The "And More" of Automation

March 1, 2014


Automation systems have evolved considerably over their decades of existence. At first, all that was needed was the playback of music and perhaps back-announcements and hopefully, commercials. Tape machines, and then tape machines plus cart machines, were all you needed to generate radio station programming -- well, those, and a lot of patience.

Over the last 10 years though, those requirements turned into the most basic features. All automation systems out there are going to allow you to do the following:
■ Schedule a music log, and playback of songs according to the log
■ Schedule commercial content, and playback of spots according to the log
■ Log reconciliations, to prove spots ran over-the-air
■ In-house voice tracking
■ Embedded recorder/editor

Without these five basic features, you don't have a system that is of any use in a real radio station. It's the "and more" that we'll focus on. The reality is, now you have to accommodate voice-tracking that can be done by remote talent; content management features for streaming audio or on-demand features like podcasting; and management of metadata (for now playing features) and perhaps social media functions as well.

I'll start with remote voice tracking and remote content insertion. iMediaTouch (from OMT Technologies) offers an option for its system called RemoteVT Portal. Like an in-house voice tracking system, this one also allows a remote user to drag and drop music intro and fade levels; it offers a music bed pop-in feature, with drag and drop underneath dry voice tracks; and the remote talent can add up to six tracks of sound effects to be mixed in with the dry voice tracks. iMediaTouch offers another option called iMediaImport, which automatically imports station content from a variety of sources, including FTP sites, production houses, network folders, and music and programming services, including NPR's Content Depot. Last but not least I'll mention iMediaAccess, which affords radio groups an interactive, remote interface to station clusters and individual stations within the cluster; modes include one-to-many where a user can access many individual stations or station clusters; many-to-one where many users can access a single station or station cluster; many-to-many where many users can access many stations or station clusters; and finally central-to-many where many users can access a single central facility that provides automated access to many other stations or station clusters.

ENCO's DAD has similar features. For example, in consideration of remote voice tracking, there's no need for uniformity or duplicate libraries on either end. ENCO's Gateway Internet file transfer utility transfers everything needed for voice tracking with surrounding material in headphones to the remote talent. When the remote talent is finished, Gateway immediately brings it back to the studio in the background. No user intervention is required, and the studio from which it will air can be left unattended. ENCO also has a Remote Voice Tracking Client/Server application that allows the use of central FTP server which can upload/download compressed tops and tails and associated voice tracks. A feature coming soon is the capability for voice tracking via a Web browser.

ENCO's DAD has similar features. For example, in consideration of remote voice tracking, there's no need for uniformity or duplicate libraries on either end. ENCO's Gateway Internet file transfer utility transfers everything needed for voice tracking with surrounding material in headphones to the remote talent. When the remote talent is finished, Gateway immediately brings it back to the studio in the background. No user intervention is required, and the studio from which it will air can be left unattended. ENCO also has a Remote Voice Tracking Client/Server application that allows the use of central FTP server which can upload/download compressed tops and tails and associated voice tracks. A feature coming soon is the capability for voice tracking via a Web browser.

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For remote voice-tracking, WideOrbit (like other providers) allows the remote talent to be in a far-flung studio anywhere in the world. Remote voice tracks can be assigned from anywhere by way of a Web browser. When a music log is complete, the system sends the needed audio to the remote location, and e-mails the remote talent telling him that his shift is ready for tracking. When the remote talent is finished, the audio is automatically sent back to the station. Progress of the remote voice-tracking session can be monitored via a Web browser. WideOrbit also has provisions for remote content entry: Music can be recorded, imported, edited or converted in one location and automatically distributed to all relevant markets; imaging or commercials can be produced in one location and automatically distributed group-wide; non-audio files such as music or traffic schedules can be pushed to other markets as well. Each station can search the audio libraries in other markets, and download audio files directly into their own audio libraries. These tasks can be done via a Web browser on any computer on your WAN. One more interesting feature is WideOrbit's provision for automatic failover redundancy for important file transfers and for offsite storage and disaster recovery with automatic backup of all audio content.

Simian from BSI has a feature called Simian Gateway, and it gives users the ability to create and insert voice-tracks remotely. Remote users have a client that includes a voice track editor, and it allows them to download intro and segue cuts that Gateway creates for the songs that bookend voice-tracks. The remote user can fully preview and set cross-over points. With the Simian Gateway in place, Simian Remote Client can run on as many machines as desired; there are Simian Remote Client versions for Windows, iPhone, and iPad.

