Radio Outside Broadcasts – or the reason I am now totally mad | radioinfo

Radio Outside Broadcasts – or the reason I am now totally mad

Thursday 29 January, 2015

By David Wynter

As the broadcast year begins and you contemplate your schedule of OBs, we have asked Outside Broadcast expert David Wynter to share a few of his tips on how to execute the perfect OB.
 

 

 

I start this article with a little advice. There is no precise art or magic way to do a Radio Outside Broadcast. When I was first asked to write this paper, I baulked a little.

There have been far more intelligent folk than I who have worked either alongside me or were my bosses, or sometimes that role was reversed. However, I have had a wealth of experience (and yes a lot of luck) in both producing and technically managing Outside Broadcasts (from now on referred to here as OB’s) over quite a few decades (see sidebar story). It is not my intention to lecture anyone that may read this on how to do OB’s, because many will have captured and successfully broadcast monsters of their own equally well or better than myself.

The first OB I can find reference to in Australia was actually on 2UE Sydney (who are presently celebrating their 90th birthday and started broadcasting on January 26th 1925 – Australia Day). They covered the Eucharistic Congress which happened in their home city in September 1928. Thus began a long track of every radio station in the country getting outside and closer to its audience.  

This brings me to my first point – why do we want to do an OB?  

The obvious reason is as stated above, it takes the radio station out to the people – its audience and in so doing they hope to capture more listeners to the station overall thus increasing ratings and of course ultimately revenue.  Good attractive and workable OB’s need to be planned, planned well and planned by quite a few people. Firstly have a reason for doing an OB. Don’t think that just because YOU may think it’s a good idea, your audience will. Remember that listeners tend to be “creatures of habit” and while some may often “dial twiddle”, most have their likes and dislikes about any radio station.

My experience of producing OB’s was always to look at associating the OB with another event – one that would be already attracting major crowds. As mentioned above, Australia Day comes to mind. Sydney is really the centre of Australia Day and I have set up, staffed, produced and technically operated many on that day out of various locations around Sydney and its environs. Crowds have always been good. Having prizes and cheap station publicity material to give away to the crowd goes a long way to the potential audience leaving the site just that little bit more hooked to your station. It’s good to have some program guides with the frequency boldly advertised and station personalities show times listed.  Another trick is to get your personalities out there mixing with the crowd. There is nothing wrong with a good bit of hero-worshipping.

When your station decides they wish to mount an OB, have a planning meeting well in advance of the event. Involve publicity staff, technicians/operators (remember you are going to need these at both ends - OB & Studio) so make sure you have both covered. Program/Content Managers are vital to the event. They should be well involved in the planning and also manage the OB site on the day if necessary. 

BBC OB bus at the '84 OlympicsIt is their station and their concept that you are attempting to remotely set up.  All organisations have a “station sound” and it is vital that the OB continues to convey the same sound as it would from a studio as seamlessly as possible. Ensure that your studio and OB crews agree on who is playing what to air.  If all the commercials are to come from the studio, agree on that. Decide which end will play in jingles etc. It is my experience that the more the studio does, and just adds in the presenter/s from the OB, the smoother it goes.

Remember to add your return feed into the PA so your OB audience hears the whole program. There is nothing worse than being part of an audience at an OB and there are big gaps in the sound. They need to hear everything – as does your presenter/s.  As part of the planning process, if you are the technician/operator DO NOT make anyone at the planning meeting any promises that technically the event can happen. I, and many others. have been guilty of that and learned to source out the path you will get your signals to and from the studio.

There are many of us who been guilty of saying “sure I can get lines or signals out of there” only to find that basically you can’t!!!! I will come to that a bit later in discussing various ways to get signals back. Remember if you are using 3G/4G technology, cells may become overcrowded at major event times.

