John Stephens describes himself as a Serial Entrepreneur. After 35 years working in all forms of the media John finally got around to his lifelong dream of building and operating a radio station. John's station is an "Internet Pure-play" meaning on-line only, no transmitter required. "Our Musical Roots" has listeners in 30 different countries around the world. John calls his format "Progressive Rock for Vintage Rockers."
Chris Tobin and Kirk Harnack talk with John about the evolution of his Internet station from original idea, to business plan and then finally the fun part, designing, building and bringing his dream to life.
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Kirk: This Week in Radio Tech, Episode 222, is brought to you by the Telos VX multi-studio, multi-line talk show system. Telos VX is the first broadcast phone system natively supporting VoIP and SIP. And, by Lawo, and the new crystalCLEAR touchscreen audio console, intuitive, progressive, and focused. And it's from Lawo. Chris Tobin and Kirk Harnack talk with serial entrepreneur John Stevens about the evolution of his Internet station from original idea to business plan, and then finally the fun part, designing, building, and bringing this dream to life.
Hey, welcome in to This Week in Radio Tech. I'm Kirk Harnack, your host. This is the show where we talk about radio technology, but you know, that's changing. We talk about old radio technology, sometimes tubes and even radio stamps, all the way to broadcast streaming and digital stuff and HD technology and next radio and all the stuff that goes along with where our medium is going, delivering audio to masses of people in more and more niche formats that people can easily find. That's kind of what radio has been about and is becoming about. More of the niche stuff is where we're moving.
So, this is the show where we talk about that, and sometimes we get really heavy-duty down into engineering, and sometimes we talk about lighter stuff or how-to. And today's show is one of these how-tos. We're going to talk to a guest, John Stevens, and I'm going to bring him on in a minute, but John is one of these fantastic serial entrepreneurs who has built business after business after business. And he always had this craving to build a radio station.
So, we're going to talk to John about how he built a radio station, an online-only station, and how he made his equipment selections and put it together, and what kind of success he's seeing early on, and what he hopes to achieve in the future. Hey, with us, let's bring in our usual co-host for the show. It's Chris Tobin, the best-dressed engineer in radio, live in Manhattan. Hey, Chris, welcome in.
Chris: Hello, Kirk. Yes, I'm live on location today at a home office of a friend of mine, an engineering company. With my trusty web kit, I travel with tripod and key light, and I'm off to the road, and here I'm at. So, I'm about 18 stories above the streets of Manhattan.
Kirk: Wow, what a view, too. Is it a gorgeous day there today?
Chris: Gorgeous day. It's just the right amount of sunshine, blue sky, white puffy clouds like cotton balls. It's really nice.
Kirk: I wish I was there. Hey, you know a mutual friend of ours. Steven Wilkinson and his wife are actually in New York right now. They're actually on Long Island. They're on a month-no, a two-month vacation touring the US from their home in Sydney, Australia. They've come to the US.
Kirk: Maybe we should try to hook you up with Steven.
Chris: I did email him, but I didn't hear back, so I wasn't certain if he was travelling or it was too early. I will try him again today on email.
Kirk: You guys must have some spam filters, because he was telling me that he emailed you and didn't hear back, so there must be some filtration.
Chris: Yeah, well the spam . . . my email service, they changed something in the spam-filtering algorithm, and a lot of stuff is getting, what do you call it, tagged. I don't know why. So, I'll double-check that.
Kirk: Hey, just remind me, offline I will give you-I'll text you or send you his US phone number. He's got a US phone for two months. And the reason I know all this, Steven is a broadcast engineer. In fact, he was just-a few months ago, he was voted the most valuable person-not the most valuable engineer, but the most valuable person in Christian radio in all of Australia.
Kirk: That's amazing.
Chris: That is really . . .
Kirk: So, apparently he goes out and helps little community stations. I assume in the Christian music genre, but he goes out and helps these little stations get on the air or fix what's wrong. He just travels around Australia. I mean, after doing his regular job, which is for a big station in Sydney, a very successful station, he goes and does this other stuff. The guy's just amazing. He's been our guest on the show once before, and you met him in Las Vegas, Chris. We look forward to hosting Steven and his wife here at our house. They're going to spend about a week here with us in Nashville. We're going to show him where the privy is out back down at the end of the path.
Chris: Oh, he's going to be in for it.
Kirk: I was surprised to hear him say they had indoor plumbing on Long Island.
Chris: It's amazing the things that have advanced on Long Island in the last 10 to 15 years. The potato farms have gone, but things have advanced. It's good.
John: We just got plumbing in Queens, in Bayside, so hopefully Long Island will get it next.
Chris: Well, technically, Queens is part of Long Island geographically.
Kirk: Yeah, oh wow. All right, enough silliness. This is fun. Well, we're going to get to our subject here in just a second. Our show is brought to you by a couple of fabulous sponsors. The folks at Lawo have developed this incredible console called the crystalCLEAR Console. We'll talk about that in a few minutes; they're one of our sponsors. And, my employer, the folks at Telos, have developed this really incredible voice-over-IP SIP-based multi-studio phone system, it's just amazing, called the Telos VX. And we've done a series of videos on that. I'm doing another one tomorrow, and some webinars. They're one of our sponsors, too. So, we'll look forward to hearing about the Telos VX as well.
Hey, let's move right in and bring along our guest. Our guest is a fellow who I was introduced to by way of an article in Radio World Magazine called "How I Built My Internet Station." And oh man, how-to, how I did this, how I did that. It caught my attention right away. The gentleman is John Stevens. John, from St. Louis, welcome in to This Week In Radio Tech, sir.
