ESPN Radio enters the digital age

June 1, 2004

"Jiminy Christmas, is this place big!"

Ron Dibble isn't exaggerating. The co-host of the Dan Patrick Show on ESPN Radio was accustomed to broadcasting from a room the size of a closet. That has all changed since the sports network recently finished updating its cramped and out-of-date facility. Dibble and the rest of the ESPN Radio on-air staff now enjoy more spacious studios and modern broadcasting technology as they deliver more than 9,000 hours of annual talk and event content to more than 700 affiliates nationwide.

ESPN Radio launched in 1992. In the beginning studio size wasn't an issue. Sports fans across the country tuned into their 170 local affiliates carrying the new sports network broadcasting from the ESPN Campus in Bristol, CT, home to 60,000 residents and one of the largest bell factories in the United States. ESPN's analog studios were deemed modern for 1992, but the next decade brought many changes to the sports network: more programming, more staff, more affiliates and less available room in their facility. By the turn of the new century, it was past time for ESPN to grow.

By 2000, the digital age had arrived. As hundreds of stations across the country upgraded their facilities, ESPN Radio decided their time had also come. In the early part of 2000, management and engineering considered their decade-old analog-based studios and began formulating the plans for a new state-of-the-art facility. With this major capital project, ESPN Radio would be able to provide crisp, clear audio for its affiliates with an all-digital path using modern cutting-edge equipment.

The old studios (below) of ESPN Radio were long overdue for an upgrade.

The air studio has an improved look and feel. Here we see Dan Patrick at the mic.

Producer Phil Ceppeglia in an ESPN Radio control room. The multitude of monitors provides a great deal of information to the producers.

In an ESPN Radio news studio, Doug Brown prepares a story while monitoring television and Internet feeds. The air studio can be seen in the monitor next to the clock.

Growing pains

Any broadcaster who has spent a decade in one facility can understand the needs of this major sports network. As ESPN's popularity grew, new shows were added to the roster nearly every year, continuously increasing the size of the staff, and decreasing the physical space for announcers. For instance, Sports Center anchors had to physically enter the main talk booth every 20 minutes to deliver their updates. These studios could only comfortably house three people; any more and they would be trampling on each other. Improvements to these awkward and cramped working conditions factored heavily into the new studio designs.

On the production side, the studios housed a hodgepodge of analog and digital equipment: BMX III and Yamaha 02R consoles, Minidisc decks, cart machines, CD players, 360 Systems editors, Orban DSE7000s and a Datatek 2400 router. A studio upgrade promised to bring up-to-date audio editing equipment and a new overall sound to ESPN Radio. This new sound would better serve the affiliates, listeners and most importantly the advertisers.

After the decision was made to build the new facility, the engineering crew, led by chief engineer Tom Evans, moved ESPN Radio from Building 2 to Building 5. ESPN Radio broadcast from the temporary, windowless quarters in Building 5 for the next two years. Ironically, this location offered a substantial space improvement to the old facility. Two studios, three control rooms and the equipment room occupied about 1,000 square feet, with an additional 3,000 square feet available for office space. The engineers moved all of the equipment (except for the core routing system and patch bays) to the temporary building, one room at a time, to allow for uninterrupted on-air operations.

ESPN commissioned Tecton Architects of Hartford to design the new facility in Building 2. This firm had previously designed the adjacent ESPNews studio, and the sports network wanted the continuity of style to carry into ESPN Radio. Tecton's greatest challenge in Building 2 was space limitation, in spite of the 5,000 square feet available on the first and second floors. Of this space, 2,800 square feet were allocated for the office space, and Tecton had to maximize the functionality of what was left for four live studios, four control rooms, an isolated production room and three equipment rooms.

All of the rooms occupy a compact area of only 2,200 square feet, making ESPN Radio a modern exercise in space efficiency. Windows were installed to provide sight lines between all rooms. Each room contains cameras to further enhance visual contact, and the images are transmitted within all the studios via a closed-circuit CATV system.

ESPN Radio uses the latest in acoustic technology for the entire facility. Tecton contracted University of Hartford Acoustics to optimize the sound performance of the new studios. The design called for high-performance doors, walls, ceilings and windows to acoustically isolate each studio. A specially designed HVAC system provides quiet ventilation, and a computer floor installed throughout the facility limits penetration between rooms (and eliminates the need for ugly wire trays). Absorption and diffusion fixtures manufactured by RPG regulate the acoustic reflections on the studio walls, and no electronic equipment in the studios and control rooms contain fans.

Late call

One challenge the engineers were forced to cope with was unexpected delays in delivery of software and hardware components required for the new studios. Some of these devices were so new that they were actually still in development when they were ordered. New items would trickle in over the months of construction, and engineers were left wringing their hands, wondering when the next one might show up.

