Rail passengers know all about the difficulties of getting a mobile signal on trains. But this didn't stop the 'new' Virgin Radio broadcasting on a train, as Kevin Hilton reports
Radio loves an OB. The medium lends itself well to ‘outside broadcasts’ from locations beyond the confines of the studio, with a microphone and a pair of headphones the most basic technology needed to get on air. Behind that is the whole business of connecting back to the control room. As technology has developed, becoming more flexible and incorporating more IT and telecoms techniques, broadcasters are being increasingly ambitious, as shown by Virgin Radio relaunching on a train travelling from Manchester to London.
The resurrected station's inaugural broadcast, hailed as a world first, was hosted by breakfast show presenter Edith Bowman with drivetime host Matt Richardson (pictured above), and came live from the specially renamed Virgin Radio Star train, part of Virgin Trains' rolling stock, in the late spring of this year. Travelling on a non-standard route passing through Crewe, Birmingham and Rugby, the train also played host to six bands – Mystery Jets, Travis, The Feeling, Gavin James, Emmy the Great and Walking On Cars – who played at various points during the journey.
The job of defining a suitable system for the endeavor was given to radio and live events production company TBI Media. Founded by former BBC studio manager and independent producer Phil Critchlow, TBI Media has worked on many projects for both BBC and commercial radio but the Virgin launch did pose some new challenges, both technically and logistically.
"We were invited to come up with an idea of how to do the re-launch and if we could get a live signal off a train," Critchlow says. "The main issue was not being able to put anything on the outside of the train, such as an antenna. We've worked in situations where we've had to broadcast from a Spitfire during a Battle of Britain celebration, which was essentially the same problem."
The solution was to use a series of bonded mobile phone cards working on both 4G and 3G. These were fed through Viprinet bonding routers supplied by specialist hire and facilities operation Wired Broadcast (and distributor of the technology in the UK). "There were 12 different SIM cards and two Viprinet routers attached to the train's antenna," explains Wired Broadcast's operations manager Patrick Gunning. "The Viprinet gave access to the internet and selected the best signal as the train went along. We also used Tieline IP codecs for the connection back to London."
TBI Media carried out a test-run prior to broadcast to map out which stretches of the journey had the best coverage. "We were looking for all the signals available as the train went along," comments Critchlow. "During the test we identified where the signal was robust and where it wasn't. For the four-hour journey we estimated we would have two hours of decent signal in total. Because of this, the show on the train was run as an outside source, handing back to the Virgin Radio studio in London when the signal wasn't good."
The Virgin Radio Star (pictured at Manchester Piccadilly station) consisted of five carriages: one was dedicated to the live performances, with the seats removed to accommodate the artists and travelling audience; the other four were for the travelling audience, with one also housing Bowman and Richardson's presentation area, including a Mackie broadcast desk. "The performances were timed for certain points in the journey," says Critchlow, "and we had a couple of station stops along the way." The carriages were connected by a Dante network running over send-receive laptops, with PA loudspeakers located in the luggage racks of each coach. (A full report on the live sound side of the production can be found as part of the ‘Extreme Gigs’ feature in the 2016 edition of PSNLive.)
The 'new' Virgin Radio broadcasts on DAB through the UK's second digital radio multiplex (Sound Digital, which was launched in February). Virgin Radio originally went on air in 1993 as a national FM service and was part of Richard Branson's attempt to broaden the reach of his business empire. Despite building up a loyal listenership Branson decided to reduce his media holdings and in 1997 sold the station to the Ginger Media Group, fronted by its then breakfast show presenter, Chris Evans.
He in turn sold Ginger Media, including Virgin Radio, to Scottish Media Group (SMG) in 2000. Seven years later Virgin Radio was bought by TIML Golden Square, a subsidiary of The Times Group, and rebranded Absolute Radio. While the Virgin Radio name disappeared from the UK it continued as an interntional brand. It is now being licensed by UTV Media, which also runs TalkSport, to return to British airwaves.
Virgin Radio was the last service to launch on the Sound Digital multiplex, which is owned jointly by UTV Media, transmission provider Arqiva and Bauer Media, which bought the Absolute network in 2013.