Note: this is a written version of a presentation I often give at the annual fall CBI Conference.
This article is going to cover several topics surrounding remote broadcasts both on- and off-campus. Read on, after the jump...
- Overview - First things First: What is a Sportscast?
- Preparation is Key, But Everybody Lies.
- More Money = More Options - The High-End Route.
- I'm a Cheap SOB - The Low-End (but still workable!) Route.
- No Engineer? No Problem!
- Tips For Better Sounding Sportscasts.
- Tools in the Toolbox.
- Adapting for Non-Sports Broadcasts.
Overview - First things First: What is a Sportscast?
What is a sportscast? At its core, it's a person (a sportscaster) or two at a game that is somewhere other than your studio, and someone back at the studio (an engineer) to manage things (potentially optional). Then there is some method of telecommunications (telco) connection between the remote site and your studio, and the sportscaster(s) describe the game action to the listening audience.
Usually there are two sportscasters: a "play-by-play" (PBP) person, who is describing the action on the field in real-time, and then a "color commentator" (CC) who explains each play during breaks in the action. Usually the CC is someone with a strong knowledge of lots of little facts and statistics about the teams playing. There may also be a sideline reporter for certain sports, but that's usually optional, although a sideline reporter can also double as a parabolic mic operator (if you have a parabolic mic) for capturing the sound of the players while they're on the field and you're on the sideline. There's also usually at least one "crowd mic" (which can literally just be a simple mic dangling out the window of the press box) to get some nice ambient sound of the crowd cheering whenever a big play is made. (just watch out for salty language from hecklers that're too close to the mic!)
There's also usually a pre-game rundown for 5 to 60 minutes before the game begins, depending on how fancy you want to get. Usually there's a lot of statistics quoted about how each team has played recently, and any previous matchups. If possible, pre-recorded interviews with each teams' coaches are played, too. Similarly there's a post-game rundown as well, which can last the same amount of time and may include interviews with key players. Ideally there is also a halftime show produced from the studios that has news & updates from other games in the same league or something like that.
Every sportscast requires a substantial degree of preparation as the PBP and CC are, usually, expected to have memorized the names, jersey numbers and key statistics of all the players on their college's team (and preferably the other team, too). That's at a minimum; all the other prep work can take several hours for each game but the payoff is a much more interesting-to-listen-to sportscast for your audience.
Preparation is Key, But Everybody Lies!
Besides the aforementioned prep work and memorization, the biggest problem with sportscasts is getting everyone on the same page, especially in regards to telecommunications (telco) connections. You'll want to start by looking up the Sports Information Director for the college you are travelling to. Contact them and say you are coming to broadcast the game for your station, and ask some key questions:
- What telco is available in the pressbox? Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS)? Wifi? Wired ethernet? Nothing? 3G cellphone service?
- What AC power is available in the pressbox?
- Is the pressbox enclosed or not? If so, is it heated/cooled?
- Where should you park?
- Are there stats monitors for realtime live stats for sportscasters?
The killer is telco, though. Often they'll say wifi is available, and it is...but only if you have a student or employee account at the college you're visiting. And, of course, you won't have that. So try and get whatever you can, but the first big thing is that you'll want your own 3G/4G cellphone internet "card" (usually it's USB these days) so you can have your own internet with no security or firewall issues. This is true no matter what method of connecting back to the station you use. You'll also want your own cellphone handy, just in case. Calling a game over a cellphone sounds gawdawful, but it beats dead air!
More Money = More Options, The High-End Route
|Comrex Access, portable and rack versions|
There are several companies that make professional equipment designed specifically for getting high-quality, low-delay audio from a remote site back and forth to the studio...some include: Comrex Access / Tieline iMix G3 or Commander G3 / Telos Zephyr Z/IP / AudioTX STL-IP / Musicam Suprima / APT Worldcast / AEQ Phoenix Mobile / Marti Digital Cellcast. Most of this gear is designed to be usable over any internet connection (3G wireless, regular wifi, or wired ethernet) and some will also over ISDN or a POTS codec. This equipment is typically fairly expensive ($10,000 to $15,000) but has several advantages:
- Provides professional-grade audio connections and mic pre-amps, and often has multiple connection options (internet, POTS, etc) all in one box...usually a more rugged, portable box, too.
