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Wireless Served Inaugural Coverage

Security, logistics, telecom defined the technical event logistics for radio

Radio keeps its ear on the proceedings. President Obama can be seen delivering his inaugural address from NPR’s position on the north media platform at the U.S. Capitol. NPR’s Mackie 1620 mixer, foreground, was fed by three host mics, two wireless mics, a mult feed, an ambi mic, returns from two ISDN codecs and a return from a phone hybrid. A headphone bag helped make the meters more visible to the operator. WASHINGTON — Security, logistics and telecom connectivity are three of the biggest concerns for radio networks planning inauguration day coverage in the nation’s capital, according to broadcast engineers “in the know.”

The availability and reliability of 4G compared to four years ago allows network engineers more flexibility in their remote plans in general, including locations such as the West Front steps of the U.S. Capitol and then along the parade route before ending at the White house.

As President Obama took his oath for the second time, there was plenty of pomp and circumstance, as required of such events. A collection of radio news networks — America’s Radio News Network, C-Span Radio, NPR, Voice of America, CBS Radio News and many more — captured the pageantry in audio: Beyoncé’s national anthem, Richard Blanco’s poem, the oath and inaugural address.

The use of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram blogging and Twitter by terrestrial radio broadcasters grew significantly from four years ago. In addition, many network affiliates offered streaming audio feeds.

Dry air and somewhat mild temperatures in the 40s presented minimal weather challenges in covering the 57th Presidential Inauguration, according to broadcast engineers and techs working the event. At least one radio network scaled back coverage of the year’s inauguration compared to four years ago because of the perceived lessened significance of this year’s event — not unusual for a second inaugural.

The radio networks take advantage of permanent telecom infrastructure already in place at the U.S. Capitol, though the moving nature of an inauguration day schedule presents challenges and requires creativity, according to engineers.

Cold tests

National Public Radio, which presented a special broadcast of inaugural events and a live stream available online and on mobile devices, concocted battery tests to prepare for potential cold weather and the lack of power in several remote locations. The tests prior to inauguration day were similar to ones the network performed four years ago, said Neil Trevault, technical director of elections for NPR.

“I borrowed the refrigerator from the technicians’ lounge to freeze the Musicam RoadWarriors (portable IP/ISDN codec). We knew we had to use them at locations without any power,” Tevault said. “We had to use large acid batteries weighing about 25 pounds. I froze the RoadWarrior with the battery. We ran audio to and from it to replicate working conditions. We managed about seven hours of battery life.”

Inauguration day, a 13-hour workday for Tevault, is like preparing for a giant remote, he said.

“We had locations at the Capitol, three locations at the Mall, three fixed sites along the parade route and five roaming reporters along the parade route. Gathering all the equipment for this undertaking is the biggest remote I’ve ever packed for.”

NPR used limited pool coverage of the day’s events; the network used the main studio at its Washington headquarters for final mixing and satellite distribution to affiliates. NPR hard-patched the sends and returns through ISDN from the Capitol location to master control, he said, instead of using the switcher to route the audio, which would have limited the audio to only four paths.

NPR’s director at the Capitol used a Telos hybrid to talk to the director in the master control studio via a Prospect Electronics IFB box. Tevault said the audio return from the studio used by the air talent was via ISDN, too.

Barry Bagnato of CBS Radio News was one of several correspondents anchoring live coverage. Barry is overlooking the West Capitol steps and using a Telos Zephyr Xstreme MXP (ISDN codec plus four-input mixer) box and a Sennheiser HMD26 headset mic. “Our talent used head set mics with DPA microphones and regular Sony headphones; they don’t look fancy but it’s the best-sounding headset microphone we have used.

“A Mackie 1620 console was onsite and the Prospect IFB unit allowed the director talk to any of the reporters. We used Musicam Suprima ISDN codecs and a return from a Telos hybrid. We had a reporter on a wireless mic to extend our reach with a combo of a Lectrosonics wireless unit and Shure microphone,” Tevault said.

One of NPR’s Musicam RoadWarriors was connected to ISDN at an area called the media village, serviced by Verizon, he said.

The wider availability of 4G compared to President Obama’s first inauguration made a real difference, allowing for better connectivity and increased mobility for reporters, he said. NPR employed several wireless portable Comrex Access units.

“We struggled several times getting the Access units connected because of the heavy use on the 4G network, but when we did, we used cell phones. However, that was seldom,” Tevault said. “More often than not we got them connected with the high data rates at 64 kbps to codecs at the master control. The audio quality is tremendous and way better than a cell phone or sat phone.”

About the only thing that failed during NPR’s inauguration day broadcast was something Tevault had failed to test: the up and down timers relied on by the producers to time for rejoins and end of reports.

“The cold got to them. The timers sat in the cold too long. The director had to resort to an app on her iPhone for a countdown the producers could see.”

