Software hiccup holds up ContentDepot rollout
Shortcomings in a key piece of software have delayed for a second time this year rollout of the ContentDepot, NPR’s sweeping redesign of public radio’s distribution system.
NPR’s distribution wing told stations earlier this month that the ContentDepot’s debut would be postponed from summer to fall. When planning began in 2002, the network anticipated a November 2004 launch.
Execs overseeing the project explain the delays as an unforeseeable hazard of assembling a complicated web of hardware and software components. “You can’t know about it until you’ve hooked everything up and run it all together,” says Pete Loewenstein, v.p. of NPR Distribution. NPR will give stations an updated rollout schedule this week.
The delays have little effect on the hundreds of stations moving to the ContentDepot — NPR plans to continue running its longtime distribution system for three months after the ContentDepot’s introduction. But NPR already had heightened expectations among the Depot’s future users with its promotion of the new system and its training of station techies.
“It does create a more efficient environment for stations to operate in, and they’re anxious to reap the benefits,” Loewenstein says. “So in that regard, it’s a big disappointment.”
But he adds, “One of our charges has been to not rush the system out until it is truly ready.”
The hitch came when NPR began testing the software that integrates the ContentDepot’s components. The software, which Siemens Business Systems has been developing for two years, now requires more development and testing, NPR says.
Last summer NPR delayed the ContentDepot switchover by three to four months as it began assembling the system’s hardware. In January the network called a timeout as pubradio debated how it would deal with 400 milliseconds added to transmission time by the system’s switch to the Internet protocol. The pause added more than three weeks to the launch schedule.
The Distribution/Interconnection Committee of the NPR Board passed a resolution May 5 affirming “its full confidence” in NPR Distribution’s handling of the rollout.
Committee Chairman Scott Hanley acknowledged disappointment in the delay but said that “at the same time we’re looking at transforming the way we do things and making it all work out of the box.”
The payoff will come as the ContentDepot dramatically changes how stations receive programming from the NPR-operated Public Radio Satellite System, giving them greater flexibility and making their jobs easier by automating more of the process.
It will standardize program storage in digital format on both ends of the exchange, using Internet Protocol to transfer the programs but continuing to rely on the satellite as the primary vehicle for distribution. The system could also allow for greater use of the Internet in transferring programming.
Digitization will also allow delivery of program-related metadata, which stations will be able to pass on to listeners with digital radio technology.
The ContentDepot will also ease a station’s job of receiving and managing programming by integrating its program storage and automation systems. Digitizing the process gives NPR and stations more flexibility in transferring shows — a download can be compressed to five minutes or stretched over hours depending on availability of time and bandwidth.
Readying the 425 stations that use the PRSS satellite involves equipping them all with the same technological setup. NPR Distribution has so far ordered new receivers for all the stations and trained about 600 staffers and program producers to use the ContentDepot. Automation systems will be installed at 130 stations that now have no system compatible with the ContentDepot.
Delays in the rollout have left those stations “yearning for their first automation systems,” says Allen Rieland, director of technology and new media at Wisconsin Public Radio and a member of the Depot’s design team.
At his station, already automated, he worries only about the lifespan of his demodulators, which many stations now use to take programming from PRSS. The ContentDepot will make them obsolete, but until then Rieland must keep them running, and they often need repair from overheating.
Despite the inconvenience, Rieland is glad NPR will take time to perfect the ContentDepot. “We don’t want any surprises,” he says, but adds that he hopes the transition is finished before the December holidays.
The Public Radio Satellite System has delayed introducing its ContentDepot distribution system from November until February or March.
The ContentDepot will streamline how stations receive programs from the NPR-operated satellite. Today, it always takes a station an hour to receive an hourlong program. But the ContentDepot varies the length of a satellite download to fit the needs of the station and the system.
The ContentDepot also standardizes the storage and delivery of programs with servers at NPR headquarters and lets programmers browse program listings and schedule feeds through an interface on the Web. In a later phase NPR may be able to deliver programs over the Internet.
PRSS, the NPR distribution wing overseeing the project, is implementing ContentDepot by buying and installing new equipment at NPR headquarters and at stations. More than a year ago it had planned a November launch but saw more time would be needed as it began assembling the components.
"It's like trying to plan an outdoor wedding a year in advance," says Pete Loewenstein, NPR's v.p. of distribution. "Now we've seen the short-term forecast and we're adjusting accordingly."
The November target date was set more than a year ago, he says.
Stations might welcome the postponement of launch until after the elections
and the holidays, Loewenstein says. PRSS is studying whether it could phase
in some ContentDepot elements beginning in January.
posted June 1, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee