Religion on the radio17 March 2017
Philip Stevens takes a look at how specialist broadcasters carry out their work
Inscribed in Latin above a sculpture of The Sower on the iconic Broadcasting House in London’s West End are the words “This temple of the arts and muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being director general. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.”
From its very early days, the BBC has seen religious broadcasting as a significant part of its mandate. But that has been just a part of both the Corporation’s television and radio output. More recently, there has been an explosion of radio stations whose sole purpose is to proclaim the Christian message. (Of course, other religions are catered for by similarly dedicated radio outlets.)
“Premier began in 1995 as an AM London-only mixed format Christian radio station – the first analogue religious broadcaster in the UK,” states Dave Rose, programme director at Premier Christian Radio. “In the last 21 years, we have expanded to become a national digital broadcaster, with two additional channels – Premier Gospel is a digital gospel music station for London, and Premier Praise (our newest service) is a national digital praise and worship music station. All three of our stations broadcast live online 24 hours a day.”
Rose continues: “Premier Gospel and Premier Praise is virtually 100 per cent produced in house, with a mix of general and specialist music programming. Premier Christian Radio airs about 40 per cent of externally produced programming – largely a result of Bible teaching from around the world, especially the US.”
Where those programmes come from outside sources, the station accepts WAV and very high quality MP3 files.
Choice of equipment
“For production purposes, we have recently begun moving over to Axia Fusion consoles. We made that choice because we want to be as flexible as possible, both in terms of inputs into the studio – we have a large news department so need a range of outside sources – but also in terms of moving the three stations around the studios depending on their needs,” says Rose.
Premier has opted to use Audio-Technica AT4033ASM microphones and a Burli system for recording. Burli is also utilised for basic editing, with Protools being the choice for more advanced work. “Burli, as a news system, is also used by our news team – so it makes sense for us to use one system in the studio, where possible,” adds Rose.
The news team source, write, and record their own Christian news and Christian angle on breaking stories. Premier also subscribes to IRN/SKY news, who provide some audio packages that are incorporated in to the bulletins. RCS Zetta is used for studio playout across all three of Premier’s outlets.
“Where we cover external activities such as church services and conference we tend to use either Comrex or Skype for those events. We don’t have a location vehicle, and using IP/Internet systems give us the maximum flexibility to be able to broadcast from most places,” explains Rose.
The way ahead
So, what does Rose see as the biggest changes in religious broadcasting in recent times? “Across most radio – and indeed media – we are seeing increased fragmentation of audience as choice for consumers increases. Religious broadcasters face this too, as we deal with the competition of online music services, devotionals and teaching.”
With that in mind, how does he view the future of such broadcasting?
“I think we will need to ensure we are offering a unique take on what we do – something they can’t get anywhere else. It’s also possible, as the West moves in a more secular direction, we will face more challenge as to the nature of our beliefs, our broadcasting and our organisation,” Rose comments. “But we do have a unique programming mix that is available anyone around the world online, so we encourage everyone to check us out!”
A view from Germany
ERF Medien, which started operations in 1959, broadcasts from a studio centre in Wetzlar, near Frankfurt, Germany. As far as radio operations are concerned, the media group began broadcasting over shortwave from Radio Monte Carlo in February 1961. Three years later, programming using a medium wave frequency. Broadcasting over satellite started in 1994.
“Today we have two programmes over satellite and digital radio, along with television broadcasts and two Internet radio stations,” explains Thomas Merz, the group’s Media IT expert. “We have two studios for TV, and six for our radio productions.”
Merz says that its output is mainly produced in-house (pictured top). It also operates its own location vehicle for recording about 40 services each year in various churches, plus special events for both TV and radio. “For audio recording on location, we use a software based solution, synchronised for independent TV and radio recording. We have Rocknet stageboxes which take the split analogue-microphone signals,” explains Merz. “The control – gain, phantom, routing – is software controlled. From the Rocknet we take a MADI Stream and record via an RME Interface in our Samplitude Laptop. This multitrack recording is then edited in our studios.”
Within the studio facility, a mixture of Soundcraft RM1d, Vi4, Vi2 and Studer OnAir1500 consoles are installed. “We carried out a number of tests on various consoles, and found these to be very reliable,” says Merz.
He continues: “We use mainly Rode NT-2A microphones in the studios, while for street-Interviews our preferred options are Sennheiser MD421 and AKG C900. For music and service recording, we have quite a range from AKG, Beyerdynamic and Neumann. Where radio microphones are needed, we work with the AKG DMS700.”
For recording and editing, ERF has selected Magix Samplitude and Seqouia in combination with RME Audio interfaces. “We have been using Magix for a long time now – and the service works fine. RME Interfaces are great and the Metering Software Digicheck saves us a lot of equipment in the studios,” says Merz.
Playout is handled by CAPS 2 from EELA Audio.
“We are seeing an increased use of IP Technology, but if a good non-IP system fulfils its purpose, then we see no reason to change it. Having said that, for the studio links, all routes are working on AoIP – with the exception of our on-site FM transmitter,” explains Merz.
IP is one change that will continue developing, but what does Merz see as the other significant changes that are on the horizon? “Technologies are allowing more ministries than ever before to produce material for broadcasting. Social media is a great platform for this and with those opportunities, broadcasting is no longer regional, but worldwide,” he says. “In a complex and fast world radio is having like a renaissance. It is simple, you don’t need an account or username and so on. In combination with a good on-demand and Internet offer radio is a great opportunity for us. And not least: People need Jesus!”