But once the construction of all the rooms was complete, the wiring and equipment they did have could be installed. Harris was contracted to build out the facility, while ESPN staff took care of the support systems for the new studios. Three equipment rooms house the Enco workstations, servers and main audio storage. Thirteen racks hold the studio phone system, ISDN codecs, the router and patch panels. Three more racks facing into the adjacent ingest/screening room are fitted with dubbing equipment. The old-fashioned way of running big audio snake cables to the rooms was modernized by running the more compact CAT-5 multicables through 110 punch blocks, patchable 110 blocks and RJ45 panels. Also, fiber-optic lines carry signals from building to building, as well as some server to storage connections. Video and CATV are run on traditional coax.

Enco servers and storage devices are located in several buildings, providing a physical diversity of backup systems. ESPN Radio uses a virtual TOC still in development by ESPN and Enco Systems. The virtual TOC is a modern system of monitoring and control, with a schedule-based monitoring system that is being developed and deployed as new programming requirements arise. Scheduling of program paths will also be handled by the virtual TOC. Transmission and commercial insertion operations at ABC Radio in Manhattan is part of this virtual system, allowing even more flexibility to ESPN Radio's programming techniques.

The studios resemble something one might see in a science fiction movie. In all, the broadcast areas contain more than 100 video monitors. The second floor alone has 26 mic locations. The staff at ESPN Radio uses the many monitors for computer displays, inter-room visual communications and to view multiple sporting events. Monitors also appear at audio workstations and office computers throughout the facility.

In addition to the vast array of video monitors, the studios contain all-new equipment except for the 360 Systems Digicart 3, a cart machine (still have to have this old standby) and two Telos Zephyr Xstreams — all carryovers from the old facility. Harris Pacific BMX digital consoles were installed in the new studios partially due to the resemblance to the BMX III, helping ease the transition into the new environment. In spite of their larger size, the new consoles provide an immediacy of button-per-function design similar to the previous BMX III consoles.

The digital signal path ultimately makes its way to the Harris Intraplex, where it joins a data stream and is sent to ABC Radio on a T1 line. Backups to the audio and data are available on diverse DSOs and KU feeds.

The all-digital environment has greatly improved ESPN's flexibility and versatility and overall sound; and most importantly an improved efficiency on the job. The staff loves the new router system with more than 2000 crosspoints, with which they can pull any source into any studio, to instantly send programming across the hall among the four studios.

Formerly cumbersome multiple remote broadcasts are now a snap due to the way the increased numbers of ISDN connections are handled in the studio upgrade. These upgrades better serve the specific needs of their affiliates. The new equipment also helped ESPN launch its new ESPN Audio Cut service. Audio Cut is broadcast twice a day, and features the most timely, poignant news bytes from the world of sports.

ESPN Radio is now fully immersed in the 21st century. The new studios in Building 2 at the ESPN Campus are found just south of the main ESPN News room and north of the television studios. The current staff of 70 sports-minded people deliver more than 24 hours of live — never automated — programming to its 700-plus affiliates and 17 million weekly listeners across the country, including those in key markets such as Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Hartford, CT, New York, Phoenix, Norfolk, VA, and Louisville, KY.

Needless to say, the employees think they've died and gone to digital heaven. Following the requisite initial apprehension of moving into the new office, staff members quickly embraced the unfamiliar gear, observing noticeable time-savings on all their projects. The new equipment even challenged the staff to find better methods to perform their tasks more productively.

And whether the station personnel like it or not, the temporary facility in Building 5 is going to stay there permanently. ESPN Radio is improving it to use for additional production, pilot system development and as backup to the new facility. The studios still contain their BMX III and Yamaha 02R consoles. The Datatek router is now connected to a new SAS 32KD router, with plans for upgrades. An audio delivery pilot system has already been installed and was used for training and ingest during construction. Also, a large portion of the 3,000 square feet of office space will remain in use by other radio staff members.

What's next for ESPN Radio? The major sports network's new studios will soon be networked with the studios at ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. This plan will make it possible for Radio and Television to easily exchange sound bites from interviews and sporting events. Presently, the new facility has given ESPN Radio a much-improved audio presence; and even better, more programming elements to inform the hoards of dedicated sports fans tuning in every day. ESPN Radio promises to never disappoint its loyal listeners as the network continually innovates with new programs and more exciting ways to deliver them.

Equipment List

AEQ Course, Eagle and Swing codecs
Aphex 1788 Mic preamps
Comrex Matrix ISDN codec
Electrovoice RE-27ND mics
Enco Systems digital workstations
ESE timers
Eventide BD500 delays
Evertz 7700 series conversion/distribution
Forecast Consoles studio cabinetry
Genelec 1029A, 1030A, 7060A monitors
Genelec speakers
Harris Intraplex
Harris Pacific BMX digital consoles
Leitch clocks
Logitek Remora console
Musicam CDQ1000 codec
Omnia FM3 processor
RPG Diffusor Systems acoustic materials
RTS ADAM intercom
Sierra Automated Systems 32KD router
TC Electronic System 6000
Telex intercom
Telos 2101 phone hybrid
Telos Zephyr, Zephyr Express, Xstream and Xstream MXP codecs
Wohler audio monitors

Singer is a freelance writer and former radio engineer based in Cincinnati.

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