Rich Rarey’s name is synonymous with audio engineering at NPR, and has been for over 30 years. Now, Rich is the Director of NPR Labs, the USA’s only not-for-profit broadcast technology research and development center.
Rich joins Chris Tobin and Kirk Harnack with broadcast engineering tales from the past, and fascinating looks at an award-winning NPR Labs project in progress now.
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Kirk Harnack: This week in Radio Tech Episode 205 is brought to you by the Axia Radius IP audio console, incredible easy to use and wicked powerful under the hood, four mixing busses, a built in Ethernet switch, plus automatic mix-minus and instant LiveWire connectivity. See the Radius console at AxiaAudio.com.
If you've listened to NPR programs you've likely heard Rich Rarey's name in the credits. A long time technical director, now Rich is the director at NPR Labs a broadcast technology research and development center. Rich joins Chris Tobin and me for a conversation full of fun and the serious work at NPR Labs.
Hi, welcome in to This Week in Radio Tech. I'm Kirk Harnack, your host, and extra glad you're with us this week, because we've got a heck of a show for you. I can just tell from the pre-show. This is the show where we talk about radio technology, audio, RF, all everything from the microphone in front of the disc jockey to the beacon at the top of the tower, and lots of other stuff in between, sometimes all the way up to the satellite orbiting in the-What's that belt called? The Clarke belt, what is that?
Chris Tobin: Van Allen radiation belt.
Kirk: Van Allen. No, no, no, not that one. It's not the radiation belt.
Chris: The Ort Belt of asteroids?
Kirk: That's it, yeah. That strange voice we'll introduce in just a minute, our usual co-host Chris Tobin, is with us live. He's the best dressed engineer in radio. Hey, Chris, how are you doing?
Chris: I'm doing well, Kirk, and yourself?
Kirk: I'm good. I'm good. How's Manhattan?
Chris: Manhattan today is sunny, blue skies, a temperate 45 degrees. I'm enjoying it, since we've had such cold and rainy weather the last couple of days, so it's been good. Yeah, it's really nice.
Kirk: I may be wrong, but your mic sounds extry processed this time.
Chris: Extry processed? I didn't change anything. It's still my Aphex mic processor into a Roland USB mixer and the settings have not changed.
Kirk: It's just easy also [inaudible 02:01]
Chris: He's compelling it.
Kirk: That's right he is. Our guest, let's go ahead and bring him in. Rich Rarey is the new director at NPR labs in Washington.
Rich, welcome in, glad you're here.
Rich Rarey: Thank you, Kirk. How's it going there? Well, apparently it's going well.
Kirk: It's going well. It is, it is.
Rich, you have brightened up our show already and I really appreciate that. Rich, give us a little elevator talk on NPR Labs. I only first heard of NPR Labs, I think for the first time maybe, a couple of years ago. Maybe I was aware it existed, but you guys do a ton of work there and some of it's pretty darn cool. Tell us about it.
Rich: Well NPR Labs was started in 2005 to do research and development, initially for broadcast, serving NPR and the public stations, and the audience as well. My, this elevator's getting crowded.
Since then it was my former boss, Mike Starling, that gave the initiative to Tomorrow Radio, the extra HD channels carved out of your HD radio, trademark, service, your digital radio. He spearheaded that initiative and worked with iBiquity and now we have HD1, HD2, HD3, HD4, and sometimes, someday in the future, 5, 6, and 7.
Kirk: Well, wait a minute. You're blowing my mind. You mean it was Mike Starling and NPR Labs that spearheaded-, if not for them we wouldn't have HD2, HD3, these other HD channels, we would just, just have the HD1, the simulcast?
Rich: Yes, and it would be a fine sounding 96 kilobit signal, but . . . We worked with Ellyn Sheffield at Towson University. We did cognitive studies with listeners. We found a sweet spot somewhere around 36 to 42 kilobits, so you can carve up a 96 kilobit stream very nicely into three parts, and Mike correctly guessed that if we didn't do that we might have the same situation that PBS had when they didn't embrace multiple channel quickly enough.
These are my opinions of course, not reflective of NPR, but I've had a lot of time to think about this and it was really the smart thing to do at the right time, so, lot's more programming, lot's more music, talk. And, iBiquity, to their credit, has come up with some unique things in HD Radio I really like, the conditional access that we did some work on some years ago, so a radio reading service could be put on a HD3 or HD4 channel and the receivers could be conditionally accessed so only the blind, low-vision users could access them for copyright protection.
Kirk: I had no idea we had conditional access available on HD.
Rich: Kirk. There are so many cool things here. I'm telling you that HD, it's digital, it's very cool.
Kirk: And just for the audience, I'm lucky that I know the term “conditional access." This is where a receiver is authorized or not authorized, probably not authorized by default and then can become authorized, to receive a given program channel, yeah?
Rich: That's right.
Let's see if I can just hold this up. This is one of my development receivers I got from iBiquity and the first thing I did with it was to turn it on, of course. It's powering up, there's WNPR transmitting from our lab, but you have to put the logo on the radio, on the screen. It makes it nice, it makes it yours, it makes it special.
This was a development radio that we used for a project a few years ago for exactly that. It wasn't conditional access, but it was to sense some metadata and start the receiver go into "Record", so a blind or a low-vision person could have their favorite radio reading service programs automatically recorded for them. We did that as part of a developmental grant through The National Institute of Disability Research and Rehabilitation, NIDRR.
Kirk: I had no idea, amazing.
Kirk: Well boy, there's a whole litany of things we can talk about. It's really opening up the doors to a lot of conversation. You told me what NPR Labs does. How do you see NPR Labs, as serving broadcasters or is it wider than just broadcasters? Ideally, what role can NPR Labs play in forwarding our industry or broadcasting? Tell me about that.