The next thing to do is to go with either the program’s producer or the Program Manager to the proposed OB site as soon as possible after your first meeting. DO NOT presume that “oh we have done it from there for the last ten years” it will all be fine. I had a technical colleague that allowed this to happen only to find that when they rolled their OB Van into the same place as every year before, a large brick wall had been built between where the van would sit and where the proposed audience would be!! 

Building a large OB

Another example of assuming everything is the same as last time was when ABC Rural Department (who had been occupying the same site for a number of years at the Sydney Royal Easter Show) turned up to do their annual broadcast, only to find a new Ladies toilet had been built immediately adjacent to the studio. Unfortunately, the cisterns installed were the old concrete type with a chain and anyone “occupying” the cubicle nearest to the studio would release a large torrent of flushing sounds preceded by a very loud “ker-lunk” which was very obvious on air. Their only solution was for the Executive Producer to sneak in and place an “Out Of Order” sign on the offending cubicle. A survey would have picked this up.

Establish site contacts especially technical ones. Check your power sources. Not just one but several. Some broadcast vans require separate 15 amp circuits – one to run the gear and lighting and the other for the vehicles air conditioning. Believe me it’s not very fair on your team including a bright chirpy presenter to be sitting on the Opera House forecourt in 38-degree sun and no power to run the air-conditioning because putting them on the same circuit would take out the circuit breaker. Always ask for even another backup feed. Check what each circuit is already being used for. 

I’ve had occasions where I’m told “just use that double power point over there. No one ever uses it.” I’d then go back to electrical main or sub board to discover that the ice cream vendor’s machine 100 metres away was drawing 10 amps on the same circuit!!!! No wonder no one ever used that power point!  Plan your power requirements very early in the piece remembering that you may need to add outside lighting if working at night and your publicity people may have power requirements of their own.

Think and discuss where your PA system’s speakers are going (a vital part of any OB). Remember that some PA systems can consume large amounts of current all by themselves. On the subject of speaker placement, when I am listening to a station’s OB at home, sometimes all I can hear is the PA – either ringing into feedback or “behind the lines” of radio microphones etc. 

Obviously the louder you have the PA, the more it colours the original sound. Keep it as low as possible and try to equalise the feed to it separately to “tune the room” as the “rock and roll” engineers will say.

If there is a stage involved or something similar out in front of your van or mixer, get the speakers well out into the crowd so they don’t cause feedback into whatever microphones are out front.  It is advisable while you are thinking about placement to ask to see a floor plan of the event as how the sites will be allocated on the day.  I had one occasion where we were next to an Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman who had been squeezed in at the last moment. He wanted to set up a quiet reading area for his demonstration. Impressed he was not – even to the extent of cutting one of my speaker cables with his pocketknife, which of course shorted out the PA amplifier as he cut through thus blowing up the output stage of the amplifier completely. Luckily I had had the foresight to bring a spare amp.

By now you will have thought through the process of signal paths back to the studio but remember lines of site if doing it RF or get on to carriers such as Telstra if you are using ISDN or similar. Put in any circuit bookings early and talk through with your contacts you will have at the various carriers asking do they foresee any problems. I did an OB for Ian McNamara’s ‘Australia All Over” from the spectacular Byron Bay Lighthouse site. We set it up the day before and tested our 10k and 3k lines to and fro. All worked well and a deserved couple of beers were taken at a local hotel.  My technical assistant and I drove up to the site an hour and half before our 0530 live to air round Australia broadcast.  We naturally tested again with Sydney Radio Master Control who advised they weren’t receiving us and we weren’t getting them back either. I rang Telstra’s Sydney Sound Operations Centre (which handled all audio and television in and out of Sydney at the time). They confirmed that nothing was incoming to them. Unfortunately, the nearest staff they could re-call were at Lismore about an hour away. I left them to it but I had a mate who was a phone technician at Byron Bay exchange. (Well he was a mate until I asked him to go in there at 0400!!) Anyway while he didn’t know much about the broadcast side, he was able to confirm that our signal was not getting to him either. 