John: Thank you very much. I'm very happy to be here.
Kirk: I'm delighted to have you here. Hey, when I wrote to you and asked you to be on our show and you wrote back right away and said, "I'd be delighted to be on your show," oh man, what a feel-good. I appreciate you taking the time to come on and spend . . . well, share some of your expertise, and spend some of your time with us. So, thank you.
John: My pleasure.
Kirk: So, in the introduction, I introduced you as a serial entrepreneur, and that's how you describe yourself. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how you ended up building an Internet radio station, tell us a bit about yourself. You've been in media quite a while, directly and a bit indirectly. Tell us about that.
John: I have been. I think in my case, it all started in something that is unfortunately kind of dying, college radio operated by college students. I went to a small liberal arts college outside of St Louis where they had a little thousand-watt FM station completely run by the students. There was a student general manager which I later became; student engineers, news directors, etc., etc. And through that experience, I think that's where I caught both the radio bug and the entrepreneurial bug, and it certainly worked. Our student engineer went on to become the chief engineer at the mighty KMOX AM in St Louis. The news director went on to be Dan Rather's producer at CBS Television. A lot of us bought, built, and went to work for radio stations.
And from there, I followed the normal path. I started off on-air and got canned six months later, and then went off into sales. I ended up at CBS Television selling for them, later for a big New York advertising agency, and then I started my own high-tech businesses and built them and sold them and built them and sold them until I got to this point.
Chris: Did we lose Kirk?
John: I think we may have.
Kirk: No, Kirk just forgot he muted his mic, that's all. I had to sneeze, muted my mic, and now I'm back. You know, I'm an engineer. I can't run the mic. So, John, tell us what you were doing right up until the time before you put this Internet station on the air. Why are you in St Louis? What were you doing there before this?
John: Sure. I own a video production company, and we do lots of work for broadcast: commercials, long-form, that kind of stuff. I made a pretty good career out of building systems to track television and radio news for the public relations industry, where we borrowed a lot of ideas from the electronic newsrooms of today and managed to sync up all the different forms of data that go along with news so it could be easily searched.
And then finally, as I spoke about in the interview, I was having lunch with a college buddy who owns half a dozen smaller market radio stations. We were yacking about the normal stuff, how do you find skilled salespeople and taxes and all that kind of stuff. And then he blew my mind. He said, "But you know, what really concerns me is this Internet radio thing. It seems to be catching on. And if it does, I'm worried." And that set me off to thinking as an entrepreneur and led me to the planning stage of starting my station, which was called Our Musical Roots.
Kirk: Our Musical Roots? Well, you mentioned earlier you had worked with or gone to school with a guy who became a producer for Dan Rather?
John: That's correct. Actually, it was a lady. A lady.
Kirk: Oh. And Chris Tobin had some experience with Dan Rather as well, Chris having worked for CBS. I don't want to name names if it's not appropriate, but I wonder if this is the same person that Chris has met, or just where you guys might've crossed paths before.
John: Well, she's currently the . . .
Chris: Oh, go ahead, Steve. Go ahead.
John: She's the news director of a television station in Philadelphia, which might ring some bells. We kind of lost touch, because I went off into the sales side and she was a dedicated newsperson and I was not that.
Kirk: Yeah. So, one more question about the thinking here. So, you had this conversation with this college buddy about college radio, but I find that radio has this romantic draw to it for people who have been involved in it, and I don't really understand why that is. It's a little bit magical; it's a little bit romantic. There is something about radio that pulls on the heartstrings of people who have been there and done it, and like you moved away, but there is always this calling to come back and do something with radio. Is that kind of what happened to you? Did you have this emotional pull to do a radio station?
John: Well, definitely, and that scares me. I've never had that kind of emotional influence on my business decisions. You know, I go through Radio World and I look at the ads for all of the new beautiful remote equipment, which I'm in the market for, and different things like that. I never felt the same way about video equipment. I never said, "Gosh, I've got to have that new lens." So, clearly that was part of my decision-making.
But I think there was also some business. I mean, I believed that Internet radio is potentially where FM was in the early '60s, and that's when I became aware of FM radio. I grew up with a number of wonderful radio stations in St Louis. Of course, the powerhouse KMOX, but then we also had an old store's AM station, KXOK, and that was my introduction to top 40. And then we had a station that became one of the almost inventors of progressive rock radio, KSHE.
Kirk: Oh yes, sure. Classic station.
John: When I first found them, they were operating out of the owner's basement, playing primarily musicals, and their slogan was probably worse than mine. It was something to the effect of "KSHE, the station that most husbands are mad at," or something like that. I don't know. But these were all great stations that were clearly trendsetters in their area. I mean, KMOX, Robert Hyland . . . if you've read about Mr. Hyland as we call him in St Louis, he was involved in AM radio in the day that no one said anything on the radio that had not been scripted and approved.
And Mr. Hyland gave away the entire record library so there would be no going back, and came up with the idea of actually putting the public-the unwashed-on the air via the telephone. They thought he was crazy, and any major article about the real trendsetters or pioneers of radio, Mr. Hyland will be in there. KSHE was the same thing for progressive rock. I grew up with all that. It was a big part of my life.
Kirk: Wow. And KSHE is still a big station in the St Louis market, isn't it?
John: It is, it is. You know, I guess I'm different from certainly 35 or 40 - many years ago - when KSHE broke with progressive rock. I mean, now their target is what I was then, 17 or 18 years old. My target is aging baby boomers that radio seems to have forgotten about, who just because we're over 50 or maybe even over something else, it doesn't mean all we watch on television is PBS pledge drives or listen to classical music. We still like the Grateful Dead, and we still like that progressive music that stations like KSHE gave to us, and nobody plays it.