Rich: I think there's a lot that NPR Labs can offer the broadcast industry and here's why. In 2009 we were charged to become self-sustaining, so we had to work on new projects, look for outside work, grants, funding, in addition to inside people here, divisions here wanting to hire us for whatever services. So, we've taken it upon ourselves to become really good at mapping, so we can create high quality accurate maps. If you're considering an HD radio upgrade, we have the means and the tools to deliver some mapping and contours, terrain based... Our "chief scientist" as I call him, John Kean, a very brilliant guy, in the business for decades, knows everything about RF, and I can barely spell it. He is in charge of all of these kinds of initiatives.
Right now he has taken an interest to loudness in audio, especially for radio and streaming, so we are working on some initiatives to measure it, to understand it, with the whole goal that the user will not have to reach up and turn the knob much anymore. They'll just want to set it and forget it and we won't have heavy compression. We'll just have this beautiful system, that it's the right loudness, you've set that once and you won't have fatigue from over compression. It'll be a beautiful thing.
Then I'm working on some projects that have some significance outside the community, is an infrastructure for emergency alerting for deaf and hard of hearing people using radio, specifically radio receivers that we've built, and I'll show you those in a second.
So, the kinds of work that NPR Labs does has application, not only with public stations, but commercial stations. We do cognitive testing, user evaluation testing, so we've done a number of interference studies. John Kean is right now working on a FM single sideband study to determine if that has any effect. We'll be doing the AM modulation study, so I think that's the most elegant thing I've ever heard of is, if your AM station doesn't have any audio at that moment turn the carrier off, save a little electricity.
Rich: I think that's one of the coolest ideas to come along in a while. So there's things we're working on that have applications not only in broadcast, but in that newfangled "media space", that digital services space thing that all the kids are crazy about these days.
Kirk: Talk to me about this loudness in streaming. At Telos, and of course my boss if Frank Foti, he's at any of these shows he typically tells our nearby neighbors on the show floor, "We sell loud. It's what we do."
Rich: Yeah, well stop it. Stop it, because people are buying turnoff, so don't.
Kirk: Ah, yeah, well you can certainly crank anything up to the point of pain, or even, well it's just so subjective, but the point is, with streaming, loudness isn't important. It's just consistency that may be important if your audience needs a consistent sound and we recognize this. Frank does certainly.
Also, when you're punching around different stations by streaming you don't have an instant A/B it's usually got to buffer up the next stream, so your brain doesn't think one station might be better that the other according to that old thinking, that unfortunately keeps proving true among people who are program directors and such. But loudness isn't the thing anymore, but consistency sure is. I hate listening to a stream where they go to a local break or maybe they're covering AFTRA ads and the volume is just crazy different during that time. So you guys are working on some solutions for that, yeah?
Rich: Yeah. Well, the first thing we have to do is you go back to the international standards for loudness and check our measurement tools, Orban has one. We've come up with an interface to a freeware called FFmpeg that we're using to measure the loudness to try to understand, first we want to talk about the loudness in our own house, at NPR, when the public radio satellite system is distributing files how loud are they, where are the peaks, what can we expect?
The idea is, that for member stations taking the programs it would be nice if we could deliver a consistently volumatic product so they don't have to have a board op constantly yanking a knob up and down to match the levels. If it's coming from NPR, if it's coming from the public radio satellite system, from the distribution division, from my division here, then we want to have some quality controls to assure you that it will be a fuss free experience. That you won't have to be messing with the levels, it will be neat and sweet, and tidy, and fresh, and save a lot of hassle. On the other hand, we don't want, I don't like having to touch the volume knob to hear the hot parts, the opera, but I do, and nobody likes touching the knob when opera's on anyway. I don't know why, it's a weird thing, but the idea is to have just consistency across the board.
And John, what started him on it is he was scanning public radio stations, they happened to be playing Weekend Edition Saturday, he scanned 49 of them and put the graphs together and they were this far apart in decibels, as far as loudness, where they really should have been a little closer to that. We had wide variations, so this started kind of like a mini-crusade that we wanted to follow up on and try to clean up the stuff in our house, which will have some benefit to the industry. I sound like I'm bragging on John, but he's a brilliant guy. He's working on some stuff with the NRSC and the Consumer Electronics Association. So, he's a bright, shining part of NPR Labs. Me, I just wear flowery shirts.
Kirk: As a matter of fact, I got to meet John Kean last year. We were in the same taxi line at N.A.B. and had a great conversation about that.
Rich: Yes, because he is free with his information. That's the sign of somebody that's really smart is they teach you things.
Kirk: I am curious about this difference in loudness, so I take it you listen to 49 or so different NPR affiliate stations' streams, right? This all over the Internet, not over the air?
Rich: Yes, right.
Kirk: And I'm curious, it's really easy to, maybe... "modulate" is the wrong word, but it's really easy to feed the streaming encoder up close to zero dB full scale or you might give yourself 10 dB of headroom, or 15 dB, or 20 dB of headroom. There may be a standard, but nobody seems to follow much of anything. People just seem to feed the encoder with somewhere around 3, 6, 10, 12 dB from full scale. I'm not even sure where to set if for my own stations and that setting, assuming reasonable or no processing before it, that setting shouldn't matter as long as you never hit zero dB full scale.
So, my question I'm getting around to asking is, I wonder if the variations that he heard, how much of those variations were due to simply the ultimate level set prior to the encoder, or how much of that was due to processing or no processing before the encoder, combined with ultimate level set prior to the encoder? Have you heard anything about his research on what those factors were?
Rich: No, we've been working with the NPR digital services to try to figure out some of those things. There is a lot that the member stations do that we can't measure or understand, because they are locally owned and controlled, as they should be. NPR is a membership organization made up of the member stations. What we can only do is say, "We've noticed this. We think it could be improved and the quality of your sound could be improved, your stream could be improved." And we want to do it with the least touch, with the least footprint, in the way that makes the most sense. All we want to do is just make it easier to listen to and switch from one stream to another, from one station to another.
