With IP at the heart of broadcasting’s future, codecs are increasingly the gateways of content assimilation and distribution
HILVERSUM, Netherlands — Listeners might not notice, but the Dutch station Radio509 is staffed entirely by blind and partially-sighted presenters. Based in Hilversum — known as the “media city of the Netherlands” — the station was created by Peter Kroon, now station manager, and its name reflects the month and year of its launch — May 2009.
The station helps those with visual impairments become part of the radio industry, which otherwise could be challenging. “When you’re visually impaired, and you go to, let’s say, a ‘normal’ radio station, it’s quite difficult to use all the equipment,” explained Kroon. “Because there is no special monitor, and turntables are not found in studios anymore. We have two at Radio509, and all the equipment comes with big knobs, not a touchscreen. It’s difficult to use a touchscreen when you can’t see. And when you use equipment with knobs, it’s quite easy.”
Kroon adds that they use computers from Apple. “They have a zoom function, and we connect the Braille machine to the computer, then you can feel what the next song is.”
Working from home
Radio509 also makes extensive use of the Comrex Opal IP audio gateway. “For people in the country who are fully blind, it’s not easy to travel to the studio,” explained Kroon. “They must travel on the train and bus, and they can’t drive a car — so they like to work from their own place. And we were looking for a good connection that means they can use their microphone at home to make a program or do voice-tracking.
“Triple Audio came with the solution of the Comrex Opal. We previously used Apple’s FaceTime. It’s okay for a conversation between two people online, but if you want broadcast quality, you need better equipment.”
Staff and program guests only need to click on a link to make high-quality contact with the studio. “It’s simple — on the Comrex on your laptop or smartphone, there are only two buttons, the red one and the green one. If you can’t see them, the voiceover says it is ‘connect’ or ‘disconnect,’” said Kroon.
Opal works by activating the Opus encoder built into many browsers, including Chrome, Safari, Edge, Firefox and Opera, meaning Opal can connect to any computer, Android or iOS device with one of those browsers installed.
Part of a network
Radio509 is one of several stations around Europe with blind and partially-sighted broadcasters and listeners. Kroon has visited RNIB Connect Radio — previously called Insight Radio — in the United Kingdom, run by the Royal National Institute of Blind People charity. It broadcasts via a national DTT channel and on FM to Glasgow, where the station is based. It was the first station in Europe to target this audience.
Radio509’s programing focus remains broad, however. “We’ve got a talk show about being blind or having sight loss, but only on Sunday mornings,” said Kroon. “The rest of the week, we mainly play album tracks and classics. Our listeners can call in, and usually we find they are not blind, because radio is simply all about sounds.”
“We are 100% Dutch,” Kroon added. “We play lots of Dutch music also, about three tracks in an hour, and all the presenters present their programs in Dutch.”
Radio509 broadcasts via digital cable and online. “So, we say to all our listeners: download our app,” said Kroon.
“That’s quite easy — everyone has a smartphone these days. We also give away special headphones — the Radio509 black Mambo Bluetooth headset — so listeners can listen everywhere.”
The pandemic has not impacted the station as much as some others, though challenges remain. “Actually, we were already working from home — and lots of our presenters are still there,” explained Kroon. “We have fewer commercials — companies have stopped their advertising on Radio509. That’s more of a problem for us than presenters who are staying at home.”
What does the future hold for Radio509? “More audio over IP,” said Kroon. “At the moment, we’ve got an analog broadcast console. We are talking with one of our sponsors to move to a shopping mall in the center of Hilversum. So, maybe next year we’ll be building a new studio in the mall, fully digital, all audio over IP.”