Wednesday, May 28, 2008

How to Produce a Show for Public Radio

Recently I wrote a post about how to engineer a show for public radio, and thus make your show more "friendly" to pubradio stations, and thus make it more likely that your show gets carriage by said stations.

Here I'll write a bit about what I know for producing a show for public radio, with an eye towards the same goal: getting more carriage on more stations. I admit, I don't know nearly as much about producing as I do engineering/tech stuff. But these days, there's a lot of overlap between two, so I'm not a total noob. :-)

  1. The Catch-22 of Program Directors. PD's look at two main things when deciding whether or not to add your show to their lineup: how long have you been on the air, and how many stations are you on? In other words, if you're a new show with few (or no) affiliates, nobody wants to risk their precious airtime on your show. This means you need to do your homework and find smaller stations in smaller markets...especially LPFM stations...and approach them about carrying your show. Don't use the hard sell; expect that it will take several gentle hints and reminders. E-mail is your friend. Set up a simple and clean website with several recent episodes of your show (preferably in the same format that you would ultimately be distributing to them if they pick you up) so the PD can check out your show on their time, not yours. Also, thanks to the magic of podcasting, you don't need a radio station to get listeners to your show. If you can demonstrate that you've got hundreds (preferably thousands or tens of thousands) of regular listeners to your podcast, then that will go a long way to demonstrating to a PD that you're both around for the long haul and a good show that will get his station listeners.
  2. Remember that there are only two kinds of shows: shows produced for ONE station, and shows produced for THOUSANDS of stations. By which I mean that if you're producing a show for just one station, and then another, different, station wants to carry your must then produce the show as if hundreds of other, different, stations were going to carry it. There's not really a "gradual" progression here. What does this mean, exactly? Kinda hard to say, it's just a different way of thinking. For example, if your show relies heavily on local issues to provide something to talk'll have to re-think that if you get an affiliate from outside your local area. Maybe you'll have to start tackling national issues and not talking about the local issues. Or you'll have to find the national angle about a local issue. You also have to almost completely get rid of any references that are specific to your "home station" since they won't apply to your affiliate stations. I say "almost" because many national shows will sometimes say "From WXYZ in Anytown, this is My Amazing Schmo - I'm Joe Schmo. Today we're talking about..." and that's pretty much it. No promos for other shows, no promos for the station website, no local PSA's, etc etc etc.
  3. Your first station may air your show on Saturdays at 8pm. Your next station might not. Now what? This is not difficult, but it's something you have to accommodate: different affiliates will likely air your show at different times. This means you can't, for example, give specific times or weather updates during your show. But you can say clever things like "it's 22 minutes past the hour" which will be true for your affiliate regardless of what "the hour" is. You also have to watch out for dated references...if you record on Friday, and you talk about an upcoming concert on Saturday, what happens to the affiliate that airs your show on Monday? That's sounds really bad to have dated references. Manage what you say appropriately.