Excuse me. There's no cough button here is there? What kind of studio is this? This is nuts.
Anyway, we want to make it easy for the listeners to consume the stations without having to change, or touch, or do anything, just press the button and there's my next favorite, and there's my next favorite. So that's one of our little initiatives that we have running here now.
Kirk: Interesting. Actually, in my opinion, I scan around to a lot of different streams all the time and of course there are some that are just way crazy out of bounds, but lately I've been playing with like a Sonos speaker system in the house and you can of course listen to all kinds of streams there. I've got several Grace Digital Wi-Fi radios, punch around on those, and I'm finding, actually, a lot more consistency now than there used to be. Sure, there's plenty of outliers, but by and large the stations I tend to punch around to and the services I punch around to they tend to all be in the same category. I don't have to grab for the volume control and change it. But there are the interstitials sometimes that are at the wrong volume.
Rich: Or, they associate it with a broadcast outlet.
Kirk: I guess most of them would be, yes. Some of them sound like they're using the wrong processor for the stream, like they're coming off the FM processor or the AM processor.
Kirk: Yeah, consistent level, but the wrong way to process for bit reproduction.
Rich: We've also found some resistance in the public radio community that are nervous about having lower levels, lower average levels on their streams than their broadcasts, because they don't want to be overwhelmed by other people that are inappropriately loud and make their station sound inappropriately quiet.
So, we'll be at the public radio engineering conference next month just before the N.A.B. John Kean and David Julian Gray of NPR Engineering, the audio engineering unit, will be presenting a 90 minute conversation and presentation about loudness, about what we've found. There's some very pretty graphs, we're checking over the data now to make sure everything is sweet and fresh, the way it should be. I think that'll a nice presentation.
Get your tickets now, Public Radio Engineering Conference, April third and fourth, Las Vegas. Be there.
Kirk: I will be there actually. Shane Tobin invited me to speak there about AES67 and the convergence of IP and studios, so I'm looking forward to see a lot of [inaudible 18:42]
Rich: Crazy. Hey, how's that interoperability thing? That, what's his name?
Kevin, of gosh, he was running the AES interoperability study to find profiles, so everybody's AoIP, Audio over Internet, could be intertwined, interconnected. Is there any movement on that?
Kirk: Well, there's the AES67 Standard, which came out of the X192 working committee.
Rich: Here it is, the X192, good.
Kirk: Yeah, X192 was ratified, actually, on September 11th last year and became AES67. Nobody has any equipment yet. Well, let's see, I'm sorry I should say, Axia has a node that does AES67, but there's a lot of work to do. That's a whole subject unto itself. The short story, with AES67, yeah, audio will pass from one company's gear to another company's gear that still leaves no source advertising and no GPIO. Which each company, each proponent has their own schemes for doing those. Of course, none of those are [sic] interoperable, but at least the audio can have that.
Rich: Well, the clocking was the biggest issue. I wrote a couple of ebooks for Radio World last year and the year before, and it all seemed to be the clock was everybody's big problem, "My clock is special, you're clock is crap."
Kirk: Yeah, exactly.
Rich: I'm glad they got together, because that was a strange thing to have the Europeans going, "Oh, it's so terrible. In Europe we have so many languages, if we could just have interoperability with AoIP life would be so good." I kid you not. It was one of the Spanish manufacturers that had a white paper and it was actually heart wrenching in its wistfulness to have some unity. Some European unity of AoIP. Perhaps it didn't convey in the Spanish translation, but I had it translated by two different people and we all felt it was an impassioned plea for interoperability.
Kirk: Yeah, it's tough. It's a good subject to have a whole show on sometime, but it's tough when, I think any manufacturer would, after a beer, say, "You know what? This interoperability is a good thing, we're all for it, but we're having enough trouble getting our own gear to work with our own gear, let alone work with somebody else's gear."
Rich: Oh, my gosh, wouldn't it take at least a couple of shots of Jameson for somebody to say that? I assumed when I talked to all the manufacturers they said, "You just plug it together and it works. It's beautiful." Why would I ever doubt them?
Kirk: It does. It does now, that's why we have the standard, yeah.
Rich: The problem with standards, Kirk, is we have so many of them.
Kirk: That's right, that's right.
Chris, did we put you to sleep yet?
Chris: Not at all. No, no, I'm enjoying it, because everything Rich is talking about is so true, too many standards or maybe there's not enough, or then there's the question of interops with whom? And, then the question of sovereignty in the crossing the borders of the various countries or states? Yes, it's interesting.
Rich: The only standard, Chris, is profit. That's the only standard we have.
Chris: I understand profit. I understand return on investment, but I also understand good business decisions, and there's ways to make it work. I mean, hey, if you want to do MIDI over IP you can. Everybody talks to MIDI, so why can't you use that approach?
Rich: Uh, wow. I'm stunned, I never thought of doing MIDI over IP, and where would I send that? To my synthesizer at home?
Chris: Sure, there's a lot of musicians that do that stuff. Actually I was using MIDI over IP for newsroom operations, so it was actually more fun, but there's ways to approach it.
Rich: Oh, cool. All right, okay.
Chris: Well, there.
Kirk: I'm thinking you can send just about anything over IP.
Rich: You can.
Rich: I would like to have coffee sent over IP. My product placement cup from member station WOUB, cheers.
Kirk: We haven't seen coffee, but we've seen tea, I assume, over IP.
"Computer. tea, Earl Grey, black."
Rich: "Earl Grey, hot."
Kirk: Or whatever, yeah, hot.
Rich: "Make it so, Number One."
Kirk: Folks, you're watching This Week in Radio Tech. It's Episode Number 205. I'm Kirk Harnack along with Chris Tobin, and we're talking with Rich Rarey, who's the new director at NPR Labs. He's telling us a bit about what NPR Labs does.
Our show is brought to you by the Axia Radius audio console. Now is a good time to take a quick break and chat about the Radius. Our crack producer Andrew Zarian will pop a picture up there, I'm pretty sure.
