This Citroën Relay Is a Mobile, Social Studio

With the motto “Talk, capture, share,” a plan for the Bionic Van was set in motion August 20, 2015

The work of radio broadcasters revolves around content delivery. Prior to the birth of the World Wide Web as we know it, radio had a comparatively easy assignment: Deliver the content over the airwaves and do it in a way that gains and retains listeners.

Fold-up branding looks great — and can be easily masked when the van is not in use.
That assignment remains; the difference now is that the Internet has compelled broadcast to adopt a multi-layered approach. Deciding how to stay competitive and to create a socially relevant atmosphere is not easy. We see an entangled web (not to be confused with the Internet) of product after product that promises to hurl us headlong into the social media rat race. We can stream audio, provide metadata, create and upload videos, stream live video, tweet in real-time and garner Facebook comments all in concert with our radio content creation.

An interesting integration of these techniques is being demonstrated with the Bionic Van, which is used by supplier Broadcast Bionics to promote its product lines and educate customers around the United Kingdom.

Although it is certainly compact, this set-up does not look much different than the typical stationary on-air radio broadcast studio.
A NEED TO SHARE KNOW-HOW

Phil Bignell, broadcast systems architect at Broadcast Bionics, recognized a problem: There hadn’t been a trade show specific to radio technology held in the U.K. in eight years. Giving engineers, sales staff and management a hands-on look at equipment and integration techniques was difficult.

Bignell and Business Development Manager Kirsten Smith decided it was time to collect much of the company’s product line and install it in a mobile “social studio.” With the motto “Talk, capture, share,” a plan for the Bionic Van was set in motion. It would go on the road from the company’s headquarters in Sussex, England, and demonstrate radio studio technology offerings, especially as related to social media integration.

BUILDING OUT THE BIONIC VAN

Showcasing the product line in a mobile fashion would begin with Masters Exhibitions in Kent.

They first procured a lightweight van, a Citroën Relay about 22 feet long, in which custom countertops were built atop existing cabinets. The cabinets and cupboards made room for retrofitted equipment racks and storage space. The van was outfitted with a 1 kW generator that powered the broadcast equipment, alongside travel essentials, such as a refrigerator. As groups gathered to tour the Bionic Van, the fridge came in handy for hospitality.

Bignell and his design team made quick work of outfitting the Bionic Van with the products they wanted to feature, in a fashion that was aesthetically pleasing. The Citroën Relay lent itself in contributing to the feel and theme of the installed gear.

With help from U.K.-based design agency Sublime Live, Smith was able to create a look consistent with the company’s exhibition branding. However, the necessity of leaving a vanload of equipment parked overnight was good reason to not put a great deal of identifying graphics on the outside. Sublime created display graphics and branding in the right places — only visible when the van’s opening-sides and canopy were unfurled for exhibition.

This sketch shows the concept that Bignell envisioned for the Bionic Van. The photo, at top right, illustrates the faithful execution.
KEYS TO A SOCIAL STUDIO

Broadcast Bionics wanted to highlight its Virtual Director product for hands-on demonstrations. Because of its installed nature and integration with Axia nodes and PhoneBox, Virtual Director requires a full install to operate, impractical for simple demo purposes; the van is equipped with the necessities to give Virtual Director and PhoneBox a good showing.

PhoneBox is a software-based solution that integrates with Telos VoIP systems, radio automation and social media accounts. It allows producers and air talent to interact with listeners more socially; platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and YouTube are managed in PhoneBox and its social media server OASIS.

With these tools, engagement with listeners and social interaction is filtered, curated and analyzed through PhoneBox. Analytics also show audience reaction and content impact.

The supplier felt that putting PhoneBox where prospective customers can see it is important; thus the van is of service.

The Bionic Van logged a lot of miles during its tour around the United Kingdom.
VIRTUAL DIRECTOR

Three ingredients have increased the viability of utilizing video in radio control rooms: More and cheaper IP bandwidth, smaller cameras and low-profile LED lighting.

Broadcasters can now provide real-time video streams of their control rooms online, in addition to over-the-air broadcasts — and installing economical video cameras and lights is the easy part. Finding human beings to operate a video switcher, create lower-third graphics, roll video and manage the numerous other tasks involved in live video is difficult.

The company’s Virtual Director system can be utilized to solve that problem. Combined with Axia consoles, Panasonic HE2 cameras and hardware from Blackmagic, it allows for camera shots of studio talent, lower-third CG, “now playing” information from automation and live texts and tweets from listeners to be displayed visually on one screen. Album artwork and other content-rich options are visible on the screen simultaneously.

The system can be operated in automatic or manual modes. A producer can switch camera shots manually, or Virtual Director can follow camera sources based on which studio microphones are spoken into. For example, if camera one is fixed on the host, each time he or she speaks, the camera one shot is taken. In the event that several people speak at once, Virtual Director will switch to a wide shot. When a song starts and the microphone faders are muted, album art will be brought up on-screen.

Broadcast Bionics refers to Virtual Director and PhoneBox as “shareable radio, not automatic television.”

This content-rich environment is equally driven by listener interaction. Social media elements are managed through PhoneBox by producers or air talent before an erroneous or inappropriate text or tweet shows up on screen.

Visitors get a demonstration of the Virtual Director and other equipment inside the mobile van.
MORE INSIDE

Bignell and Smith were tasked with stuffing the Bionic Van not only with Phonebox and Virtual Director, but products from Music Master, WideOrbit, the Telos Alliance, Digigram, Lawo, Stirlitz and Newsboss as well others from Genelec, Yellowtec, Shure and Viprinet.

Many folks along the U.K. tour were interested in seeing the Lawo Sapphire broadcast console and its integration with Ravenna and Axia’s Livewire. Additionally, two Axia Fusion consoles were on board to demonstrate the AoIP install. Omnia.7 and the Omnia.9 processors were on hand to demonstrate new techniques offered by the Telos Alliance. Since the Bionic Van speaks heavily to social media content creation, Omnia 9 was included for its ability to process FM, HD1, HD2, HD3 and Web streams uniquely.

Shure SM7 microphones, Yellowtec M¡ka microphone booms, Genelec 8000 Series monitors and WideOrbit automation systems made for an aesthetically pleasing experience for van visitors. During its tour, engineers, administrators, sales and production staff were impressed by the combination of the products and how they worked together.

Minimal wiring is used in this environment, and Smith noted that a few runs of low-cost Category 5 cable were the only wiring used for AoIP interconnection. With a Cisco Catalyst switch at the center of everything, and wireless VPN Internet service from Viprinet, AoIP and Livewire platforms were quick hookups and Internet service was simplified. Bignell was able to elevate the Viprinet router aerial antennas using a robust speaker stand and upside down Christmas tree stand. Go ahead — feel free to steal that idea!

More information and plenty of photos can be found on the Bionic Van blog at bionicvan.tumblr.com.

Wygal is operations manager for The Journey Radio Network in Lynchburg, Va.

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