  4. Make it easy to identify your show to stations and listeners. A regular theme music to start off the show is a very good idea. Precious few shows can get away with This American Life's no format style...and they've turned it into a style of its own; even though every TAL episode starts differently, they almost all have a very distinct sound and style that makes them easy to identify. By the same token, you want to have something distinct/unique to each episode very early in the show...within the first thirty that stations know they've got the right episode playing. For daily programs, especially newscasts, I like Free Speech Radio News's approach of saying what day and date the newscast is for right in the first 15 seconds of the broadcast. For weekly programs, make sure that week's topic(s) are identified quickly so a station can refer to your calendar/rundown easily. Don't make the filename of an audio file the unique method of identifying the episode except as mentioned in point 14 of "How to Engineer a Show for Public Radio"
  5. Have good transitions in and out of your breaks. It's surprising how many shows do this badly. A good break starts about 30 seconds before the actual cutaway. It has a gentle transition out of whatever the actual conversation is, and then it has a bit of a forward promo to tease the listener with what's coming up after the break (give them an incentive to stick around!) and usually an action item of some kind...for more info about tonight's topic, go to our website or something like that...and then a clean end with 0.5 to 1.0 seconds of silence for the cutaway. After the break, same thing, say what the show is, who you are, who your guest is, what today's topic is, and any action item for listeners to get involved (adjust as needed for live or delayed shows).
  6. Similarly, have a good wrap-up at the end. It's PATHETIC how many shows do this badly. Way too many programs don't leave enough time at the end for everything they subsequently try and shove in there. Democracy Now! is, sadly, a prime offender here...Amy Goodman is notorious for waiting until there's only 10 seconds left before the end of the show, and then she abruptly cuts off the speaker and speaks at the speed of light to shove in a bunch of "our show is produced by" credits and, inexplicably, a list of all the places she'll be visiting this week. It sounds awful and is, usually, impossible to understand...and most unforgivably, it usually runs several seconds over time, leading automation systems to cut it off in the middle (which also sounds awful). On the other extreme is a show like The Infinite Mind or Marketplace which typically have well over a minute (sometimes two or three minutes) of credits and underwriting at the end. Jeez Louise, enough already! Leave some time for the meat of the show! Okay, admittedly Marketplace is quite adroit at mixing in real content and a tease for tomorrow's show amidst all that fluff, but they're one of the few. Here's the deal, your entire wrap up should be between 30-60 seconds, depending on how much time you need to gracefully get a guest to stop talking. Here's a hint - don't ever say "We've only got 10 seconds left, but you get the last word!" No guest ever knows how to sum anything up in 10 seconds, and it almost always sounds lame or ends up with the host cutting off the guest mid-sentence. So figure about 10-20 seconds to get the guest to pipe down, and another 10-20 seconds (balance against the pipe-down part) for goodbyes to the guests. Keep your employee credits short...if you can't do it in 10 seconds then don't do it at all...and leave about 3 to 5 seconds at the very few for your theme music to play in the clear and then end/fade out to silence. The remainder of the time is for you to forward promo tomorrow's/next week's show topic. What about underwriting? Well, if you can pull off Marketplace's clever approach, then by all means go for it...but otherwise I recommend you actually end your show 10-30 seconds early and then put in 10-30 seconds of your underwriting to fill out the remainder of the clock. Most NPR shows follow this model, with Frank Tavares doing all the national funder spots.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

