MNM On-Air Studio Serves as Test Project for VRT

New open radio studio sets basis for Belgian public broadcaster’s other stations
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BRUSSELS — As part of VRT’s overall facility modernization, the Belgian public broadcaster is using the open office studio design of its pop music radio station MNM as a blueprint for its other studios.

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"This will be the VRT’s first open office radio studio,“ said Rino Ver Eecke, MNM station manager.
Credits: All pics (c) VRT

Four years ago, when VRT decided to renew MNM’s radio studios, station manager Rino Ver Eecke opted for a drastic change. “I insisted on changing the studio design, from DJs hidden behind their displays, looking out on a dull panorama of a gray wall, to a more open working space, with plenty of daylight,” explained Ver Eecke. “This layout brings the presenters into the ‘real’ world, with a view on light and darkness, sunshine and rain, than in the traditional studio.”

A FIRST

Ver Eecke’s project resulted in MNM exploring VRT’s vast headquarters at the Reyerslaan in Brussels, where the hit-formatted station had its on-air studio on the third floor. “The mission was to bring together the entire MNM team on one floor,” he explained. The answer was found on the spacious 590 square meter 7th floor of the building.

“This was the first time in VRT’s history that a radio studio was built in an office,” continued Ver Eecke. “We radically stepped away from the 1950’s concept of a noise-free ‘box in the box’ on-air studio and decided to use the whole floor for MNM,” he said.

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Bart de Raes is a member of VRT’s radio task force to rethink the station’s radio studios.

“In doing so, we had to respect a number of technical parameters, but with MNM’s hit format, we didn’t need to follow the high-profile acoustic insulation standards. The presenter sometimes opens the outside window. The station offers a continuous feed of music, presentation, fillers and jingles and almost no ‘dry’ presentation.”

The relocation of MNM radio made Ver Eecke and his team rethink the complete radio strategy. The evolution from a variety of rooms toward an open floor plan, the positioning of the various elements on the floor, and the introduction of the clean desk policy. Three years ago, the station started its first modifications.

“It was a very interesting exercise, and we learned a lot,” he said. “A fact-finding mission with German public broadcaster Radio 1 Live was very inspiring for the studio layout and design. That’s where we found the so-called ‘sharkfin and banana’ design for the on-air position: two independently height-adjustable desks. Flexibility, modularity and userfriendliness where the three other formal choices we made for the further design of the new studios.”

Another element in the implementation of the new studio was the 80/20 rule. “Equipment used for less than 20 percent of the time has no place in the basic set-up,” said Bart De Raes, MNM netflow coordinator and closely involved in the architecture of the new studio.

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The new MNM on-air working desk has only three displays and a laptop.

80/20 RULE

“In the past we had a gigantic live console in the on-air configuration — by installing patch-points throughout the whole 7th floor, we now use a Yamaha QL1 mobile mixing desk catering for sessions in the studio, but also in the editorial section or even the elevator. A nice example of plug and play versus a huge fixed on-air studio set-up, but it works!”

De Raes represents the MNM on-air staff in the transition from the traditional studio to the new working habitat, and he’s well aware that every upgrade results in task-shifting.

“Today, our DJs work without a studio technician in a self-op configuration — the presenter’s workplace is no longer the cockpit from the past with a wall of displays,” said De Raes.

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All of MNM’s staff members work on an open office floor.

“We have put into question the whole radio working process, according to the 80/20 rule. We focused on the needs of the ‘average user’ of the set-up — the rest of the features are hidden in the system. Also, we decided to limit the number of displays on the presenter’s desk to three, plus the laptop. And we were happy to see that all of the MNM DJs agreed on a consensus for a single set-up, drastically limiting the number of controls.”

After having tested the station’s various presenter position concepts, varying the number of displays, faders and extra inputs, a trial version of the on-air studio saw the light of day.

“On the first display is Broadcast Bionics PhoneBOX software. We were the first station at VRT to test this call routing and messaging system and to use it for telephone management, text messages and social media. Today, all of the VRT’s stations have PhoneBOX installed,” said De Raes.

EQUIPMENT

“On another is Dalet Plus playout software; Dalet Plus recording and editing software [for preparing and editing telephone interviews]; and the MNM’s Top 50 chart. A survey of the actual traffic information is displayed on the third screen, the ‘app’ PC, which manages the station’s various apps.”

The DJ’s personal laptop is placed in the center position and includes email and Twitter platforms and Pluxbox RadioManager, the station’s new radio social management and content prep system

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The MNM studio is decorated in the station’s imaging, tagline and colors.

A DHD 52/MX 10-fader broadcast console, in combination with the new DHD 52/XS2 core completes the setup.

“The DHD controls the mics, the playout system, the laptop in front of the DJ and the CD player input. And again, you may call MNM somewhat atypical but we have no individual DJ presets in the DHD,” De Raes pointed out.

“The only processing is that our female presenters get more output volume via a Dan Dugan E-3A automatic mixing controller, with ‘gain reduction,’ to get a constant output gain. With outboard Empirical Labs EL8-X Distressors we get the right sound.” Two Genelec 8240A monitors complete the setup.

Today, MNM’s radio floor consists of a main on-air studio, a smaller copy of the on-air suite used as redundancy backup and for recording, two production stations equipped with Steinberg Nuendo software and DHD 52/SX consoles, four fixed workplaces for the preparation of programs and 25 variable workplaces with laptop docking stations.

The editorial section is fully wireless — each laptop has editing software and direct access to the main network. In addition, two “islands,” with a hardwired connection to the internet are used by the online team. A separate room next to the MNM floor is used as creative space for video recording — equipped with an urban wall, backdrops and greenscreen, it is used for online video content. The whole studio is fully equipped for visual radio.

MODULAR APPROACH

The big advantage of having the complete MNM team on one floor is the continuous interaction and visual contact. Both Ver Eecke and De Raes also see a psychological advantage in the new working environment. “Everybody is involved in making radio — it’s happening here and that’s a big step ahead in building MNM as radio brand.”

Ver Eecke emphasizes that this is a flexible and modular approach.

“It may be premature to say this will be the ‘copy-paste’ studio layout for the new building’s radio studios but I’m convinced the MNM studio has kicked-off the process. And who knows what the future will bring? A miniature on-air setup with one laptop and a mic? Today we have opened up the ‘studio’ and lowered the psychological threshold by establishing more contact between DJs and staffers.”

As a member of the “radio task force” for the new VRT-building, De Raes confirms that the current MNM studio, as a test concept, will be a model for the new Radio 1 studio.

“The new building and its design are currently in the concept and planning phase,” he said. “By the end of this year we will have an idea of the definitive plans of the Radio 1 broadcast landscape. This will be based on the learning we have gathered at MNM but serving a different format and content with sports, interviews, news and debates.”

Ver Eecke underlined the importance for radio broadcasters to step into experimental projects for radio production and online content.

“I’m absolutely in favor of convincing radio staffers to try new things. Fresh experiences and innovative ways of working by trial and error provides a bonus,” concluded Ver Eecke. “In doing so, this helps to get the entire team into a specific mindset, facilitating the implementation of new technologies, studio upgrades and working processes.”

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