Monday, October 13, 2008

ISDN + Empty Studio + NPR = Profit!

(below is an expanded version of my September 24, 2008 Radio World article: ISDN Can Help Generate Studio Rentals)

If you’re a commercial radio station, or a college campus, and you’ve never thought about ISDN, I have two words for you: public radio.

The generic term for content creators National Public Radio, American Public Media and Public Radio International (among many others), and their affiliate broadcast stations, “public radio” is an award-winning source of news for over 20 million listeners every week.

You might be wondering: “So what? Both NPR and ISDN have been around for decades, why are you talking about them now?” ISDN hasn’t changed, but public radio has: there are a lot more listeners, a lot more prestige and a lot more producers. These producers need studios to book their guests in, and you can help fill that need.

If you’re a commercial radio station with a lightly used extra studio, public radio has the cash to rent that studio to interview a local guest in. And if you’re a college or university, or a college radio station, you can make your professors available to be interviewed by public radio, thus bringing you national prestige and publicity…and the respect of your college.

Earning extra cash, bringing extra prestige, what’s not to love?

What exactly, is ‘the deal’ here?
Public radio, in general, places a premium on audio quality; ISDN helps achieve that.
In this case, ISDN refers to dedicated hardware that uses special telephone lines and high-speed algorithms to deliver CD-quality sound with almost no delay. In short, even though a guest might be in a studio 1,000 miles away, with ISDN they sound like they’re sitting in the same room as the host.

When an average public radio producer wants to interview a guest, that producer is looking — often frantically — for a readily available studio, convenient for the guest, that has the following:

• A quiet/soundproof studio or room with a studio-quality microphone.
• A location convenient for guests.
• A means of doing a backup recording.
• An ISDN codec compatible with the MPEG Layer 2 algorithm at 128 kbps (a.k.a. “L2 mono/128”).

What makes a good “broadcast studio”? Dense, solid walls, internal acoustic treatment, soundproof doors, baffled HVAC vents, and a method for allowing a trained technician to handle the techie stuff, so the guest doesn’t have to.

Don't have all that?You can still create a “studio” of sufficient quality with much less effort and cost. A regular room that’s naturally quiet — with thick concrete walls, no windows, a solid-core door, and egg-crate foam (make sure it's the fire-retardant kind) on the walls — can do the trick. Or a “pre-fab” solution such as a WhisperRoom booth can work well, too.

One note about WhisperRooms - they don't have built-in cooling, just vent fans that do nothing to cool the air. Once the door is closed, the temperature inside the WhisperRoom quickly climbs to 5 to 15 degrees higher than outside. If you're going to use a WhisperRoom, or a similar "vocal booth", make sure the room it's in has really good cooling (able to be down to 60-62 degrees F) so the vent fans are sucking in chilled air, lest your guest be sitting in a puddle of his or her own sweat.

Harping on the fire issue a bit more, The Station Nightclub disaster really rammed home how dangerous the fire risk really is. However, while a water-based sprinkler system is a great idea for saving people's may also want to consider that a water sprinkler may - in the process - also destroy your setup as thoroughly as a fire would. Check with your campus IT and campus safety office about finding a "electrical equipment / computer-safe" means of extinguishing fires; such as an aerosol-based system.

Okay, back to business. If you’re a college radio station, try talking to your college's marketing or public relations office, which may be willing to pay for your ISDN in exchange for free/cheap access to your production studio. The rest of the time you can rent your ISDN to bring in some extra bucks to your station, or use it for remote broadcasts like concerts and sports.

An installation note: strictly speaking, ISDN is a special data telephone line from your local phone company, or the campus telecommunications department. It’s a somewhat esoteric technology, and telcos are slowly retiring it in favor of IP-based technologies, like VoIP. It may take several calls, and four to eight weeks, to see if ISDN is available and get it installed. To cover your bases, try to get a codec that can handle IP/internet audio connections as well as ISDN. However, I'd also suggest asking your telco if and/or when they plan to “retire” ISDN in your area. Assuming you're talking to someone who will give you an honest answer (first-level tech support is not going to give an honest answer here!), and the answer is "more than five years" then go ahead and get ISDN now and plan to upgrade to IP codecs later. Five years probably is long enough to amortize the cost.

For help with your installation, three major ISDN hardware providers, Tieline, Comrex and Telos Systems, have excellent “ISDN ordering guides” in the Support sections of their Web sites:, and

Okay, I’ve got this ISDN but no one to call!

To fix that, a little marketing and some patience is required.

First, set up a Web site page just for the studio. Include lots of details: directions with maps, parking information, equipment lists, availability guidelines and your rates/charges. I cannot emphasize this enough: time is critical in booking; so include enough contact information that a producer can reach a booking agent quickly and easily. Whenever some pubradio producer is looking for an ISDN studio to put a guest in, they're usually frantically looking...calling at least three or four potential studios. First one to answer the phone "wins" the rental. And I mean "answer the phone". Here is one place that e-mail is useful but it won't cut it alone; you have to have a live person that answers the phone when the producer calls.

Next, make sure your studio is listed on the appropriate websites. When I’m looking to rent a studio, the two I use the most are the “Wisconsin Public Radio’s ISDN Directory” ( and the “DigiFon Digital Dialup List” (
If you’re a college campus, make sure every department head knows about your studio and that their professors can use it to be interviewed by so-called “prestigious” public radio. Make sure the campus public relations/marketing office knows, too. And while you don't want to be obnoxious about it, you probably will have to remind them every once in a while, too. If you hear about a professor getting on the radio and they haven't come into your studio...sent a polite letter saying "Next time, think about coming in to our station - we have ISDN!".

Don’t forget to just call up NPR, PRI and APM, and also any local public radio stations nearby. (Not sure who the local stations are? Try Radio-Locator and search on your ZIP code.) Call 'em up and ask to speak with whoever handles their studio booking on their end, and ask them to keep you in mind if they ever get overbooked. It’s not uncommon for other studios to get requests for studio rentals they just can’t deliver on, and they’ll usually be happy to send you the business.

Even after all this effort — be patient. Most of the time, a producer will find you by stumbling across you through Internet searches. Or because they call a potential guest and, if you're lucky, the guest remembers that they can come to your station. Still, over time you’ll build up a reputation; as more producers find you the first time, they'll remember to call you the next time.

Finally, how much should you charge for your ISDN?
There’s a lot of variation, but to get you started: rates typically run from $40/hr to $250/hr, with a one-hour minimum. The most common is $100/hr but that usually includes a trained engineer to run things for the guest. If you don't have a trained engineer, be ready to offer a steep discount.

If you’re a college station, offer free rentals when it's one of your campus professors being interviewed; it helps build good relations with your parent college.

It's not uncommon for studios to offer extra fees, like $10-$50 to make a backup recording on CD or MiniDisc. Or charge an extra "ISDN usage fee" in quarter-hour chunks to offset the ISDN per-minute fees your telco provider will charge you. Personally, I don't recommend this; I don't like the nickel-n-dime approach and I think it just complicates things unnecessarily. If you need the extra money, just charge a higher main rate.

Getting ISDN…or if you have it, getting the word out about it…is a great way to help turn an empty room into revenue generator; your business manager will love you!

Plus, it can open up a new avenue of free publicity on a national platform; your college PR office will love you!

And you’ll help some poor public radio producer, like I used to be, have it just a little easier. Spread the love! :-)

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