When the show takes to the road

February 1, 2003

I have a confession to make. In my 20-year radio career, I'vediscovered that one of the things I dislike the most is setting up andrunning a remote broadcast. Maybe it has something to do with years ofhauling heavy equipment around to multiple remote sites, or all thelousy remote food that's settled around my waist, but I really preferto keep remote broadcasts at arm's length.

As the technology leader of my stations, it's up to me to figure outhow to make our remotes better, faster and cheaper. And who better tofigure it out than the guy who hates doing them? Much like thecomic-strip character Beetle Bailey, the individual who's stuck with anunpleasant task will come up with the easiest and fastest way to get itdone.

When a station owns several vehicles, ithelps to standardize their operation as much as possible.

I got in the business a little late to have experienced the joys oflugging a 100-pound remote mixer up several flights of stairs, althoughI've certainly carted around my share of PA amplifiers and speakers inthat weight class. Not only is it physically fatiguing to transport,it's not much fun muscling such equipment in and out of remote venueswith small doorways and expensive flooring and furnishings. Inevitably,the engineer's knuckles or the fancy doorway trim take a beating fromsharp-edged cooling fins that do not clear the door opening.

The time factor is also part of my personal dislike of remotes.After working a full 40-hour week, it's not appealing to spend most ofa weekend setting up one or more remotes, especially if the setup isdifficult and complicated. Some years ago I was responsible for aweekly Sunday evening talk show remote at a restaurant inside a mall.Because of technical issues related to the location, this one-hourbroadcast required about three hours of setup, teardown and traveltime. The setup time was wildly disproportionate to the on-airtime.

Invention's necessity

There has to be a better way to do remotes. Thanks to equipmentadvances over the years, current equipment designs result in remotesthat use lighter, more compact equipment that make setup and tear-downsimple and fast.

To simplify operation, the RPU in theGMC Yukon used by KZPT The Point is mounted in the cabinetry. Thisprotects the equipment and places it in a convenient location.

For most radio stations, the usual options for sending audio to thestudio from an outside location involve either the telephone company oran RF system. For example, in our cluster of four stations in Tucson,AZ, the majority of remotes are covered with 450MHz RPU equipment. Wealso have POTS codecs and some ISDN equipment available for thoseremotes where RPU equipment isn't feasible because of range or terrainlimitations. In a pinch or as a last resort, we can fall back to thelowly cellular telephone.

Each of our station vans is installed with RPU-equipmentinstallations that are plug-and-play. This is necessary because thepromotions staffers and their interns are, for the most part,enthusiastic about their jobs — but not technically adept. Mostremotes involve parking the van in a location that provides a useableRPU signal, and then using a wireless microphone system to connect theradio talent inside the remote location.

This approach does not work in every remote situation, and there areother drawbacks. The dreaded shopping-mall remotes cannot be doneeasily with most RPU equipment. Because of location issues, securityconcerns and equipment limitations, we have gone through someinteresting gyrations to get an RPU signal from some locations,including placing a transmitter on the mall's roof. A vehicular RPUrepeater system would work much better in these situations, and I haveused them with great success in other markets. However, they tend to bea little too complex for the typical promotional staffer to be able toset up effectively.

Running the RPU transmitter off the stock battery in the vans alsopresents problems, because the battery will run down quickly if thevan's engine isn't running. The extra wear and tear on a vehicle'sengine from an idling engine does not make management happy. Toeliminate this undesired wear, we installed separate batteries andelectrical systems in each of the vans for the RPU equipment, but thisapproach is fairly expensive.

In some locations, the permanently attached RPU antenna on the vanroof does not provide an adequate signal into the studio receiver, andwe have to connect an external yagi antenna for additional gain. Wehave constant problems with these antennas and with connecting cablesbeing damaged by inexperienced crews. I have a stack of yagis on mybench that are unusable because the center pin on the N connector hasbeen destroyed by clumsy handling, even after we have taken pains topermanently attach adapters in an attempt to protect the N connectorfrom rough treatment.