- Provides low-delay audio; usually low enough to have bi-directional conversations.
- Audio fidelity is usually better, as many have options to use high-grade algorithms like AAC.
- Audio reliability is often better, as most have a lot of flexibility to adjust buffering, jitter correction, frame packets, etc, to help accommodate less-than-ideal network conditions.
|TieLine iMix G3|
Some of the low-cost solutions can do good quality audio, and do it low-delay as well...but very few can do both AND do it under challenging network conditions. If you are promising your athletics department that you WILL be able to broadcast every game in a season, and there are sponsorship dollars riding on that promise, then spending the extra money to get professional gear is highly advised.
Be prepared to spend the time to get your internet and/or POTS lines set up properly, as "good enough for consumer use" is often not good enough for professional needs. Many of the companies provide handy guides for working with your IT department to get the proper settings on a firewall and whatnot. If your campus can provide a dedicated bandwidth channel via QoS both in and out of the campus, you will want that. Ditto for a static IP address (even a subdomain if you can - it's easier to remember than a IP address). If your device supports POTS, make sure you're getting true POTS and not a PBX, Centrex or VoIP line. Again, many of these companies' manuals and websites have tech tips to help you with this.
I'm a Cheap SOB, The Low-End (but still workable!) Route
If spending the big bucks just isn't an option, there are still workable solutions for you! Sometimes it's even easier for college radio stations because they have campus IT departments that can float them some free gear sometimes. What you'll need:
- A laptop or netbook with a wired ethernet jack, wifi access, and/or a 3G cellphone internet "card". The laptop will need separate jacks for both headphone output and line-level input. Most laptops have both mic and line-level in the same input jack; you adjust it in the software.
- A computer back at the studios in your station with solid internet access. Preferably dedicated to this use. (for reliability reasons)
- A Henry Engineering MatchboxHD (or equivalent) "balancing amp" to interface the consumer-grade sound card on the studio computer with the pro-grade I/O on your mixer console. If possible, it's good to have one on the laptop end, too.
- Skype, Nicecast, Shoutcast or Windows Media Encoder for your software. Skype is probably easiest to use, but it's good to have WME or Nicecast/Shoutcast as a backup since Skype has very little ability to compensate for lousy network conditions.
- A sports-appropriate field mixer; Conex FJ500 or FJ700, or the JK Audio RemoteMix4. (or, if you can find one, a Comrex Buddy) You CAN use a cheapo Behringer mixer like the Xenyx 1002B, but the problem is that those mixers don't have enough headphone jacks for all your sportscasters' headsets. You'll need to pick up an outboard headphone amp like the Behringer HA400 which will work, but the clutter level is getting very high and the risk of things getting confusing and not working creeps higher and higher. Plus the FJ700 and RemoteMix4 have built-in phone hybirds for POTS connections. (not POTS codecs) It'd be regular telephone audio...not terribly good-sounding...but in a pinch it beats dead air!
- A good field bag or, preferably, Pelican flight case, to carry all this stuff safely.
Use your field mixer to create a mix, and then run it to the laptop's input/output jacks (if necessary and possible, use a balancing amp inbetween). Use Skype to connect back to your station, and you've got yourself a remote broadcast!
Skype is ideal because the sound quality is quite good, the interface is pretty simple, and it's inherently bi-directional with reasonably low delay. Just remember to disable the video chat part so you save the bandwidth. The catch is that if the network conditions go bad, even temporarily, Skype doesn't have much ability to compensate. Often it'll just drop the call.
