When the show takes to the road

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

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

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

I got in the business a little late to have experienced the joys of lugging a 100-pound remote mixer up several flights of stairs, although I've certainly carted around my share of PA amplifiers and speakers in that weight class. Not only is it physically fatiguing to transport, it's not much fun muscling such equipment in and out of remote venues with small doorways and expensive flooring and furnishings. Inevitably, the engineer's knuckles or the fancy doorway trim take a beating from sharp-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 of a weekend setting up one or more remotes, especially if the setup is difficult and complicated. Some years ago I was responsible for a weekly Sunday evening talk show remote at a restaurant inside a mall. Because of technical issues related to the location, this one-hour broadcast required about three hours of setup, teardown and travel time. The setup time was wildly disproportionate to the on-air time.

Invention's necessity

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

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

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

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

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

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

In some locations, the permanently attached RPU antenna on the van roof does not provide an adequate signal into the studio receiver, and we have to connect an external yagi antenna for additional gain. We have constant problems with these antennas and with connecting cables being damaged by inexperienced crews. I have a stack of yagis on my bench that are unusable because the center pin on the N connector has been destroyed by clumsy handling, even after we have taken pains to permanently attach adapters in an attempt to protect the N connector from rough treatment.

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

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

However, in many instances the POTS units are just the ticket for simple remotes. They are easy enough for non-technical people to set up and use, and they are light and fairly easy to pack. We've been able to get them to work in some less-than-ideal conditions. I set up a Las Vegas hotel room remote recently where the only accessible phone line was the fax port on the room phone. Surprisingly, our older POTS unit worked without any trouble with this arrangement. Note that first, we were really lucky, and second, analog ports on hotel phone systems are not necessarily appropriate for use with a POTS codec. In some cases, equipment damage can result if a codec is connected to the wrong phone jack.

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

The weakest point of an RPU antenna is the RF connector. Careless handling will significantly shorten their useful life.

The downsides of ISDN are the expense of the equipment, and the expense of the ISDN phone lines. In our situation, it's not practical to install ISDN circuits for most remotes, because the expense is not justified for a one-time broadcast. We do a weekly remote from a local nightclub where dance music originates from the club and broadcast over one of our stations, in stereo. ISDN has proven to be ideal for this purpose.

Look ahead

Always keep an eye on emerging remote broadcast technologies. Anything that allows us to do remotes with less physical effort and less setup time is a potential winner, if the cost and practicality are right. A couple of items in this category are Part 15 digital audio transmitters and audio transmission via TCP/IP. Unfortunately, neither of these categories has produced equipment that has reached a stage of comfortable maturity.

The smaller/faster/lighter requirements also carry over to all the other stuff we are usually obligated to bring out on remotes. Probably nothing in the remote kit is more difficult to transport than a PA system, but usually it's a must-have item to make your remote stand out above the noise on location. We have been using the Fender Passport portable PA systems with great success at our remotes. They are reasonably 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 package separate pieces of equipment together using a rack case. If your station is doing lots of complicated talk-show remotes, it makes the job a lot easier if the audio mixer, headphone amplifier, and codec of choice are all mounted together in a rack case. The interconnecting cables can be pre-connected, so that the only on-site setup required is to hook up ac power, microphones and headsets and the phone line. I created remote kits in this manner at one station cluster, packaged for different remote situations (using either RPU or ISDN/POTS equipment). Make sure that the equipment is securely mounted within the racks. If a piece of remote equipment has a heavy back end and isn't supported correctly, there is a good chance you will get the case back with broken equipment inside. This also applies to those ubiquitous wall-wart and power-line lump ac supplies, which have a tendency to work loose inside remote equipment cases.

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

Sherrill is chief engineer for the Journal Broadcast Group/Tucson Operations.

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