PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — As they usually do, sports fans across the globe turned to television (and TV content streamed on the web) to follow the 2018 Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. After all, sports are best suited to be seen, as well as heard.
Yet radio played its part in covering the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, as proven by the studio facilities assigned to radio in the International Broadcast Center. Managed by Olympic Broadcasting Services, the IBC was located in the Alpensia resort where many of the Olympic sports competitions (such as ski jumping) were staged.
“OBS offered radio operations a working space at the IBC to receive all-natural sound in stereo from all sports, with a mix especially done for radio that doesn’t follow any camera view or sound effect that could distract the listener,” said Jorge Pickering, OBS’ Broadcaster Services director. This mix was made available to on-site rights holding radio broadcasters (RHBs) in both analog and digital formats.
Within the IBC, Olympic radio broadcasters could book studios, working spaces, and technical rooms to store all their processing equipment. They also had access to an audio server that stored all interviews conducted by OBS Olympic Channel News in the mixed zones (an area where interviewers could ask questions of the athletes en masse).
As well, “we offered a number of radio facilities for broadcasters across all competition and non-competition venues, including 47 radio mixed zone positions and 57 radio commentary positions,” said Pickering. “RHBs (in all media) are also given the opportunity to have a commentary position at the venues to do narration directly where the action is taking place as well as access to a mixed zone to interview an athlete as soon as they are finished with their performance.”
CBC RADIO’S DYNAMIC DUO
Compared to the massive production crews deployed by the world’s television RHBs, the crews fielded by radio RHBs in Pyeongchang were barebones operations. For instance, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s CBC Radio covered the Pyeongchang Games with just two people: Producer Andrew Parker and reporter Jamie Strashin.
Working together, CBC Radio’s “dynamic duo” produced “Live” hits (direct to air live commentary), packaged reports and “Raw” audio (athlete interviews) for “Olympic Regional Radio Updates,” and local CBC Radio shows nationwide. Parker and Strashin also filed many reports to the CBC Radio News flagship morning program, “World Report” and the hourly newscast “World This Hour.”
“Our priorities were focused on providing as much ‘Live’ coverage as possible to our hourly Olympic Updates, being produced/put to air by two crews in Toronto,” said Parker. Since he and Strashin had to provide content for morning and afternoon radio shows across Canada’s five time zones, “there was a massive amount of CBC Radio real estate, regional and network, for a two-person crew on-the-ground to try and fill, especially considering the 14-hour time difference between Toronto and Pyeongchang.”
To do this job, CBC Radio built a radio studio in the CBC Sports work-area inside the IBC. This studio consisted of a control room with a small Mackie console connected to a laptop, connected to an external monitor.
“On the other side of the glass, in an extremely well-built soundproof booth, there was a table and three comfy chairs,” said Parker. On the table were three Shure SM58 microphones in stands and three pairs of Sony broadcast headphones. This set-up allowed Parker to interview up to three athletes at a time, with him conducting recorded interviews at the board using a control room microphone.
“The studio was equipped with a Comrex Access Portable IP codec, so CBC studios at the headquarters in Toronto, or in regional locations across Canada, could connect directly and ‘go live’ or ‘live to tape’,” he said. “This happened on a few occasions with regional CBC shows that wanted to talk directly to an athlete from their city/area.”
CBC Radio had also had access to commentary positions rented by CBC Sports in a number of rink venues. For instance, at the Gangneung Ice Arena (figure skating/short track), a prime center-ice location was available.
“Our reporter and producer (me) went ‘Live’ from this position many times, covering two sports where Canadians were continual medal threats, and successfully delivered podium finishes,” said Parker. “As well, both Jamie and I did ‘Live’ hits from many other venues into CBC Radio shows using a portable Comrex Access with a network connection.”
WWO’S LARGER CREW
With 19 people on-site, Westwood One’s U.S. radio crew was gigantic compared to CBC Radio’s twosome — but minuscule against the roughly 2,500 personnel fielded by U.S. TV RHB NBC Sports in Pyeongchang.