Nicecast (Mac) or Shoutcast (PC/Linux) are MP3 streaming encoders that are a little more work to set up, but work pretty well once you do. You can adjust the bitrate as needed to trade off audio fidelity for a stable connection. The downside is that the delay is substantial - at least several seconds (usually more like a minute) and that means it's a one-way conversation only. You'll need to either run your promo/spot breaks from the field or use a stopwatch (and have a pre-arranged system in place with your in-studio engineer) to time your breaks and hope the engineer gets it right. You can use a cellphone for limited communication with the engineer, but it's still difficult to time things that way because your cellphone is real-time but the Nicecast/Shoutcast link that's on the air is still delayed.
Windows Media Encoder I include for one reason: it's able to deliver much higher audio fidelity at much lower bitrates than Nicecast/Shoutcast thanks to the proprietary WMA codec. It also gives you more flexibility at adjusting the buffering (you can really crank it up so that there's several seconds' worth of buffering) to help prevent any dropouts due to poor network conditions.
While this "low cost" approach is kinda clunky, and it is very easy to break things like the headphone/line-in jacks on the laptop, it can be a fairly effective solution and can be had for very cheap. Even if you have to purchase the laptop (many campus IT departments can give you an old refurbished one for free) you should be able to assemble all the above gear for less than $2000. Sometimes for less than $500.
No Engineer? No Problem!
|Axia AoIP mixer|
If you're lucky enough to have a digital or Audio over IP (AoIP) mixer console in your studios...and even if you don't...you probably can get around the perennial problem of recruiting people to sit in the studio and "engineer" the sportscast: confirm the sportscasters are connected and sound good, and then wait for breaks to play local underwriting spots / promos, etc. All the while preparing some kind of halftime show.
Instead, you can set up your sportscasters to go out in the field and use their cellphones to control everything remotely! No warm body needed at the studio!
First, if you do have a digital/AoIP mixer, you need to confirm that it can be set to receive commands from GPIO contact closure system. Most of them can, but the specifics vary wildly - I'll leave it up to you to noodle them out. The point is that you're looking for a way to tell the mix board to switch the main programming output (what goes to the transmitter) away from whatever the physical mixer is set up and instead go to a "virtual fader" that is your remote telco setup, be it Skype or whatever.
Note: if you only have an analog mixer, you can also achieve this by purchasing an outboard mixer like the Broadcast Tools SS 4.1 Plus, or any mixer that can be triggered using contact-closures. Simply route your main program output through one input on the outboard mixer, and then your Skype (or whatever) computer to another input.
Next, you'll need some kind of dial-in (or web-based, but dial-in is usually better here) remote control to provide the contact-closures to the mixer. The Broadcast Tools STA-III will suffice but really any dial-in R/C will work here. You may already have a dial-in remote control for your transmitter, and if you don't you'll need one anyways to provide control for unattended operation. (although obviously if your transmitter is not located at your studios, you'll need two remote controls)
Then, you'll want to set up your sportscasters with a netbook or laptop computer with a means of easily playing sound clips. This CAN be the same computer you're using for Skype but sometimes that will cause problems because Skype (or whatever software you use) will seize control of the sound card and not allow anything else to use it. Best to bring a second laptop/netbook if possible. Technically, an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch can work well for this purpose, too. I have found that Black Cat Systems' SoundByte, while a little buggy on PC's (I haven't tried it on Macs, but it's designed for Macs so presumably its more stable on Macs) is a good program for this purpose. It allows easy one-click playback of sound clips.
I recommend recording a generic sportcast intro and outro that're each about one minute long. They can say anything...welcome listeners to the game, list any sponsors, give more info about where to find live stats on the web, etc...but the idea is just to give the sportscaster time to dial in and switch to the remote feed, and then play the intro while they hang up their cellphone and put their headset on. Similarly, the outro feed gives them time to take the headset off and dial in to the remote control and be ready to switch back to normal.
Also record several underwriting/sponsorship spots...real or fake, it doesn't matter...so your sportscasters have lots of things to play whenever there's a break in the action. It helps if you're good about always recording them to be a specific length (30 or 60 seconds) so the sportscaster knows exactly how much time they have during the break.