I mean, it's 300 classic rock songs over and over again, or in the case of KSHE, music targeted at today's 18 to whatever-year-old, which is much harder than we really want to hear today. So, I hope there's a niche.
Kirk: I hope so, too. Hey, I want to talk about format a bit more later on. Let's move into this part of the discussion where we get to talk about how you research this and what equipment you decide upon, and then I want you to give me and Chris and our audience a tour piece-by-piece, at least the important pieces you want to show us, of the equipment in your studio and what software that you're using and how you're encoding and your automation and all that.
And tell us why you picked out each piece of gear, and I think there is a mutual friend that we have, Greg Ogonowski, who also helped and inspired you to make the audio of a very high quality. So, yeah, what part of all that big, long question do I want to hear first? Well, what did you start doing to research? "Okay, I want to start an Internet radio station. What do I need?"
John: Well, I started on the web, and I started probably mistakenly with automation systems and thinking that was where I should start. And I started, as many people do getting into it, with a program called SAM Broadcaster, which is very popular with hobbyists. And with all due respect to those folks, I didn't care for it, because it looked like a computer program with windows opening and closing, not a radio station.
So, I kept looking for something that, I don't know, I guess frankly reminded me of the wide Orbit stuff, you know? And shopped on the Internet, made lots of calls, talked to a lot of people who didn't take me seriously, then I found a little family-owned company-well, not so little, but a family-owned company in Colorado called Arrakis Systems. And as I started speaking to different people there, I discovered that everybody's last name was Palmer.
Kirk: Yes, that's exactly right.
John: They're all family members. I first bought their entry-level product, which is called New Wave, and as seems to be my habit technically, I grew out of that. And then I moved on very quickly to their high-end product, which is what we run now, called Digilink-HD, which is an extremely capable multi-station cluster-focused product, and I really liked it. It looked, as I thought-in fact, you can see it running there in the background. It really reminded me of the high-end software that I'd used at other stations. And they had a program that really applied to me. I didn't have to write them a check for $15,000. I could do a monthly deal.
It's called cutting my downside risk. And if things didn't work out in a year or so, I just ended it. And they had free training and actually made changes in the program for my music-intensive efforts. So, then I got on the air, and probably before that I started the rounds of the streaming services. I'd read so much of the magazines about these people trying to do their own streaming, have their own streaming service, and this made no sense to me because I'm one of those people who about, I don't know, five or six years ago got rid of our own Exchange server because I didn't want that server here. And about the same time, I got rid of the Real Video streaming server, and outsourced all that streaming. So, I settled with a company called Securenet Systems down in Florida.
Kirk: Oh, yeah, I've heard of them. Sure, sure.
John: They have multiple datacenters around the world, and they really seem to care about an Internet station surviving that first cash-draining year. They were super helpful. They offer an ad placement service where they will sell national ads and place them on your website and all that, which was great. But then all of a sudden I came across this pattern of what I thought, frankly, was not very sound information engineering-wise.
We started talking about encoders, and they said, "Well, all you need...,” and frankly every streaming service I spoke to said this. They said, "All you need is the oldest clunker Windows 7 computer you've got. Take the output of your automation system, and plug it into that eighth-inch onboard sound card. Use our free encoder, and you're on the air."
I said, "Gosh, that didn't make sense," with all the care we put into everything else. So, that kind of confused me. So, we got the station on the air and it didn't sound like a radio station. I had a little DBX Over Easy Compressor kind of controlling the levels, but I learned very quickly that audio processing for broadcasting is much, much more than that. And as is the case for many people in radio, the audio processing was always kind of hidden from me. I'd probably be the guy that would go in and mess around with the settings, and most of the audio processing gear was out at the transmitter.
So, I started searching for serious audio processing equipment, and frankly didn't find very much that was targeted at Internet broadcasters, webcasters. And then I found a product offered by a company called Orban, frankly it was the most visible web streaming audio processing I found, and as is normally my habit, I started peppering them with questions.
Then, finally, I went out and bought their system primarily because I'd heard of Orban, but it replaced the three-dollar sound card in my computer. It means the audio processing and the audio card were on the same piece of gear, and it had full digital inputs and analog as well.
So, I'd been peppering Orban with emails, and somehow or other, one of those emails came to Greg's attention. And on a Saturday afternoon, I was working at the station. I was going through the presets that come with it, as most audio processors have, trying to match the presets to my format. And all of a sudden, my cell phone rang, and it was Greg. He was listening. He introduced himself. And I didn't know completely who he was, or I might've been a little more nervous with his credentials. He just couldn't have been nicer, and said, "You're running this preset, aren't you?" I said, "Yeah, I think that sounds loud." He says, "Right, it's for an FM station in a competitive market that's trying to burn a hole in the FM dial. That's not for you."
He sent me a preset that he had designed specifically for Internet and in some cases HD radio, and it changed everything. It's that greater understanding of the absolute essential nature of audio processing that has helped us get to the level of success that we have today.
Kirk: Wow, good. Okay. Chris, at this point, do you have any questions?This sounds like an atypical person who's interested in putting a radio station on the Internet, because John's asking all the right questions.
Chris: Well, I'm just curious, the Greg settings, was it loud enough to get above the noise of audio cards that people would be using in their computers? I've come across these issues a lot. Folks, they have their own little setup, and they go, "Oh, something doesn't sound right." It turns out to be the three-dollar audio card playing into their speakers. Is the setting you have really nice, and I guess beefy enough, but not burning a hole in the computer speaker?
