Ed. Note: This is the third in Nate Herzog's series of posts about Vermont companies and their creative solutions to technical challenges. Click here to see them all.
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I was especially excited to investigate the technology behind Vermont Public Radio
. VPR is my audio feed during my morning commute and it's the only radio station that is played in my house. I've grown addicted to the news in the mornings and the variety shows on the weekends.
When I hear the voices of commentators and reporters, I tend to imagine what they might look like. When I see a picture of the personality, it can be a surprise or a reassuring "a-ha" as I see how close my mental picture matches the real one. Similarly, I had an idea of how the technology must work to produce my favorite radio and I really, really wanted to see how close I came.
Turns out VPR certainly had a lot of equipment I had never seen before, but what struck me was how approachable and usable all of it was.
I spent an afternoon talking with Rich Parker, VPR's Director of Engineering, Jonathan Butler, VPR's Online Manager as well as Communications Producer Michelle Jeffery, and later Robin Turnau, VPR's new President. They toured me around their Colchester studio, explained their various jobs and how they contributed to the overall VPR vision. The whole time the thought kept popping in my head, 'This is open-source radio.'
Hold everything. Open Source Radio
? Hear me out. Open source, broadly defined — I know there are many different open source models and licenses out there, but broadly defined — has to be three things:
1. Maintained by the community. Check — VPR is supported and financed in large part through the efforts of their listening community
2. Available for free. Check — VPR content is freely available from a variety of sources.
3. Accessible for improvement or modification. In this case, the source code is the story content. I'll get back to this.
Five years ago, VPR created a five-year plan to evaluate and implement new technology to improve its service. "The thing that is most important to us is our audience and our service to our audience," says Robin Turnau. "In a way, the technology comes second.... For us our primary business is trying to increase our service to the community and our impact in the community. And so we do take a look at whatever technologies we can use to improve that service."
Which begs the question, what exactly is the service that needs to be improved? If radio reception is the service, you put up more transmitters. But what I found is that the VPR service is the stories, the news, the jokes, the interviews, the ... everything. And you don't need a radio to get that. There are a number of ways to get that content — you can listen to analog radio; you can listen to HD radio. You can listen to live streaming right off the website; you can listen to live streaming right off your iPhone or iPod Touch. You can listen with VPR Mobile. You can listen to podcasts of shows. You can read content on VPR.net. You can even pick up a phone, any old phone, and dial 802-735-0565 and yes, listen to VPR.
HD (Hybrid Digital) radio and Internet services are two such ways that I've heard a lot about listening in on my daily commute. HD radio is being rolled out in addition to traditional analog radio, so listeners aren't being asked to retire their analog models. Why go to the expense of rolling out HD radio when analog radio will still be used? And why, if this is radio, would anyone want to listen on the web? Or on a mobile phone?
In a word: mountains.
Mountains play hell with radio signals. Radio works best in big flat areas where receivers have direct line-of-sight access to the towers holding the antennas. When you carve up the landscape with mountain ranges, you not only get a very stunning place to live, you make it really hard to cast a radio signal effectively. So VPR's solution is to give the listening community more ways to tune in. The goal at VPR right now isn't creating a better way to listen. It's creating multiple ways to listen.
But listening to radio with a mobile phone can sound somewhat daunting for some people. "When people start their sentences with 'Well I don't know anything about technology, but...' I like to ask them 'What do you want to do?'" responds Jonathan Butler. "Usually they have a need. Usually they say, 'I can't get VPR classical where I live,' or they say, 'I'm never home with This American Life is on.' For them, it's What's the tool for the job? And there's probably something that can help."
It might be learning how podcasts work. It might be HD Radio.
HD radio differs from analog radio in two ways. One, signal quality is much better in HD. Rich Parker, Director of Engineering (pictured at right), compared the difference between HD and analog to the difference between records and CDs. "On a record you hear surface noise and scratching, hissing and all that kind of stuff," he told me as he twiddled with a Radiosophy HD100 receiver. "With this you just hear the pristine digital."
