Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Staying On-Air When No One's There - part 1

There's been some discussion lately on the listservs about automation systems, so I'm going to do something of a series paraphrasing those discussions. First in the series is Winamp Radio Scheduler, (mirror site) a freeware plugin for the popular Winamp MP3 player software for Windows.

WRS is one of those that I consider "good for the price". By which I mean it's not all that great, but considering that it's completely free...the features list is impressive. Basically it works to manage, create and trigger playlists within Winamp. It's written in Visual Basic, so it's not always 100% stable, but the most recent builds have been fairly crash-resistant. I'd still keep an eye on it about two or three times a month, which is more than good enough for fill-in purposes.

Here's the key features:
  1. Jobs, jobs, jobs. First and foremost, you can have lots and lots of "jobs" that can be set to happen once, daily or weekly for any combination of days in the week. Typically a job is used to trigger a particular playlist you've set up. Handy for "dayparting" your station. It can also change the timing of jingles, heavy rotation, and how they're shuffled. More on this in later points...
  2. Schedule of "jingles". What your station might call promos, legal ID's, sweepers, stingers, or even just jingles...WRS lumps 'em all together as jingles, and lets you schedule to happen every X minutes. This is great for playing a promo every 10 or 15 minutes so you have good "imaging" of your station.
  3. Schedule of heavy rotation. This one's pretty big for a lot of stations, presuming they have a policy of "heavy rotation" for new music or whatever.
  4. Live Feed Mode. Perfect for stations that air satellite-fed content, such as NPR or Pacifica Radio. You can schedule a job that triggers live feed mode at a specific time; piping the line-level input of your sound card directly to the output. You'll probably need to handle the audio switching outside of the computer...that's not so cheap, but quite possible with a wide variety of switchers. If you can afford a satellite dish, you can probably afford the switcher. :-)
Since WRS is, at its heart, a Winamp plugin...it's subject to all the benefits and limitations of Winamp. For example, there are certain file formats that don't play nice with Winamp & WRS...although MP3's, MP2's and WAV's all seem pretty safe. It also requires that you put a fair amount of work into pre-screening your MP3's since Winamp has limited ability to screen out poorly-ripped MP3's (too much silence, poor audio quality, no incue/outcue trigger points)

QUIRK: play nice with sound cards? Some sound cards also have problems playing multiple audio files at the same file, which WRS will inherently do. Usually this is a driver problem on cheaper sound cards and there's nothing WRS can do about it. A typical symptom is that WRS appears to play every other track, but nothing but silence comes out of the line out jack of the sound card. This isn't really WRS's fault, but it's a limitation you have to be aware of.

DOWNSIDE: no voicetracking. One major limitation - no voicetracking capacity. So your automated sound will lack much of anything in the way of a human element. For the price, are you really surprised? Technically you can fudge it by setting up Jobs to call specific M3U playlists, and loading the playlist manually with pre-recorded voicetracks. Obviously this takes a LOT of work and thought about how you're going to do it, and the end result still won't be all that great. Ah well, again...it's free.

DOWNSIDE: no live assist. There's also absolutely no "live assist" part of the software...meaning a program that lets a DJ easily play individual tracks or jingles on the air manually as an adjunct to them playing CD's or whatever. This might or might not be relevant to your needs, of course, and you can always pick up another software program like BSI's WaveCart that'll do a good job with live assist. And did I mention WRS is free???

CAVEAT: older versions of Winamp needed? WRS is designed for Winamp 2.x...no promises on how well it'll work with the current 5.x versions of Winamp. If you find you need 2.x, go to the mirror site where Winamp 2.95 is available for download.

In conclusion, I'd say WRS is a great program if you need to get an automated playback system on the air fast; like a temporary setup if you main system fails...or a "just to get started" system while you're putting the time & money into a more comprehensive system. One area where WRS can do reasonably well are college stations where there is usually live DJ's spinning CD's and records, but you need something to fill the gaps on overnights, during school breaks, and when a DJ gets sick and doesn't show up for their shift. At least you'll have something on the air when that occurs. If you're serious about automation for your station, though...you'll quickly find WRS too limiting for your needs.

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