by April 11, 2005 0 comments



Think of radio, and what comes to your mind are huge transmission towers, radio receiver sets and people talking or singing into the microphones. Well, a modern radio station, especially an FM station, is run almost completely by computers. In fact, a single person can quite easily run an entire FM station. PCQuest got an insight into the functioning of one of India’s popular FM stations and here’s what we found.

The hardware
There is some hardware that you just cannot avoid having around, these include traditional power, amplification and transmission equipment. In addition, our modern day radio station is operationally run out of a mini data center. For reasons of quality and sheer speed required, these mini data centers are located on the campus, in a room very close to the RJ-booth (what that is, we’ll come to know in just a moment). Inside this data center, we have rack-mounted servers that aren’t too different from the ones running a corporate network or Web, and other servers on the Web.

Servers purchased for radio (or even some forms of video) broadcasting must have two things in plenty-storage capacity and I/O speed. When we store music on our PCs, we can afford to use VBR or CBR encoding, even with lossy compression techniques. However, this is a strict no-no for a media station. They need to have the highest possible quality, while the size of the file is immaterial. This means you need to have huge storage capacities in the range of gigabytes or even terabytes. 

Direct Hit!
Applies to:
Everyone
USP:
Runs through the technology needed to run an FM station

The radio station we visited had two dual-processor servers with a shared NAS box. The two servers had been arranged as fail-over ‘cluster’ for each other. Some stations have a different number of these servers and storage equipment-All India Radio for instance, uses six servers in a cluster. In the radio station we visited, the NAS box had five 100 GB hard disks in a RAID-5 configuration, giving 400 GB of usable capacity. The external storage box enables the storage to be completely independent of the rest of the server system. That is, if the server crashes you can always use the NAS box contents from another server. Typically, this configuration allows the storage of around 6,000 hours of high quality music.

The software
You can choose any OS to run your servers, but just ensure that the OS must be compatible with the software used in the radio station. The radio station we visited uses the popular RCS (Radio Computing Service) software, which is a Windows-based system. Accordingly, Windows is deployed on both the servers and the desktops-Server 2003 and XP Professional respectively.

The RCS software is rather largish and runs on atleast two systems -one is an administrative console and the other is accessible and operable from the RJ booth. The station’s Programs Director generally administers the RCS programming. The RJs then use the features of the system from their broadcast center (the RJ booth) to manage various events, such as gather further information on what’s being played, look at and respond to messages from listeners and callers, and so on. This software is clearly meant for the non-techies with an intuitive interface which is easy to learn to operate, if you’ve been around even a graphical media player program.

The RJ booth
This is a completely sound-proof studio, which neither lets sound from the inside go out nor external sound to seep in. Acoustic padding and sound-proof glass are used in its construction. Then the booth has the radio mixer controls-a large electronic pad with sliders, knobs and switches to mix various channels, fine-tune the frequencies being broadcast and buttons to turn the transmission ON or OFF. The RJ has atleast three PCs around him. One screen gives him access to the RCS interface to see and control what’s on air. The second monitor displays incoming calls and messages from listeners. All the SMSs and e-mail we send them as feedback appear here. The third monitor is provided for convenience for the RJ to look up information on the Web or search other archived material. For example, to check for historical information on a particular music and use that in his talk.

Other systems
A radio station’s systems are not just concerned with transmission of music. Since it is also a form of business, the sales teams must keep track of what people liked, what the advertising was and how much they earned. For all this, traditional accounting and spreadsheet software are used, although specialist software can be deployed. The RCS itself has a module (RCSLinker) to schedule and broadcast advertising and interstitials.

Failsafe
In case of a failure the RCS automatically play fillers till regular programming can go back live. Most of the time even a regular listener wouldn’t be able to make out the difference. This is all pre-programmed into the system and sometimes even sponsored!

Backups can exist for power (in the form of a UPS or a generator system), and redundant servers for server hardware. However, if a file gets corrupted or something in the network backbone breaks down, or there is a temporary software error, little can be done to offset downtime than play these emergency programming. You will be amazed to know that most private radio stations are actually empty of its employees by 5 pm and everything you hear after that till 9 am the next day, is handled completely by the computer systems in place-now, that’s what we call IT.

What they do is create these CDs with emergency programming -song bits, jingles and so on-and this can be inserted into a special slot if something goes
wrong. 

Perks
Live transmission is piped through the entire station, enabling the employees to both enjoy and monitor what’s going over the air. Heads of both the programming and sales are required to keep track of what’s being aired and if it’s according to preset scheduling. For the purpose of monitoring, they use FM-enabled cellular phones (the Nokia 6610 seems to be a preferred choice).

You can run one too
It’s not that you need to employ a lot of capital to run an FM station. Interesting projects such as the ‘community radio’ exist where communities of people can use low power transmitters to reach out and communicate with each other. Also it is very cheap to run an Internet radio, using free software available (check out GNU Radio from
http://www.gnu.org/software/gnuradio/). 
In fact, you have a plethora of software available now-Real Media Server, Shout Cast, Windows Media Server to name a few-some free and some costing money. The only limitation is bandwidth.

Sujay V Sarma

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