Rich: Crack producer, that doesn't sound right when you say that.
Kirk: Our crack producer, it doesn't.
Kirk: The Radius console from Axia is about a third generation, There's one, that's the one we're talking about right now.
Rich: Look at that pretty little thing.
Rich: Look at that, it's got lights and knobs.
Kirk: Big LEDs and the clock's wrong, but that's not its fault.
Chris: Well, the up clock is right.
Kirk: That's because of our crack producer.
Rich: Now again.
Kirk: Whoa. It's in Australia now.
Rich: Kirk, how many busses does that console have?
Rich: It's not a joke, it does sound like a setup, but I honestly don't know.
Kirk: No, it has six busses in the traditional way that you'd think of. Then it also has a mix-minus bus for every fader, on demand. So, in a sense it can have upwards of 18 busses on that console.
Rich: Because, I once put Weekend Edition Saturday in a dire strait because of a mix-minus confusion. We'd just moved into the NPR building on Massachusetts Avenue, brand new Pacific recorders, ABX the large, gorgeous, lovely consoles, analog. It had a series of eight mix-minus buttons. I was new and somebody had come in and they had pressed all the mix-minus' down, which of course defeats the purpose of a mix-minus when you send everything back to everybody. So, I was busily running around un-punching things. We had a phoner coming in during the show from London and I apparently missed leaving one of the buttons pressed on Scott Simon's microphone, so when he said, "Hello, can you hear me?" The reporter/ correspondent in London says, "Scott, I can't hear you. I'm sorry I can't hear you." Scott said, "Well, okay." So we tried this for 30 seconds, it's live, it's on the air, it's national and the palms sweating like they are now.
Scott literally picked up the Washington Post from that morning and began reading while Bill McQuay, my co-engineer, and I went through the console looking for the troublesome setting. We thought for sure it was wiring, it was the console. No, it was operator mistake and I found a single tiny black button that was no bigger than this and pressed it down, and sure enough the connection from here, to there, to London and back, everybody, and the show went on.
But, I think it was marvelous because you only hear about stories of somebody reading the newspaper, you know, Ronald Reagan reading, making up stuff in his mind during the baseball game, and here it was, it was actually happening. Fortunately there were no repercussions, but ever since then I minded my console settings a lot more closely.
Kirk: Well, you bring up the perfect opportunity to finish out the ad for the Radius, in that mix-minus.
Rich: Well now, this is like a five minute ad now.
Kirk: I know, with a story in it. See, you don't have to put up with what Rich had to put up with, because on every Axia console mix-minus is totally automatic. The operator just about can't screw it up, because it does it all by itself. Every source that comes into the console can have a back feed, which is mixed automatically and sent back out automatically.
Rich: Is this one of them fancy AoIP consoles? Has it got XLRs in back of it or Christmas trees?
Kirk: No, it's got RJ45s in the back, except for the mics. The mics are XLRs, yeah.
Rich: Well, at least it's not Christmas trees.
Kirk: It's that Dan Braverman studio hub standard on the back of our console.
Kirk: Thank Dan. Yeah. Yeah, competitors get together and actually do something that makes sense.
So anyway, yeah, the Radius and all the consoles do automatic mix-minus and you don't have to work about that. In fact, this show right now, Rich, you're hearing us, me and Andrew when he talks, and Chris through an automatic mix-minus.
Rich: I hear a radio in the background. I hear nothing else.
Kirk: Andrew here knows nothing about mix-minus.
Rich: Maybe the art of mix-minus has been lost.
Kirk: Maybe Andrew can pop his mic on and tell us whether this actually works or not.
Andrew, does mix-minus on the console work for you automatically?
Andrew Zarian: Yes.
Kirk: Have you ever had it screw up for you?
Rich: I can't hear him.
Andrew: Never, not once.
Rich: Is he talking to me?Now if we could just get rid of headphone leak, life would be simple.
Kirk: That would be great.
Check it out on the web, AxiaAudio.com and look for the Radius console. It's under $10,000 and you can buy add on modules for it. It's all very cool.
I own two of them at my little stations off in American Samoa. Yes, we paid full price, didn't get a discount, you'd think I would, but no.
Rich: Wait, is that the Lutheran station or one of the commercial stations?
Kirk: No, it's a Samoan station in American Samoa.
Rich: Okay. I looked that up recently to see if our satellite reached that far. It doesn't, but there are a least two public stations there.
Kirk: There are and you know what's actually frustrating about the satellites, You're on a different satellite. You're not on the DORIS Way,
Rich: The Galaxy 16. We're on Galaxy 16, it's got a huge footprint.
Kirk: Which more over the U.S., right?
Rich: It goes out to Hawaii and down to almost the tip of the Aleutian Islands, in fact it serves Canada. It would be great if we are in Canada. I don't think they'd go for that, but we could.
Kirk: The one that we used to call GE-8 or whatever the one that all the commercial programs are on for radio, way out at 137,
Rich: AMC-8, that was the big old Satcom F1R.
Kirk: That's it, AMC-8. It is almost over American Samoa. I mean, you can see it and we pointed an 11 meter dish at it, but [inaudible 29:48] no footprint.
Rich: Dang, that's huge.
Kirk: Yes, it's huge. We borrowed it from the cable company. They said,"Yeah." We spectrum analyzed, I got 1 dB carrier to noise ratio off AMC-8 in American Samoa, because there's no footprint. You know what?Directional antennas actually do work. That's what we found out.
Kirk: So you know what we do? We record all our shows in the U.S. and just through the magic of the Internet FTP them over to American Samoa, so they get news about 15 minutes late, in Samoa.
Rich: Wow. Underground cable? Or, are they satellite? I mean, how do you get signals to American Samoa? How do you get electricity to American Samoa?
Kirk: Well, they burn a lot of fossil...