“With the help of a few friends, I created IRRS Globe Radio Milan on FM in 1979, when I was 19, and studying at the University of Milan,” explains Alfredo E. Cotroneo, CEO and founder, NEXUS-International Broadcasting Association. “NEXUS is a non-profit association of broadcasters and programme producers, that we founded in 1988. NEXUS-IBA operates European Gospel Radio for Christian programme producers, and IPAR (Intentional Public Access Radio) for secular news and cultural programmes. NEXUS is a Latin word for link, and we aim at being the link between content producers and listeners, by means of radio, TV and Internet. We are offering our media – shortwave, satellite, Internet – to those who do not have stations or technical facilities (or are not technically minded) to be able to broadcast on their own.”
Cotroneo himself built the original FM transmitters and antennas, starting with 5, 15, then 50, 300W. After that, he bought a 1500W commercial transmitter when companies started producing them commercially in Italy.
The IRRS (Italian Radio Relay Service) name was registered at that time, and describes the original idea of a relay-station, rather than a conventional radio station with its own studio and programming. “At that time the only way to receive international news was as a shortwave listener, magazines and newspapers. Of course, there was no satellite and no Internet, so I managed to establish contacts with the transcription services of several foreign radio stations,that sent us programmes in English on cassette tapes. I originally built the automation in 1979, using a Sinclair Spectrum computer, digital I/O interfaces and a bunch of Sony MTL-10 cassette players.”
The station was sponsored by a few Christian programme makers (Family Radio and La Buona Novella Broadcasts), and later by the BBC. In fact, the BBC installed a satellite dish later in the mid-1990s, and that provided the means to transmit real-time news into greater Milan.
Beating the jams
“In 1988 we got a special deal with the Swiss PTT, and acquired one, and later a second, 10kW PEP Siemens Shortwave transmitter, capable of operating in fully automated mode from 1.6 to 21MHz,” says Cotroneo. “We received enthusiastic reception reports from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, and of course, we crossed the Iron Curtain into Eastern Europe – with none of the jamming that others such as the BBC and Voice of America experienced. Today, we relay a great many Christian programmes produced in the USA, mainly in English, German, Spanish and Russian.”
Being a relay station, there is no studio, as such, with all transmissions being handled by automated equipment (pictured). Cotroneo continues: “Around 1990, I imported the first digital audio boards – Windows and soundblasters were not yet available – and built an all-digital radio automation system using PCM cards under MS-DOS. This enabled us to duplicate cassette tapes into PCM digital audio files on removable hard – later optical – disks, and carry them to the station on a weekly basis to update the local computer used to feed audio and automate our transmitters.”
Cotroneo reports that the FM station in Milan was sold and shut down in 1998, a move which helped the operation to refocus on shortwave. “We have not yet used DAB, but we started offering satellite radio and TV to our members, as well as AM in 2011,” says Cotroneo.
Today, IRRS uses high power shortwave transmitters by agreement and licenced by several countries in Europe. The power ranges from 100 to 300kW with the main target audiences being in Africa, India and China. “In some of these areas shortwave is still a viable and only means of reaching people, especially with news and Christian messages,” explains Cotroneo.
He adds that the station started streaming on the Internet in 1995 as a beta tester of Real Audio – making IRRS among the first to pioneer the technology. At that time, he realised the ongoing potential of radio and TV over the Internet and started developing his own technology called WorldDirector. The aim was to build a globally distributed CDN (now a globally distributed cloud) to deliver audio streaming from several datacentres in Europe, US and Asia. This technology is now used by a sister company, Wornex International, to provide advanced cloud servers, by aggregating several cloud providers.
“We still follow the same old idea of relaying other organisation programme material,” declares Cotroneo. “We accept programmes in MP3 format, uploaded to our servers or, occasionally, on compact disks and real time Internet or satellite feeds. In addition, we use an all server-based scheduling software, based on an artificial intelligence engine, that I custom-designed and still maintain.”
With his unique operation, how does Cotroneo see religious broadcasting changing over the next few years? “While most US organisations are involved in broadcasting within their own country, we are mainly focused in other areas such as Europe, Africa and Asia. US broadcasters are mainly involved in finding sponsors among listeners, and we make it very clear from the beginning that any international broadcast must have a truly missionary spirit. This is extremely important, if a US Christian organisation wants to engage in international broadcasting.”
Financed by media activities, partnership and audience donations, RCF (Radio Chrétienne Francophone – French language Christian network) reaches an audience of over half a million. Founded in 1985, the network now operates over 60 stations and 250 frequencies in France and Belgium.
In May 2016, the Liège station underwent an upgrade, which included three new studios built around Axia PowerStation console engines serving Axia Element consoles, and a fourth – designed for production and interviews is equipped with an Axia virtual mixer. Other equipment includes Audiotechnica microphones and Genelec 8020 series studio monitors. The interview rooms share an analogue Eela Audio EA915X telephone hybrid, while the on-air studios use a digital Telos ONE plus ONE hybrid, all of which is under the control of the Axia console.
To make provision for future ‘visual radio’, RCF selected DAVID Systems Turbo Player play-out software, with Sound4 IP Connect.
At the same time, RCF Liège introduced a compact mobile kit which is used for outside broadcasts. This configuration comprises an AETA Scoopy+ HD and an integrated 3G card holder which allows direct mobile network access alongside an ISDN connection. Other components in this lightweight unit include a Yamaha 01V96i digital mixer, a Tascam DD-CR 200 CD reader, Audio-Technica microphones and Beyerdynamic DT790 headphones, DI boxes and cabling.
One wonders if Sir John Reith, quoted earlier, would be pleased with the harvest that has been borne since 1931?