AUCKLAND, New Zealand — SENZ is a fledgling 24/7 sports talk radio network serving a country with a population roughly a tenth of the size of Shanghai. That may sound niched, but this is no ordinary country – it’s self-admittedly sports-mad New Zealand. SENZ — Sports Entertainment Network New Zealand — is the local extension of the Australian SEN brand and delivers live sports broadcasting, racing and sports-talk content to an enthusiastic target core audience of males aged 25–54.
SENZ’s launch date wasn’t ideal. The network kicked off on April 19, 2021, mid-COVID pandemic, with few live sporting events; those taking place were crowd-free. Hardly conducive to compelling audio. At the time, the network operated from the former Stanley Street studios of New Zealand Racing Board’s Trackside Radio, which offered coverage and commentary of horse and dog racing. SENZ was anxious to develop its own brand and identified a space in the trendy historical Saatchi and Saatchi Building in nearby Parnell to build dedicated studios. Nudging the new network was a sense of urgency: The studios’ tenancy was ending; time was of the essence.
Basically, everything has to be bigger — multiple feeds in and out, console channel count … you name it.
Josh Pearson, director of SEN’s IT/engineering in Australia, reached out to Marcus Bekker of Southern Broadcast, who had built the Stanley Street Studios. “Southern Broadcast, together with SEN engineers in Australia and New Zealand, set about designing and specifying a comprehensive studio complex capable of rising to the many specific sports broadcasting challenges that music radio tends not to encounter,” said Pearson. “Basically, everything has to be bigger — multiple feeds in and out, console channel count…you name it. SEN is a long-time user of Wheatstone, and Southern Broadcast is Wheatstone’s New Zealand partner and systems integrator. It was an obvious choice to continue with a new build and then integrate the existing NZRB gear into our new facility.”
As the time to start the new build drew nearer, SENZ was pitched a bouncer. “The New Zealand Government announced that the country was entering a Level 4 lockdown,” said Bekker. “This put the brakes on the whole project; it ground to an almost dead stop. However, the clock didn’t stop ticking.”
There was no turning back. SENZ had received delivery of all the equipment. With Pearson and the SEN team stuck in Australia because of New Zealand’s COVID travel restrictions, it was up to the New Zealand teams to oversee installation onsite and the uninterrupted transition of broadcasting to the new studios. “We had the console surfaces, the talent stations, the blades and all the software and AoIP studio infrastructure needed,” explained Bekker, “The turnaround was swift, and we were ready for the start of their extremely tight build time schedule.”
Keeping things simple makes everything easy to operate; it also means fewer things in the way that could go wrong.
“Tight” indeed. SENZ received the keys for their new premises at the beginning of December 2021; the deadline for the switchover from Stanley Street to the new studios was the middle of the following month. It was clear the new premises weren’t going to play ball. “We had zero walls and zero studio spaces,” said Bradley Bacon, who joined SENZ as their Auckland-based senior engineer just one month before the project started. The building’s heritage status didn’t help. Soundproofing, for one, was a challenge. It required raising the studios off the 100-year-old hardwood floors.
“There were a few moments when I was tearing my hair out, mainly because of logistics, but it all came together,” said Bacon. Working with Southern Broadcast and systems integrator Integra Broadcast, the SENZ team built out and networked the studios with remote input from Pearson and his team of engineers and operations crew in Australia.
Hallmarks of a successful build
Simplicity and adaptability were hallmarks of the approach to the build. “Keeping things simple makes everything easy to operate; it also means fewer things in the way that could go wrong,” stated Bacon. An example was in setting up the live audio feeds. SENZ uses established feeds instead of physically laying cables at multiple sporting events. For those events where SENZ has on-field commentary, its go-to tech is Tieline.
Adapting the equipment to their needs was critical — another reason for their choice of Wheatstone, especially the ability to use scripting to develop better workflows into the WheatNet-IP network. For example, SENZ scripted the buttons on the SS-8 OLED control panels to map mics to incoming remote feeds. Each mic is automatically associated with the right mix-minus or bus-minus, whether an announcer in the field or a commentator in the studio next door.
Despite the snug deadline and the seemingly endless challenges the building threw at them, the teams succeeded in being ready for the switchover to the new studios on time on Jan. 15, 2022.
“SENZ uses a combination of physical consoles,” explained Bacon. “A Wheatstone LXE and LX24 in the main studios, a complementary L-8 console surface in one of two production studios, and virtual mixers, including Remote LXE touchscreen mixer in the talk studio.” Shared control and fader tracking between the Remote LXE touchscreen and the LXE console surface allows talent teams to collaborate more easily during fast-paced live sportscasts, giving them control of phone lines, remote feeds and mics in any position as needed. Additional touchscreen interfaces designed by Integra Broadcast using Wheatstone’s Screenbuilder and scripting tools offer menu options such as custom mixing and access to Tieline codecs and other shared resources.
The SENZ studios are built-for-purpose, and Bacon said he learned much in the process and looks forward to a greater focus on virtual broadcasting and the cloud. “Once we get audio processing in the cloud,” he commented, “that opens a lot of opportunities for a lot of people.”