We wrapped up RadioWeek 2023 addressing probably the biggest challenge for any radio station in a competitive market: Cutting costs without compromising quality.
Since radio began, technological advances have helped address this conundrum. However, the current competition for the listener’s ear is unprecedented, so for this session, we reached out to those with significant experience in technological change in broadcasting.
Christoph Poulain, co-president of WorldCast Systems — a company with more than 60 years of experience engineering advanced broadcast solutions — joined Quentin Howard and Chris Thame for this discussion. Howard is a seasoned radio engineer who masterminded the launch of Britain’s first national commercial station and the country’s original national DAB multiplex, as well as Boom Radio. Thame is the lead broadcast engineer with News Corp, and heads a team of broadcast engineers building, upgrading and maintaining seven national radio stations across the United Kingdom, including talkSPORT, talkRADIO and Virgin Radio UK. He also headed the team that created talkTV on the back of the talkRadio brand.
Such engineering muscle needed a moderator with significant technical nous, so we invited as session chair Dr. Lawrie Hallett, a senior lecturer in radio and journalism at the University of Bedfordshire, and a specialist in broadcast technology regulation who has helped launch several community and commercial radio stations himself and also runs a DAB multiplex.
WorldCast Systems has been at the forefront of so much innovation in radio broadcasting, and Poulain pointed to the importance of cutting costs without compromising quality, and explained how WorldCast Systems has had this an objective over the years. “With inflation and the lack of components, it’s now critical for our customers,” he said.
He explained that his company has two main objectives. Firstly, they are trying to deal with sourcing and increased lead-time because of supply chain challenges, so they have started to integrate more software features into their products. Secondly, he said, the escalating cost of energy is an issue, and they have been working on having the WorldCast transmitters reduce energy costs by up to 40 percent. “We are tweaking the architecture to keep the costs reasonable.”
Poulain added, “It’s quite worrying that some stations are turning off their transmitter at night to save money; we need to find solutions for the industry as a whole, to help them.”
For Howard, the radio broadcast industry is facing considerable challenges, yet unlimited opportunities, brought about by technological advances. Of course, COVID has helped speed up the pace of change. He explained how he helped set up U.K. station Boom Radio in the middle of the second lockdown. “We couldn’t get into people’s homes to set up their studios, so we had to come up with a virtual radio station. We own almost nothing. It’s radio as a service. We rent everything.”
According to Howard, one of the challenges was keeping the budget lean, and for Boom Radio [a national broadcaster], they built their station for around £12,000. “We didn’t have to invest in the studios, rack room and engineers, and were able to focus on sales. This made the costs collapse, and changed the equation completely.”
They set up packages for their presenters with mics, headphones and used computers or laptops, and labeled everything and sent them to the talent, most of whom are non-technical baby boomers who were experiencing their first time broadcasting from home. “I sent the kits labeled correctly and helped them install it via the telephone. Every button had a label, even the on/off button. It surprised me how possible it is to set up a radio station economically.”
Rolling out a nationwide broadcasting operation comes with issues of scale, as Thame knows so well. He brought up the matter of integrating services into an existing product. He discussed how they developed talkTV, a visual offshoot of talkRADIO on a very lean budget.
“We run our daytime production with four people. One of which is a producer,” he said. “We have changed a lot of people’s opinions of what can be done. Radio is a trim medium generally and people were apprehensive at first, but we’ve changed some hearts and minds about the flexibility of radio.” On the other hand, he added, “TV is a beast and it will take time for this approach to ripple down, unlike for radio.”
For Thame, the visual element add-on cost was the transmission involved in TV. Getting onto the linear platforms is the largest cost. He added, “We only use two more people than with the radio setup and we are now also on video platforms, globally — it’s still a lot cheaper than many commercial radio stations without TV.”
Toward the end of the session, the panel agreed that while the wheel has basically been invented, there are things that can still be done to improve radio services and keep operating costs contained. “Keep your eyes and ears open to discover what others are doing,” suggested Howard. “Have a look at some of the podcasters, there are some really innovative operators. Also, attention to detail. Make sure everything works and test and re-test — that makes the difference!”
Thame added that it’s important to keep a cool head and stay calm. “There is always a way of doing it. Don’t miss out on brilliance by striving for sheer perfection. Get it to air and stay calm.”
Hallet closed the event by thanking Worldcast for making such an important and timely panel possible.
Find out everything that by watching the video below.