John: Oh, it is. One of the things that I learned in the video business, all of our video editing systems came from a company called Avid, which also owns Pro Tools. Back in the early days, they controlled every piece of gear that you had in your system, or they wouldn't support you. Guys like me are very capable of using the wrong sound card and all the wrong settings, etc., so I was very happy to, from an audio standpoint, get away from that.
This particular card from Orban, it's called the Optimod-PC, it does-frankly, it's the equivalent of I think... Greg is going to kill me for this. Like their 3000-series broadcast systems, with a lot of extra things specifically for Internet radio. When you're dealing with encoding, Internet is probably more sensitive to any kinds of issues with your audio than analog broadcasting would've been. So, it's everything that they design in the box is designed to optimize the performance with the Internet.
In fact, up there at the top of the picture, you might be able to see the readout from their card, which is running. And so it was just like night and day to go from a traditional compressor limiter to a real audio processor.
Kirk: Yeah. Yeah, they do a nice multiband processor. And you know, one thing that a lot of folks who get into Internet streaming don't realize at first, and hopefully a lot of them come to realize, is audio processing is different and needs to be different for the transmission medium that you're going to use. This is one reason why AM processing is different from FM processing, mostly due to where the low-pass filter needs to be, mono versus stereo, and the processing with regard to pre-emphasis that you have with FM that you may not have with AM depending on if you're doing NRSC or not.
But if you're going to be audio processing for an encoder that reduces the bitrate, so MP3 or AAC or Windows Media or whatever it may be, that's a whole different animal out there. That's a real moving target. If you think of the encoder as a transmitter's modulator, it's mathematically a moving target. It's not a two-dimensional math function; it's complex.
And so you really ought to use an audio processor that first of all won’t give the encoder fits, and the folks at Orban know a lot about this. Other companies do, too. Obviously Omnia, the company that I work for, understands this too. So many folks just try to use-well, they'll receive their FM signal off the air and put that into their encoder. Oh, wrong thing to do. This can really hurt on the air.
And whether or not you notice any horrible artifacts, what it at least does is it makes the encoder less efficient. There are some things a bit rate-reduced encoder can encode well and efficiently, and other things that it doesn't do so well on, and square waves are one of those things it just doesn't do well on at all. And so we need to avoid any clipping before going into the encoder. But, I digress. You chose an awesome product there to make your stream sound good and encode it. What encoding algorithm or algorithms did you choose to stream in, John?
John: Well, we only use two. I think another related point, and I know that Omnia does this too, as I mentioned, is forget about the free encoder from the streaming company.
John: You need a proper encoder. And in the case of our system and in the case of some of Omnia's products, the encoder and the audio processing are inside the same computer. So, everything is digital as it moves from audio processing to the encoder.
We use two different bitrates of AAC. Our primary stream is an AAC 64K and then our second stream is a 32K AAC Plus, because I can hear the difference between the two. It's very slight. AAC Plus is very, very good. And we have the two because some 3G cell phones can't handle a 64K stream. So, we offer the two streams. I'd say less than 15% of our audience uses the slower bitrate. For a while, we had an MP3 stream but nobody used it and it just hurt my ears, so we turned it off.
Kirk: Isn't that funny? Twenty years ago when MP3 was brought out, we all thought it sounded pretty good. Now, there are a few naysayers, and now I'm patting them on the back saying, "You know, you were right." But I think our ears and our brains now understand the kinds of distortion that MP3 brings up. Even at higher bitrates, MP3 is far from perfect. And of course...
John: It's not just that, it's money. As an Internet radio station's audience grows, so does their consumption of bandwidth. The only other thing that grows like that is their music licensing costs, but that's another day. But, you know, to get anything close to decent from MP3, you've got to be 128K. So, if you can serve a growing audience at 32K, you're going to save money on the bandwidth side.
Kirk: Ah, good point. Good, good point. Good point. Hey, we're talking to John Stevens. He's a serial entrepreneur and owner of Our Roots Radio, an Internet radio station. He's going to finish taking us through the process of picking the equipment and how it went together, and from a business point-of-view, how he's up and streaming on the web.
You know, as experimenters, we know how we can do this for free. But if you're doing this for a business, you need to take care of some details, and I hope John will fill us in on that. Chris Tobin is with us, too. Chris, are you still with us? I'm sorry, we have hardly heard from you. Maybe he's not.
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This is our 222nd episode. Our guest is a serial entrepreneur who has now fulfilled one of his dreams by putting a radio station on the air, and it's an Internet station where you can do almost whatever you want to. John, you were in the midst of telling us about some of your equipment selection, and we've got a picture. I wonder if Andrew can pop that picture up from the Radio World article, if he could do that? It's a picture of your studio. It's actually the same studio you're in right now, John. So if Andrew can't put that up right away, we can just pop back to your video, and you can continue our tour of your station. You have an automation system. You've also talked about the audio processing and encoding for the stream. You're using Securenet Systems as your stream distributor. Let's talk about that idea of stream distribution for just a second.
A lot of folks think that hey, to be on the Internet, I just need a computer and an Internet connection and I can stream to people. Well, then they find out that they run out of bandwidth pretty quickly. What does a company like Securenet systems do for an Internet broadcaster? Why do you need that?
John: Well, you can stream for yourself if you want to stream to three or four people, but a company like Securenet offers a lot of different services. First of all, in our case, they provide a first class player for the listener's computer screen, which has all kinds of additional social media features and places to put ads and commercials that will run as each person logs in and all those kinds of features that increases the listener's experience.
