Monday 26 November 2018

Radio TechCon 2018 - Overview of the Day

There’s probably never been such an exciting time to be involved in radio technology since the medium was invented. What we do, who does it and how we do it is changing by the second, and technical teams across the world are addressing new challenges each day.

The level of change and innovation, and the energy with which it is being tackled was certainly evident today in this year’s Radio TechCon. It’s all in good hands was my conclusion.

Audio Transformation and the role of Public Service

The EBU, the European Broadcasting Union represents public service broadcasters in 56 countries. In the words of the keynote speaker, Judy Parnall (pictured), the EBU’s new Chair, it's all about "making public service broadcasting indispensable". Judy was keen to point our that their 'Europe' is not the EC from which we are poised to part.

She kicked off reminding us, lest lazy journalists forget, just how strong radio is, with 85% reach across Europe last year, and 82% of the challenging 15-24s. It’s true,of course, that loyalty has fallen appreciably amongst 15-24s over time. But it’s still better than folk think.

Judy set the scene for the day, with mentions of all the other ways audio is now consumed, reminding us that the UK enjoys 11% smart speaker penetration, accounting for 1% of listening - and the US stats suggest that a majority of people who have such things just listen to more audio.

After a wry ‘if 5G is the answer, what’s the question", we were reminded that trials are underway in the Orkneys, where islanders are lumbered with poor internet connectivity and no DAB - so it's a decent place to try something new. Dynamic shared spectrum access with parties from the ‘connective fishing industry’ to schools and ferries, this 5G ‘rural first’ DCMS-supported pilot will surely inform.

Norway goes Digital

Having personally just helped the fine team at Celador migrate their Town 102 audience in Ipswich from FM to DAB, it was fascinating for me to hear from Bjorn Aarseth from NRK in Norway who aided the task of taking Norway’s 5.3m population from analogue to digital. He clarified that it was more than an ‘FM to DAB’ transition.

Norway, we are told has awkward terrain, and FM on the road network is not good. It also costs $25m to transmit. Like the UK, they have a relatively young commercial radio industry, beginning in '81, with the first national station in '93.

The goal for DAB was 99.5% population coverage, with 95% for the commercial networks. The base figures suggested that half of the population had access to DAB in 2009, with 94 trials.

Now, they suggest plans are on target. Most stations are on DAB+ with the locals squatting on FM until 2023. Mind you, he conceded that some pirates were rebroadcasting the DAB service content on FM. How great to have someone else paying your simulcast fees.

A theme to recur later in the day reared its head, that of loudness, with Bjorn suggesting Norway’s DAB was normalised to -15 LUFS. He observed too that in Oslo all stations were +/-1 LUF - compared to the recalcitrant UK, where he claimed the comparable range was +/-10%! Radio listeners have a lower comfort zone for loudness changes than TV viewers, he reminded us.

Bjorn (which means 'bear' he told us) mentioned the importance of linear production, so everything is done in a consistent chain from production to airing, but suggested that his programmers knew pretty swiftly if something sounded odd.

There seemed no great enthusiasm for traffic flags; DAB’s vertical polarisation was a challenge; most DAB listening was mono; and cheap car dash cams from China interfered.

He suggested engagement with the audience was key - making sure you help them on the journey

What will happen to the FM spectrum when it's been emptied, asked one delegate. ‘Stuff’ was the reply. No-one had any real idea what sort of stuff.

Over coffee, several engineers suggested to me that the UK really does need to get on with a switch off/over date.

How LOUD should podcasts be?

Adrian Wisbey from the BBC highlighted research suggesting that 50% of listeners reacted when the change in loudness was greater than 3LU. That may mean switch you off.

He suggested normalising to -18 LUFS at production, and be aware that ‘broadcast’ channels such as Apple will change what you dispatch. He said YouTube reduces loudness if it's too loud, but doesn't trouble to lift it if it’s too soft. He pointed out too that many devices are limited as to output volume, so if your podcast is too quiet, then it may be impossible for a listener to correct it. Listen to how other podcasts in your genre are processed, he advised.

LEDs and DAB - not a happy marriage

My mum used to indulge in Waggoners Walk when Radio 2 was on Long Wave. All wonderful until Georgina next-door switched on her twin-tub and interference reigned. 

Now, it seems, LED lighting is the villain for DAB – according to Rob Webber from the BBC. Essentially, don’t trust cheapo lights - it’s the power converter that does the damage.

He displayed how the noise floor changes as floodlights were turned on near a DAB radio set, and, surprisingly, how a car’s DAB reception was affected by the DC hazard lights on a passing lorry.

