digital operations, podcasting studios and gaming company recognize that we must lean in to change with our expectations, systems, work environment and priorities to meet our listeners where they are.”
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