This cabinet is mounted off the floor ofthe Chevy Express van used for KFFN-AM. This mount provides clear floorspace for stowing heavier materials.

At some locations where the use of RPU equipment is difficult, we'vehad some success using POTS codecs where phone lines are available.These early-generation models tend to be persnickety about lineconditions, and they won't always work consistently on a given phoneline. In some locations, we have had to run phone wires a considerabledistance across hallways and open areas to get a phone line to thedesired location.

However, in many instances the POTS units are just the ticket forsimple remotes. They are easy enough for non-technical people to set upand use, and they are light and fairly easy to pack. We've been able toget them to work in some less-than-ideal conditions. I set up a LasVegas hotel room remote recently where the only accessible phone linewas the fax port on the room phone. Surprisingly, our older POTS unitworked without any trouble with this arrangement. Note that first, wewere really lucky, and second, analog ports on hotel phone systems arenot necessarily appropriate for use with a POTS codec. In some cases,equipment damage can result if a codec is connected to the wrong phonejack.

ISDN is an effective way to get remote audio to the studio. Once thehardware and the ISDN lines are in place, the ease and audio quality ofISDN remotes are hard to beat. I first began to use ISDN for talk-showremotes on an AM station years ago, and it was a monumental improvementover the noisy RPU system we had been using. Not only that, but thereturn audio from the studio available with the ISDN system wasindispensable for cues and call screening purposes. Previously, thestation had been using cell phones for this purpose, back in the dayswhen cellular airtime was much more expensive than it is now, andhaving a return path from the studio was a convenience.

The weakest point of an RPU antenna isthe RF connector. Careless handling will significantly shorten theiruseful life.

The downsides of ISDN are the expense of the equipment, and theexpense of the ISDN phone lines. In our situation, it's not practicalto install ISDN circuits for most remotes, because the expense is notjustified for a one-time broadcast. We do a weekly remote from a localnightclub where dance music originates from the club and broadcast overone of our stations, in stereo. ISDN has proven to be ideal for thispurpose.

Look ahead

Always keep an eye on emerging remote broadcast technologies.Anything that allows us to do remotes with less physical effort andless setup time is a potential winner, if the cost and practicality areright. A couple of items in this category are Part 15 digital audiotransmitters and audio transmission via TCP/IP. Unfortunately, neitherof these categories has produced equipment that has reached a stage ofcomfortable maturity.

The smaller/faster/lighter requirements also carry over to all theother stuff we are usually obligated to bring out on remotes. Probablynothing in the remote kit is more difficult to transport than a PAsystem, but usually it's a must-have item to make your remote stand outabove the noise on location. We have been using the Fender Passportportable PA systems with great success at our remotes. They arereasonably light and mostly self-contained, and (the best part of all)they are easy for non-technical personnel to operate.

One of the best ways to reduce remote setup time is to packageseparate pieces of equipment together using a rack case. If yourstation is doing lots of complicated talk-show remotes, it makes thejob a lot easier if the audio mixer, headphone amplifier, and codec ofchoice are all mounted together in a rack case. The interconnectingcables can be pre-connected, so that the only on-site setup required isto hook up ac power, microphones and headsets and the phone line. Icreated remote kits in this manner at one station cluster, packaged fordifferent remote situations (using either RPU or ISDN/POTS equipment).Make sure that the equipment is securely mounted within the racks. If apiece of remote equipment has a heavy back end and isn't supportedcorrectly, there is a good chance you will get the case back withbroken equipment inside. This also applies to those ubiquitouswall-wart and power-line lump ac supplies, which have a tendency towork loose inside remote equipment cases.

In my career, I've set up radio remote broadcasts involvingeverything from giant boomboxes to giant cash machines, popcornmachines, blimps and banners. Even though I don't do many remotesanymore, I'm always on the lookout for equipment that will give mystations a competitive advantage in the remote arena. In a crowdedradio market, remote broadcasts are an important tool for pushing yourstation's brand above the clutter. Making remotes better, faster andeasier is one way I can help our guys win.



Sherrill is chief engineer for the Journal Broadcast Group/TucsonOperations.