They also provide, rather surprisingly, an Android and an iPhone mobile app at no cost. It's part of your monthly fee. That app could cost you hundreds if not a thousand dollars or more to have developed yourself, and they provide that for you.
They also provide full tracking of your audience from the standpoint of how many unique IPs, how many maximum people in different quarter-hours, and all those kinds of things that you need to know to see what you're doing. And it's all part of the monthly subscription. The subscription fees can be quite reasonable. When I started out, for all of that I was paying $100 a month, which I could handle. It will go up from there, but it's still quite reasonable and I can see no reason for anyone to consider attempting to stream themselves.
Another decision we made was we wanted to sound as much like we could as an old progressive rock station. So, we use a microphone that you're very familiar with because it's sitting in front of you, a Heil microphone. Bob Heil is from just outside St Louis, and I knew that had to be the microphone. And I have to be-and I don't know if I'm supposed to be this opinionated, but I have to be the only guy out there that never liked the sound of my inadequate voice through an Electro-Voice RE20 or whatever it was. It could be because in my first radio job, they had one of the old RCA ribbon mics, and that made me think I actually had pipes, which I don't.
So, we have all Heil mics and love them. We use rather cost-efficient 286 voice processors to clean that up a bit and such. And that's pretty much the way we handle our voiceovers. We run on automation 80% of the time. Eighteen hours a day, we're voice tracked. 12 hours a day, very professional local DJs. Our 6:00 a.m. to noon person came from KSHE, the big progressive rock station. Our noon to 6:00 p.m. person who is on right now worked at KEDI, which is now KHITS, and also works for the National Public Radio station. But, he's just a music encyclopedia. The guy has more progressive rock chatter in his brain than I've ever found on the Internet.
So, we feel very strongly about the talent. We're moving into special live programs on the weekends, and where I'm sitting is our live studio that we just built maybe a month or so before the Radio World article and photograph was taken. Here, we kind of I shouldn't say cut some corners, but made some compromises. I think you can see here, if there is enough light, we have the denon CD players. We didn't go for the full-out broadcast CD players. We use kind of their disco CD players. But they have all the same queue functions and everything, because we use them so infrequently. So, we thought that was a reasonable compromise. What you can't see just to the right is our turntable. We have a turntable that we can play LPs from live to air.
Kirk: I think there is a photo of the turntables in the Radio World article. Maybe Andrew can find the second picture from that Radio World article and pop that up. There you go.
John: That's correct. Okay, here's a question for your listeners, and don't blurt out the answer. On the left of the turntable, or my left anyway, you'll see an album cover. If you have any idea what that album cover is, you should be listening to my station. Anybody guess? Okay, you guys clearly aren't progressive rockers. In the Court of the Crimson King is the name of that.
Kirk: Ah. I'd seen it before and I had no idea who it was. Okay.
John: It's the best album jacket. The young lady you see, as you may be able to tell was properly taught how to do a real slip-queue, is my daughter Emily.
Kirk: Wow. How about that?
John: Who is a communications major at the same college I went to 100 years ago. And as you can see, she's much better on camera than I am.
Kirk: So, is she slip-queuing In the Court of the Crimson King, or a cut...
John: Well, I think we just thought that was something for her to do with her hands. Actually, probably 40% of our music was dubbed from vinyl. A lot of what we play was never released on CD, and obviously we're automated so everything has to be digitized. And so we digitized an awful lot of records. That's another part of the Arrakis automation system that we use, in that it is a networkable system. And where she is sitting is in our… we call it studio, but actually it's the corner of the room where the voice tracks are recorded. It's all part of our VPN, so our jocks can record their tracks from home and see all the exact same screens just like they would if they were here.
Kirk: Let's talk a bit more about your mic chain. You said you chose the Heil PR-40 mic, the same one that I'm using here.
Kirk: What's your mic processing?
John: The DBX-286.
Kirk: Ah, okay, yeah.
John: Which for $300, yeah, I know there are some much better offerings out there, but we're a very small startup entrepreneurial operation, and one of the things you have to learn is what corners can you compromise on, and which can you not? I think a lot of the Internet folks will tell you that particular mic processor is the best $300 you'll ever spend, and to get any better, you've got to spend two or three times more.
Kirk: Andrew Zarian is close to the mic. Andrew, isn't that the same mic processor you use at GFQ?
Andrew: We use, yeah, the 286S.
Kirk: Ah, okay.
John: Yes, the new one.
Andrew: The newer one.
Kirk: Now, John, if you could move us over to the audio console, that is an Arrakis console, and it's got a really interesting feature that I saw at NAB. Maybe you can tell us about the console, and about the interesting feature that you mentioned yesterday.
John: Sure. Can you see that well enough, or you want me to move the camera?
Kirk: There you go. Perfect, that's good.
John: This is their . . . it has two of their cooler features. First of all, it has a USB in and out feature. So, if you're coming in from another computer device, it uses a soundcard that's in the board. Audio quality is tremendous, and you save money as well. And we use that for our older automation system called New Wave. That's how we bring it in, through that USB feature.
Here with this blinking red light that you see, it's a Bluetooth feature where you can pair your cellphone or iPad with the audio board and put a phone call on the air, and it works very well, almost like a real hybrid, even though I'm in the market for a real hybrid. And it's very cool. You can also use it if you wanted to play music into the board, but I don't think the audio quality is quite up to that.
It's a two-bus board. In fact, I'm living dangerously here. My voice to you is going off to the audition channel, and here you can see our program. If your audio person will want to pay close attention here, I'll push a button. [music plays]. So, that's all it takes to accidentally put the wrong thing on the wrong bus.
