TWiRT Discusses Radio Tech Using Skype

Podcast is a case study for radio in the 21st century
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Kirk Harnack hosts “This Week in Radio Tech” from his home studio. This fall marked the fifth anniversary of “This Week in Radio Tech,” a podcast geared to broadcast radio engineers.

Created by Kirk Harnack, TWiRT’s most popular episodes now reach an average audience of about 7,000.

Although occasional glitches (introduced mainly by Skype) intrude on the podcast, TWiRT’s audience listens in weekly for the latest technical tips, war stories, interviews with famous engineers and occasional trips into radio history.

“Email feedback comes in from almost all stretches of the globe,” said co-host Chris Tobin, former broadcast technologist for CBS Radio stations in New York City and current owner of Content Creator Solutions. “The shows I enjoy most are when we challenge the status quo,” he said.

Whatever the topic, TWiRT features casual conversation between engineers “similar to what takes place at an SBE meeting, or at lunch, or in the hall at the NAB,” said Harnack. “We’re not doing highly produced tutorials.”

Harnack’s employer, Telos Systems, is TWiRT’s oldest sponsor, but he said the show is vendor-neutral. TWiRT welcomes guests from a variety of his company’s competitors. “And I really try to watch my language,” said Harnack. “Instead of saying Livewire [a Telos brand name], I’ll say AoIP.”

TWiRT is produced and distributed by the GFQ Network, founded and led by Andrew Zarian. GFQ’s 15 weekly podcasts range from unboxing the latest consumer gadgets (“What the Tech”) to professional wrestling (“Mat Men”). GFQ makes money by selling advertising time to Podtrac, who in turn places ads on the network’s various shows. Telos acquires ad time on TWiRT directly from the podcast, rather than through GFQ.

Each Thursday, Harnack, Tobin and a guest establish a Skype video connection with Zarian at the GFQ Network studio in New York City. Zarian tweaks the connections and then switches between participants throughout the one-hour live show.

Zarian creates a relaxed but polished look to the show — until Skype gremlins occasionally pop up.

Skype is the weakest link in the chain, said Zarian, despite the fact that GFQ runs separate PCs for each incoming Skype video signal.

But when Skype signals slow down over a bad “hop” on the public Internet, the show can be brought to its knees.

“Then, who do you call? Verizon and Comcast both pass the buck. You will lose your mind when that happens,” Zarian said.

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Andrew Zarian produces the TWiRT podcast in the GFQ studio in New York. TWiRT is a video podcast, “but right now, audio is still king,” said Zarian. Most TWiRT fans enjoy the show as a download after the live podcast, he said, and audio downloads outnumber video three to one.

“And I honestly believe that most people who download the video are still just listening, not watching,” he added.

Nevertheless, TWiRT has offered some visually stunning shows, including a behind-the-scenes tour of NIST station WWV by Tom Ray (of Tom Ray Broadcast Consulting), who occasionally co-hosts the podcast.

Tobin has offered live reports from transmitter facilities atop a New York City skyscraper and other remote locations.

EQUIPMENT

Tobin has assembled a bag with everything he needs to Skype-in from far-flung locations: Two laptop computers (one MacBook, one PC running Windows 7), both configured to give Skype as much CPU time as possible; a Roland UA-25EX USB audio interface (eliminates unbalanced mic audio and noise from a laptop’s motherboard); a 25-ft. LAN cable; an AKG D202 mic for noisy environments; a lavaliere mic (Posthorn Recordings Sonotrim STR-BLA6); a Logitech C920a webcam (HD 1080p) with tabletop tripod; a 4G cellular modem card for the laptops; and a small 5000K light.

Tobin said that the kit has served him well in a range of environments — from beaches to New York City park benches — since he designed it more than two years ago.

Back at GFQ, Zarian runs an Axia Radius Console, an Omnia One Multicast to process coded audio and a Telos ProStream for live netcasting.

STEPPING UP THEIR GAME

Zarian said that his hardware choices and other technical decisions at GFQ have been influenced by the podcast.

Hosting TWiRT “really helped us step up our game, and made us rethink everything we’re doing,” he said. “We’re not a radio station, and for someone outside of broadcasting to bring over broadcasting equipment is not something that you see a lot.”

TWIRT TRIVIA

• TWiRT had released 230 episodes, as of Oct. 12, 2014. If you watched TWiRT 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, you’d make it through the whole archive in about a month.
• Harnack estimates that he spends about two hours off-air preparing for every show.
• When TWiRT streams live on Thursdays at 1900 UTC, a chatroom for viewers to discuss the show opens at http://www.gfqnetwork.com/live/.
• Tom Ray and Chris Tarr, co-hosts on some past episodes, have been absent from recent shows due to schedule conflicts. “I wish we could get them all on more often,” said Harnack.

Shortly after Harnack launched TWiRT in 2009, the show was picked up by TWiT.tv, the podcast network founded by Leo Laporte. (For Radio World’s 2011 story about TWiT.tv, visit radioworld.com, keyword Netcast.) But during one week in 2012, “TWiT killed nine podcasts, and mine was one of them,” Harnack said. “Business models change, and my little niche didn’t fit their wider audience marketing anymore.”

After TWiRT’s break with TWiT.tv, the podcast was acquired by the GFQ Network.

“But I don’t know if I ever would have gotten around to [creating TWiRT] if a guy like Leo hadn’t said, ‘You can do this,’” Harnack said.

TWiRT’s plans for the future include the ability to take live calls from folks listening in real time.

“TWiRT has been amazing in getting current technical information — and legacy information — out to an enormous audience of engineers,” said Harnack. “It sparks their thinking, and hopefully, broadens their possibilities of doing great technical work.”

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