When NPR planned its coverage of the Presidential inauguration in January, the details of the election itself were the top headlines. These issues played no part in the remote broadcast — the focus was on getting clean audio on the air.
National Public Radio had three locations for the inauguration ceremonies. The main location was on the steps leading up to the Capitol building. The other two locations, Lafayette Park and the Canadian Embassy, were along the parade route.
A three-location remote is a major undertaking, but it is not unheard of. What complicates this event is the heightened security for two locations. The third location is unique in that it is technically on foreign soil.
Along the route
NPR typically uses mono with ISDN feeds, but for the inauguration, Layer III joint stereo at 64kb/s, 32kHz was planned. The stereo feed would provide better ambience from the surrounding activity. Like any live situation, not everything went as planned.
Both Lafayette Park and the Canadian Embassy used two POTS lines and one ISDN line. The ISDN carried the main program feed back to NPR's master control. The POTS lines were used for data feeds and communication.
Security clearances were required for anyone and anything inside the secured area — both people and equipment. As the final event approached, security measures increased. Five days before the inauguration, it took about three minutes to pass through the security check. On the day of the ceremony, it took 30 minutes.
For the Lafayette Park location, the ISDN circuit was tested and checked out on Monday. Unfortunately, the equipment could not be set up on Friday, as was originally planned. On Saturday, the day of the event, the ISDN line only had one bearer channel available for use, so LIII joint stereo was not possible. Despite all efforts, it could not be corrected, so a 64kb/s mono Layer II (LII) feed was used. Stereo was preferred to capture the parade ambience, but it was not to be. For the stereo feed, Earthworks omnidirectional mics were set up in a spaced-omni pair.
A similar non-stereo fate was suffered at the Canadian Embassy. A casualty of the rain, the Neumann RSM 160 stereo mic got wet and was unusable. A substitute mic was placed, and the codec was set to 128kb/s LII mono (the NPR standard). Without the stereo audio, there was no need to provide a stereo feed.
Security at the Canadian Embassy was no problem. All the equipment was set up on Saturday. In fact, the security clearances required for the people and equipment on the Capitol steps and in Lafayette Park did not apply to the Embassy because it is foreign soil. Security efforts were taken, but the scope was much smaller.
In addition to the fixed locations, there were reporters with cell phones stationed along the parade route. While cell phones don't provide the same quality, mobility was an important requirement. Washington, DC, is rich with RF usage, and a major event like this only increases the demand for frequencies. Cell phones do not require frequency coordination and are by nature compact and portable. Qualcom and StarTec phones were used.
The broadcast location on the Capitol Building steps was the main point of activity. A two-tier platform was built to house all the media covering the event. NPR was at one end of the platform, to the extreme right of the speaker's podium.
The telephone setup on the steps had two ISDN lines and one POTS line. A Prima 220 was used for the main audio feed. The other ISDN line was for data transmission using the ENPS software. The POTS line was for communication.
A Mackie 1202-VLZ mixer was the center of activity. Headset mics were slated for use, but proved too sensitive to the noise in the area. They also got wet and could not be used. Instead, Neumann KMR81 shotgun mics were used to try to eliminate some of the unwanted ambient sounds. These, too, proved to be overly sensitive to the surrounding sound.
Ambience was picked up with a DPA90 stereo microphone. As the ceremony proceeded, the ambient noise increased. At the height of activity, the noise level was so high, the ambience mic was turned off.
The biggest obstacle was the rain during the morning of the ceremony. Equipment that was set up the night before was soaked, despite the efforts to seal everything. Since security is so important at an event like this, replacement equipment brought in that morning was subject to an intense round of checks and rechecks to pass through the gate. The main casualties of the rainwater were some of the microphones, the timers for time posts and some of the data hubs. However, each site worked, although not entirely as planned.
Scheduling equipment setup to meet the security schedule was a challenge. Like Lafayette Park, the Capitol Building broadcast platform is a secured area. As the event approached, security concerns increased, as did the time required to pass through the checkpoints. On Monday, it took five minutes to clear security to get to the broadcast stand. On Saturday morning, it took nearly two hours.
In case of rain during the ceremony, there was a backup plan for the Capitol steps. The ceremony would have been in the Capitol Rotunda. NPR has an ISDN line in the Senate hall, and a four-wire cable would have been run between the two locations, with a Shure FP11 mic-to-line amplifier and FP22 headphone driver feeding the codec.
The broadcast covered six hours of programming. While this is a major event, it is not the largest location broadcast during the election season. Planning for this event began three months before the ceremony. Planning for the 2004 election will begin in November 2003.
Thanks to Shawn Fox, election technical director of NPR, for information in preparing this article. All event photos by Shawn Fox.