In the Broadcast Electronics AudioVAULT FLEX system, voice tracking is handled via an embedded segue editor. Song-voicetrack-song crossfades are created by adjusting the audio gain between transitions. Voice tracks can be recorded from multiple sources at the same time, for the same day; and from a central studio location programming can be syndicated.

RCS' new automation system is known as Zetta, and its Wancasting feature allows for manual or automatic distribution of asset audio and metadata; manual and automatic distribution of logs and voicetracks. It offers a means by which the user can prioritize transfers, making sure audio is delivered on-time. There's no limit to the number of destinations that can be configured in Zetta's Wancasting feature. Zetta voice tracking can be done in a number of ways: For both local and remote stations within the Zetta application itself and for remote sites using a Zetta IVT client; or, with the upcoming Zetta 2.9, using a Zetta2Go application which runs on a PC or Mac in a browser; or on a portable device (IOS, Android). Zetta provides both manual and automatic ways of content management: users can manually import in Zetta using the Media Import tool, drag and drop a file to the UI directly, rip a CD, drop files to a folder for Autoload, or get files from an FTP site. For redundancy purposes, you can have any number of machines on the network receive audio (and hence act as an audio store) and if one machine goes down, the operation of Zetta will not be affected.

It's the data

One of the many ways automation systems have evolved over the last 10 years or so is in their capability in sending now playing (and other metadata features) to users of multiple and different content streams. ENCO's DAD system has a feature known as PADapult, which can be used to send this type of data out to 10 destinations simultaneously -- for example, for HD Radio, RDS, and now playing for streams, station Web pages, and Twitter. You can schedule messages to be sent, or you can create messages and drop them in to the various content streams.

Broadcast Electronics offers TRECast (part of The Radio Experience), which interleaves custom messages with the artist/title information; it sends messages such as concert or advertiser information, associated with specific audio content; it can send different messages to different locations simultaneously -- such as RDS, HD PSD, station Web pages, Twitter and Facebook; and it generates logs that can be monitored after the fact (of course) or in real time. It also helps manage character count requirements for each destination -- a nice feature with respect to RDS.

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RCS' Zetta has a feature known as Billboarding, which allows the user to send data about the song currently playing, along with the ability to include any number of items that are scheduled to play. The output can be as simple as a serial string or as complex as an XML that can be sent via UDP or TCP. According to RCS, there's no limit to the number of destinations to which this information is sent.

BSI's Data Repeater works with Simian and most other automation systems that output song metadata via TCP/UDP, serial, or to a text or XML file to a hard drive. This data can be forwarded to eight TCP/UDP, seven HTTP call, or eight serial destinations. The Data Repeater can also generate three HTML pages using user-created HTML page templates. Once data is received, it can be forwarded in the format received to TCP and/or UDP ports, or reformatted using user-defined templates to any of the available destination types (TCP, UDP, HTTP, HTML, Serial, or command line). Each output profile uses its own template, so each data output profile can have a data format tailored to the specifications of the destination application or hardware device.

The iMediaTouch system relies on third-party software from Artic Palm for its title/artist messaging. Using CSRDS, messages can be sent relating to title/artist, in addition to station promotions, contest info, website information, and sponsorships that are triggered by the cart number, artist, or sponsor that is on-air. Messages are relayed outbound to RDS, HD PSD, websites, and audio streams.

Going online

I've covered features that most would consider nuts and bolts elements of a radio station automation system; now let's look at features that specifically address the Web and mobile spaces. After all, it's not just the radio station any more, right?

WideOrbit's WO Mobile is a platform that allows content providers to reach mobile users in several different ways. Via SMS messaging, campaigns can be launched across the major mobile carrier networks. Ads can be inserted inside text messages. Direct engagement with mobile users can be accomplished: product or services can be offered; inquiries can be tracked; and orders can be taken. Text alerts can be issued for events such as weather warnings, school closures, sports and other breaking news events. Via URL embedding, audio, video, branded advertisements, mobile coupons, movie trailers, or sports highlights can be linked. WO Mobile also integrates with WO Traffic for billing, invoicing and reporting.