“Our main hub was inside the International Broadcast Center in the Pyeongchang mountain cluster,” said Mike Eaby. He is Westwood One’s V.P. of Sports Administration, coordinating producer of its Pyeongchang Olympic coverage, and one of the 19 people who were based at the IBC. “Our IBC studios consisted of six rooms: Main studio, main studio control room, engineering room, two announce booths and a bullpen area,” Eaby said. “The studios were inside the massive NBC footprint at the IBC.”
In addition, Westwood One had commentary positions — “think tables in the stands or small booths in a press box,” said Eaby — at nine venues including Alpine Skiing 1 and 2, Hockey 1 and Hockey 2, the Olympic stadium, and the figure skating arena; among others.
“At each of the nine venues, we had a ‘mixed zone’ position in order to conduct quick one-on-one interviews as they leave the competitive arena,” he said. “Lastly, our New York studios were staffed by a handful of people 24 hours a day providing essential production support back home.”
“Keep in mind that our studios are built from scratch at each Olympics,” Eaby noted. “Our technical folks, Zach Akey and Leslie Kveton, did an outstanding job getting us up and running, then to have almost zero technical issues for three weeks is truly an accomplishment by them.”
To quote the Spiderman graphic novels, with great power comes great responsibility. In the case of Westwood One, having a larger crew (by radio standards) meant producing an incredible amount of content during the Winter Games.
“Each day (the night before back in the U.S.) we produced a two-hour show that consisted of athlete interviews, highlights and talk covering all the Olympic events,” said Eaby.
“We also broadcast each Team USA men’s hockey game, the Team USA women’s preliminary round game against Canada, and both men’s and women’s gold medal games. Lastly, we provided our stations with three Olympic updates (one minute of content) per hour around the clock for 17 days. Our talent was running from place to place, many times calling two events in the same day.”
CHALLENGES AND ACHIEVEMENTS
Clearly, both CBC Radio and Westwood One had a lot of radio content to produce, with only relatively bare-bones crews to get the job done.
“As mentioned, the biggest challenge was that there was only two of us,” said Parker. “Best intentions aside, there were few moments when I could do ‘Live’ hits myself because I was too busy coordinating the overall project or rushing to the IBC to do athlete interviews. So ideally, a third person, and in particular, another reporter, would have been invaluable,” he said.
“The Alpine skiing proved to be a bit of a mess with all the scheduling issues,” added Eaby. “On three occasions, weather forced the Olympic organizers to schedule two ski events at the same time on two different mountains — and Westwood One only had one announce team. Fortunately, NBC was a huge help in getting us TV feeds from one mountain while in our broadcast booth at another.”
With so much to be done, a further challenge was ensuring that everyone didn’t get burnt out too fast, he added. “It’s a cliché, but the Olympics are truly a marathon and not a sprint. Keeping everyone focused while they lack sleep, miss friends and family back home and are running from place-to-place for three weeks is no small task. The Olympics is a grind.”
Nevertheless, CBC Radio and Westwood One both created superb radio coverage during the 2018 Winter Games, despite having the smallest of crews and the biggest of missions. And despite the grind, the experience was rewarding for their hard-working crews.
“Being able to broadcast Team USA women’s hockey win over Canada to a national audience certainly ranks near the top for us.” said Eaby. “Even though we didn’t do as well as we would have liked from an American perspective, having figure skating, Alpine skiing and snowboarding live during our two-hour show made for some great theater.”
“We witnessed so many incredible moments, at a winter games packed with politics, passion for sport and incredible performances,” added Parker. “Radio-wise, you couldn’t get a better sound effect to work with than the exuberant chants of the North Korean cheerleading squads.” All of this begs the question: Does radio still have a meaningful role to play covering the TV-dominated Olympic Games?
“Absolutely,” said Eaby. “With the multitude of platforms available nowadays, the public has options in which to consume their Olympics and we think we present a unique and exciting form of it. I’m proud of the coverage we provide to our listeners.”
“Without a doubt, TV gets all the spoils — and the Olympic Games give priority to the TV broadcasters,” said Parker. “But in a time when people want a choice on how and when they get their Olympic coverage, radio still matters. Many people continue to count on and appreciate the ability of a good radio storyteller to bring the faraway action into their ears, and imaginations.”