Chiefs Radio Streamlines Remotes with Merlin and ViA
As the Executive Producer and co-host of the Chiefs Radio Network, we travel extensively to cover games for Entercom’s WDAF 106.5 The Wolf in Kansas City – the flagship station of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Throughout my 3 decades of broadcasting Chiefs games, we’ve been tasked with backhauling games from all over the world. The NFL schedule can travel us to any of 31 other markets in the US, plus the UK and Mexico. To accomplish this, we need solutions that are compact and portable but have a tremendous amount of connection flexibility.
We own 3 Tieline Merlin PLUS codecs. One at WDAF, one at Arrowhead (our home stadium), and one is installed in our road kit. We also have a ViA – which I have found to be a perfect combination of power and portability.
An entire Game Day broadcast is nearly 8 hours including pre-game and post-game. Some of this content can occur simultaneously and requires multiple discrete audio routes. And because the content is live, its coordination demands real-time 2-way communication.
We solved these needs by utilizing all 6 channels of the Merlin PLUS. Two channels send stereo program to the studio and on the return path we receive a mix minus and a communication feed from the Network TV truck that is used to coordinate commercial breaks. Channel 3 is for IFB to and from our studio master control. Channel 4 is for incoming Report-IT app calls for game updates from around the league. Channel 5 connects the ViA from its remote stadium location – or because of COVID, an offsite location. Channel 6 connects the ViA in IFB mode for comms with the remote talent. As a setup it’s nuts! But it all works beautifully and reliably!
For us, one of the most important aspects of the ViA is the ability to provision it to any type of network. The setup allows us to easily configure a primary, secondary and tertiary network. And the Smart-Stream technology provides connection stability and redundancy by allowing us to seamlessly utilize multiple networks at the same time. Using the dual SIM internal LTE module here in the US, we can chose between Verizon and AT&T LTE networks, or use them both simultaneously. Internationally we use LAN and Wi-Fi networks in the same fashion. We have also streamed with USB air cards and USB tethering.
Having 6 bidirectional streams in a single rack space made Merlin PLUS an ideal choice as our primary codec for the studio, home and away stadiums. Over the years, the Report-IT app has become our primary method of feeding locker room interviews. Report-IT provides the convenience and mobility of a cell phone, with the quality and stability of a professional codec.
For the gameday backhaul we use a dedicated MPLS network installed and maintained at each NFL stadium by Brian Kassa at Sports Backhaul Network. It’s incredibly stable and has the bandwidth to support the full use of the Merlins. For locker room and various feeds, we also use the ViA connected to the internet. We encode using Tieline’s Music PLUS algorithm at 48kHz/256kbps or Opus voice at 64kbps and always configure SmartStream PLUS redundant streaming (even for our Report-IT users).
During the pandemic we’ve had limited access to stadiums due to the NFL’s COVID isolation and lockdown. For the 2020 regular season, we elected to broadcast from home and not travel. This required coordinating several fiber real-time video and audio feeds from each venue. The ViA became invaluable for allowing us to remote talent off-site while retaining the level of communication needed to coordinate segments in an extremely fast-moving live broadcast.
The need to socially distance or remote someone in quarantine was made possible by the variety of options that the Merlin, ViA and Report-IT apps provide. We had talent broadcasting from home and remote hotels. We even used the ViA to extend one individual across the room so we could meet the NFL’s social distance requirements while maintaining an IFB path for communication.
The codecs generally don’t require any user interaction – we simply load the setup and connect. And having remote access to the equipment has been a game changer this year, whether using the built-in WebGUI or Cloud Codec Controller. My stadium engineer Nate Wetmore, and studio engineer Ken Wolf, are responsible for supporting everything from G3 Commanders to Bridge-ITs to Merlin and ViAs. So the consistency of the user interface and configuration is a huge time saver. Post-pandemic, remote control will continue to be important as it can be especially difficult to access equipment physically in large stadiums. Remote engineering removes that obstacle.
The codecs perform incredibly! Setup is simple and the user interface is very intuitive given the complexity of both the Merlin and ViA. The sonic quality and network stability make them perfectly suited for critical broadcasts. The ultimate compliment for a codec is when we hear people say they are surprised that a Report-IT or ViA user is not in the room with us. Combine that quality with the easy administration provided by having everything under one roof of the Cloud Codec Controller, including Report-IT users, is why the Chiefs Radio Network relies on this equipment to provide Chiefs games to more than 100 affiliates.
(Chiefs Radio Streamlines Remotes was first published in Radio World in February 2021. For more information on Tieline codecs visit www.tieline.com)