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Trailing Bush on the White Line

A Story of 12 Days, 10 Flights, 7 Countries and No Martinis

A Story of 12 Days, 10 Flights, 7 Countries and No Martinis

When a United States president travels outside the United States, American television and radio networks combine resources to get sound and picture back to their respective organizations.

This cooperative effort for radio is the “White Line” – so named, we believe, because during the first TV pool feeds, when Richard Nixon when to China in 1972, the satellite provider designated a “White Line,” a dedicated circuit, to be used by the White House press TV pool to transmit images back, and the name stuck.

On the radio side, ABC, CBS, AP, Voice of America and NPR participate by taking turns sending producers to conduct a pre-advance survey and later, to haul mixers, microphones, ISDN and POTS codecs and video monitors around the world to predetermined press filing centers, near where the president is visiting.

Into the radio pool

On President Bush’s trip of May 30 to June 5, NPR drew the responsibility for producing the radio pool across three continents. To accomplish this, we had to assemble three producer-plus-technician teams to hopscotch from one country to another in advance of the president’s arrival.

(click thumbnail)Don Gonyea of National Public Radio files a report as NPR Technician Michael Cullen sets his level. They are in the press filing center in the Hotel Pulkovskaya in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The teams were to connect by ISDN to NPR, which would distribute the audio and switch the backfeeds from the pool members to the ISDN codec as needed. Complicating this particular White Line was the lack of a complete travel itinerary prior to the president’s departure. This is the story of those teams.

On May 28, David Argentieri, NPR director of operations/pool producer, and Andy Rosenberg, NPR technician, arrived in Krakow, Poland, and established the Radio Pool Press Filing Center at the Manggha Center of Japanese Art & Technology.

Each White Line team packed a Comrex HotLine POTS codec, Electro-Voice RE18 microphone, Sony V6 headphones, Sharp MT-15 MiniDisc recorder, Musicam USA RoadRunner and its TA201 terminal adapter, Fostex powered speakers, a two-channel Prospect IFB box, a Shure FP31 to submix three TV pool audio sources, a Whirlwind mult box to distribute pool audio to its members in the filing center and an international-standards video monitor for watching the TV pool pictures as they arrived.

Limited space

Space is limited for the U.S. press to accompany the president on his visits to shrines and local sites. The TV pool arranges to capture the picture and sound. The various audio sources are sent by multipair cable from the TV pool to the radio pool site.

The radio pool teams can expect raw, untranslated audio from a location; English translation from various sources, such as host (i.e. “local”) TV; and White House Communications Agency Audio.

“I expected to go to Krakow for four days and come home,” Argentieri said. “Once we actually arrived, however, the president’s visits to the Middle East were announced, so we devised a plan that my team – Andy Rosenberg and I – would fly to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to set up in advance of the president’s visit there.”

At that point the schedule began to fall apart. Rome had the only direct flight to Sharm el-Sheikh from Europe, and there were no direct flights to Rome from Krakow, so the team was forced to fly from there to Vienna, Austria, Vienna to Rome and then Rome to Sharm el-Sheikh.

“As I sat in a turbo prop plane at Krakow, ready for takeoff, filled with U.S. Secret Service staff and equipment,” Argentieri said, “I saw the ground crew take off our largest equipment case from the airplane and drive it back to the airport.”

(click thumbnail)Closeup, Radio Pool Equipment, Press Filing Center, Hotel Pulkovskaya, St. Petersburg
The small plane was overloaded, and the pool equipment was removed in lieu of the Secret Service equipment. “This happened,” Argentieri said in mock annoyance “after we had paid $136 in excess baggage charges.”

Upon arrival in Vienna, the team discovered that their luggage cart had been taken off the plane as well, and Argentieri’s personal bag was lost. After consulting with Senior Pool Producer Jeff Rosenberg at the site in Evian, France, it was agreed that Andy Rosenberg and Argentieri should continue their travels using whatever equipment they had remaining.

Fortunately, the equipment cases still in their possession contained all necessary codecs, mics, mixers and gear. The team made arrangements with the airline to pick up their equipment and Argentieri’s personal bag in Vienna in five days, as the team was returning to the United States.

Their travels became more interesting.

“We proceeded to the Alitalia desk to check into our flight to Rome, only to discover that that flight was one of the 200 flights cancelled due to a labor strike in Italy, Austria and Germany.” Argentieri said. “Not only did we not have our equipment, we were also not going anywhere.”