Kirk: Just make sure you don't have your mic plugged into the on-air bus right now.
John: I'm watching that and my elbow very carefully. And you know, I'm not a young man. It's got VU meters, and I like VU meters. I'm one of those people that still misses his Revox A77 reel-to-reel that I finally got rid of. But anyway, so I like the VU meters. Plus, Arrakis has kind of an advantage in they will package the automation system with the purchase of a board. So, that's a good business thing that many competitors on the automation side can't exactly offer.
Kirk: Now, on the automation, did you provide your own computer or did Arrakis provide the hardware for that?
John: No, I'm sorry, I'm an old-school guy. And, again, going back to my Avid video editing systems, Avid used to say that if you don't have this exact same system, we're not going to support you, because computer people, they always think they can change a little something or the computer manufacturers change a motherboard and don't tell you. So, our play-out server is an off-the-shelf Dell unit that came from Arrakis completely configured by them. Nothing special, but they can totally duplicate your environment back at their shop.
John: And the automation system comes with its own breakout I/O box. Arrakis has a history of being one of the early pioneers in the satellite-delivered formats to radio stations. And their early automation systems were really designed to interface with all those exchanges back-and-forth between the satellite and the local. And so they have a lot of features where we can program in the ability to change sources and rooms and all kinds of things. It's a very capable system that does I think-I'm going to hit them with another set of suggestions in a week or two, but I'm very happy with it.
Kirk: Hey, Chris Tobin, you've been just hiding in the background here. What about what John has put together here? How much of that is the same or different than you advise your own clients when they're putting up streaming services? Of course, I guess a lot of them are already broadcasters. They already have studios, since they're already terrestrial broadcasters. So, what are your thoughts so far?
Chris: Oh, actually I think his approach is ideal and spot-on. I would probably suggest the same thing. With Internet-delivered programming, I'll call it that; you don't have to get crazy because you're working with a finite bandwidth so you know what you're doing. You can control what the end-user experience can be much easier than you can on AM, FM, or even television, and you don't need to get too out of the ballpark.
And he's right; you've got a good microphone. The Heil mic is a very nice microphone. It doesn't make a lot of people sound much more robust or richer than they think they are. Using the mic processor or the DBX, I've used those a lot over the years. You really don't want too much on your microphone. If your voice has what it takes, you add a little sweetness to it. Make it a little wet with reverb if you have to. But other than that, just leave it be. You're great.
And the console, Arrakis has been around a long time. I've used many Arrakis consoles back in the day, and I did work with some of their automation systems on the satellite side. Great stuff. They're nice people. They do work with you, as Steve pointed out. So no, I think he's right on. This is the way to go. But if you have a budget and a willingness to go a different route, then you can look at the higher-end stuff and have fun.
But at the end of the day, you've got to know what you're putting into the microphone, putting into the automation system, and make sure you pay attention to detail. That's what's happening here. The music is recorded at the proper level. The algorithms used for the stream are the right ones. So at the end of the day, two things happen: you make the money you want and make back what you're investing, and two, the user experience supports the revenue. Then you can't go wrong.
Kirk: John, it sounds like you've got everything connected together correctly there. Did you use a contract engineer? Do you have a friend, or did you wire this up yourself?
John: Well, I started wiring it up myself, and then when I moved the operation from my basement to my office and took over a conference room and turned that into the station, I did bring in a friend who was a chief engineer in town who gave me a stern lecture on grounding and things like that.
We are analog, it should be pointed out. This is not a digital board, and everything is analog. One of the things that we did, and excuse me for not being technical enough to know all the right names, but all the I/O is with CAT-5 type connectors. So the back of everything is very organized.
Then I had another good computer man, because frankly the networking and VPNing and all those things are equally complicated. So, no, everything was relatively accessible. The learning curve was not too tough on the automation system. I did find that a lot of the documentation for many of the different elements in the package were frankly written for chief engineers, and I'm not. I'm a guy who flunked his first phone and never got past my third phone back when that still meant something.
So, I think that's something that manufacturers are going to have to think about. I can't remember the number, but there was an article I read just a day or two ago about the number of Internet radio stations that there are now, and that that is exploding. I think the manufacturers are going to have to think about writing documentation for a lower technical level of user versus the chief engineer who really loves his six-inch thick binder.
Kirk: Yeah. Working for a manufacturer, I can tell you, we don't enjoy writing six-inch thick manuals. That's just awful. I think at Telos we've written some that are an inch and a half or two inches thick, but oh wow. Hey, you're watching This Week in Radio Tech, or listening to it. It's our 222nd episode. Just a few minutes left in our show, and we're going to finish up having a couple more interesting questions for John here in just a minute.
Chris Tobin is live with us in Manhattan, what, 18 floors up. Chris, our show is brought to you in part by the folks at Telos, and the Telos VX. Chris Tobin, I forgot to ask you, have you some direct experience with the Telos VX?
John: Direct? Partial. I'll say partial. A former employer, yes.
Kirk: Ah, gotcha. Okay. Okay, all right.
Chris: You know which one I'm talking about.
Kirk: Yeah, that's right. We've done a lot of analysis on the Telos VX. It's kind of presented as a phone system for larger broadcasters, and certainly it is. The Telos VX engine is about a $9,000 box, and with that box, you can provide multiple lines, almost as many as you want, but typically 12 lines per studio into two faders. And you can do this for 10 studios, plus some production rooms. You can basically feed a whole facility, a whole cluster full of rooms with individualized phone service for your talk shows, your call-ins, and your requests. So, that's what the VX excels at.
