Tech Focus: Sports Radio, Part 2 — The Future Is Streaming, Multichannel
AoIP is the latest tech wrinkle for a century-old industry
Sports broadcasting predates television, going back to the beginnings of (media) time, all the way to 1921, when KDKA Pittsburgh broadcast a game between the hometown Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies at Forbes Field (although college football beat the major leagues by about a year). It can seem that, when it comes to radio, not much has changed in the intervening century. Streaming and IP, however, put the lie to that.
Without picture, a sports broadcast comprises mainly someone in a booth in a stadium and a microphone with a pickup pattern wide enough to capture some of the game sounds but narrow enough to reject the noises of other broadcasters in the same press roost. Even former President Ronald Reagan, in his 20s calling ballgames remotely for a local Illinois radio station, used Foley tricks like slapping a ruler against a table to mimic a foul tip to give the impression that he was actually in the press box at Wrigley Field.
“The overall archetype is pretty much the same as it has always been,” says Phil Owens, senior sales engineer, Wheatstone. “You go to the venue with a remote kit and send the audio back to the station. What’s changing things is streaming.”
Audio-over-IP is the latest wrinkle in radio’s carriage of live sports. It’s part of the medium’s strategy for remaining relevant as internet connectivity begins to reach the automobile, where terrestrial and then satellite radio have reigned supreme for most of that same century. The technology is keeping up.
Owens cites two new Wheatstone products that support both the shift to streaming and the use of multiple channels for sports on the radio. Soon to be introduced, Blade 4, fourth generation of the company’s I/O BLADE, is the interface for the company’s AoIP system. WheatNet-IP AoIP protocol has two OPUS codec channels built in, eliminating the need for an additional codec box to transport audio from facility to facility or from venue to studio.
Blade 4 has provisions for mix-minuses, talkbacks, and other attributes so that, no matter where a particular source is pulled up, talent gets the correct talkback that goes with it. It also supports interoperability standards: NMOS for discovery, AES67 for audio transport, and multichannel support for one, two, or eight channels. It has selectable encoding and AGC, peak limiter, and other processing tools developed to optimize the sound quality of encoded audio content.
“Radio is trying to extend its reach via streaming, and it can do that in ways that [conventional] radio can’t,” says Owens, noting that he’s able to enjoy his hometown Syracuse University’s Orange football games from his current home in North Carolina. “What we’re trying to do is give radio broadcasters the tools they’ll need to get from the venue to the streaming point and then into the cars.”
SMPTE Standards Make a Difference
Radio’s migration to streaming has been part of Lawo’s strategic product development — specifically, says Lawo Radio Marketing Specialist Clark Novak, getting remotely controlled operations and overall reliability into the streaming infrastructure.
“Getting the audio signal and the mix and the backhaul [from the venue] to the station is the easy part,” he explains, “but the remote control is the difficult part, especially in a COVID environment, when the engineering and the talent are working remotely. Further complicating the picture, he notes, is the variety in connectivity, which ranges from private WANs to public-internet broadband.
Ironically, a SMPTE standard, specifically 2022-7 developed for audio-for-television applications, has become a workable solution, providing dual simultaneous signal paths that act as redundant failovers. It’s included, for instance, in the software for Lawo’s Ruby radio mixing console, which offers dual-redundant networking with SMPTE ST 2022-7 Seamless Protection Switching, as well as ST 2110-30 for seamless interoperability within combined radio/TV broadcast plants.
“This is becoming more and more important to our sports-radio clients as broadcast begins to extend more to IP-based distribution,” says Novak. “And sports on the radio remains a very big part of sports media overall.”
Dispersed-personnel radio production is addressed by SSL’s T-SOLSA (SSL On/Offline Setup Application) software, available on the company’s System-T console, which is widely used in Europe for radio, including sports. Originally developed for the company’s Live live-sound mix console, T-SOLSA allows users to set up parallel mix functionality remotely: for instance, letting announcers and engineers access the same work surface in real time from disparate locations.
The Windows-executable software was originally designed to work on a closed LAN network, usually within a broadcast facility or a live venue. However, says Thomas Jensen, SVP, technical operations. New York, SSL, it has been expanded to WAN compatibility to accommodate more technical and voice talent working from home or elsewhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Remote control has become a big topic for all broadcast but especially for sports,” he says. “Radio is facing the same challenges as the rest of broadcasting.”