Finally, make sure you load in something to play during halftime that's NOT music. Your sportscasters need a few minutes to get stats for the first half from the Sports Information Director; this is what'll give them the time. If you have someone (an alum, a fan, a coach, an SID, whatever) who's willing to record a weekly commentary that's 3 to 5 minutes long, that's ideal. It can be about anything, really...at WEOS/WHWS we took advantage of WEOS's NPR affiliate and grabbed the weekly podcasts of sport commentaries by Frank DeFord and Bill Littlefield, although unless you're an NPR station you can't legally do that...and those podcasts usually needed a little audio editing every week, too.
If that won't work, you can sign up for Sandra Tsing-Loh's Loh Down on Science or one of the science vignettes from Finger Lakes Productions, Inc. Neither have anything to do with sports but whatever, it beats playing music. Check with your college's Sports Information Director, though...there might be someone in your college's league that does a podcast and would be willing to help you out.
Even better, set up a regular interview with an assistant coach during halftime. This may not be easy; convincing any coach to come up to the pressbox during halftime, instead of being in the locker room, might be tough. Especially if they're losing in an important game! So be prepared to run with something else here; maybe a wireless mic and send one sportscaster out to speak with the fans in the stands while the other runs the mixer at the field and gets the stats in order. Be imaginative, but whatever you do, don't just play music during halftime...it sounds dreadful to the audience!!!
Tips for Better-Sounding Sportscasts
BUDDY SYSTEM: It is always preferable to have two sportscasters at the field. Three is okay, although it gets tough to accommodate all three of them. But just one sportscaster is rough. It's hard to talk for two or three hours straight, by yourself, and sound interesting. Plus you're running everything yourself which is hard to do while you're trying to call the game in real time.
If your station has a hard time reliability recruiting good student sportscasters each year, consider hiring a local professional radio guy to help out. Often you can find someone from the local commercial sports station who's willing to do it for $100/game (plus expenses) which isn't all that much strain on the budget. Make the deal include that they must be willing to help recruit and train student sportscasters, too. That way, when you have good student sportscasters, they'll take the lead and the pro will just help out. When you don't have them, the pro can fill the gaps. Having this system will also impress your college's athletics department that you're serious about the sportscasts and hopefully you can pry some money from their budget to help cover the costs.
HEADSETS: First you'll want to start with your headset mics. A nice set, like the Beyer DT290 or DT190, or the AudioTechnica BPHS1, or Sennheiser HMD280, will go a long way to making your sportscasters' lives easier; better headsets mean better headPHONES which help seal out thunderously loud arenas and let the sportscaster hear themselves and their fellow sportscaster (or the engineer). And they'll have better mics which mean they'll sound better to begin with. But admittedly, most of these headsets are $200-$400 each and you'll need at least 3 or 4 (one for each sportscaster, plus a spare). If that's just too rich for you, you can get a Koss SB40 or Stanton DJPRO 500MC but remember you'll need to also order the proper adapters to mate those headsets' mic cords to XLR jacks on the mixer. Those models also might not be very comfortable to wear for two or three hours at a time, and the Stanton is a single earphone which might work poorly in a noisy environment like an open-air pressbox.
WINDSCREENS: Don't forget 'em...otherwise your sportscasters will pop their p's like crazy, and any outdoor events will drown in wind noise. Get a bunch and have spares.
ATTENUATORS: Next, you'll want to invest in some in-line mic attenuators like the AT8202. Many sportscasters are natually loud, and get even louder when the game action gets exciting. Many mixers' level controls are after the mic preamp so if the sportscaster is too loud, they'll overload the preamp no matter what the level is set to. An in-line attenuator gives you some "room" to work with on that end. If the sportscaster distorts and crackles no matter what the level is set to, increase the attenuation and then increase the level on the mixer to compensate.
