NPR offers new interconnection option for public radio networks

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A new offering from NPR Satellite Systems promises pubcasters and other broadcasters a simpler way to provide more localized programming over state and regional networks that have long depended on microwave or satellite uplinks, which make localization expensive and difficult.

NPRSS’s new service, called The Hub @ NPRSS, uses NPR’s own satellite uplink in Washington, D.C., and a new generation of XDS satellite receivers from Pico Digital, which makes the satellite equipment used widely in commercial radio. Unlike earlier satellite receivers, which are largely limited to delivering live programming received from a satellite feed, XDS receivers can also handle prerecorded content pushed to them as data over the satellite. They can also record live content to be played at a later time.

That technology has become commonplace for big commercial radio satellite systems run by companies such as Cumulus/Westwood One. NPRSS operations architect Matt Walther said it’s time to introduce it to his customer base, especially as many current satellite uplink systems are aging out of useful service, leading their operators to look to NPRSS for replacement concepts.

“We took a look to see what other systems are out there for headend equipment, and how can we help smaller broadcasters who already have these components in place,” Walther said.

The first client of The Hub @ NPRSS, Oklahoma State University–based pubcaster KOSU, had been operating its own satellite uplink for years to deliver programming from its studios at the university in Stillwater to transmitters in Guthrie, in central Oklahoma serving Oklahoma City, and in Nowata, in northeast Oklahoma serving the Tulsa area. In addition to paying the cost of 24/7 satellite time, uplinking from Stillwater required the ongoing expense of maintaining satellite equipment that was nearing the end of its life, said KOSU Chief Engineer Ken Boyd.

“Things become obsolete very quickly, and that uplink system was going to be very expensive to replace,” he said. Faced with the $60,000 cost of a new uplink plus additional fees for FCC licensing, KOSU went live on The Hub @ NPRSS in mid-April, just as its old satellite uplink was failing for good.

In place of the old uplink, Boyd installed a GatesAir Intraplex system that sends KOSU’s programming over fiber to NPR’s uplink in Washington, which sends it back over satellite to receive dishes at KOSU’s transmitter sites. While the fiber connection and Hub service have increased Boyd’s monthly NPRSS fees beyond the $1,500 he’d been paying for satellite time, he says it’s been worth it so far.

“With The Hub, there’s a little more flexibility,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about the equipment becoming obsolete. I’m not shelling out a bunch of money in equipment costs. If my studio in Stillwater goes offline, I can back up to my studio in Oklahoma City and be right back on the satellite.”

The audio quality of KOSU’s satellite feed has improved as well, Boyd said. With a gigabyte-per-second fiber feed to NPRSS, KOSU has plenty of bandwidth to send 384 kbps audio from Stillwater to Washington. The satellite link back to his transmitters now runs AAC encoding at 128 kbps, which Boyd says sounds much better than the 128 kbps MP2 he’d been uplinking directly.

In a part of the country constantly battered by intense weather, Boyd said he’s also pleased with the additional backup options that The Hub system provides. If the satellite downlink fails, whether due to a sun outage or the dish being blown away in a tornado, the XDS receiver can automatically switch to its Ethernet port and pull in an audio stream over an Internet connection, if one is available at the transmitter site.

While KOSU is currently sending a full simulcast to all of its transmitters, Boyd hopes to soon add a Tulsa studio that will be able to send market-specific programming through The Hub system to air exclusively on the Tulsa-market transmitter.

Automated customization

Customization of local programming is one of the biggest strengths The Hub @ NPRSS offers to pubcasters, if they’re open to the possibilities, Walther said.

“Think about this: As a smaller broadcaster, maybe you’ve got four cities you serve and 10 transmitters feeding them,” he said. “How do you feed them [unique programming] when you don’t have live bodies?”

For some pubcasters, the task might be as minimal as inserting an individual legal ID each hour instead of the long alphabet soup of statewide IDs that some broadcasters air. For others, though, Walther said the chance to easily localize station breaks can actually produce revenue.

Imagine that a regional pubcaster now gets $30 for an underwriting announcement that airs in four cities. If individual underwriting spots could be sold at $15 for each of those four markets, the revenue from that single break could double.

Until now, making that localization happen technically has been complex. Some statewide networks, such as Wisconsin Public Radio and Minnesota Public Radio, already use automation at each transmitter site to interrupt the incoming network satellite feed each hour and insert local IDs. The computing power of the new XDS receivers can replace much of that local automation, Walther said.

“You’ve got a lot of power on the receiver itself that can function as a basic automation system,” he said. The technology can handle much more than station IDs and underwriting; the incoming satellite and Internet feeds to the XDS receivers can also “store and forward” longer-form programming such as local talk shows. Beyond pubcasting, NPRSS says The Hub system can be ideal for religious networks that might want to localize specific church services to individual transmitters on a larger network.

Unlike the centralized master-control systems that public TV has been rolling out, The Hub @ NPRSS isn’t designed to replace a local station’s master-control point. It’s still up to individual local stations or regional networks to ingest national programming and insert local content on their own.

Statewide public radio networks that piggyback on sister public TV networks typically have their own dedicated infrastructure, generally microwave or fiber, that has kept them from needing to rely on satellite transmission. And regional networks that have developed their own microwave systems — or some that even rely simply on relaying FM signals over the air from one site to another — would have to incur big new expenses in monthly satellite and Hub fees as well as the cost of installing satellite downlinks at each transmitter site.

At New York’s North Country Public Radio, chief engineer Bob Sauter said he’d love to have a way to provide individual local IDs instead of the alphabet soup that now takes up time at the top of each hour’s broadcast. But even if his station’s tight budget allowed for the use of a system like The Hub instead of the present mix of microwave and off-air relays, Sauter says some of his mountaintop sites don’t have space for satellite dishes or reliable Internet access to back up the satellite service if it fails.

For other pubcasters, though, The Hub may be just the ticket. Just down the road from NCPR, WRVO in Oswego, N.Y., uses an aging satellite uplink to deliver its programming to more than a half-dozen sites in central New York. Chief engineer Jeff Windsor has been looking at alternatives, including IP-based audio delivery, but he says The Hub @ NPRSS may be the perfect solution. WRVO already uses localized automation to deliver market-specific promos to its listeners 60 miles away in Utica, and it hopes to add more localization at other stations as well.

“Building that type of automation right into the satellite receiver, and having it all be supported by NPRSS, that would be perfect,” Windsor said.