Monday 26th November saw the return of the annual Radio Tech Conference at Savoy Palace, the home of the Institute of Engineering and Technology. Broadcast engineers, and people working in radio tech, came from all round the world to learn about all sorts of exciting things happening around the industry. Steve, our Tech Officer, was there and has picked out some highlights that could be of interest to engineers and techie types in student radio for improving their station, skills or just general interest!

The topics covered on the day reached a wide variety of areas, each with new and interesting bits of information that could change the shape of the radio industry, or just make a small difference for a few stations. Warning, technical content ahead. If there’s anything you’d like more information on, because you don’t understand it or want to explore it further, please don’t hesitate to ask me –!

The Radio Format
Judy Parnell, chair of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), opened the day with a keynote focused on the biggest change the industry is currently facing – how people consume media!

Increasingly, consumers are listening to podcasts, music streaming services, IP radio via smart home devices or mobiles, and generally moving to digital listening. According to Rajar figures, this hasn’t yet meant the end of analogue listenership, just a diversity in formats. Student radio is in a prime position to embrace this – whether this is by finding new ways to stream, or exploring alternate platforms to publish content (such as podcasts, playlists, apps, etc) – now is a great time to try those crazy ideas that might just be the next big thing!

How loud something is perceived overall, rather than the max level.
Most people who know about music have heard of the loudness wars – producers and publishers pushing for louder and louder tracks, whilst others wanted to keep dynamic range and variation in music. Loudness is important for radio broadcast and podcasts as well. If your content is too quiet, listeners have to put more effort into turning the volume up when they are trying to hear what you are saying. Similarly, if you have lots of dynamic range, particularly noticeable difference between speech and music, they have to constantly change the volume.

The BBC have recently been doing some research into loudness recommendations for podcasts. They’ve found that -18 LUFS (Loudness Units relative to Full Scale) is a good level to aim for, as then it won’t be hit too much by iTunes or other podcast hosts adding their own processing, but also isn’t too quiet. This also works well for a variety of content genres and types. Loudness is an area a lot of time can be spent. I believe some student stations don’t match up to the industry here due to lack of equipment, skills or knowledge. I’ll do more on this in the near future, both for recorded content and station output.

Studio Upgrades
If you’ve ever been to Bauer’s offices at Golden Square in London, you’ll know they don’t have a lot of room for expanding their studio space. However, they were desperate for a new recording studio. Their solution was to take a meeting room and turn it into a studio. Sounds great in theory, until you realise the room in question was surrounded by large glass walls on 3 sides – it looks great, but acoustically this is terrible. Glass is very good at reflecting sound straight back, resulting in lots of unwanted artifacts on the mics.

Through researching their options, they sourced some glass fit for purpose, with treatment to reduce the reflections. They also fitted a touchscreen mixer, all in one PC’s and kept everything as minimal as they could. The upshot is within a month they took a glass box and turned it into a studio! This proves making those awkward spaces every University has sound reasonable is possible, you might just need to do some research to find the right stuff at the right price.

Studio Lighting
Look through the nominations for Best Tech at the #SRAs and one thing that stands out is visualisation! You’re all doing it, and you aren’t alone – Theresa May recently used radio as a platform to talk directly with listeners. Visualisation meant these radio call-ins were being shown all over the TV news channels. Social media is full of videos of celebs doing interviews and crazy challenges in radio studios. It’s a big deal.

But what takes a video from looking OK to looking almost TV quality is good lighting – get that right and your video content can look fantastic. The key, as we learnt from Jeremy Roberts from ETC, is knowing what you are lighting for (TV studio, or more casual?), what light sources you have (Windows? Room lights? LED strips? They all have an effect), and making the most use of the space to get high angles. Also, avoid spilling out to the walls and furniture – focus the light just to people to get the more natural, less flat look!

It’s fantastic knowing your tech teams across the country are already doing well here – I don’t have the stats but I know from conversations I’ve had with a few stations that you’re probably doing a lot better on the whole than the industry is for women in tech! Diversity is key to having a range of ideas, experience and skills within your team.

Dr Yvonne Thompson, the new chair of the Radio Academy, agrees. She showed that, whilst the industry is very much not as diverse as it should be, attitudes are changing and improving, and the numbers are as well. If this is something you are struggling with, consider how you are advertising for members in different areas of the station – the wording, placement of adverts and who it’s reaching could be a part of this. The industry is starting to catch-up with the diversity in student radio, so don’t give up, and don’t let anything that sets you apart be a reason you don’t apply for those jobs!

No, I’m not talking about grabbing a laptop and breaking into people’s online systems. Hacking together various bits of tech, hardware and software, is a great way to try new ideas without massive cost, and to collaborate with others. Hackathons and hacking festivals are springing up around the world.

Matt Gray, from Global, and Ben Poor, from the EBU, showed us how hacking festivals (EMF festival is the big one in the UK – you can get wired internet to your tent!) and hackathons (both regular small meet-ups or the bigger 2-3 day events) are spawning a wealth of new ideas and solutions to problems I didn’t even know existed – such as a radio hacked to include voice control, so older users are more comfortable talking to a random bit of tech, as a radio is familiar to them. Look around online for events near you, or start your own, and see what you can innovate – our Best Tech Award judges love new ideas and innovative solutions!

Universities Rule
Speaking of the Best Tech Award, this year’s winners from University Radio York, Sienna Holmes and Rebecca Saw, gave a session on their winning app, #URSpy, a location based audio drama that takes you around the campus at York and puts you in charge of the story. Their app uses object based audio to deliver different parts of the story at different locations – it’s really great so check it out if you can.

Just before them, Phillipa Demonte took us through a variety of projects currently underway at the University of Salford which are looking at using object based audio to enhance listener experiences across the board – from audio dramas played out over different devices for a truly immersive experience, to streaming that doesn’t complete the final broadcast mix until it’s at the device, so environmental and listener abilities can be taken into account when including background music! There’s lots going on in this space so if you have any interest or ideas, get involved and get them out there.

Future transmission
The afternoon session was primarily focused on actual broadcast itself. Arqiva gave us an update on the what, why and how around the new, temporary mast they’ve constructed up at Emley Moor in Sheffield. Due to clearance of the 700MHz broadcast frequency range (where most digital TV is transmitted), they need to upgrade some of the antennas at the top of the tallest freestanding structure in the UK. They’ve built a 2nd one next to it to take over transmission while they do the work. There are some cool videos of this, and much more detailed explanations of this, so check them out if you’re interested. Also, check if the clearance affects you – some wireless mics and radio comms will be affected by it!

Ofcom also gave us an update on their small scale DAB trials. These new multiplexes could be a fantastic opportunity for student stations to upgrade to the digital world! There’s still loads to be decided, licencing changes, who will own and run the muxes and how they will operate is all still open for debate, and may vary from region to region, but make sure your station is registered with Ofcom as “interested” if you think there is potential here.

That’s about all! There were a few other sessions that I’ve not included here, check out David Lloyd’s blog post or the tech con website and social media for more information on those. I’ve touched on a bit of detail about everything I think could be of particular interest to student radio – if I’ve gone too techy, email me and I’ll take a step back and explain more. Same goes if you want more information or support with anything.

Finally, the Tech Con team announced they’ll be running a masterclass event in June next year, which will be industry lead sessions for people who want to learn more (such as yourselves) so keep an eye out for more details!