COMPRESSOR/LIMITERS: If possible, you may also want to invest in a compressor/limiter for your sportscasters. This can make a WORLD of difference on sportscasters who're still learning the trade. A compressor/limiter will make their volume levels far more consistent: boosting them when the sportscaster's too quiet, and reducing them when they're too loud after a score...all automatically. Check out the Rolls CL151, the RDLnet EZ-MCP1 (or the EZ-MPA2 for some situations), or even the Behringer MIC200 or Presonus COMP16. Any will add to the amount of clutter and fiddling you'll need to do for each sportscast, but it really can make a huge difference to the quality of the broadcast. One caveat: run your compressor/limiter on the headset mics before they go into the mixer; don't try and use one compressor on the final, mixed product. The noise from the crowd mic will screw up the compressor and the whole thing will sound like garbage. And yes, this means you need one compressor/limiter for EACH mic headset.
TOTAL MIC SETUP: Depending on the sport, you may have several audio sources. Plan your mixer size accordingly:
- One to three headset mics for the sportscasters.
- One crowd mic, at least. (for example, in basketball, it's better to have two backboard mics)
- One referee mic. (if the situation allows it; a ref mic is great in football)
- One or two parabolic mics for player sound on the field.
- One line input for spot/promo playback off computer.
- One input for the from-studio feed. (how exactly this is integrated may vary - you can't just put it on a regular input lest you create a feedback loop)
Tools in the Toolbox
When I worked for WEOS/WHWS from 2007 to 2011, we routinely aired over 130 live sportscasts across ten different sports, men's and women's, every year. Accordingly, we had a lot of "tools in the toolbox" to address different situations. Here's a rundown so you can get an idea of what worked for us, and see what - if anything - can be applied to your situation.
Boswell Field (men's football, men's and women's lacrosse) Boswell is the main sports facility on campus. We had a dedicated pressbox to our station with a permanently-installed Comrex Buddy mixer wired to a fiberoptic transceiver for audio to/from the studio. The transceiver gives CD-quality sound in real time, no delay. Crowd mic is a EV635a dangling out the window; the stands are immediately below the pressbox so crowd sound is pretty good there. There is a wireless lav mic for the referee and three wireless receivers: one for us, one for the visiting radio broadcasters, and one for the PA system on the top floor. There's room for two sportscasters so only two Beyer DT290 headsets "live" there; one has a Rolls CL151 compressor/limiter for our professional sportscaster who is naturally very loud. A netbook running WinXP and SoundByte is used for lacrosse games; football has too many breaks so a live engineer at the studio is always used (if no student is available, a local professional is contracted to do it).
There are two netbooks, both are identical Acer Aspire One computers running clean installs of Windows XP and Soundbyte. I used a portable USB hard drive to manually "mirror" the sound files on each. It was very labor-intensive but the sheer volume of sportscasts meant one netbook would not be enough.
Cozzens Field (men's and women's soccer) There is no telco at Cozzens save for one telephone line. We use our older Comrex Vector POTS codec here. The pressbox is enclosed but very small; usually room for one...maybe two sportscasters using Beyer DT290 headsets. Plus one crowd mic (EV635a omni) dangling out the window; the field is too far away to get decent sound, but the crowd stands are less than five feet away. The aux line input on the Vector's built-in mixer is for the netbook with Soundbyte.
Bristol Gym (men's and women's basketball) Another fiberoptic transceiver connects the Gym back to the studios; this one rotates between here and McCooey Field (women's field hockey) and the Scandling Student Center (weekly live music broadcasts). Each location has its own transceiver, but there's only one matching transceiver at the station for budgetary reasons; its fiber connection must be manually changed before the event. Bristol has a Comrex Buddy mixer. Each backboard has a AKG PCC160 boundary mic behind it for "ambient sound". It picks up the players nicely, and the echo effect of the gym means the crowd is usually very audible, too. There are two Beyer DT290 headsets as well as the netbook hookup.