How to Engineer a Show for Public Radio

I was thinking about this on my commute home today. It feels like an awful lot of public radio shows aren't really engineered all that well. And in some cases I mean the big, long-running shows, too...not just the little/new ones. Being someone who's been Technical Director and who now runs a radio station, I thought I'd pass on a few nuggets of truth. These are things that I personally look for in a pubradio show when it comes to technical compliance. They may not be true for every station, but I think you'll find that most stations will appreciate this.

Ed.note: When I originally wrote this, it was a semi-rant after a long weekend of screw-ups with my automation system, mostly due to producer errors. So the tone is a tad snarky, even if the information is 100% valid. Y'all have been warned...

  1. Remember that most stations will be automating the playback of your show. Ergo, you must make your show friendly to automation software...and not make your show in such a way that it requires human intervention to broadcast.
  2. Public radio lives and dies by the clock. Everything is done by coordinated breaks at specific times. If you're not on the clock...and I mean to the exact second...then you've broken format. "Broken" is a good word here because it'll sound like crap as a station's automation cuts off your show because the timing is wrong.
  3. There is no excuse for not having a fixed length. Hourlong shows should end at 58:00, 58:30 or 59:00. Half-hour shows should end at 27:30, 28:00, 28:30 or 29:00. Pick a length and stick with it! It must remain the exact same length for EVERY episode. If your show isn't be fed live, then you have absolutely no excuse. There's this thing called "Protools" and it's been around a while. It makes editing to time really easy. And it also has time-compression/expansion while is audibly transparent and perfect for getting that last 20 or 30 seconds in/out of your mix. If you are doing your show live, learn to backtime a music bed to fade in under your host's intro/outro. It's not that hard.
  4. Understand the difference between a audio file's time-length and the program audio time-length. When coming in/out of a break, remember to leave at least a full one second (preferably 1.5 to 2) of absolute silence, centered on the cutaway time. That lets stations "cut away" cleanly without cutting off your program material. This concept is what is meant by a show's "time" being 29:59 (29 minutes, 59 seconds). However, in today's age of ContentDepot and automation, even though there might be 29:59 of program audio (plus the one second of silence) the actual audio file (MP3, MP2, WAV, etc) must time out to exactly 30:00.000 - again, with Protools (or any audio editing software) it's very easy to do. And if you don't, it will screw everything up for the station. If you have four segments and you leave each audio file one second short, that means four seconds of dead air at the end. That sounds bad. Stations don't like it.
  5. Stations have to pay the bills, that means they need breaks in your show to play underwriting. If you're an hourlong show, at least one sixty second break in the middle is required. Two 60's or two 30's (or some combination) is preferred. Halfhour shows need one 30 or 60 second break...two is nice, but not required. Remember, ALL stations need that last 60 seconds at the end for legal ID's, so that cannot be used for your overall alloted time for breaks.
  6. Floating breaks suck. Everybody hates "floating" breaks. I don't care how much it "comprises your artistic vision" to have a break right in the middle of something. Deal with it and make your frickin' breaks the exact same time every week. One exception: half-hour shows I don't care as much because odds are good I'm not going to take the break anyways; I'll just let it play through. Actually, one other exception: if you're good about using segments (see point 9 below) then floating breaks aren't as big a hassle. But I still dislike them on general principle.
  7. Follow the NPR clock for break times. For an hourlong show, the standard NPR break times are 60 seconds starting at 19:00.0 past the hour, and 90 seconds starting at 38:30.0 past the hour. That's assuming no cutaways for newscasts at the top and bottom of the hour. For a half-hour show, there isn't really a standard, but the break should fall around 15 minutes past the hour. If you want to really time it perfectly, call your local NPR station and ask them to give you a copy of the show "clock" of a show you like. Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! and Only a Game are good "example clocks" for non-hard-news shows. Weekend Edition and All Things Considered are good for hard-news shows. OnPoint and Talk of the Nation are good for call-in talk shows.
  8. You don't have to have a cutaway for the TOH newscast, but it's not a bad idea to do it...especially if you're an hourlong show. Some stations will refuse to air a show that doesn't have a cutaway at 01:00.0 and 06:00.0 for the Top-Of-Hour NPR newscast. I'm not one of those stations; but I do prefer to have the option. Still, I admit it's hard to justify it because you know that any content you put between 01:00 and 06:00 might never get many shows put something of a "throwaway" segment in there (World Cafe plays one music track unrelated to the day's topic, TechNation has the "Five Minutes with Moira Gunn" commentary) but just playing music for five minutes (Living on Earth) can really screw a station that doesn't air NPR newscasts. Having a cutaway for the bottom-of-the-hour newscast is largely unnecessary unless you're a major daily news show meant to air during morning or afternoon drive. Halfhour shows don't need a newscast cutaway so much since it would leave very little time for the rest of your show.