Sadly, there were not many solutions. Indeed some consumers were showing much DAB suspicion, according to the Mumsnet page flashed up the screen. It’s just about advising listeners to check these things. Maybe there is a case for a bit more advice in this area to UK radio listeners, just as we used to be told where to point our FM aerials.

A new studio - in a month

Mark Farrington and Hannah Austin from Bauer were understandably chuffed with having built a new studio - in a month. A glass box in the corner of the office is now a useful studio which apparently Claire Sturgess loves, equipped with a specially selected Neumann mic. 

A touchscreen mixer lies at the heart - one which is beautifully resistant to tea poured down it. Now THAT is useful. The room turned out to sound better than they’d imagined. 3D printing helped establish prototypes for other facilities, including the headphone splitter. Problems? Well, people on the same floor clomping round like elephants. A stiff
management email will surely stop that instantly.

Lights, music, action

Just when we thought radio studios could get simpler and cheaper, along comes visualisation (It was fascinating, by the way, to talk to the gifted Global guys over coffee about the thinking that's going into the LBC studio look, with new ideas soon to debut).

Jeremy Roberts from ETC and Dan Aldridge from Stage Electrics reminded us that lighting is key. Their presentation kicked off with double Physics and Biology, reminding us that we see colour in mid-light, it is impaired by too much or too little.

Your eyes have cones and rods - just don’t overload the bloody rods. Eyes are most sensitive to amber and greens, which is why emergency clothing uses those colours. This is why I enjoy TechCon. Did you know that as Man evolved, he couldn’t see blue at first.

We then witnessed Jeremy wandering round - shining a huge light onto his tolerant colleague’s face, helping us understand the difference between poorly and well-lit. The placing and angle is critical too, from a height is good, and don’t illuminate the bits you don’t want. Light for the purpose too:  is this supposed to look like a TV studio, or something more casual? 

Watch the windows. Can you cover them up, or bounce the light back? Or prepare to light the subject’s dark side with equivalent brilliance.

Diversify or Die

Diversify or die, cautioned the Radio Academy’s new chair, Dr Yvonne Thompson. Whilst acknowledging the Ofcom depressing stats suggesting that 81% of radio's technical staff are men, there was evidence that attitudes have changed - and that shift in attitude will preface a change in behaviours. 

Diversity, of course, is about more than just appointing women, it’s about social class, ethnicity and sexuality. A healthy pre-prandial debate ensued.

It’s also worth pointing out how TechCon has changed in my many years hosting it. Once the province of highly-intelligent blokes, there is now, without doubt, a much greater diversity in the audience, aided too by the bursaries. The range of high quality speakers this year was incomparable. Delegates were urged again to sign up as a STEM ambassador to give talks on their world to inspire tomorrow's techies.

AI in Broadcast

Cordula Schellenberger from Veritone showed us the work flow of how they ingest audio material and transcribe it. Whilst a medically ‘trained’ bit of software will understand medical terms - and a sporting one will understand 'Man U' - their clever software uses multiple differently-trained engines from all sources. This collaborative approach raised correct transcription rates to 75%.

The session nodded to the use of voice-activated services; and showed how the software above can search words in audio content with enviable accuracy. 

Commercial programmers will delight at its ability to track down every mention of a client so you can pull off all random brand mentions with ease.  Alas, no time for questions. I was wondering what will be the best thing to call your podcast, if it’s going to be requested by voice - and I also worried how easily stations will be tracked down by lawyers now able to find out exactly what’s been said about their client on every station.

Hacking Festivals

Hacking’s a good thing. In this enthusiastic session, we were reminded that we need to agree on tech - and compete on content. Technologists should co-operate - and talk to anyone and everyone about their work.

We witnessed scenes from the Electromagnetic Field festival. Like a music festival, but people getting together in a field with three stages to listen to each other - and hack. The photos said it all, with real energy and discovery from makers, engineers and artists - a festival for the inquisitive. Kids loved it too - with their festival badges being a software defined radio. 

One result was shown, a voice-controlled radio which uses DAB, FM or online sources to deliver the requested station. Not revolutionary in its elements, you might argue, but it’s Apple-like simplicity and ease would have made a great gift for my old man. The hacking fraternity was able to deliver proof of concept.

Object-Based Audio

Object based audio has been a regular TechCon subject: how listeners can choose the mix of the sound elements of any programme. The audio objects are collected and metadata assembled - so we know what’s what - then rendered to the listener’s taste. How much chocolate do you want on your cake?