Rich: And then there's another Samoa right to the north northwest.
Kirk: Yeah, you're right. That's the independent nation of Samoa, different place altogether. They even drive on the other side of the road now.
Rich: Oh, geez. That is the most frightening thing. Driving on the left is not natural.
Kirk: The car dealers got that passed by the way. Because they wanted to sure goose car sales for a while.
Rich: Well, they're disadvantaged [sounds like 22:59].
Kirk: The Internet to Samoa used to only be by satellite and the committee that decided 20 years ago whether or not to bring a cable to Samoa, the committee that decided that, it just turns out the chairman of that committee, his children own the teleport, so they decided on no cable.
Rich: Oh, that's so nice, help out the kids.
Kirk: Yeah. So, recently they decommissioned a cable from Hawaii to New Zealand. They chopped it 200 miles south of Samoa and dragged it up to Samoa.
Rich: Are you serious?
Kirk: Serious, it's a 1 gigabit cable, it's 25 years old.
Rich: Wait. I always thought that cables were laying on the sea floor, but they're not, they're kind of hanging in water.
Kirk: No, no, they're on the sea floor, they've got whale poop on them and everything.
Rich: Oh, my God. Is that a mile down?
Kirk: I don't know how they do it. There are some deep depths. There's the Marianas Trench through there and it it's pretty deep. I don't know how they got it, but they got it.
Rich: That's like two miles deep at least, and then to get to the cable you'd have to have the enormous weights and fishing line, and then "zzzzz", and then, "Well, you got it? Okay, pull it up, pull it up."
don't know, sometimes engineering is the most amazing thing ever, especially when you have to fix something like that, or reroute it.
Kirk: So they've got this fantabulous 25 year old 1 gigabit fiber cable coming to American Samoa, but the deal was they're splitting the cost with Western Samoa, the independent nation of Samoa, so they ran a little pig tail of it over to Western Samoa and each country, each territory gets half of that, so it's 512 megabits per second for the entire territory.
Rich: So, America Samoa is not throttling the international Samoa's bandwidth, because they're not allowed to watch NetFlix or anything?
Kirk: It does come there first. I guess they could put all kinds of propaganda on there. You go to Western Samoa's Google and you get American Samoa propaganda.
Rich: I guess you could. I'm sure it's very good, it's very high quality, good production values.
Kirk: Oh, by the way, it is America's most expensive Internet according to Wired magazine and we pay $500 a month for one tenth of 512 kilobits.
Rich: That sound like my FiOS bill.
Chris: Sounds like Comcast.
Rich: Oh, yeah, but get the service.
Kirk: Hey, enough of Samoa. I want to talk to Rich about-, Rich, I first heard your name, I guess, during the credits on the Weekend Edition. I swear I heard your name a bunch on public radio, because I would listen in, "Who's taking care of the engineering here?" So, apparently for about eight or nine years you took care of master control duties and such, in where, Chicago and Washington? What was going on there?
Rich: No, I've worked for NPR for, let's see what is it, 33 years, it'll be 34 years in June. I started out as the Chicago bureau engineer minding the Chicago news bureau, got to work with Scott Simon on Smoky Bear, Jacki Lyden, Warren Leming, we had our own in-house satirist making satirical pieces. I did that for five years and then moved back to Washington on a job swap that was supposed to be for one year and that was, gosh, 1985, so it's been a while. I guess the job swaps not open.
I came back here to be the first technical director at Weekend Edition Saturday and then Weekend Edition Sunday, then be a broadcast recording tech, or be a technical director of All Thing Considered, or Talk of the Nation, or Weekly Edition, no longer on the air in production. Gosh, I'm probably missing some shows, too, elections. I did not technical direct, but enjoyed working those, they're a lot of fun.
I really enjoyed the hands on. I loved the live broadcasts. I think that's the most exciting thing you can do for a living, that's legal and safe. It has an element of theatre, especially depending on the talent, working with Scott is just highly enjoyable, especially on the air. He's such a good writer, a good host, did a lot of remote recording
We did the first national Dolby surround sound broadcast in 1992 with a recording we made in the Luray Caverns. They have a stalac-pipe organ, which is basically the plastic tips on canes hitting a stalactite or stalagmite and happens to make a tuned sound, so they have little PZM type pickups on all of these stalactites/stalagmites around the cavern and they have an automated way of playing it. So, we did a surround sound recording. We put some DAT machines all over the cavern and then our synchronization track was like this [claps]. Good times.
Then we used the really early work stations that were so long that you would change a level and then you would have to go out and have dinner and come back and it would still be grinding away at it. It was not a satisfying experience, but we finally mastered it, and aired, I think it aired. We tried to monitor it and sounded like it was in surround. It was great fun.
Rich: Then after a while you want to do something else, so supervising the master control at NPR Washington came available and I jumped at that chance, because that was completely organizational. It was kind of removed from the day to day broadcast stuff, but I had the chance to work with some AudioVault [sounds like 37:04] equipment and the all the ISDN codecs of all brands, flavors, styles, a lot of systems integration and figuring out how to get NPR signals to Berlin and back.
In fact, here's a fun fact. Do you know the only station, the only transmitter that NPR operates directly?
Kirk: No. I didn't know they did.
Rich: It is in Berlin, Germany. We don't own the channel, it is an artifact left over from the Voice of America when they used to have an American service there. After the cold war ended they were no longer allowed to fund Germany, because it was a unified democracy and NPR had the opportunity to become the American Voice there. So BBC's there, Radio France, and NPR, so 104.1 is your NPR station in Germany. It's all English, coming from here, streaming out of AudioVault, going over a T1. We have a receiver at that end sending the signal back. Oh, man, it sounds nice.
Kirk: That's amazing, wow.
Rich: It is very cool.
Kirk: So, who takes transmitter readings?
Rich: Deutsch Telecom will do the reading for you. When I used to call them with the trouble tickets we would have conversations like this, because their English was perfect and mine was not. We would have very detailed conversations of some intensity. I loved talking to them, because it could improve my accent.
