Radio Station Tour

Yesterday, I toured through my favorite radio station, AllClassical.org (KQAC), during their open house. The non-profit HD Radio station uses iBiquity to broadcast digital audio on a sub-carrier.

Some 10 Million HD Radio Receiver have been sold nationwide, and there are 14 FM HD signals (thirteen with HD2) and at least one AM HD on the air in the Portland market. Only about 2 percent of radio listeners are tuned to HD Radio in their cars at any given time, which is a shame. I think HD radio ought to be integrated into every cell phone.

I love this station! It has world class on-air talent, great local programming, and music that continually lifts my spirit. The operations side, however, was a mystery, although I used to work at a broadcast station decades ago.

Luckily, Larry Holtz, Vice President of Technology and Jordan Lewis, Operations Administrator, were on hand to explain how a contemporary radio station works.

There wasn’t an audio “cart” in the house. No CDs, either. All music is stored on racks with 16 drives, each with 3 Terabytes. “Voice tracking“, the technology that inserts pre-recorded announcer breaks, was scorned when it was first introduced by Clear Channel. Now broadcast automation is standard practice, especially for late night shifts.

Announcers can use Adobe’s CS-6 Audition software for off-line production. It works seamlessly with radio automation systems, using RIFF metadata, AES Cart Chunk, and MPEG-1 Layer 2 audio support. It’s coordinated with radio automation.

John Pitman, Music Director, selects the music and is in charge of most of the programming from Monday through Friday and large chunks of the weekend.

John Burk, Program Director, uses Music Master, their scheduling software that queries the music database and creates the music logs.

Then Jordan Lewis programs it into the Enco broadcast automation system. He enters in an entire week of programming, with musical selections for each 24 hour broadcast day.

Broadcast automation is also used for two co-located stations. IMediaTouch provides the broadcast automation for KPBS, an un-affiliated AM station, co-located at the facility, and KZME, another unaffiliated station dedicated to broadcasting local music, which leases KQAC’s HD2 channel.

The live, on-air announcers never touch a CD. They watch their screen for the live cues. Evening announcers don’t even come down to the station. They record the breaks by monitoring the last and next cuts. I had no idea it was not live 24/7. I’ve listened to the station for years and never had a clue.

If there’s a problem, explained operations administrator Lewis, the system defaults to a backup program stream. He gets a call, then logs into the station’s automation to fix it.

The broadcast signal goes up to the Sylvan Hills transmitter (video) by landline and microwave (below).

A Shively combiner mixes transmitters from three different FM stations into a single antenna, a Shively “3-Around” Circularly polarized antenna on a 1,000 ft tower.

Radio stations rarely utilize real-time audio streams over satellite anymore, according to Lewis. Real-time transmission takes too long to record and store. Instead, files are downloaded. One half hour program takes about 7 minutes to download. Files are also uploaded for delivery of original programming created by All Classical’s staff. They use Adobe Audition for editing original programming.

The Sage Digital ENDEC provides the abilty for local and state officials to directly activate the EAS system.

NPR manages the Public Radio Satellite System which also distributes programming from American Public Media and Public Radio International, networks that are independent of NPR. Public Radio Exchange is a nonprofit web-based platform for digital distribution. A datacast client receives the satellite files. Current.org has more on network delivery technology.

KQAC also delivers a free live stream. But the multiple streams don’t originate from the station. Instead they contract with a professional streaming service. It costs the station about $1.50 every month per stream, or about $17/year. At any one time, they’re getting about 3,000 listeners streamed over the internet. StreamGuys can push a single source of audio to all of the major mobile phones as well as Flash players for desktops and laptops.

In 2011, 22% of the American population listened to online radio in the last week. That was up from 12% in 2006 and 5% in 2001. StreamingRadioGuide and Radio-Locator are the most comprehensive radio station search engines on the internet.

Next month, AllClassical will have their iPhone app listed on iTunes as a streaming option. The station is crossing its fingers.

If their bandwidth triples without a corresponding increase in contributions, they’re going to be stuck.

So far the streaming arm is fairly cost neutral. It has listeners (and contributors) from McMurdo to Moscow.

While Nielson tracks television viewers, Arbitron tracks the radio audience.

Stations like KQAC embed Arbitron’s inaudible code in the broadcast which is psychoacoustically masked.

A portable people meter, worn like a pager, records the broadcast environment 24/7. Every night, it’s placed on a recharging stand that also uploads the diary.

The station is a gem of efficiency. It’s nearly a “black box”, with few moving parts. It gives the diverse and talented staff the freedom to do what they do so well — deliver an inspiring mix of programing.

An artful combination of talent and technology. A real gift.

Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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