Westwood One is the official radio partner for the Grammys awards show. Though primarily a TV event with no radio simulcast, dozens of radio stations conducted live radio broadcasts during the two days of rehearsals leading up to the Feb. 8 awards show. The day before the event, I went backstage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and met with Dino Tortu, vice president of production for Westwood One, who described the scope of the broadcasts. "We have 35 domestic stations here from all major markets, and we have about eight international clients. Clients from China, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Italy; all coming for the Grammys."
The typical station setup. This is WPLJ, New York.
The ISDN codecs are placed between the stations using them.
Each station''s audio setup is basic and easy to understand.
During my visit, the backstage area that hosted the radio remotes was a sea of people and activity. All of the stations creating remote broadcasts were set up in a long row with tables on either side, close enough to the stage that the sound of the Grammy rehearsals cut through the din of people who were filtering through for interviews or performing the broadcasts. The placement was ideal for a live event broadcast, as Tortu describes.
"The stations love it because they're getting here, [and] they get to actually hear the ambient rehearsal going on. It's very exciting."
Having all of the stations set up in the same area had other benefits as well.
"We're here for two days of rehearsals, we bring artists in for interviews, and they stop by and talk to stations of different markets. So for artists it is great because they get to talk to 35 markets in an afternoon," said Tortu.
From a technical perspective, the challenge that Westwood One faced was how to provide for the different needs of each station, while making it work for the widely varying formats, local time zones and on-site technical ability that each station might have.
How does it be everything to everyone? The solution was to keep it flexible, open, and above all, simple. Tortu described the setup provided by Westwood One as being straightforward. "We typically have a very simple set up for each station; it's just a simple Shure M367 mixer with four SM-58 microphones, four Koss UR-15C headphones fed from a Symetrix 304 headphone amplifier and one side of a Telos Zephyr Xstream. They transmit via ISDN back to their stations. They can hear their return feeds and they can broadcast live."
Additional inputs were provided on the mixer also, allowing stations to bring their own equipment for source material.
The Zephyrs were set up so that two stations could share one ISDN line to transmit separate broadcasts, using Layer 3 mono transmit, G.722 return at 64kb/s and 48kHz sampling rate. A total of 25 ISDN lines were used, which thanks to this approach, supported more than 40 stations. Most of the stations were paired to share a single Zephyr, but there are exceptions. "One or two will have an oddball algorithm that doesn't match anyone else's so those stations get their own Zephyr," said Tortu.
Following the simpler-is-better approach, the setup was designed to make troubleshooting easier as well. Instead of having a large farm of ISDN codecs in one location, each station is provided with a small rack with the codec right next to its mixer setup. Tortu described the benefits. "If the Zephyr farm is here, and the guy across the room has a problem, you're here working on it, he doesn't know that. If you're standing next to him saying 'let me help you out,' it makes him a little more sure."
In addition to ISDN, Westwood One provided wireless Internet connectivity because each year more and more stations bring editing programs on their laptops. Using the remote broadcast setup provided, they have the option of taking the mixer output directly into their laptops instead of using the ISDN codec. This allows stations to record to their laptops, convert the audio to MP3, upload the file to an FTP site at the station and pre-feed all of the radio bits. With this setup, some stations don't use the ISDN at all.
Ken Nosé is a software engineer and audio engineer in Los Angeles.