This interview is excerpted from the ebook “Automation: The Next Phase.”
The “pandemic year” put new demands on automation and other software-based media management systems that serve radio. Most of these systems were well equipped to meet the challenge, yet there are lessons to be learned from the experiences of the past year and a half.
RCS is all about broadcast software — from its well-known Selector music scheduling system, introduced in 1979, to its 2GO browser-based extensions for mobile devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets.
Philippe Generali is president/CEO of RCS.
Radio World: How has the pandemic changed things?
Philippe Generali: The first thing engineers had to do was figure out a simple, easy setup that they could ship to the show host. We’ve seen different choices in various countries depending on what’s available locally, but essentially engineers started shipping a little mixing console and a microphone that sounded decent — whatever the talent needed to talk remotely and sound like they were in the studio.
And clients that work with RCS software knew that Zetta2GO was an option. It’s built to operate remotely on any type of computer — tablets, PC, Mac or even phones, so there was no need to ship a computer for the host, no need to have a special IT setup, just a decent internet connection.
RW: Will we go back to what it was before? What’s the new workflow going to be?
Generali: It’s funny, the 2GO browser-based extension — of our traffic software Aquira, of our music scheduling software Selector, of our automation system Zetta — was seen as a bit of a gadget before. People said, “Yeah, that’s nice but I don’t really see myself operating the automation system on a tablet from a remote location.”
But suddenly it became mission-critical. Tech support calls went through the roof here and in Europe and in Asia as people started to work from home. Many were asking about “that 2GO thing.” Our support people were being asked, “Can you help me set it up? How do I operate it remotely?”
This has changed the way engineers perceive working remotely as well as how good it can sound.
Some of the talent will say, “I’m happy to work from home.” This was done before of course, but only for megastars like Rush Limbaugh, big syndicated personalities who were able to have their own studio at home. This will now be accessible to pretty much anybody who works at a radio station.
But there’s more. If you have a talented program director who is joining your operation but he doesn’t want to move, he can work with Selector2GO from wherever he is.
When I was a program director and on-air guy, somebody told me, “Be ready to be move around a lot.” I asked why. He said, “Because if you’re successful, you’re going to be hired in a bigger market. And, if you’re not successful, you’re going to be fired and have to move to a lower market. So, you’ll move no matter what.” But those days might be over.
RW: How do you keep radio live and local if more people are remote from the community of license?
Generali: There’s a lot on social media that will allow you to monitor the situation in your home town. And what I call the “utilities,” traffic and weather — now you can have them anywhere you want. Services like Waze and weather services provide local information.
But you may not necessarily have to be far away from the studio. You could just work from home in the same town, if you want to. It doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily on the other side of the planet or are in a different time zone. The beauty of work-from-home means that, the days you want to come in, you can; the days you don’t want to come, you don’t. You can still know the local life and what’s going on locally.
RW: What are potential buyers of systems asking for these days?
Generali: “Can we have a metered service? We don’t want to build capacity for things that we use only once in a while.” So we discuss with them about whether they operate on premises or whether they operate remotely from the cloud.
We’re going to be very active in the cloud, particularly on the international side.
We also get questions about how to protect stations from cyberattacks, a new plague that engineers have to worry about. When you speak with an engineer who’s had ransomware infect his network, you know this is a terrible thing.
We offer Cloud-Based Disaster Recovery, which allows the operation to run safely from the cloud. For instance, if you need to turn off all the machines hosting your on-premises software, the program will allow you to still run your voice tracks, which were uploaded a few minutes earlier, your commercials, your songs. They make the station sound like it’s still there and working fine. Meanwhile, you can repair your network locally without any problems.
RW: When someone asks whether they should be in the cloud, what is your dialogue?
Generali: Some people say, “Oh, you have to be a multi-city operator to be on the cloud.” However, we have companies that are very small, and some that are very big, considering cloud-based operation.
As an engineer, you have to talk with management, you have to see how it’s going to change the operation of your stations.
When you go onto the cloud, you’re going to trade cap-ex for op-ex. Instead of buying a big machine or set of machines that you’ll put on the balance sheet and depreciate, which is not going to impact your EBITDA, now you’re going to go with monthly fees, your cloud costs, bandwidth and software licenses. These costs have to be integrated into the way the station works.
Do you need a different footprint on real estate? Do you have different staffing needs? Do some people go part-time to adapt for a cloud environment? It’s a profound change.
You can’t go to the cloud just for the sake of going cloud. It’s not as simple as, “Should you buy an Exchange server for email or should you put the staff on Office 365?”
RW: Do you find resistance to the idea of recurring costs that go with software as a service?
Generali: Yes, though we have found that the international community is more open to it.
Sometimes there are needs for a cloud-based environment, sometimes for a more hybrid system. But the cloud is a means to an end. It’s not a thing in itself.
Prospective customers ask things like, “Can we have a Christmas channel that would start on Dec. 1, run for one month at the end of the year, and only pay for that month?” Or they would like to do a special internet channel in the memory of rapper DMX for a week, so that they can play all his songs but without having to buy a separate machine or set up anything.
The flexibility of metered service is appealing to content creators. Right now you could go on a metered service within minutes, just the time it takes to put a few hours of logs together, and then you’re on the internet.
RW: One engineer told me he wishes there was more joint development between automation and network infrastructure companies. He actually said, “I’d love to see an automation company put the whole console surface right into the automation system and make it one product.”
Generali: I would gladly invite him to one of our booths at shows. We’ve been demonstrating such technology for the past few years in Europe and in Asia.
For example we presented a fully integrated demo on a gigantic 42- or 50-inch touchscreen. With the HTML Zetta2GO interface, you can operate a virtual console from Wheatstone or Axia on a flatscreen monitor. Zetta2GO is browser-based and everything is HTML. It is the ultimate virtual setup.
You put a DJ on one of those integrated systems, which has the automation and the console and everything on one gigantic flat surface — tilted 20 to 30 degrees so it is easy to work with. It’s easy to start and stop the music, put pots up and down, cut voice tracks and do everything on one integrated system.
This is made possible because the software is developed using APIs. The end of the big monolithic design of software applications is here. You cannot afford nowadays to have one big EXE and a few DLLs. All of the modules have to be independent and talking to each other by API.
It allows features that talk to each other. It allows remote control of every module independently with a light software client like a browser. That, of course, allows moving the software to the cloud, which will be a must for any manufacturer.
And to your point, having APIs everywhere allows easier communication between vendors for better system integration.
RW: What else should we know about where this class of products is headed?
Generali: API, API, API, the three rules of building software for a solid solution. Your products should be able to interact with anybody’s, including your competitors.
I believe in open architecture, whether you are running in the cloud or on-premises. By design, software in the cloud is based on micro-services and pieces of software that are containerized and able to talk to each other. But having that structure with on-prem software allows various vendors to interact with each other.
We at RCS like to be insulated from that; that’s why we offer music, scheduling, automation, traffic all in one. You only have one phone call to place in case of a problem. But we still build our software with APIs.
And I think we have to mention tech support. Tech support is more important than ever in an environment that can be decentralized for operations. Engineers aren’t always on hand to answer questions. So who do you call?
Tech support is really one of our fortés. It has been for the past 30 years. It’s so important to have this personal touch. Every one of our engineers picking up the phone and answering is being graded by the people they talk to. We cover 24 hours, seven days a week. Even on Christmas morning, you can call us.
Having that touch with the user is more important than ever in a remote work environment.