SVG Sit-Down: Lawo’s Johan Boqvist Looks at Sports Radio’s Next Century
Podcasts, ‘immersive audio,’ IP will be major factors
Radio was broadcast sports’ first electronic medium, and, a little more than 100 years since the first announcers crackled over the airwaves, radio remains a leading media format for sports. It’s also where broadcast audio gets to stretch out, offering more detail and nuance. And a lot more yelling. SVG sat down with Johan Boqvist, senior product manager, radio products and systems, Lawo, to discuss how radio is readying its infrastructure for the next hundred years.
When people say “broadcast sports,” the implication is that they’re talking about television, and TV does get the lion’s share of attention in the conversation around audio for broadcast sports. How does Lawo view radio’s role in that conversation, and is radio properly valued for what it delivers?
Radio is and has always been a perfect media for sports because it’s so easily accessible and always available, regardless of time of day or location. Many events and games take place exactly when you are working in the garden on a Saturday, in the car coming home from the office, preparing dinner in the kitchen, or going for a run or a workout in the gym, and radio is the perfect companion for these activities since it engages you but doesn’t demand your full attention. The radio format also allows the networks to offer longer and more detailed stories for hardcore sports fans, either over-the-air in dedicated digital sports channels or in podcasts.
However, for a broadcaster, it’s much more challenging to deliver a great user experience from a live sports event to a radio audience compared with TV. As a show host, you need to create the right atmosphere from the start and be very prepared to engage the audience with interesting stories and tidbits before the game starts. The commentator needs to deliver details and create word pictures that give the listeners the feeling that they’re actually at the venue. In many cases, the sports-radio team is doing all of this while also operating the equipment, so they’ve got to be really on top of their game. Is radio getting the proper value for what it delivers? The listeners certainly value it.
Where has radio for sports been falling short in recent years? Have its capture, mix, and processing technologies kept up, or are they generally regarded as secondary to television’s? With surround sound for sports on television almost two decades old and immersive sound on the table, how can radio “up its game,” so to speak? For instance, is automotive sound a market of interest for that?
All of our radio consoles and mixing engines are multichannel-ready and support several assistive technologies and audio enhancement features that can be used in sports production. However, the challenge for the broadcaster isn’t in production so much as in distribution. How do you distribute the 5.1 or 7.1 stream to listeners at home or in the car using “traditional” radio distribution formats, such as FM, DAB, or satellite?
The networks, the automotive industry, and consumer-electronics market are all working on easy-to-use solutions and standards for this, and I truly believe that, when we start to see more and more 5G-connected vehicles on the roads, we’ll also be able to listen to live sports with multichannel audio in the car. The same principle will apply to smartphones when products like Dolby Atmos headphones hit the market on a wider scale.
Dialogue enhancements for the hearing impaired is an additional “immersive-audio” application that many of our public-broadcasting R&D departments are working to implement. The possibilities of this are really interesting. For instance, imagine giving listeners a “dialog” control in their smartphone app so they could adjust the balance between music and speech to their own preferences. We’ve even seen some experiments where the end user’s app has a “supporter” slider. How many of the different listener-supported audio features do you want to hear? Just adjust the slider. OK, this is kind of esoteric, but you get the idea: the application scenarios for next-generation audio are endless.
Streaming is a sector that sports media are embracing, particularly with the new popularity of podcasts (which are audio only and are kind of a version of radio). What are the opportunities there for audio technology?
The podcast format is perfect for long sports interviews, stories, documentaries, and game wrap-ups, and we are definitely seeing an increase in requests for products tailored to “off-the-air” productions. After all, you don’t tie up a main studio every time you do preproduction, so why do it to create podcast content?
