SWR3 – 24/7 visual radio: it’s happening
With 3.85 million daily listeners, SWR3 is the most listened public radio program in Germany. It is part of the Südwestrundfunk (SWR), one of the nine self-governing regional broadcasters of Germany.
The pop station is leading the european visual-radio conversion. Nowadays, it broadcasts all its programming 24/7 thanks to automation processes and the intensive use of metadata. This is just the beginning of its transformation: the station is facing a major technical redesign that will bring its state-of-the-art concept to the next level.
Maximilian Federhofer, Head of Studio Production and Playout; Maik Elster, Consultant for Department Arts, Science and Young Audiences; and Edgar Heinz, Deputy Head of SWR3 Pop-unit, together with other SWR3 experts, show TM Broadcast why the station is a technological and innovative reference in the Old World.
A report by Susana Sampedro
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
SWR has recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. What have been the technological changes that have defined the station?
In the 90s we still had long-playing records and tape machines. Nowadays, we’ve totally changed into the digital world. That’s the main technological change. Hardware like tape machines, telephones and cart machines are replaced by software – another radical change.
Radio technology is constantly changing. What are the trends that you identify that will define the future of radio broadcast?
We think playout in the cloud is one main trend. Hybrid-radio, the connection between linear and non-linear content, is another key issue as well as all the apps and services around the linear content (Audio-On-Demand, Smart Speakers, Car Integration).
Could you describe us how the SWR3 studios network is distributed?
SWR3 broadcasts its program according to the corresponding way of distribution with up to five regionalized informational audio elements, like e.g. the weather forecast and announcements of local events. In the analogue broadcast domain via UKW, the four regions Baden, Württemberg, Oberschwaben and Rheinland-Pfalz are being covered. The radio transmitters are fed using a proprietary SWR network. Concerning the DAB+ digital radio, the two federal states Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz are covered separately. For the digital satellite radio (DVB-S) and the internet we are providing a central SWR3 program due to the fact that it can be received in entire Europe or even the whole world. All broadcasting signals are processed in the central SWR radio switching center in the city of Baden-Baden and are distributed from there.
Have you done any renovation of SWR3 studios recently? What have been the implementations?
SWR 3 is undergoing a major technical redesign. In the current concept phase, we are looking into GUI-based control panels and centralized services in a common data center.
TRENDS AND TECHNOLOGY
SWR3 has trusted in radio convergence. Actually, you are broadcasting via web, app, dab+, VHF… What difficulties does this imply?
The major challenge is the transformation of our linear radio products into nonlinear multimedia content. In the past, we only had one successful product – our linear program. Today, studio equipment, production methods and workflows have to be changed and redesigned to provide different content types alongside the radio brand our listeners love. Some of them can´t take place in the linear program or in a more visual one. We, at SWR3, think it´s important to have a successful linear radio brand and to provide made-to-measure content for any other distribution way – linear and on demand.
SWR3 uses analog radio as well as DAB+. When did you do the transformation to digital radio? What were the difficulties of the process?
SWR3 always thought of digital radio as a combination of digital distribution methods and products. DAB+, Web-Livestream, the SWR3 App, Smart Speakers, HbbTV and Visual Radio are just some of these. Back in 2009, we called it the future radio project. One part of the project was the development of the first SWR3 App. By doing this, we had to figure out quickly how to provide live metadata to our linear program. We established a system we call Radio Data Center that collects all relevant information in different systems that can provide them. Covers, artist, title, name of the show and the host, pictures, etc. As we solved to provide the new SWR3 App with all the information, we were ready to go to provide DAB+ Slideshow right from the start in 2011. SWR3 always embraced new technologies. We support the full spectrum of possibilities that came with DAB+. Besides a high audio quality and a lot of visual additional information around our radio program, we also broadcast DAB TPEG, as new and enhanced traffic information channel for more safety on the streets.
Which equipment has a standard SWR3 studio?
Standard systems in a radio studio are the microphones of the presenters, a telephone and a special mail-system for listener interaction and, of course, systems for playing back music and audio contributions, as well as program specific sound elements and jingles. The current studios have been set up in 2006 using digital mixing consoles that also provide logic engines for automation purposes as well as server-based playout systems that are used while being constantly improved until today. Other interactive systems for information exchange include e.g. real time traffic announcement displays, intercom devices, VoIP-based telephone hybrids, multifunctional displays or web applications for user interaction. Innovations like the video live stream or direct contact to the listeners via Mail ins Studio and Facebook (using a self-developed tool to prepare incoming messages from different sources like mail or social media) have been added in recent years, which made it possible for SWR3 to stay a leading brand in the domain of pop radio stations. However, the time has come to integrate the digital possibilities into the studios in an even better way. Therefore the planning of a complete redesign of the SWR3 studios has been started.
You were a pioneer in the video streaming of your shows. Are we heading to a paradigm in which each radio program is video broadcasted? Are you using PTZ or standard cameras in your studios?
Our customers don’t think of visual radio as something special or unique, it is more like they’re expecting it to be there. The focus is still on the listening experience, complemented with the possibility to take a look inside the studios, getting additional information on what’s playing, adding the song to someone’s own playlist, etc. We are using PTZ combined with POV cameras in the studios.
Which challenges does the visual radio involve technologically?
The whole system should be designed to work autonomous. One of the biggest challenges was to automatically transfer the right content from this huge amount of data at the right time. Another challenge was to build and interconnect the system with an existing infrastructure without changing established workflows or workspaces.
You even broadcast live video when a DJ is playing music. In the video, the viewer can see the radio host, the cover of the album and information about the song. Is this process completely automatized? Could you tell us more about it?
The entire process is automated. We focus on retrieving data from regular and existing processes instead of creating specific workflows just for visual radio. All additional data such as cover, song information or social media messages are automatically prepared and cached before playout and is sent to air at the start of the song. The playout is triggered by the audio signal.
SWR3 broadcast exclusive content via Youtube. Is this content integrated into the radio?
Some of the contents are produced exclusively for Youtube. In most cases the content is originally produced as audio supplemented by the video track for Youtube.
Audio-On-Demand is a reality. How does SWR3 adapt to this new paradigm in which the OTT’s media services are so important?
Audio-on-Demand is more than just podcast for us. We are working on different projects that will enable time shift and skippable radio functionalities in the future and give us the full range of possibilities to identify and combine audio elements (based on their metadata) across the whole broadcasting and production chain. The results will be audio-on-demand products in real time, more interactivity with the user and a customized radio experience.
Are you implementing IP technology in the SWR3 workflow? Do you think that this technology will monopolize the future of the station?
The new concept is based on IP technology. We expect much higher flexibility in program production and distribution.
Are you using IP Phones for real-time covering of events and news? How is being the experience?
The currently used IP based telephone system still operates with classical telephone sound quality due to technical reasons on the provider side, however journalists of the ARD can establish an IP connection to the studios using a proprietary reporting app in order to contribute real-time high audio quality reports or interviews. This highly contributes to adding value and flexibility to the contribution process. Moreover, IP connections can be established from the switching center to correspondents all over the world with a sound quality of a face to face talk.
Let’s talk about 5G technologies. Has SWR3 made any tests on this technology? How could it be applied to radio broadcast?
The topic 5G is covered by collaborative teams with in ARD and EBU. Results will be implemented in our further concepts.