In the ’80s, visionaries looked at tape-based automation systems and wondered aloud, “Can’t a computer do this?” And indeed they could.
Everyone remembers fondly the days of carts and turntables, of paper traffic and music logs, and the nonstop AP printer in the background robotically spewing forth all the news of the hour on reams of paper.
It has been quite a journey, but now it is a given that the radio station has a computer system helping to play back commercials, station imaging, songs and everything else. Properly tuned, these computers can be a great asset to the station and help your talent be more creative.
The next question we can ask would be, “Where is it all going?”
Everyone wants to be able to share content within a group, ingest files for broadcast from anywhere and “borrow” talent from one market for another market and be able to backup all of their digitized stations. There have been vendors offering all of these for years.
Centralizing and sharing all of a market cluster’s stations into one database is not a new concept. What is new is how ubiquitous mobile devices have become.
Apple’s recent marketing claims that they are selling more product than all Windows combined. Part of this tremendous success may have come at the hand of missteps by Microsoft (Windows Vista, Windows 8’s initial deployment), which have caused fatigue with end users. While some get frustrated by the steel wall of an Apple device, the benefit of the rigid approach is a predictable experience every time. And every one of the mobile devices on the market is capable of running a browser.
Add Google’s advances in the Android OS for phone and tablet over the past couple years and you have a perfect storm – or perfect opportunity for some – because everyone carries with them better computing power than most of us had on our desktop 15 years ago.
An Automation or Digital Playout system still has the same job today that it had 20 years ago. To put it simply, they just play the station’s log, and hopefully not screw up. I encourage everyone to hold their vendor to the same standard they would hold a human board op to. Good ones stay, bad ones have to go.
The playout system is the heartbeat of the station. When it goes down, the station is not playing commercials and the radio station is losing money. And we all like to get paid so the key is stay on the air!
Your automation/playout system has to be written in a way that the critical pieces are reliable, fast, efficient and responsive. It should be written on a technology which is “tight,” which is to say that it is very focused on the job it has.
At the same time, a system should be modular in nature. Being modular not only allows the station to configure the system in a variety of ways, but also allows flexibility for the future. We are in a changing industry, constantly evolving. The system shouldn’t have only one way to do things. There should be loads of ways to accomplish things. This may be far more difficult for the vendor, but smart technology and design will yield the best result in the end.
The future for groups is more and more data sharing, to the point that essentially all stations in a group are in one database, and the playout could be performed at any of their locations. This allows for the ultimate disaster recovery potential. Also, there are opportunities to remove silos in your group and share things more openly. And a truly flexible system would also allow you to section off certain content that either is inappropriate, or proprietary to certain shows.
Your top talent morning guy has sound effects which are iconic to his show, and management may decide that that audio is only available to that one show so that it doesn’t accidentally play outside of that show. Conversely, the interview with the governor you might want to get to all stations in the state so that everyone can benefit from a single interview.
But let’s get back to mobile. If everyone is carrying around great computing hardware, one can easily imagine a reality where the playout is extended (with permissions of course) to anywhere in the world. Not just content creation, pushing actualities from a mobile phone straight to the station.
The future just might be being able to do an entire offsite broadcast from your iPad, your Galaxy Tab or anything else with connectivity and a screen. So imagine you have a bank of keys for your sound effects, you have the ability to pre-record your talent just ahead of real time, or if you wanted to feed live audio from an event take complete control of the broadcast, seeing and controlling the playout system.
Now during a talk break, you will be able to click on a play button in your iPad and see the system respond immediately. Monitor the progress of a song with countdown timers and everything needed in order to know exactly what is going on; as if you were back at the station. Complete control of your radio station from anywhere is now a reality.
That is the future, and it is pretty liberating.