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Metadata Test Is Part of Quake Drill

PRSS tries out MetaPub service with some help from CPB

Promotional poster for the annual event. Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills are regionally organized campaigns linked as a worldwide preparedness movement. California’s annual earthquake drill in October had a side benefit. It gave six public radio stations a chance to test emergency metadata capabilities and make preparations to help launch the Public Radio Satellite System’s MetaPub service.

The metadata experiment, timed to coincide with the Great California ShakeOut on Oct. 20, included new hardware and software for the half-dozen radio stations participating in the disaster drill, a cost covered by a grant of approximately $66,700 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The experiment included delivery of metadata-enhanced test information during the drill.

The PRSS MetaPub, which is still in its beta testing phase, enables mobile digital platforms — including smartphones using the NextRadio app, HD Radio receivers and radios with RDS displays — to display images, text and links. PRSS planners said at least one of the California stations used its web streaming capabilities to communicate alert messages with listeners.

Preliminary anecdotal evidence collected by PRSS on the heels of the earthquake test indicates success on most levels; the only official anomaly was at a station where a consumer desktop radio didn’t display properly until being rebooted — a device malfunction, not an issue with the MetaPub system.

CPB’s interest in emergency alerting, specifically digital alerting, was the origin for the idea, according to those familiar with the test plans. The stations participating were KPBS(FM) San Diego, KCRW(FM) Santa Monica, KPCC(FM) Pasadena, KQED(FM) San Francisco, KCBX(FM) San Luis Obispo and KXJZ(FM) Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. They will be allowed to keep the hardware and software they received and will be encouraged to incorporate metadata into their operations for emergency alerting and programming information, a PRSS official said.

This metadata message went out on KCBX.
Credit: Frank Lanzone CPB’s strategic planning process identifies potential projects for funding with a specific eye towards endeavors that will help stations provide essential services to communities, according to Erika Pulley-Hayes, vice president of radio at CPB. This is the first metadata project it has funded.

“This test served as a pilot program for the potential of service enhancements during emergency situations. CPB has a keen interest in alerting and this is another example of sharing infrastructure for enhanced service during emergency situations,” Pulley-Hayes said.

As broadcasting increasingly integrates with newer digital platforms, CPB feels metadata provides an important connective tissue between broadcast and digital media, which takes broadcast to multi-platform, she said.

“As a grant maker, we encourage innovation throughout the system. We have been encouraging digital innovation for the past few years and this project fit. Digital is becoming very important. Video, photos and text are really taking over consumption habits, so it is important radio broadcasters can diversity services over multiple platforms,” she said.

KCBX metadata that went out via NextRadio.
Credit: Frank Lanzone Pulley-Hayes said CPB received immediate anecdotal feedback on the test and expected an official report within a few months.

Michael Beach, vice president of NPR Distribution, which manages the PRSS, said the organization became interested in the project as a way to further test metadata delivery.

MetaPub, introduced earlier this year, passes through specific metadata to be used by radio stations that appears on the listener’s portable display device, Beach said. The material can include text, graphic images and web links. Approximately 21 public radio stations in the country are participating in an ongoing MetaPub beta test.

Station selection for the Great California ShakeOut began earlier this year; PRSS approached nine stations in the state to gauge interest level and determine whether it could work technically “based on their capabilities and our capacity,” Beach said.

Once the six were selected, PRSS assessed what each needed to deliver RDS, HD1 and HD2 metadata. PRSS provided the hardware and software for stations to access emergency metadata-enhanced messages and broadcast them to their listeners; it also provided extensive engineering support and performed quality-assurance tests.

Much of the pre-testing was completed by PRSS Engineer Matt Walther, Beach said. Walther is a PRSS systems architect and took the lead configuring the radio stations that took part in the California test project.

Screenshot of a test transmission by KQED a day before the ShakeOut.
Credit: Matt Walther

Scott Stinson, engineering maintenance manager at KPBS, on the day of the ShakeOut.
Credit: Michael Beach “Surprisingly, the stations needed less equipment than we expected. Some of the stations were already passing HD content, so they already had a network established for pushing HD data to their transmitters. It was the same thing for some with RDS and streaming on the Internet,” Beach said.

Some stations were missing what Beach describes as “middleware,” such as Arctic Palm Technology CSPRM, NextRadio’s TagStation, ENCO PADapult and Broadcast Electronics TRE Core Engine. Some had middleware but did not have integration with MetaPub, or required a software plug-in or another software solution, he said. A few were starting the process from scratch, Beach said, which called for a small PC loaded with Arctic Palm to allow integration of metadata.

In addition, PRSS provided year-long TagStation subscriptions for all of the pilot stations, which allows stations to add a mobile application component via the NextRadio app, Beach said.

“There were challenges in a few cases with pushing out a message to the RDS encoder or HD importer/exporter. All in all we had to purchase and license less software than expected,” Beach said.

There were challenges during pre-testing for the project, according to one of the stations involved.

“This was our first attempt to push metadata. There was total unfamiliarity with any of the software on our end. There was a learning curve,” said Frank Lanzone, general manager of KCBX. “Configuring the software to integrate with our HD importer/exporter took time. There was some hit or miss in testing, but it all came together.“

Lanzone gave credit to Ken Schreiner, director of engineering at KCBX, and to PRSS engineers for their efforts during pre-testing.

“We’ve wanted to utilize metadata for our music shows and have already started using it for titles and info for news and information shows. We are now experimenting as to the best ways to set up the information that make the most sense for listeners,” Lanzone said.

KQED(FM) Chief Engineer Larry Wood (back to camera) and Station Engineer Steve Pinch, rear, work on the day of the test. The participants told Radio World that one of the takeaways from this project is that there is no single, blanket solution that can be used. Stations must make an internal review of their broadcast chain including their web services.

“Stations might have static data being displayed via RDS but not on HD. The station will need to review what it needs to be able to send dynamic data,” Matt Walther of PRSS said. “This might involve reviewing networking to ensure that the middleware application can communicate with both the RDS and HD devices.”

Likewise, several of the stations had program information coded directly into a predetermined schedule that would be sent out via their web services. One of the stations had its web developer update the site’s code to accept data being sent from the middleware application. This allowed for the live message to be displayed on all of their web streams and site.

PRSS staff was present at four of the stations to monitor the Great California ShakeOut test, Beach said. Each radio station involved worked with local emergency managers to determine what text to use and graphics to plug in. The stations also aired a 60-second prerecorded announcement about the drill. Evaluation will continue for a few months before the final report is issued to CPB.

Transmission of the ShakeOut message.
Credit: Frank Lanzone Beach said the roadmap for the PRSS MetaPub service is taking shape.

“The bigger MetaPub that we are growing beyond the ShakeOut will allow these six California stations to use the MetaPub and display programming metadata locally. We’ve created an API [Application programming interface] and are working with producers of national content to be able to format their data.

“This is really a perfect example of building something like MetaPub and thinking about what else we could do with it, as is the case with emergency communications. We were thinking just song title or story title, but then it leads to others asking if it can do this or do that,” Beach said.

The bigger picture, he said, is PRSS and CPB learning how to take advantage of opportunities to better meld the digital world and broadcast world and ultimately connect better with radio listeners.