One feature of Broadcast Electronics TRE is TrafficNow; and if your station subscribes to Navteq or Total Traffic and Weather Network, you can display current traffic information on RDS and HD Radio PSD. TRE also supports Twitter tagging. By tweeting each song, along with an iTunes Store URL, listeners can then favorite that Tweet on any portable device that supports Twitter. Later, they can recall that favorite Tweet on a PC or Mac and purchase the song. The Tagstation cloud application (developed in conjunction with Emmis Broadcasting) uses song data from the automation system to find matches in the the Gracenote music database, which are then used in conjunction with HD Radio Artist Experience and the NextRadio FM tuner application for mobile devices. It has the ability to maintain, modify and customize those matches. Tagstation provides the ability to customize spots and promos with images and text for HD Radio Artist Experience and the NextRadio FM Tuner application; and, TRE software also inserts the necessary tagging information for RDS transmission over FM.

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ENCO's DAD system has an option known as Encore that enables content providers to develop webcasting formats. Encore supports distribution of text information (such as title/artist) to a target IP address (where it would be utilized by other Web page creation tools) and its XML tools give you a means by which a station can link to artist and e-commerce websites. Multiple XML stream transmissions can be accommodated, but require addition of XML repeater software.

Podcasting was one of the early applications of the Web that made a lot of sense for radio. Now it's on-demand aspect seems more important than ever, since so many TV shows and movies are available in that fashion. It's a commonplace trait of the new media. OMT's iMediaLogger has some neat features that accommodate podcasting. iMediaLogger allows recording and adding title information to recordings in a variety of lengths and formats suited for Podcasting; then the recordings are automatically uploading through an FTP configuration in iMediaLogger. Links to the specific podcasts are posted on the appropriate website by the radio station personnel.

Still more choices

Rivendell is a software automation system that gives the end user the ability to acquire, manage, schedule, and playout audio content. It has the many common features: support for PCM16 and MPEG-2 audio encoding/playback (using AudioScience or the Jack audio connection kit (see Jackaudio.org))and full voice-tracking and log customization. Rivendell is available under the GNU Public License. (The GNU General Public License is a widely used free software license, which guarantees end users (individuals, organizations, companies) the freedoms to use, study, share (copy), and modify the software.) Rivendell uses the GNU/Linux Operating system; AudioScience HPI Driver architecture; and, the MySQL database engine. All configuration in Rivendell is done via point-and-click interfaces, and up to three logs can run simultaneously from one computer. Oh - and did I mention that it's completely free and open, without software keys, dongles, or unlock-codes? 24/7 commercial support for the system is also available from Paravel Systems.

Dalet's Radio Suite is a production, playout and distribution system that affords the end-user centralized management of program content and metadata that includes a multi-station, multi-user scheduling engine and store-and-forward distribution platform; advanced recording and editing tools; remote voice-tracking capability; and, automated media distribution of associated metadata for multiple formats and multi-platform delivery systems, including podcasting, streaming, HD radio, DAB/DAB+ radio, and DRM radio.

Netia offers a system called Radio-Assist. Like all of the other automation systems we've covered, it affords the end-user capabilities for ingest, editing, scheduling, broadcast, multicast, archiving, data security and administration, all via a single user-interface. The Radio-Assist GUI allows the user to simultaneously access multiple production modules such as voice-tracking, recording/editing, scheduling, or management of metadata. Radio-Assist allows for multiple content streams to run in parallel -- such as those for broadcast, streaming, and mobile services. Naturally, broadcasts can be done in automated or "live-assist" fashion.

Choosing an automation system for a radio station (or group) is likely one of the most difficult decisions a broadcast engineer is going to make. It's the one system that effects by nearly every department at the radio station, and it's the heart-and-soul of the entire operation. It's a very large capital purchase expected to run every minute of every day for years on end; it's not something you just toss if it doesn't work right. For those reasons the selection process should be comprehensive and thorough -- in other words, study all the relevant features, from system to system, and see how they compare. Of course you'll consider your own prior experience with the various makes, and it makes sense to talk to trusted colleagues about their experiences with systems as well.


 

Irwin is RF engineer/project manager for Clear Channel Los Angeles. Contact him at doug@dougirwin.net.


 


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