|Telos Xstream MXP ISDN (top)|
"The Cooler" Geneva Rec Center Ice Rink (men's ice hockey) until recently one of the last open-air NCAA ice rinks (and located 100ft from the edge of a 20-mile long lake, in upstate New York...BRRRR!) the Cooler is physically not on campus thus ISDN was used for telco; specifically a Telos Xstream MXP. Two Beyer DT290 headsets are necessary here as the acoustics are terrible; the PA system is thunderously loud to overcome the naturally-high noise levels in there. The pressbox is an "open air" platform literally right over the penalty box and thus very close to the ice. No crowd mic is needed, but the excellent isolation of the DT290 headphones is a must. As a courtesy to our sportscasters, little space heaters are also part of the package stored in a little cabinet on the pressbox for their gear - it rarely is above 40 degrees during games in there.
|WHWS's Ted Baker, using a DT290|
headset and Comrex Access at a
road game at Keuka College.
Also standard in the kit is a EV635a mic for crowd sound, a USB470 3G Verizon Wireless cellphone-internet "card" for the Access, a decent length of POTS phone cord (RJ-11) and CAT-5 ethernet cord (RJ-45), a PCMCIA wifi card for the Access, and instructions on how to use everything.
The Access has a rechargeable battery that's good for seven hours, in theory. Our experience is that it's more like four, but that's still sufficient for most sportscasts if AC power is not readily available.
Adapting for Non-Sports Broadcasts
As mentioned, a lot of this info can be adapted for non-sports broadcasts as well. And I would argue that it should: it's important for your station to be highly visible to the student body in order for it be deemed "relevant" enough to continue receiving student fee dollars (or even general funding dollars). This is especially true as student legislatures are realizing they can de-fund long-time activities as many "kill off" their student yearbooks due to lack of interest.
A good way to start is to have a weekly live broadcast from your student center, ideally over lunchtime when there'll be a large, captive audience. A live show like this is a little different from a regular show:
- Remember your audience isn't radio listeners for this; it's the people in the room with you. Be prepared to play a more Top 40 or dance music mix than you might normally air. A little fan service won't hurt your overall music mission.
- Have more talk breaks (after every song is not unreasonable) to encourage listeners to come by and make requests, or just heckle your friends as you see them.
- Have lots of swag so you can entice passers-by to come over and say something on the air in exchange for swag. One solid idea: bring a few bins' worth of old CD's you've purged from your music library and just give them away for free. This invariably draws a small crowd to paw through the stacks of CD's, and even if they're all lousy CD's, you'll have a crowd you can work off of during the broadcast.
- Encourage requests, and play them!
- Have a theme to discuss for the day and encourage people to come over and voice their views on the theme.
- Line up sports coaches or professors to have discussions about whatever they want - just make it so people can come over and join the discussion on an ad-hoc basis.
|Fender Passport 150|
- A P.A. system of some kind; a Fender Passport 150 should be sufficient for most indoor events (and even some outdoor events) and is under $400.
- A pair of speaker stands for the P.A. speakers.
- Some 25 ft long mic cords to give your DJ's room to move.
- Folding tripod mic stands are a good idea if you can afford a few.
- A wireless mic, if you can afford one.
- A simple adapter to connect your field mixer's output to the P.A.'s input in addition to your Skype netbook (or Comrex Access, or whatever you're using to connect back to the station).
- Bring a portable radio so you can spot-check your signal and confirm that you're actually on-air; a simple Walkman with headphones is sufficient.
And remember that it's very likely your college has some or all of this equipment already in their A/V department...just ask and they might let you borrow it for free!
For many years, the main...if not only...real avenue for sportscasting was a bulky remote mixer that connected over a regular telephone and, generally, sounded like garbage. In recent years, the technology has advanced to where your station can deliver professional-quality sportscasts using both professional-grade equipment OR even while using mostly consumer-grade stuff. For just a few thousand dollars' investment (or less, as your station may already have a lot the gear you need...or can get what you don't have for free or significantly discounted) your station can gain a significant ally in your college's athletics department, which is always good to have as a friend. Plus you can make lots of parents, alums and fellow students happy that you're providing a unique service that they enjoy, and you can point to as reason to keep funding your station!