Frequency coordination

NPR staged all its gear on Sunday for what Tevault described as “war games” set up by the frequency coordinator. Media organizations have use of specific wireless frequencies for such events, he explained, and by turning on the equipment during the test they make sure they are not giving or receiving any interference.

It takes longer than usual to get to any location and back because of heavy security for such an event. “When you are inside or outside the security perimeter, it takes time to get through to where you are going,” Tevault said.

NPR, which had an IT person and two telecom people at the West Front of the Capitol for the swearing in, featured co-hosts Steve Inskeep and Audie Cornish on the broadcast platform. Correspondents Ari Shapiro, Scott Horsley and David Welna contributed from remote locations.

Tevault said Beyoncé’s performance of the national anthem — famously lip synced — was memorable for its sound quality.

“Let’s just say that Beyoncé’s audio quality was a lot better than Kelly Clarkson even though they were using the same microphone. I scratched my head for a minute listening to it. I was thinking, ‘Boy, for singing live she sure sounds good.’”

CBS Radio News provided live anchored coverage and short-form special reports of inaugural ceremonies as well as a wrapup program of the ceremony featuring correspondents Dan Raviv, Bob Fuss, Peter Maer, Pam Coulter, Barry Bagnato and others.

The news organization collaborated with Dial Global on the technical challenges of covering inauguration day, according to Craig Swagler, executive producer of special events for CBS Radio Network. Dial Global is CBS Radio’s engineering partner for special live events.

Swagler worked with Mitch Glider, vice president of engineering for Dial Global, New York, on logistical planning and technical needs.

“We began editorial planning for inauguration day right after the general election,” according to Swagler. “We identify the anchor locations, how many live remote spots, where will we mix the show and then how we will break it out to the affiliates.”

The location of each CBS Radio News host and reporter is important in planning; each will need some kind of tech support for each live element along with ISDN lines, in addition to a wireless IP codec, or standard phone line for connectivity, he said.

Washington infrastructure

Glider said much of the network’s plans centered around a Sierra Automated Systems 32KD router, a SAS Rubicon-SL console and ICM 32 intercom heads at the radio network’s 2020 M Street studio in Washington.

Barry Bagnato of CBS Radio News was one of several correspondents anchoring live coverage. Barry is overlooking the West Capitol steps and using a Telos Zephyr Xstreme MXP (ISDN codec plus four-input mixer) box and a Sennheiser HMD26 headset mic. The SAS Rubicon-SL console had no less than six four-wire elements, Glider explained, whether they were an IP codec, a hard wire to one of the positions or someone on a phone.

“Craig board-oped the event and managed all of the mix-minuses and utilized an off-line bus so he could communicate with all of the remote anchors both online and offline to give them voice cues,” Glider said.

Swagler said the goal of CBS Radio News is to “always to bring the best audio quality possible when we do these live events. So we can bring the listener right to the front steps of the Capitol building.

“The natural sound is crucial, the crowd reaction, the applause, the pauses. The sound is crucial. We mixed in some shotgun mics for natural sound.”

CBS Radio News used a Telos Zephyr Xstreme MXP, which is an ISDN codec that also has mic- and line-level mixers built into it, for remote locations, Glider said.

“Correspondents used Sennheiser sports headsets that have great noise reduction for wind. The talent could mix their own sound on the fly as they were reporting using the Zephyr,” Glider said.

The final mix audio went from CBS’ Washington headquarters to New York via T-1with ISDN backup to the CBS broadcast center to be distributed across the satellite network to affiliates.

Washington has infrastructure in many key locations wired with four-wire analog circuits from the Capitol to the Pentagon, Swagler said.

CBS Radio News at various locations up and down the parade route used handheld Comrex Access units, capable of sending mono, stereo or dual mono audio over POTS, DSL, Cable, Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G cellular and satellite connections.

Dial Global posted two technicians and a technical producer at the Capitol and additional techs at the Washington headquarters, Glider said.

Swagler said a full dress rehearsal with talent was held on Sunday. In addition, “We did a full technical testing two days prior. Testing the lines back to the control room to verify that all elements have full mix-minus and can talk to each other.”

Glider expressed pleasure with the performance of the Telos Nx12 studio telephone system with ISDN voice option. “We had a cellular phone interview with Martin Luther King III to give us perspective on the day. The quality we were able to get out of the phone hybrid was far superior than a standard Telos hybrid using a cell phone. The (Nx12) gave us much more richness and texture.”

Dial Global used Comrex Matrix and Musicam Suprima audio codecs at several locations, Glider said.

Using the various telephony technologies available today does present challenges when mixing different sound quality and audio levels.

“To Craig’s credit, when you have all of these different elements and different algorithms it is hard to get the balance sometimes, but this was true live radio that sounded great,” Glider said. “Broadcasting live is special. There is balance to how pleasing is it to the ear and different frequencies that pop out and to orchestrate; that is a talent.”

IP codecs have come along the furthest of any remote gear in the four years since Obama’s first inauguration, Swagler believes.

“IP has really moved along.”