But, you know what? If you just need telephones in two or three or four studios, the VX can also be price competitive with other products that are out on the market, including other Telos markets that are on the market. Now, let me give you a little hint. If you're a broadcaster, you're a broadcast engineer, and you already have Axia Livewire stuff in your facility, then man, putting a VX system in is easy. You're going to plug it in and configure it and buy a few phones and plug them in, and you're going to be done.
Of course, you've got to bring your phone lines into it, either through a gateway or an Asterisk box or just bring native SIP in from your carrier, convert to that. But if you're already an Axia shop, you've already got all the audio inputs and outputs that the whole system needs. That's it.
Now, if you don't have Axia gear, don't worry. All you need to do is spend a little bit more money per-studio for an audio I/O. You can consolidate the audio I/O into a rack room and go into your existing router, or you can just put about a $1,600 Axia X node into each studio. It's probably more than what you need in each studio for audio I/O, so you'll have plenty: two faders, program-on-hold coming into it, and two mix-minuses going back. You'll have some GPIO. So, whether you're an Axia facility already or not, the Telos VX can be very cost-effective, beginning at about two studios if you're already Axia, and beginning at three studios if you're not an Axia facility.
And I'll tell you what, if you want to save money on your phone lines, you're probably paying for PRI or POTS phone service. Now, if you're paying for POTS, you're going to save a lot of money on your phone lines. If you're paying for PRI, you could save some money. There are alternatives to bringing SIP directly in, or using cloud-based SIP if you want to, if you have a good Internet connection.
So, let me encourage you to check out . . . putting callers on the air, that is where you get a lot of good content. Sure, we can play music, but so can an iPod. But as John was saying earlier, John Stevens, one of the things he was introduced to early on was this notion of getting rid of the record library and putting callers on the air and having conversations and talk shows, and have this entertainment that's based on a conversation and information and audience participation.
If that interests you at all, and by golly it should, then the Telos VX phone system will make putting callers on the air painless, and they're going to sound as good as they can possibly sound. There are plenty of other possibilities with the Telos VX as well. You can run your own little Asterisk server, equip your own employees with a smartphone app that does G722, and you'll be able to put your own employees on the air with 7 kilohertz of audio quality. They can go out and do remotes with their smartphone and sound good, not sound like they're on a telephone. They actually sound good.
So, check it out on the web if you would at telos-systems.com, the Telos VX. It offers a ton of advantages, and it just gets better the more you get into it and the more things you find you can do with it. Telos VX. Thanks, Telos, for sponsoring This Week in Radio Tech.
Hey Chris, in our remaining minutes with John Stevens here, gee, what haven't we covered? I was thinking maybe we haven't covered music scheduling with this eclectic, interesting roots of rock and radio format. I'm curious about that. Chris, what else are you curious about?
Chris: I'm curious about the revenue side. How do you go out and pitch people on buying into your idea, what you've got?
Kirk: Let's answer that question.
Chris: The Internet radio concept, and saying, "Hey, this is something new." As you pointed out as an example, back in the 60s, we had FM coming onto the landscape. AM was the predominant source. Today, the tables are now Internet radio can become that dominate source if it isn't already in that stream. How do you guys go about pitching people? I'll just use the traditional term.
John: Revenue is a very good question. We are exactly where FM was in its early days. We've been on the air, so to speak, less than six months. Our revenue is next to nothing, and that was part of our business plan. Our goal is to get our [QM] audience up over 100,000 people a month, and then we've got something to sell.
The key is as a business person knowing how much money you're going to burn in that year, and being prepared to do that, and managing that as carefully as you can. So, at the moment, we have no revenue. It's interesting. So far as Internet radio goes, there are really two ways to make it work. One is what we're doing, which is to try to deliver a significant, mature, monied audience that will be of interest to people that is underserved. The other, which was equally appealing but concerned me because it would be so much more expensive to do, and that's hyper local. There are some very successful Internet radio stations that use that hyper local approach where they're doing things like high school sports and community events and all those things that the great big radio stations no longer do.
That's a totally different business model, and you can really go out and sell that just like all of us in our early days sold for the radio stations we worked for that had no numbers. So, those are really the two different approaches, but this is not a short-term play; this is a long-term play, and I'm prepared to stay with this three years or more until we really start . . . I'd like to break even a lot sooner, but until we start to generate any kind of a serious profit.
Which was exactly the way it was in the early days of FM, I mean what was the phrase, a dollar a holler? You know, there was no revenue. I remember I listened. So, we want to build the audience, do everything right that the audience can hear, be viewed professionally, and hopefully grow that audience and hope that music licensing doesn't put us out of business. If that doesn't work, we'll go into a hyper local idea.
Chris: So, I'm curious, do you find that you have more access to metrics that can help you determine if you're on-track for that three year or less goal, compared to say what you were accustomed to on what we'll call the broadcast TV/AM/FM side of sales? I have friends of mine in sales. I've worked with sales folks in marketing departments, and the hardest part was always the metrics to determine whether or not the Arbitron and Nielsen's were accurate.
As we all know, diaries are a past tense, not like PPM, the people meters, which is current time. And I'm just curious with Internet radio, because I know working with some Internet broadcasters recently, the hardest part they have is trying to determine which metrics to use to demonstrate this growth and sustainability with what they're doing. So, I'm just curious how you're handling that to demonstrate or at least appease your needs for that three-year goal?