Kirk: It's gotten very good, yes.
Rich: Someday I would like to be Stan Freberg. So you never know when you'll have to be called upon.
Kirk: So, I'm curious, I've got a burning question here about,
Rich: Ouch, that's got to hurt.
Kirk: About the title "Technical Director." Now, I know what this is for television. This is usually the guy that actually touches the video switcher and is actually doing the "do" on TV. What does a TD for All Things Considered or other shows like this, what do you do?
Rich: Well at that time you would drive the show then you would kind of like a liaison between the production staff and the technical staff, and make sure the circuits were set up. At one time "All Things Considered" loved to be live, back in the reel-to-reel days. They also loved to go in bare feet. This is 20 years ago or so, 15, they just had a problem wearing shoes. Then one producer, named Willy, did not like to wear shoes and he liked to work very close to deadline, and frequently there'd be a reel of tape in his hand, a 10 inch reel of tape, and he would be running in his bare feet, on the carpet, rushing the tape into the studio. We do the same sort of rushing now, but now we're rushing in with a file name and not a reel of tape. I think that's kind of strange.
Kirk: Oh, that's great.
So, I'm looking over things at master control at NPR in Washington and I'm reading about things on your dossier here that I never thought about, like all the E.A.S. responsibilities, the Emergency Activation System, that a national network might have or want to partake in. How does NPR interact with E.A.S?
Rich: Let's see, I think it was around 2002 that we either approached FEMA or they approached us. I wasn't in the conversation, but I was in the implementation. The upshot was, we had a satellite system that feeds 260 member stations.
Oh look, my lovely wife is calling. I'll get back to you hon.
We have all of these stations, well it's a satellite network, and now it's about 1,000 stations, including the members and all of the their repeaters, translators, boosters. It was a great way for us to deliver E.A.S. messages on a closed circuit channel directly on the satellite to the stations where they could feed into their E.A.S box as another backup. So, in addition to the standard terrestrial LP1 stations we also had this other path, and still do have another path, with a FEMA encoder and the technical core here. They put up a satellite dish, bidirectional satellite dish on the roof, and we have a hardened phone line. So we still have all the tools and in case of a national emergency then the audios going to immediately interrupt anything that is on this closed circuit audio channel and go out to the member stations.
During the big national test, after the test we ran a informal poll and found that a lot of the stations received the signals, received the alert from NPR, from the Public Radio Satellite System first and the secondarily a little bit later received it from their LP1 station. I thought that was an interesting test and showed the validity. FEMA has said publicly that the whole idea is to have the message disseminated as many ways as possible to as many outlets as possible, and I think they're doing a great job of that. This was certainly an example of that.
Kirk: I want to fast forward here. When you and I talked a couple of days ago you had an interesting device on your desk. I think it had the word "nipper" on it. What is this thing? What are you working on now?
Rich: Let me take this camera. I'm going mobile now.
Rich: Chris is probably getting seasick, because he's watching in his preview monitor.
Chris: No, that's quite all right. That's a headset.
Rich: This is a receiver that we have developed under a project for FEMA, managed by the Department of Homeland Security. This is literally an accessible radio receiver for deaf and hard of hearing. You can see it is blinky flashy, there's no display, but it has a USB port which you can plug into and run the app that I'm writing right now. It's literally tuned to a Nautel exciter that's in the NPR Labs RF room and I'm feeding it over on a piece of coax at very low power, because nobody likes to be toasted by radio frequency energy. It has the ability to receive messages that we're sending and broadcasting over an RDS. We've develop and open data application an ODA that we are proposing to include in the National Radio Systems Committee Usage Guidelines.
So the beauty of this system is that the receiver is dead simple and didn't cost that much to make. We have 500 of these as part of this project and we're giving them away to deaf and hard of hearing people in the five U.S. gulf coast states. If you would like I can demonstrate?
Kirk: Sure, yeah.
Rich: Oh, here we go. Let me show you this. This is a poor man's screen shot. This is the application. I have another receiver plugged into my computer and this is what it looks like when it's tuned in. You can see I'm tuned to 91.3 WNPR, that's what I'm transmitting. This is all the other radio stations that you can receive in my office. That's that interface.
If I reach over here, oh gosh, this desktop is busy. Look at that. I will send a message to FEMA on a test channel. There's the test message, it's secure, it's complete. We have developed a lovely RDS encoder called the RAE 1 with Jump To Go.
we go. Here the RAE 1 is now transmitting. We have the app, it's blinky flashy, and there is blinky flashy on my receiver and the tablet is now, I don't know if you can see this, because it's a webcam after all, but it's showing you the essential information of the alert right now.
And then text... Here we go, here's the blinky flashy text. What we have is a message talking about the annoying disturbance traveling rapidly from the southwest that isn't the least spicy, it'll bring a period of snow, regrettably. In this way we're building an infrastructure, it's a pilot project, for the Department of Homeland Security.
There we go, look. See, I still have some programming to do. Because, of course, in RDS you repeat the message, because of situations. Well, I'm showing every single repeated message, which is great for debugging, but nobody wants to read that.
Kirk: Oh, sure, sure.
Rich: So that's what it looks like.
Kirk: Interestingly, apparently Consumer Reports met up with you guys at C.E.S. 2014, just a few months ago, and did a story about this technology.
Kirk: It's on YouTube, I'll put that video in the show notes if folks want to have a look at that.
Rich: Okay. We also received a lovely honor from...
Excuse me, let me adjust my own camera.
...lovely honor from the Consumer Electronics Association who gave us a 2014 Engineering and Innovation Award, which I was thrilled with. My fellow at Katina [sounds like 39:29] Radio Design Jup Beanders [sounds like 39:31] worked with me quite closely on the development of this receiver. We spent a lot of time, I mean, where's one? Here's one, let me just show you this up close.
