Which Radio Playout System Should I Buy?
At the end of my talk at the Student Radio Association 2015 Conference at Exeter University, I was asked “Which playout system should we buy?” I can’t really answer that, it’s like a stranger asking you what shoes they should buy, but I can suggest some questions you need to ask yourself, and your potential supplier, before making a choice.
Yes, the first question has nothing to do with servers and cart players. There are two basic business models for playout systems, which I will call “Stuff” and “Service”. In the first model you buy some stuff; servers, screens, sound cards, software and you configure them to do what you want them to do. Whilst you may be able to get support for the software, and perhaps have a contract for support of the server hardware and even the operating system, keeping the whole thing working is your responsibility. In the “Service” model, you pay a company to provide hardware and software and configure it for you. You pay for a service contract and whilst you are responsible for routine daily management, you can’t reconfigure the system without invalidating your support contract; you pay the provider to make changes for you.
There are of course many flavours in between the extremes. Before buying a playout system it is really important to understand the business models on offer, and which would best suit your needs. What’s the total cost of ownership over the life of the system? Complete support and configuration of a sophisticated playout system is a complex operation beyond the understanding of many broadcast or IT engineers. Will you have continuity of expertise to support the system? Or do you have a high turn-over of support staff? Playout systems are pressure sensitive; they seem to know when you are under most pressure and if it fails it will probably do so when everyone is at peak workload for a major event; who will spare time to undertake a complete rebuild of the Storage Area Network and reload all the data? On the other hand, “do it yourself” allows you to make changes in an agile way (or “break if faster”), so if you have access to enough people with the right skills it can be advantageous.
You will need to integrate your playout system with a number of other systems, unless you buy a complete “off the shelf” solution. Other systems to which you will need to connect might include…
· Programme production, craft editing.
· News production and editing.
· Running orders within programmes.
· Script creation, editing and presentation.
· Programme scheduling.
· Music rotation.
· Music reporting.
· Commercial scheduling, playout and reporting.
· “Network splits” where two or more versions of the output are created.
· Online systems – “now playing” text, cover art, data and audio feeds to online services such as web sites, mobile apps etc.
· “Snoop mic” recording of all the content from open microphones
· Legal logging
· Archiving, including re-ingest from archive for repeat broadcasting.
You will need to test the playout system you intend to buy to make sure it will integrate successfully the other systems you already use, this is a lot of work! If you are buying an expensive solution, it’s reasonable to expect potential suppliers to do the work, but if it is an “off the shelf” solution, you will have to do it yourself. You will need at least two people on the team who live, think and breathe XML.
Operators, production and support staff will all need to be trained. What training is included in the deal? Is it at the radio station, or do you have to travel to the supplier’s HQ? What about ongoing training for new staff? Do the staff already use a playout system, or do they need to understand the concepts before being trained on the particulars?
Some suppliers insist you keep the system up to date if you want them to support it, which is reasonable. Who’s going to be responsible for undertaking the updates, do you have to pay for them? How often do they have to happen and how long do they take? Beware suppliers who insist on you keeping the system up to date in order to get support, but regularly bring out new versions for which you have to pay.
Playout systems are versatile systems and there are usually many ways to complete any given task; neither you nor the supplier has time to test every single combination of ways of doing things in every possible order. So you will need to define how your radio station will undertake each task, then you and the supplier can both test that way of doing things from end to end. Staff will need to be trained in the “official” way of doing things and understand that if they stray from this, things might not work as expected. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of getting creative people to work in a prescribed way; perhaps you’ll have to let them feel the pain of going off-piste before they will listen.
Data is King
You will need to make sure your staff understand the importance of complete and accurate metadata. Get the metadata in as early in the workflow as possible, before the data forks off in different directions. This is hard, because the people adding content aren’t necessarily the people who benefit from it being complete and accurate, but it is absolutely vital to efficient operation. It’s not just about naming clips something more useful than “clip 1” (though that’s a start), it’s about consistent style, “The Beetles” or “Beetles, The”? How do you handle duets? How do you identify different versions of the same programme?
Resilience and Backups.
Your playout system will be pretty important to your output. But it’s a lot of computers, so it will break, usually as a result of somebody telling it to do something daft, but none the less it will break. Ask the suppliers to give you a system diagram and explain to you what happens if each server, computer, network switch or process stops working. And think about backups. Having everything duplicated on mirrored raid arrays in multiple locations is good – but if somebody hits “delete”, does it delete the content from all of them? If it is connected to the system, it’s not really a backup! There’s a lot to be said for old-fashioned tape backup because the tapes can be safely locked away, but somebody needs to be responsible for taking the backups, testing that they can be restored, and keeping them safe and properly catalogued. For a large system this can be a significant cost.
However resilient your playout system, the schedule, created by humans, is the most common single point of failure. If you schedule the playout system to leave a gap of an hour between two pre-recorded programmes, it will. Make sure the system you buy is easy to schedule, that it’s easy to see and understand the schedule and that it has useful alert messages for common mistakes, such as two programmes scheduled at the same time.
It would be a really good idea to go and visit at least one radio station where they have been using the playout system for at least a year. You need time alone with the people responsible for supporting the system, and be careful not to go to a radio station who get the product free in return for helping develop it.
It has to be something your staff like using. It’s a creative tool and it’s no good ticking all the other boxes if creative people hate it.