After further consultation with Jeff Rosenberg in Evian, new plan was devised in which Andy Rosenberg and Argentieri would fly to Geneva early the next morning and be inserted into the White House “bubble,” the insulated world of the presidential press pod. This would allow them to travel on the White House Press Charter to the remaining stops of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Aqaba, Jordan, and Doha, Qatar.

While this eased things, the disadvantage of traveling with the White House was that Argentieri and Rosenberg could not set up in advance of the correspondents; they would arrive at the Press Filing Center at the same time as the radio pool correspondents, who would expect to be able to file immediately.

(click thumbnail)Press Filing Center in the Conrad Intercontinental Hotel Ballroom, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Radio Pool equipment in foreground and Pool correspondents seated in row in front of the Pool Equipment.
Because the team could not continue until the following day, they recovered their large equipment case and Argentieri’s luggage. Rosenberg repacked their equipment to make a “run bag” that would contain essential pool equipment for audio transmission, such that it could be carried off the Press Charter and assembled within minutes of arrival at the Sharm el-Sheikh press filing center.

Meanwhile, with the second team …

Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the second radio pool team was having its share of interesting ISDN problems.

NPR Technician Michael Cullen described the work he and producer John Keator had to do to get an ISDN line to frame.

“I plugged in the RoadRunner, and I made a couple of calls, which would connect but would not frame,” said Cullen. “We told the phone guys about it, and they immediately asked if it was our equipment. It was not, so the (phone company) tech called his switch people, and had calls from the AT&T network rerouted through Swedish Telecom – they essentially changed their gateway for international ISDN traffic. It worked perfectly.”

As this pool site was winding down, Cullen began repacking his equipment to fly to Doha, Qatar, by way of Frankfurt, Germany, to prepare the radio pool site there. Fourteen hours after his arrival at St. Petersburg, the president and press pool departed for Evian, where the third team was waiting.

Next stop, France

NPR Producer Jeff Rosenberg and NPR Technician Suzanne Herin had set up their pool equipment at the G-8 International Press Center in the town of Publier, France.

The president remained in nearby Evian about 24 hours before departing to Sharm el-Sheikh by way of Geneva.

At this point the Argentieri and Rosenberg team joined the White House Press Charter at Geneva. Upon arrival at Sharm al Sheikh, they took their “run bags” and were set up and ready to feed at the Press Filing Center within 15 minutes of arrival. The pool correspondents started feeding shortly thereafter. Twelve hours after his arrival, the president departed for Aqaba, Jordan – a brief stop, according to Argentieri.

“The remaining time in Aqaba was uneventful, but then, we were only there for six hours,” he said. Then it was onward to the to the last site: Doha, Qatar.

The White House press advance people had told Michael Cullen to have no expectations with respect to international POTS and ISDN capability in Doha because a switching center for a Pan-Arab fiber line had destroyed by an earthquake in Algeria.

“The Qatar phone company, QTel, had rerouted as many circuits as possible through older satellite circuits,” Cullen said. “But it took 45 seconds for an international call to complete.”

Two related problems affected radio pool filing: Because the call completion time was so long, the RoadRunner would “think” the line was unresponsive, and the call would fail. This necessitated NPR having to initiate the call to Cullen, rather than vice versa.

Also, calls automatically terminated after two hours. Cullen supposed that this was an economy feature provided by Qtel, but it was a feature he discovered the hard way.

“A Bush speech was due to start in an hour,” Cullen said. “I had NPR call me, and we waited for the speech. The speech got delayed a bit, and in the middle of transmitting it ‘live’ back the U.S., the QTel connection timed out and the live feed dropped. I had NPR call my ISDN and, as is White Line protocol, I was recording it for the pool members, so after the live speech, I simply re-fed it to the U.S.”

The president departed Doha 16 hours after his arrival. David Argentieri reported that he had a more interesting time leaving the country, because he was flying home on commercial airlines.

“I left the day after the president left, and as I went through Doha passport control, I discovered that since I had been in the White House bubble traveling to Doha, they had already stamped my passport as leaving the country from a military air base.”

The lieutenant on duty was “quite interested” in why the exit stamp was in Argentieri’s passport when he was still in the country. After an hour of intense questioning and the arrival of two additional press people in the same predicament, customs finally handwrote a new date on the exit stamp and let them all leave.

It was this final wrinkle that caused David to muse “12 days, 10 flights, 7 countries, 0 Martinis.”