Waitt's Store-and-forward Satellite Programming

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Waitt's Store-and-forward Satellite Programming

Dec 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Chriss Scherer, editor

Unconventional Means

Waitt Radio Networks has satellite-delivered programming delivered in an untraditional way.

Satellite-delivered programming services are not a new idea. There are many companies providing these services with formats covering a wide range of topics and musical styles. The idea is simple: provide a continuous stream of audio programming through a one-to-many distribution system in real time.

The typical satellite-delivered formats provide a continuous stream with a fixed clock. Stations can insert local content and spots within fixed points of the programming clock. The program provider also sends cues to trigger local audio elements to customize the generic feed to give it a local feel. While this method is the most common, another way to deliver a satellite-fed service with localized elements is to use a store-and-forward approach. This allows the local elements to be created in near real time without an additional burden to the station affiliate. This is the method that Waitt Radio Networks (WRN) uses.

WRN maintains its own satellite uplink on the premises outside the studio building.

Because the studios are mostly self-contained, the rack room houses a minimum of equipment.

Originally installed for analog audio and signals, the wall of punch blocks sees little use now with so much digital audio and signaling.

Based in Omaha, NE, the WRN facility houses 13 on-air studios and three production studios. These facilities support seven formats that are delivered to the affiliates. Each on-air studio has a similar layout. While these studios are small, they are busy with activity all through the day as each format host provides customized breaks to as many as 40 stations.

The traditional satellite format delivers a continuous audio stream with signaling cues to trigger local events. WRN also provides signaling cues, but instead of the host delivering a generic break and triggering a local identifier, the host provides a custom break for each affiliate. This allows the program to sound like it is live and local even though the program host is sitting in Omaha.

The local affiliate can provide specific information to the host throughout the day through an online interface developed by WRN. Each break has the usual generic talk of what song was just heard and what song is coming next, but the host can add the station's name or moniker within the break, which preserves the natural flow of the break. The station can provide weather, promos, community events and other items for the program host to include in as many as two breaks per hour. The system that WRN developed to do this is called EZ Localize. Stations can update information to the jock almost up to the minute. A station can also provide a pronunciation key to ensure that all the names and places are pronounced correctly. Each station's weather data is provided by Weather Underground.

Because of the customization being created for each affiliate, each program host can serve as many as 40 affiliates at a time. Each host works about 10 to 30 minutes ahead of the music schedule to keep things in sync.

At the receiving end, each station has a PC that is supplied by WRN that is connected to a satellite receiver. While each break is delivered as it is created, the satellite is not used to deliver the music. Instead, all the music is stored locally at the station on the WRN computer. WRN uses its own automation system, called Storq, to capture, store and play each element according to the program log. The idea of a format clock is still used, but it floats within a few minutes of the target time.

Once an element is created, the audio is sent to the stations. Each station's receiver captures the audio that is appropriate to that station. WRN transmits its signal via AMC-8.

WRN sets the limit for each program stream to be 40 stations, which is determined by the time constraint for each host to deliver the customized elements. Country is a popular format, and because of the demand, WRN provides two identical country formats from two different studios to accommodate the demand.

WRN supplies a PC to each station affiliate. These systems include a redundant 80GB hard drive with the operating system and all the music, plus the Storq automation system program. Each PC has dual NICs: one for the LAN, one for the satellite receiver. WRN specifies Intel, 3Com and Seagate hardware, and Audio Science audio cards in its systems. When a PC is delivered to an affiliate, it includes generic voice tracks and station imaging.

If a hard drive fails, the second redundant drive takes over. Each system is monitored by WRN for temperature and status. If a drive fails, WRN sends a new drive to the station. Once inserted, the system mirrors the remaining drive to the new drive to restore the redundancy.

All music is on the hard drive. The satellite only delivers local liners as needed during the hour. When additional music is added, it is downloaded overnight through the satellite. Each night, about 800 network commercials are sent as updates to affiliate systems.