See this? We have a white button and a black button.
Rich: We had to think about that. The colors of the LEDs, that took us several days to work out exactly the right color. Then we had to work with overseas manufacturers to figure out if we could afford a black button. There's only two. The receiver tunes to the station that is transmitting a beacon. There's no tuning involved, it's automatic, but this entire box we built 500 of these for $61 apiece. For the entire kit the whole goal was to have a tablet and receiver and cables, everything, and a lovely retail box, even though we're not selling them, it's a lovely retail box, for $100. That was the goal of the project and through some minor miracles of some hard work on everybody's part we were able to do that. Now we're still writing the software, we're still finding bugs in the firmware. We're working with Jump to Go for the RDS encoder. They've made a brand new encoder called the RAE 1. It stands for Radio Alerting Encoder, that manages our ODA and messages and connects to the satellite receiver.
awfully cool. I think it's got a little bit of elegance, plus we have a lot of excitement in the deaf/hard of hearing community, because people are just knocking on the doors saying, "Well, is the project started? I want to be a volunteer. I want to participate in this. This is really important. This is a really great thing, how do I get involved?" We say, "It's taken a little extra time. We're still on track. We're still going to work with you. We're still going to transmit." So, we have 500 of these ready to ship out to 500 volunteers across five states. 26 public radio stations will be participating in this project. Then we'll write up the final report and hopefully, the idea is, to turn our ODA design over to the NRSC as a guideline and then anybody could use it and implement it however they would see fit.
Rich: Sorry, I got a little choked up. I've been working night, and day, and weekends on this project. It is the funnest, hardest, most enjoyable thing. I just love this job, because if it were easy it wouldn't be research and it wouldn't be development, it would be a day to day operation. I've done that, done that for decades. This is where the excitement is, something new, something fresh.
Today we're talking about, "Well let's see, how could we tell if a NPR program is on a member station stream? Well I guess we could do an FFt form, we could chop it up." Then the back of your brain starts lighting up, like the ideas and the how to. Then the exhaustion sets in when you try to figure out, "Goodness, this is going to be a long process."
So that's where [inaudible 50:54]
Chris: Hey, I've got a question for you, Rich.
Rich: Say that question.
Chris: I'm curious, since it's a product and it's not something you're selling, as you said, how did you come up with the name Nipper 1?
Rich: I think we had a fancy name that we were going to use and then somebody that was here experienced in marketing said, "No, let's save that name for when we have the real product, the real deal and until then we'll call it Nipper 1." Our people found that Nipper, we all know that Nipper was the little dog next to the big dog listening for his master's voice, and we found that there was, for this project that is not for sale, that is being given away, that it would be acceptable to call it Nipper. Nipper is really an abbreviation of NPR, it's just a fast way of saying NPR.
So that's how that came up.
Chris: Oh cool, okay. I was just curious.
Rich: Nipper 1.
Kirk: I heard "Nipper 1" and I thought, "That sounds like the first dog in space. Ah, 'Nipper 1 from ground control.'"
Rich: I think that was Laika.
Kirk: It probably was. I don't think it was Nipper 1.
Rich: And it's dead now, because the last pellet was poison.
Kirk: I had forgotten all about calling NPR Nipper, which we did at the NPR affiliate station that I worked at. I forgot all about that. You're saving one whole syllable you know?
Rich: Yes, well you know, the R's hard for some people. In Chicago it a hard R, "Hard fast cars on the boulevard," and Cleveland, too. You know, when you go back to Cleveland the Telos guys, "Oh my gosh, you guys are cracking me up with your hard R's." It's crazy.
Kirk: There's a lot of that.
Rich: Yeah, well I grew up in Columbus, which is close enough to Cincinnati, so as not have an accent, except we pronounce the words P-E-N and P-I-N the same way. It wasn't until "All Things Considered's" Robert Siegel ridiculed me. He said, "Rich, you know they are separate words." I said, "What are you talking about? It's pen, pin, what?"
"Well, they're pronounced differently."
He was joking. He was just teasing me, but I had never thought about that having a Midwest accent would be a liability. I thought everyone spoke Cincinnati and thus was accent free.
Kirk: That's funny, and that's something Robert Siegel would say isn't it?
Rich: Yes. In fact, if you ever have a chance to travel with Robert Siegel I highly recommend it. Some of our best road trips, it's like taking a trip with a professor who is ready to teach you everything. Very smart people, as I'm saying, very smart people want to share what they know. So there was one trip, we we're driving from Haifa on the Mediterranean edge in Israel, driving across at night back to Jerusalem. Art Silverman, producer, driving and Robert Siegel gave us the history of the Jewish people in the time it took to drive from Haifa to Jerusalem. It was fascinating, fascinating stuff. You know, it's there, and it's dangerous, and it's exotic, and it was the perfect time.
We also did a gig in the Soviet Union in 1987, couldn't ask for somebody better to be your host there. We did stories on a shoe factory, because at that time that was the only thing you could really do a story on that the Soviets wouldn't get all upset about, because it's a shoe. It's not a defense industry, why would anybody care. So, we compared the shoes of the Soviets with shoes of Americans and I must say, the manufacturing techniques they were using were horrific. They did injection molding. They had two injection molds that would go, "Phff, Phff." and out would pop a running shoe. Then "Phff, Phff." another running shoe. They were using injection molding to make the worst running shoes on the face of the planet.
Kirk: Oh, geez.
Rich: So, there's a picture of me trying on some of their dress shoes and it hurt. I mean, it hurt. Now I understood the trials of the Soviet people, because their feet hurt all the time, from their shoes.
, again, it's been such a wonderful time to work with really smart people, because they pull you up, and I don't know if they make you smarter, but they make you think more, and more often.
Kirk: Rich, we're about out of time.
Rich: Oh no. No, forget the satellite, let's go another hour, Kirk. We can do it. We can do it, there's nothing after us.