Headphones cause 'internalisation' it seems, where the mind thinks the sounds come from inside the head. 'Binaural auralisation' offers a remedy. In other news, speech intelligibility rises 12% when you can see the lips move. Try this one at home. But where the voice appears to come from makes a difference.

A demo on this session showed how a spatialised audio drama, using mobile phones, could generate immersive audio without the bother of 5.1 array.

Brilliant Students

Two incredible women from University Radio York showed off their app, in which students could save their university from an alien invasion.  It's a game, by the way.

This was full scale, physically interactive audio demonstrated by Rebecca Saw and Sienna Holmes, with students marching the campus and making decisions which affected the outcome of what they heard. 

The project had been a true collaborative effort across the disciplines, with much problem-solving and some degree of personal investment.  The TechCon audience liked the app, and warmed to its presenters, two energetic and highly capable women. I would have hired them tomorrow.

Emley Moor

A show of hands suggested that about three quarters of the audience had been up the Emley Moor 330m tower, the highest free-standing structure in the UK. 

The mast was built originally like a ball-point pen, with the antenna shoved through the mast and upwards like a ball point pen ink and nib, before the column was then filled with the necessary infrastructure to be able to ascend the mast.

But! Tony Mattera from Ofcom dropped by to explain how they’d had to build a second mast to replace old Emley to free it for work on the 700 MHz clearance programme.

The feat was illustrated with breath-taking footage of the helicopter flying in to deposit the latest section of the temporary mast, looming as high in the sky as its older sister. The video embedded above wasn't the actual helmet cam footage which made us feel giddy, but gives a sense of the task.

A skilled team from Helirig hovered over with a 2.5 tonne sections of the mast dangling, to be grasped by the determined team working at height in their fluorescent garb. Do Emmerdale viewers and Capital listeners really appreciate the risk to life and limb that their programmes require? 

The helicopters, apparently, often hail from Chile - as Chileans love BIG helicopters. Or Russian ones – given their double rotors.

Anyway, it’s up now, ready for the big frequency re-jig which needs antenna work on the main mast. This will take a matter of months  - but no-one will notice because Emley 2 stands poised. A brilliant job. They should show the erection video between programmes, frankly.

Small-scale DAB

Graham Plumb, Director of Spectrum Broadcasting at Ofcom updated us on Small Scale DAB, the new budget small DAB approach pioneered by Rash at Ofcom itself, and soon to be a home for community and smaller commercial radio operators.

The experiment was a success, with around 70 unique, mostly fresh, stations transmitted in ten areas – delivering real experience to ten small multiplex operators.

Expressions of interest are now in for the permanent  multiplexes, and Ofcom is beginning work with DCMS on the relevant legislation and process.  Technical guidance is being reviewed, and the plan is to draft it in such a way it can be easily understood. Ofcom will then work on frequency planning and consult on the licence award process. It is confident it has the resource, and has ‘lots of people’ working on it.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aside from Stephanie Hirst’s traditional excellent ‘what can you remember about today’ contest, the last session was down to accomplished sound ‘imagineer’ Dirk Maggs.

Having created the original Hitchhiker's Guide in 1978, the BBC brought him back to create some 40th anniversary material. 

Bubbling with enthusiasm as ever, Dirk shared stories of his conversations with Douglas Adams (“A 6 foot seven 10 year old boy”) and their shared dreams. He told of his plans years ago to create Dolby Surround sound, and how cautious engineers crossed the road when they saw him coming.

In short, here was an original premier-league sound creator who masters his craft to this day. As he saluted the technicians of today and yesterday - and gave them due credit for their contribution to UK radio creativity, it was a fitting end to a remarkable day. Tomorrow’s technology, discussed in the building where the BBC had made its tentative steps in the 1920s.

Congrats to Ann, Aradhna and all the TechCon committee who delivered this event this year. A real success . Thanks too to all the sponsors who made it happen – with Broadcast Bionics at the front of a committed queue. There's a debt too to Savoy Place, the IET's home, and a plug is warranted for the IET's Multi-media network.  

I am not a techie.  I was simply the host, wearing a silly suit. If anything is factually incorrect in this quick round-up, please drop me a line and I'll change it.

I work with radio stations around the world in a range of areas. From programme strategy to research, key brand work and marketing strategy. From presenter training to compliance, consultation responses and licensing. Talk to me via

Grab my book 'Radio Moments': 50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories. Available in paperback or ebook.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and real food for thought if you've been doing it years. 
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