Each affiliate can separate and rejoin the network as it wishes. Each hour is overscheduled with about 65 minutes of music, so near the end of an hour, the system reconciles to the end of the hour within a minute or two.

If the satellite system fails, the system defaults to an FTP backup mode. Instead of receiving audio elements via satellite, Storq will retrieve the elements via FTP. Because the delivery system works in store-and-forward instead of real time, WRN can perform basic satellite maintenance during the day if necessary. The program hosts are asked to work a little further ahead in time to provide an additional time pad to the engineering staff.

Local spots can be stored as MP2 or WAV files, although, WRN recommends that stations use WAV files. As audio files are sent to the stations, a 40 percent forward error correction coding is used. This means that as much as 40 percent of the file can be corrupt and the Storq system can still resurrect the audio.

Live and local elements

Many affiliates have a live morning show, so those stations use the Storq system in a live-assist mode. That station's music is stored on Storq. In these cases, the WRN jock typically becomes the weather person for the local morning show. If the local morning show person is out sick, the WRN jock can fill in on the station. Some stations also use the WRN format in addition to another satellite-delivered format.

The technical operation is built along the walls around a central programming area. The air studios are small rooms, but because the announcer is providing voice-tracked elements, a large space is not necessary. The production studios are on one end of the open space. The technical operations center is on the other end.

Each studio and the tech center have their own UPSs, as does the satellite uplink. The satellite uplink has a triple redundancy as well. A main and a backup exciter are always available online at the dish, and a third exciter is kept on the shelf.

Because station audio is played locally, the satellite dish is not used continuously. If something needs to be done to the uplink antenna, the WRN engineers ask the announcers to get a little ahead on the schedule to buy them some extra time. Routinely, this can allow about eight minutes to make any changes to the uplink. If a longer outage time is needed, additional advance feeds can be created.

The satellite systems provides a 2Mb/s pipe. This path is divided into 10 channels. Nine are used for the various formats, and one is used for global information. The exact bandwidth is allocated as needed.

Audio is delivered to stations as MP2 files at 256kb/s. Server space is not a problem, but delivery via satellite is quicker with the reduced file size.

While keeping track of 40 stations during a shift sounds daunting, the announcers don't have to keep track of everything themselves. When a break is scheduled, the announcer's Storq system displays exactly what the announcer needs. The call letters and other station information are clearly displayed on screen, as is any additional text for the announcer to read.

Each studio is equipped with an Audioarts console (in most cases), an Electro-Voice RE-20 or RE-27ND mic and a Symetrix 528E, which are used all the time. The studios also have DAT machines and CD players, which are used infrequently, but are available when needed.

The production studios see regular use for the various formats. In addition, the studios are part of WRN's PDQ production services, which produced more than 22,000 spots for its clients in 2004.

When the studios were installed, it was expected that analog audio would be the primary signals distributed in the facility. It turns out that most of the signals being used are data, so the CAT-5 wiring forms the main backbone.

WRN provides satellite-delivered services to about 160 affiliates. These affiliates take advantage of the store-and-forward technology to deliver an economical program stream that does not sound like a canned feed.

Equipment list

Adobe Audition
APC racks
Aphex Compellor 320A
Arrakis furniture
Audioarts R-60, R-55, one MR-40, R-17
Avocent Autovue 400
Broadcast Tools 8x2, 16x1
Conex line selectors
Denon DN-C680, DN-650F
Electro-Voice RE-20, RE-27 ND
IDC modulators Logic Innovations IPE-200L
LPB Silent Mic Booms
Mackie HR824, HR624
Marantz PMD320
Matrix UPS 5000
Middle Atlantic racks
O.C. White mic booms
Orban Audicy, DSE7000
Panasonic SV-3700
Radio Systems RS-12
Symetrix 528E Tascam CD-160
Telos One
Viewsonic monitors