Over the past years, we’ve seen increasing interest in and adoption of “virtual-radio” solutions: software products that take the place of hardware and deliver an integrated production environment as well as an increased cost-to-benefit ratio. For instance, our R3LAY Virtual Mixer lets you deploy a touchscreen eight-fader mixing app on your PC and integrate your audio-editing software, playout system, phone-management system, and social-media tools — controlling all of them within the same interface. And, since PCs are naturally network-friendly, this virtual-radio installation can operate in a standalone home studio or connect to the main studio over a private IP network. It’s a perfect solution for these times when more and more talent are working from home or remote studios.
What does Lawo’s diamond modular console bring to sports-radio production? Especially, how does it conform to the broadcast industry’s pursuit of cost-effectiveness and budget concerns?
Everyone is looking for more workflow flexibility, higher performance, more bang for the buck. That’s the radio industry as a whole, not just sports radio. But one diamond benefit that should appeal directly to sports-radio broadcasters is remote production. Diamond is a native IP console, so it can be operated remotely over WAN or LAN. Imagine having a PC at the stadium with a touchscreen interface that’s directly controlling the main studio console. You could engineer the entire production remotely or just give talent custom screens with the controls they need. Or, for bigger productions with remote trucks onsite, a physical diamond control surface in the van can directly connect to the mixing engine at the tech center. Remote-production capability is a huge advantage for sports broadcasters.
Another thing diamond gives sportscasters is a faster, more intuitive workflow. Our live-production consoles have pioneered a lot of workflow features over the years, like touch-sensitive controls, lighted keys with functions grouped by color, context-sensitive menus, and integrated touchscreen options control. These are all things that are commonplace in TV, but, with diamond, we’ve brought them into the radio-production suite. All of this attention to design, interface, and workflow is so that engineers and talent, whether their background is in TV or radio, can understand and can operate the console intuitively and efficiently, without a huge learning curve.
Some other features make diamond attractive to sports operations. It’s completely modular, which means it is highly flexible in terms of how customers can configure it. You can have split surfaces, locate the surface remotely or with the mixing core, program customized snapshots for specific kinds of shows or individual talent. It’s an IP-audio console, which means you eliminate the cost of legacy baseband infrastructure and the “big iron” core routers that go with it. And, of course, it’s cost-efficient. Depending on the size of the surfaces, one Power Core engine can serve up to four diamond consoles. That’s pretty compelling for the bottom line.
How will radio in general be impacted by the developments around broadcast audio as it migrates to IP platforms?
The pandemic forced a lot of broadcasters to work remotely. This was hard at first, but the industry adapted quickly, and IP is the reason. You don’t need a full hardware-based studio setup with nailed-up audio-transmission lines anymore; with IP, you can easily control the studio gear remotely or deploy software-based mixers on the far end for talent to use. It used to cost thousands of dollars to build a remote studio; IP enables this for a fraction of the cost and delivers the same results. I think we’ll continue to see organizations and individuals embrace the flexibility of remote production.
Another outgrowth of IP is virtual and cloud-based platforms. Backend systems like automation and playout are available as online solutions. There are even cloud-based mixing offerings. While not all of these are suitable for live production, continued interest in this area could lead to some interesting developments.
Do you see a difference in how sports on radio is viewed and used in the U.S. vs. in Europe? How does that affect technology development, acquisition, and implementation? For instance, do state-owned broadcasters place more emphasis on keeping their radio technology up-to-date?
As a Europe resident, I can definitely say that sports radio is important to the public for coverage of local, regional, and national sports, and my colleagues in the U.S. have told me the same. Of course, big, worldwide events with 24/7 coverage also draw lots of listeners. And then we can look at round-the-clock sports-talk radio, all-sports satellite-radio channels, local commentary, and call-in shows. I think sports radio is important around the globe.
In my opinion, public and private broadcasters value sports radio equally. It’s a proven winner in terms of audience and (for commercial broadcasters) revenue, so it’s in the broadcasters’ best interests to maintain and advance their infrastructure. This is exactly what we’ve seen at Lawo, and it’s why we continue to actively engage our customers in conversations about the kinds of technologies that will enhance and further their production capabilities.