Kirk: I don't have the budget for the next hour.
Rich: I'll send out for Chinese. We'll have drinks, it'll be great.
Kirk: N.A.B is coming up in just a couple of weeks.
Rich: Oh, my gosh.
Kirk: Aside from the Public Radio Engineering Conference, which you already mentioned, what are you passionate about, are you guys displaying something at N.A.B?
Rich: We're at the Futures Park. The N.A.B. has been very gracious to us and has given us a space in the Futures Park. We'll be showing the DHS equipment. I have a little FM RDS transmitter from Katina Radio Design, so we can actually make things blinky lighty up. We'll be showing our mapping for HD radio and FM coverage mapping, we have some other products and services. Really it's going to be a promotion for NPR Labs, because we are interested in the business and we have a lot of ideas, and frankly, we like the work. We do.
Kirk: Cool. We'll look for you there in the futures area.
Rich: All right. In the Futures Park, north hall I believe.
Kirk: Futures Park, okay. We'll be in the central hall, so it's not far away. We'll go across through the N.A.B. store and come see you.
Rich: I know exactly where your booth is, it's so loud. The guys in Wheatstone have their ears covered, because, "Telos is so loud, they won't turn it down. They're being so mean to us."
I jest. I kid you now. I'm kidding you. I just going to the N.A.B., because I've been to the C.E.S. for a number of year now, but going to the N.A.B. is like being with your people. I just get it, they're my people, they're broadcasters, they're stream casters. They have video, they have audio, they have broadcast, they have RF. I love looking in the AM transmitters, because the plumbing inside an AM transmitter tuning shack is just a miracle of metal work. It's just so much fun. It's just so nice to be at the N.A.B., because I feel like I'm one of the family, finally, after being in the business for so long.
Kirk: If you like that, I'll know you'll like the Kimtronics displays then, where they bring big AM tuning units, and phasers.
Rich: Yes. Yes, and I want to turn them on and see . . .
The last time I was near an AM tuning unit you could hear the radio station in the coils.
Kirk: Sure, yeah.
Rich: I thought, "This is so cool. This is physics." And the Internet age doesn't seem to share that same delight. You know, trying to DX a radio station using an IP address has zero appeal to anybody.
Kirk: You're right about that. It's barely a challenge.
Rich: It's not like as a child taking an AM radio and then slowly tuning the dial up and down, and then hearing, "sshsh, sh, sh, shh, W-H-A-M," or WLS, or my favorite, WJR the golden tower , the Fischer building. The great voice of the Great Lakes, classy stations that I've admired for years and years.
Well, with the resurgence of AM maybe we'll be able to DX AM HD, who knows? A clear channel HD station.
Kirk: That would be interesting, or DRM from India.
Kirk: Yeah. Yeah, they're putting DRM in India on their AM band.
Rich: Is that even possible in an AM band?
Kirk: Sure, yeah.
Rich: I could get Cuba, Canada, that would be quite a feat.
Kirk: I think you can put MIDI on it, too.
Rich: Stop. [makes MIDI noises]
Kirk: Yeah, that's right.Folks, we've got to go.
Rich: [making radio tuning noises]
Kirk: We've spent the last hour [inaudible 59:40] with Rich Rarey. He's the new director at NPR Labs.
Rich, looking forward to seeing you at NAB.
Rich: Thank you, Kirk.
Kirk: Also with us has been Chris Tobin. Chris, glad you've been with us. The best dressed engineer in radio.
Chris: Hey, no problem.
Hey, Rich, I don't know if you in passing the hallway with a gentleman by the name of Steve Densmore [sounds like 1:02:09]? Do you see him?
Rich: Hey, Densmore? We've got a guy who knows you here.
Yeah, I see him. Actually, this new building is so large that we are all losing weight and becoming better athletes, I guess, because Densmore's office is about 100 yards to the west
Chris: He's 100 yards west of me.
Rich: Yeah, it's not hard, there's North Capitol and then there was the shooting the other day across the street from there. It's that kind of neighborhood, but the floors in this new building they seem to be, like, 30 feet apart, so you walk up the steps and you're, "Hah, I don't understand, I didn't have this problem in the old building, it must be the air. What's going on?"
So, Chris, I will give a shout out to Steve Densmore.
Chris: I appreciate it, yeah. Just let him know I said hi. The last time he and I spoke he was somewhere in military zone being shot at, I believe.
Rich: He was in Afghanistan.
Chris: That's right.
Rich: And he's back in North Capitol Street and people are still getting shot. It's nuts.
Chris: Well that was friendly fire.
Rich: Well, friendlier anyway. I mean, this is how the first building on Mass. Ave. that we moved into, it was such a neighborhood that we had to be escorted to the Metro that was two blocks away. Even then, the security guard got mugged.
Now we're in a different part of town, you can see the capitol. It's very gorgeous, it's very nice, but 12 people got shot up the street. One guy, they took down a murderer across the street. I'm not saying it's unsafe, I'm just saying that there's more activity than you would have in Georgetown, or on Capitol Hill perhaps.
Chris: That's true, there's not much activity on Capitol Hill.
Rich: So true, so true. Well played, sir, well played.
That has nothing to do with radio. I forgot we were on the air.
Kirk: We are and we're almost not. Let's wrap up the official part of the show by telling you, Thank you for watching This Week in Radio Tech. Be sure you check it out on the web at Thisweekinradiotech.com or at GFQnetwork.com. I'd really appreciate it if you would subscribe to the podcast. It'll automatically download to your device, whatever it is, iPod, Android. I do that using BeyondPod.
Rich: Can I get it on my radio?
Kirk: Yeah, well you could with that transmitter in the other room, you sure could.
Rich: I need it on my radio.
Kirk: We'll say goodbye and thanks to Axia and the Radius console for sponsoring This Week in Radio Tech. We'll see you next time right here on This Week in Radio Tech.
Bye, bye, everybody.