The second way HD differs from analog is that a digital signal can carry more than one radio channel. 107.9 carries VPR’s news and information service over an analog signal. 107.9 over a digital signal carries that signal, VPR Classical, and BBC World Service on 107.9-HD1, 2, and 3.
Why is this important? Consider what would be needed to run three different channels of content at the same time via analog. You would need to be licensed for three different radio frequencies. You would need three different antennas transmitting the content off one or more towers. Here you get the same content via one channel and one antenna. Say you can pick up 107.9 (VPR News) but can't pick up 90.9 (VPR Classical). That's a problem if you want to listen to VPR Classical with an analog radio, but an HD Radio can pick up both stations over one channel. So the listener gets another way to tune in to their favorite radio.
Listeners can also tune in online.
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"The two things that the website really allows, that benefits listeners, is a lot more choices for how they engage the content on their terms," says Online Manager Butler (pictured at right). "Ten years ago your only option for listening to 'Eye On The Sky' was to wait by the radio. Now you can access content long after its played on the air."
As Butler talks about the ways in which website works, I'm marveling at a known but unspoken fact: he's the only dedicated web person on staff. VPR has this rich content website that updates its content continually as shows broadcast — and there's one guy on staff managing it. That's because VPR is really good at partnering, a skill that can easily elude many businesses today.
VPR partners with The Stream Guys to help stream their content, ClearBearing Inc. to help host their content, and Propeller Media Works and Found Line to design their content. National Public Radio is at the forefront with media technologies and VPR leverages their expertise and infrastructure frequently. American Public Media (producers of favorite shows like A Prairie Home Companion and Marketplace) produced the iPhone tuner application.
VPR staff and volunteers create the content. Lest you thought everyone turned their copy over to some web guru to put it into web format, you're wrong. VPR has a program that allows each producer to easily enter their own content. All the stories, pictures, playlists, and audio clips are uploaded by the content producers themselves, usually within minutes of the broadcast. "I never have to crack the whip," chuckles Butler.
Turnau continues, "One of the things the Internet and our website will help us with is engaging our listeners around a story. It may be that we ask our listeners to give us their thoughts about the story. Do you have your own personal story that it's important for us to know about? That's important for other listeners to know about? So it [VPR.net] becomes a gathering place."
A gathering place that could possibly morph into the next phase of community based radio: the community that helps create the content. It starts with the bullhorn, the stories coming over the radio, a one way channel between content and listeners. Then you give the community a chance to offer feedback and comments about stories on the VPR web site. Then listeners start telling their own stories. Sound a little like social media? In fact, this has always been the case with VPR. Anyone could call or write about a story. The technology is giving listeners new ways to do what they've always been able to do.
Listen. Respond. Create.
"Even if we decide not to go down that route [social networking] the decision is not entirely ours," Butler reflects. "The tools are out there. Even if it was something we didn't want to do, we couldn't stop it..... NPR has a fairly robust API which allows anyone to pull and repurpose their content. All of a sudden we have content distributors that are competing with our channels of content distribution."
Which means that it's possible right now to pull VPR content into your own communications channel (give proper credit please). In the future it may be possible to create your own mash up of VPR and NPR stories that energize you and your community. And when you start contributing your own stories, you in effect can create your own content based on what you heard on the radio.
There's another phrase for that. It's called "I heard it on public radio." But because of technology, you can hear VPR anywhere you want to. Listen in on your iPhone when you're in San Francisco. Pull down a live stream when you're in Germany. Listen to a podcast whenever and wherever you are.
And respond. Because there are a lot of Virtual Vemonters out there just like you. And when you do that, you join the community of people who care about the news, who laugh at the same jokes, and enjoy the same music. They're all around you.
"The thing for us about our website is that there is just so much material there, so many stories that we've done over the years," says Turnau. "And it's now at the point where we need to do a better job of exposing that and showing people what's there."
Doesn't matter if you're from Vermont or not. Tune in. Log on. You'd be surprised at how much the technology can make you feel among friends.