John: Well, it's interesting. I mean, I have friends that operate 5,000-watt AM stations here in St Louis and no longer subscribe to Arbitron because they simply can't afford it. It's just too expensive. So, they're out selling the old-fashioned ideas, selling ideas, selling promotions. I don't think this is ever going to be a pure numbers play. That might be the mistake the advertising that's coming through the streaming services are making. It's on a strict cost-per-thousand, and we get paid very little for that.
I watch the numbers very carefully because in this, radio folks I'm sure would be happy to live without, because I have new numbers every morning. I mean, for instance, when this hits your website, I'll see the next day number one, how many more sessions I had. I will pull up a website and I'll see where those people are in the world. I have a global map, and there are little dots every time someone logs on to my stream. I don't know who they are or anything, but it's fascinating to see the number of listeners we have all over the world. I mean, over 50% of our audience is outside the US, which is . . . that's both good and bad.
I don't know that I answered your question, but again, I think it's selling the old-fashioned way, not using the numbers as a total crutch. It's selling ideas, and when we start to sell, which frankly is some months from now, that's how we're going to do it. It's not going to totally be based on the numbers.
Chris: Oh, that's fine. You answered exactly as I expected, because I have to say in my career, I've worked for several successful radio stations. And the way we beat the competition was actually the qualitative approach that you're talking about. We had access to Arbitron, but only twice a year. Yes, we're not in a number one market. It was a smaller market. We had two books a year. But, it was the word-of-mouth, qualitative, the basically grassroots, guerilla approach. And it worked, and it worked very well. And I've seen those techniques used not recently, but over the years. And other stations have succeeded with it, even though they try to live by the numbers. So, your answer was exactly spot on with what I expected, and that's great. I'm looking forward to seeing how you guys do in the next year.
John: One of the challenges, I think, is the people that are driving Internet radio to a major extent now, at least on the local level, these are people that are motivated by the music and motivated by the technology, and they're not necessarily-guys, excuse me if I'm insulting anybody-they're not serious businesspeople with budgets and targets, and they don't have serious sales experience.
Chris: That's how the first radio stations started.
John: Well, that's true, and I remember a sales manager, and that would be a very long story to tell, which used to beat the heck out of me. She used to say, "Well, anybody can sell with great numbers. So, if the numbers aren't good this quarter, now you'll show what you're worth. Get out there and blah, blah, blah." So, that's an area where the folks on the Internet side, particularly with the onus of what may or may not happen from the standpoint of music licensing, they have got to become as good at generating revenue as they were about finding an audience. An audience without the ability to generate revenue is a hobby.
Kirk: Yeah. Good point, and a point that we're probably going to have to close out on right now. John, thank you very much for being with us. This has been very fascinating to hear about you being able to achieve a dream of yours after so many other business successes, and doing something that a lot of us are very passionate about. So, congratulations to you, and I wish you a lot of luck as you move forward with this. I'll be tuning in.
John: Well thank you very much. It's OurMusicalRoots.com. On every mobile device there is, etc., etc. And I'd like to ask you, isn't it about time to start a weekly show just like this targeted at Internet radio folks?
Kirk: Help me understand what you mean. A show like this targeted... well, go ahead and tell me what you mean.
John: Specifically to Internet broadcasters like myself. I mean, we are starving for information. We're starving for training, both technical and marketing-wise. I think there's a real programming opportunity. I wish I could remember the numbers, but it's in the tens of thousands of licensed, music license-paying Internet broadcasters out there. We're looking for information.
Chris: We could devote time on our show.
John: Great. Love that.
Kirk: Interesting. Yeah, yeah. Maybe some how-tos would be helpful. Hey, working for Telos, and I know Greg Ogonowski working at Orban, we get questions all the time. "How do I stream? What do I need to do? Or, I tried this and it didn't work. What am I doing wrong?" Yeah, yeah. Good idea. Good idea. John, thanks again. I appreciate you being with us, and I hope maybe someday you'll come back on and report about how you're doing and if you've made any changes in the time in-between now and next time we talk to you.
John: My pleasure. Thank you very much for the invitation.
Kirk: And Chris Tobin, thank you for taking an hour out of your day. Chris, you are also, what you do full-time now, an IP audio consultant. Tell us where folks can get a hold of you so you can tell them I'm too busy.
Chris: You can just reach me at email@example.com. I make it real simple. So, if I'm not around to grab the email quickly, I have other people that will check on it. But, yeah, I'm offering up ideas for IP, for outside broadcast, for studios and studio stuff. I've been doing a lot of microwave IP radio linking lately, so it's starting to blossom into various other areas, but IP is in there.
Kirk: You know this here IP is the coming thing.
Chris: Yes, I remember a time ago when I was told it was not mature, it's a fad, and it's not going to go anywhere and stick with that other product.
Kirk: Yeah, there you go. All right, Chris Tobin, Josh Stevens, thanks so much for being with us, and to Andrew Zarian back at GFQ Central on Long Island. We appreciate you being with us as well and adding to the show.
Our sponsors have been Lawo and the crystalCLEAR Audio Console from Lawo, and from Telos, the Telos VX, the first voice-over-IP phone system for broadcasters. It's able to handle huge facilities or just a couple of students. Your calls will sound great. Check it out at telos-systems.com.
All right, hey, in upcoming episodes, we've got some really incredible guests coming up including John Bishop will be our guest in a few weeks; Scott Fybush is going to be our guest; and remember Kid Kraddick? You know he passed away about a year ago? His engineer is going to be our guest on a future show coming up. So, stay tuned. We're here every week at this time. We'll see you next time on This Week in Radio Tech. Bye-bye, everybody.