  9. I mentioned making it "automation friendly" - that means multiple audio files for multiple segments. ContentDepot works this way these days; each segment of the show is a separate MP2 audio file. That way a station can easily program which segments to air and which to ignore (and insert their own local segment for a break). For example, a show like Only a Game has eight audio files: billboard (01:00), newscast (06:00), newscast return music (00:30), Segment A (11:30), Break 1 (01:00), Segment B (19:30), Break 2 (01:30), Segment C (19:00). Add up those times, and you'll notice they total 59 minutes and zero seconds; a perfect hourlong show. What if you are not distributing through ContentDepot, and instead are using, for example, a podcast distributor like Liberated Syndication to distribute your show to stations? In that case, create an "extra" segment that is the assembled show as one audio file. That way stations that want the segments can take 'em, and those that don't care have an assembled show ready and waiting for them.
  10. Automation is all about "the same" in, have your show distributed and ready to air at the same day/time every week. Pick a day and time and stick with it. You can't ever be late, or you'll screw over your affiliates. Have an "evergreen" show (something vaguely generic without any specific, dated, references) ready to distribute if your planned show isn't going to be ready in time.
  11. Watch your audio levels. This shouldn't have to be on the list at all, but lately there's been too many shows that are produced in someone's basement on a Mac laptop running a portable Protools Mbox and mixed on headphones. This isn't entirely a bad thing; lowering the barrier to entry has resulted in many talented people getting access to the airwaves. Unfortunately, it's also led to a tremendous erosion of quality production values in many shows. One of the biggest transgressions is inconsistent audio levels; where the guest speaks really, really, quietly and then suddenly the host is REALLY, REALLY, LOUD!!! The rub is that there is no "level meter" that really works for loudness. The only way to really make sure your levels are right are to use your ears...and you cannot use headphones for that. Headphones inherently screw up the concept of ambient listening. Plus remember that while dynamic range is great in theory, in reality most FM radios can't handle very much difference between peaks and valleys...and when listening in the car (the place the vast majority of radio listening is done) anything in the valleys is lost in the ambient noise floor. If you lack the audio mastering skill and/or proper studio & speakers to deal with this...then I recommend the "brute force" fix: The Levelator processor. It's a RMS Normalization tool, and actually works pretty decently for people talking. It produces weird results for music, though...and really it's no substitution for a proper studio and proper mixing. Please note, I never advocate dynamic range compression unless you really know what you're doing. Compression gets wonky because every radio station in the country has its own compression scheme going on at their transmitter. And compressing an already-compressed audio source leads to unpredictable sound...remember, using RMS Normalization is "bad" enough - don't make it worse by using compression. The best solution is to use your ears while recording and mixing and make the loudness sound consistent that way.
  12. Can't spare the bandwidth to send out an uncompressed WAV file to stations? Use MPEG Layer II (aka "MP2") instead of MPEG Layer III (aka "MP3"). MP2 is older and both less efficient at data savings and less flexible than MP3. So why use it? Two reasons: first, it's the standard that the public radio satellite system has standardized on for ContentDepot. Second, it's algorithm is superior to MP3 at surviving cascading algorithms (i.e. later re-compression of the data) which is a real concern with HD Radio which compresses everything down to a max of 96kbps using HDC (a variant of sorts on the AAC codec). There are many free tools out there for encoding into an MP2. I like the PRX encoder, even though it's slower than many of the others, because of its ridiculously-easy user interface and rock-solid results. If you don't use the PRX encoder, remember to turn frame padding off, and set it for 256kbps/stereo or 128kbps/mono and 44.1kHz sampling rate with 16 bits.
  13. Speaking of, it's a good reasonably-priced way to distribute your show if you want public radio stations to be able to find it. ContentDepot is even better but admittedly more expensive. If you're really broke, though, a cheapo podcast from LibSyn or someone else is better than nothing.
  14. Speaking of filenames, name your segments the exact same filenames every week. The whole point is to drive stations to use the newest episode, not hoard old shows forever and ever. Keeping the filename the same makes it much easier for a station to set up automation; they just tell it to play an audio file named "whatever.mp2" from a given folder (that the podcast aggregator will dump your podcasted audio files into each week) at a specific time.
  15. Too confusing to have everything with the same filename? If you must delineate the files somehow, put the date you're distributing the show as part of the filename and be VERY VERY consistent in how you do it. For example, let's say you distribute this week's show on May 31st, and you have three segments: first half, break, second half. Your filenames should be: 20080531-yourshow-1sthalf.mp2, 20080531-yourshow-break.mp2, and 20080531-yourshow-2ndhalf.mp2. Important point: the "-yourshow-1sthalf.mp2" part never changes. Only the date part (and I recommend the YYYYMMDD format, it makes sorting easy). That way a station can set up an automatic renaming tool to strip out the date part and copy the new audio file to the appropriate folder for the automation to play it. It is crucial though, that you never change the non-date part of the filename. It must always be the EXACT SAME CHARACTERS (and upper/lower case, too). In that same example, if one week the first segment was "20080524-yourshow-1sthalf.mp2" and the next week was "20080531-yourshow-firsthalf.mp2"? That won't work. Remember, the point is that no human at the affiliate station needs to even look at your just all does it automatically. The only way that works is if you provide their computers with exactly what they expect to see. Otherwise it's "GIGO".
Following these settings is no guarantee that a station will pick up and air your show. However, not following these settings might give cause for a station to not air your show. I also recommend reviewing the guidelines at PRSS. They are specifically in regards to ContentDepot, but there's lots of good general info in there as well, be persistent in digging it up.

