Local radio has always had the image of being parochial and a little behind the times. Which is unfair because this sometimes-marginalised, but important, area of broadcasting is often under-funded but has produced presenters, journalists and engineers who have gone on to greater things in national broadcasting. But in the UK this cosy little backwater is being used as the proving ground for a new approach to technical presentation and distribution that could change the way studios are built and operated.
On 3 July BBC Radio Northampton became the first in what could become a full network of virtual local radio (ViLoR). BBC local radio was launched in 1967 with Radio Leicester and since then the network has built up to cover major cities, towns or whole counties round the UK. There are now 40 stations with studios and equipment of varying ages, 39 of have been deemed to need a technological upgrade.
The ViLoR project was created to deal with the scale of this task, which, using traditional radio equipment, would cost a huge amount of money and take a long time to complete. The plan is to maintain each station's localness, with on-air and production equipment in the studios that presenters and journalists will find familiar, but centralise all storage, streaming, mixing and processing of data in Virtual Local Radio Centres (VLRCs).
The basis of this is IP technology, supported by modern digital broadcast equipment, connected using analogue interfaces and widely available IT hardware. The project was conceived by Geoff Woolf, technology development manager for BBC English regions, who explains that the priority was the retain technical capabilities at each local station so that the production and news teams were able to work as usual. "With ViLoR the studios are equipped with control surfaces and software which instead of controlling a stack of equipment in the station's racks room now controls a stack of resilient kit in two geographically diverse VLRCs," he says. "By doing so, kit which until now was replicated for every station can be shared across all stations."
For most people the term 'virtual radio' would usually mean a station running with all mixing, editing, source routing and playout functions carried out in software on computers with little if any hardware. Woolf says ViLoR is virtual in the sense that it is a "radio station operating in a cloud". This is, he explains, achieved in four ways: centralisation of the majority of the broadcast technology, including the kit used to support real-time services for the studio such as audio mixing and phones; replacing nearly all the base-band audio (whether analogue or AES3 serial digital) with IP streams operating on the BBC’s enterprise IT network; using IP-based software working on commodity IT hardware to provide operational capability instead of the conventional approach of specialist broadcast hardware-based systems; and, once all that has been achieved, "hardware virtualisation techniques" are used to consolidate the number of physical servers required to provide the required capability.
Atos, the BBC's technology partner, is providing the wide area network, with the various operating platforms and SANs in the VLRCs, one of which is in the Mailbox centre in Birmingham, the other in London. Woolf acknowledges that centralisation inherently introduces latency as the audio signals travel between the studio and the VLRCs but he has developed techniques to deal with this. To ensure ViLoR has enough bandwidth it is connected over the BBC's private packet data network, which is used by the broadcasters facilities worldwide.
BBC Radio Northampton was used as the test bed for ViLoR in 2012 (pictured). One studio was re-equipped with an Axia digital console, Glensound Electronics analogue interfaces, Scisys (VCS) automation and Broadcast Bionic's PhoneBOX call handling system, which controls all contributions (not just phones), contribution routing and social media management. This has now been installed over the whole station and will be the standard format for subsequent installations; BBC Radios Suffolk and Essex and Three Counties Radio, covering Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, are to follow over the next nine months.
The BBC sees the benefits of ViLoR as: reducing the time it takes to re-equip a station from six to eight months to approximately eight weeks; improved audio quality, because it remains in the same format through the production and broadcast processes; better communication with the audience through social media; and the ability to share material between stations in different parts of the country. Another possibility is 'pop-up' radio stations, with the technology allowing studios to be created anywhere.
Woolf comments that ViLoR-based "pop-up studios" would "significantly enhance the BBC's outside broadcast capabilities" because all that would be needed at the OB venue would be the control surfaces and PCs running the control software. "To do this with ViLoR as developed to date will require the secure extension of the BBC's private IT network to the OB venue," he says. "Not an impossible task but one that requires an element of pre-planning. It will be a relatively modest amount of development for ViLoR to operate securely over the internet but this development work is not in the current plan."
The BBC says it will monitor the progress of the first four ViLoR radio stations and make any necessary improvements or changes before deciding whether to bring virtual technology to other parts of the network.