I knew therefore we had a local problem and after checking signal was actually on the cable leaving the OB bus, my assistant Jenny and I started to follow the cable route back down the hill along the fence where Telstra had run it until it went into a pit at the bottom of the hill.  After half an hour of torchlight stumbling through the paddock we found our problem. The wild goats in the paddock had eaten the way through our cable overnight!! Luckily Jenny came from a New Zealand farming background and was able to herd and pen the goats into an adjacent paddock. I re-terminated the Telstra 4 pair cable.  We made it to air with about 15 minutes to spare. The Telstra guys from Lismore who turned up around 0600 were great but when realising they weren’t required, went and got us some bacon and egg rolls which were magnificent. 

There is not much Telstra Broadcast support in the country areas these days so it’s really good that most broadcasters have moved on to technology like 3G/4G codecs. (More on that later.)

Now I should briefly mention that all the above is the positive side of why we should have an OB. Have a big think at your planning meetings as to why you SHOULDN’T do them. 

I have done OB’s where absolutely no audience turned up. (I won’t mention the station or the company). The problem with them was they were told from on high that they HAD TO do a certain number of OB’s every year as this was all budgeted for etc. etc. Problem is no one including their publicity people knew how to attract their core audience. I can remember about five us just handing out promotional material and the occasional punter would walk past and just throw it in the next bin.  There was nothing around us, no reason for being there, and no event. Believe me it became its own non-event. Also each of these OB’s can have major cost implications in staffing, promotional and circuit costs.

I have been lucky enough to travel the world and Australia doing OB’s, (see below). Do you know the major things that people forget to take for the poor presenters – and this may seem silly – clocks? These poor people often with huge audiences have to time out to Network crosses, News bulletins etc. often with delay/latency difficulties.  They rely on us as their support people to accurately set clocks. Times have moved on with satellite-locked clocks etc. Most of my days have been spent with high quality analogue ones. The main thing is make sure you take them, make sure they are accurate and the presenter/s can see them at exactly ninety degree to the face. Remember, if you are going out over different time zones, take appropriate clocks because your presenter may have to time out giving several time calls. Nothing wrong with sticking masking tape on a face with the time zone on it so they don’t need to guess. 

Remember that your presenters are human beings too, just like you. They have emotions and they get testy (just like you) but they are at one big disadvantage to you – they are the ones terribly exposed. 

They are used to working in a calm studio situation with quite often no one watching them (let alone thousands of people starring at them in a gold fish bowl at an OB). They get nervous because it’s usually them that the audience blames not you should something go wrong. 

A colleague of mine was the supporting technical person at an OB and hadn’t done his checking. He cued up a reel-to-reel tape (remember them, my how I like new digital systems so much better) but unfortunately cued it up backwards. The presenter did the long lead into a story that had been pre-recorded, the tech fired in the tape. Talk about egg on face for the poor presenter who had hundreds of laughing faces looking at him. As an old boss of mine once taught me – check, check and make the cut – I have always remembered that!  

Decide early what sort of microphones you want to use at your OB. My choice has always been hyper-cardioid because the PA won’t get into them quite so much. There are some great headset microphones around now that help this even more. Talk with your presenter as well because some prefer to hand hold as a bit of a security measure rather than headsets (and there is nothing wrong with that). 

Have a good think about O.H. & S. issues. Gaffer tape down everything in sight especially power, speaker and microphone cables. Remember your Station Manager does not want to have to fight a lawsuit because someone fell over your cables. It’s also a good idea to gaffer tape your power plugs to the point which saves someone tripping over them but also gives the message to a third party “Hey, don’t unplug that cable”.  If you are working on the roof of an OB van or bus please consider wearing a safety harness. This is now mandatory in some states and countries so it would be wise to check that out.

Finally, I mentioned earlier getting your Radio OB signal back to the studio. 

In some parts of the world, broadcasters still use conventional copper landlines usually at 10 kHz but also sometimes offered as 3 kHz or 15 kHz product to get their signals to and from their studios. However in Australia this has pretty well been phased out due to carriers ceasing to supply a copper network.