I also recommend, too:

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Let the Summer Commence

You'd never know it by the weather...but the calendar doesn't lie. Commencement was this past Sunday so it's "officially" summer on the HWS campus. For many of us in academia, that means something of a breather.

Not for WEOS, no sir.

We've got the daunting task of getting WITH 90.1FM Ithaca on the air, basically from scratch. I meet on Thursday with my engineer to get a handle on what, exactly, the hell we are doing. I could fill a thousand blog posts on that aspect...and perhaps I will if I have the time...but I just wanted to pass on a little nugget: Programming a radio station is simultaneously very easy and incredibly hard.

This has been brought into stark relief for me, since WITH will - by necessity for reasons arcane and complex - be required to have a somewhat different program schedule than WEOS. Eventually...within a year or two...we'll expand WITH's coverage into Geneva and the surrounding towns with our 90.3 application in Auburn. The upshot here is that between the three stations, we'll effectively have thorough coverage of the central Finger Lakes region to have two completely separate program networks...and I'll have ironclad reasons for putting different programming on each.

But how different? Aye, there's the rub. I could make an all news-talk service on one, and more of a arts-culture-music service on the other. In fact, ultimately that's likely what we'll do. But there are many needs to consider here. First and foremost are that we are a college-owned station, and thus have to provide a measure of service to our parent college. Since we are part of the Division of Student Affairs, that measure of service mostly is in the form of students having access to opportunities at the station. Unfortunately for everyone, that's usually seen as being limited to just a student being a DJ and more-or-less playing whatever music they want. That rarely works well from a general listenership standpoint, and it completely overlooks both the opportunity and the need for student help in many other aspects of "running a radio station" (newscasters, sportscasters, engineers, music directors, etc)...but I don't deny that it's generally very fun for the students to do, and that is a very important part of being a Student Activity.

So the upshot is, where are the students heard, and how much?

Then there's the issue of sports, another big part of our service to our parent college. Most of our listenership hates Hobart & William Smith sports...and that's not surprising; we're primarily a public radio outlet, the most "sports" that usually entails is an hour a week from Only a Game with Bill Littlefield. But sports has TREMENDOUS appeal to a small but enthusiastic crowd, and it's both wrong and stupid to disregard their feelings. There is also significant student appeal to having the games on the air, and it provides excellent training opportunities for student sportscasters (we have a pro that does play-by-play for some games for us, but we ALWAYS try and get a student to do color commentary with him...and there's a lot more games than the pro can cover by himself). This is truly an aspect where you cannot make everybody it's a constant balancing act.

But those are the easy issues, really. There are distinct interested parties involved who provide immediate feedback...both positive and negative...on the choices we make as a station. That's easy; we make a decision, we live with the results, we learn for the next time. Simple.

It's the REST of the schedule that's a bear, because we're mostly operating in a vacuum. Oh sure, I could just toss a show here or there and see how it goes. Or I can put a show on the air because I like it personally, or because I know the guy who produces it and I want to do him a favor. And yes, sometimes that is a deciding factor when trying to pick between multiple qualified options. The upshot here is that really you can put together a broadcast schedule with a minimum of thought and at least you won't have dead air.

But really, does any responsible program director do that? Of course not. You agonize over every choice. You make one little shift, and invariably it reshuffles half your daily lineup. You debate internally. You debate externally. You solicit opinions from others. You get unsolicited opinions from others. Actually a lot more opinions are of the unsolicited type.

And invariably you know that there's probably a really cool show out there that would fit perfectly at a given slot if you just knew about it. But at the same time, you're often bombarded with people begging you to air their program. Well, okay, maybe not "bombarded" given what a small operation WEOS is. But I get quite a few e-mails, mailings and phone calls.

For the record? I hate getting phone calls. Put together a good website with several shows I can download and listen to at my leisure. Email me about it and then leave me the hell alone. It usually takes weeks before I have the time to review your show, if I have the time at all, and I'll get to it when I'm damn well good and ready. If I think it's good for my station, even if I don't like it myself, I'll air it - you don't have to convince me. If I don't think it's good for my station, nothing you say is going to change my mind. (unless the "you" is "my boss" :-)

What really drives me bonkers here is that it FEELS like I should be able to just toss something together that's relatively simple to "get things going" and then tweak it from there. But these forced-changes are just significant enough that no matter what I do, I'm going to have to have a pretty different schedule on WITH than on WEOS. And once I get to that point, invariably I start thinking of other things that I really ought to tweak. And so the dominoes start falling all over again.

sigh Yeah, I think it's time to bring in some professional help. No, not THAT kind of "professional help", you dork. I just mean a programming consultant. I don't necessarily have to do whatever he/she tells me (something I think far too many commercial radio PD's did back in the late 1990's) but it would be nice to have a little guidance from someone who's got a successful track record in this arena.