For OB’s these days one of the main transmission paths uses the “Tielines” range.

See http://www.tieline.com.au/

There are also now excellent apps for Apple IPhones and Androids that can be used for OBs which use the 3G/4G mobile phone networks. They then connect to a codec usually in the studio’s Equipment Room. These now give excellent broadcast quality.
 

Some broadcasters use Viprinet systems which also use the 3G/4G mobile networks but employ a number of SIM cards, encode the signals, send them over the mobile network (via normal Tieline Codecs) and then decode them at the other end not selecting necessarily the strongest signal but re-assembling the data taking the “packets” which arrive first thereby minimising latency. See: http://www.viprinet.com/en/products/multichannel-vpn-router-modular/multichannel-vpn-router-2610

Codecs can also use ordinary Internet connections to transfer the data (I.P). That’s all it is these days, data. It’s not really audio which is sent back and forth anymore.

Occasionally ISDN lines are still used but these are becoming more difficult to get from carriers.

Australian ABC also has a mobile satellite uplink, which packs away into 2 large cases that house the dish and mount. Another 2, one for the TX converter and RF Amplifier (sit by the dish), the other which houses the receiver and RX converter (sits at the OB point). More on that here.

I guess my only final advice to anyone starting off in the OB business is “have some fun while you get paid for it.” 

My sincere thanks to David Bates, Radio Facilities Manager, ABC Ultimo for help in the preparation of this article.
 


 

David Wynter is now a freelance consultant specialising in all aspects of broadcasting as well as Australian Heritage Railways. David followed his father (who was an announcer in country radio during the Second World War) into the exactly the same field. Starting as a casual announcer in country N.S.W. he moved to Sydney after being offered a cadetship as a technician at Radio 2UW (later to become Mix 106.5 and now KIIS 106.5) in Sydney. Because of his previous experience on the front of the microphone, 2UW occasionally called on David to do various fill in announcer shifts. However his true love was Technical Production and after gaining his qualifications in that area he moved to ABC Radio in 1974. There he worked his way up through the ranks specialising in Outside Broadcasts (one of which went on to win him the Gold New York Radio prize).

He was a Technical Manager or Technical Producer of Olympic/Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Los Angeles, Edinburgh, Seoul, Auckland, Victoria British Columbia and Atlanta. David pioneered the art of “synthesized broadcasting” as used in all “Games” broadcasts by the ABC thereafter. He travelled extensively throughout Australia being Technical Producer for shows like “Australia All Over” and symphony concerts from major cities to small country towns. He was promoted to Asst. Mgr. for Radio NSW and was one of the three Senior Managers for the move of all of ABC Radio from multiple buildings in Darlinghurst to the new complex that was to become the ABC Ultimo Centre. He designed many of the studio areas and facilities within the new building.

In 1997 David was “poached” from the ABC by S.O.B.O. the broadcasting arm of the Sydney Olympic Games Organising Committee to work as a Commentary Systems Manager responsible for nine venues in Sydney and interstate. David says that at “Games Time” for the successful Sydney Olympics he was working sixteen hours a day every day,

In 2001 he was offered the position of Head of Radio Operations for SBS Radio. Here he became responsible for all Operations staff and studio/OB facilities in Sydney and Melbourne. This period included a massive re-build of the stations to Digital and scores of OB’s.

2007 brought a change in direction and David took employment in his other love – Heritage Railways. He was hired by the Australian Railway Historical Society to run their Railway Resource Centre and at the same time Editor of their Monthly magazine “Australian Railway History”. David learnt writing and editing skills very quickly as well as running a voluntary staff of over 30.

In 2011 David decided to go freelance and formed his own company (David Wynter Consulting). He has since travelled extensively both in Australia and overseas. His experience has been invaluable to other organisations both in the Broadcast and Railway fields.

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