Sacha French, Executive Producer, Kate, Dave and Jack Lawrence anchor of the show using ViA

ViA Codec Drives Ratings for Southern Cross Austereo

ViA Codec Drives Ratings for SCA

By Gino Canzano, Engineering Manager, Southern Cross Austereo (SCA), Melbourne

At SCA in Melbourne I lead a team of very talented engineers in one of the head-end markets that service the HIT, Triple M and PodcastOne networks around Australia. The Engineering team in Melbourne is part of the wider Technology Services division and is responsible for ensuring reliable broadcast of local and networked programs, design and layout of studios, IT equipment servicing, outside broadcasts, maintenance and testing.

Sacha French, Executive Producer, Kate, Dave and Jack Lawrence anchor of the show using ViA
Executive Producer Sacha French, Kate, Dave and Jack Lawrence anchor of the show

The Hughesy and Kate Show has been on-air for 17 years and is one of the flagship national shows for the Hit Network. It is broadcast over 48 stations in metro and regional markets, with a reach of over 2.6 million listeners. Based in Melbourne, since 2017 the show has consistently been one of the top rating shows in the drive time slot. The longevity of the show, the chemistry between Hughesy and Kate, and the quality of the content produced, makes the show very important to the Hit Network.

Announcer Kate Langbroek had always planned to have a year away in Italy with her family. Kate and her husband decided that if they were to make the move it would need to be in 2019. After making the decision, management at Southern Cross Austereo put forward the idea of Kate broadcasting remotely from Italy, rather than losing her from the show.

Initially we expected to be hiring a studio at a local radio station in Bologna. However, it soon became apparent that Italian stations operated very differently. There were very different standards to what we were used to, plus a huge language barrier between our team and their management. Therefore, we decided to set up a studio ourselves.

Whenever we approach outside broadcasts, particularly for large shows, reliability is at the forefront of our decision making. For the Hughesy and Kate Show we needed to implement IP streaming technology that was compact and simple to use, with the flexibility of redundant IP streaming, remote access and uninterrupted power. SCA owns versions of almost every Tieline codec available and in Melbourne we primarily use the Tieline Merlin and ViA codecs. After using the ViA for multiple projects in the lead up to the Italy project, we knew without any doubt that it was the right fit for the application.

Andrea Cole from our engineering team went to Italy to set up the studio in an office space. Andrea is our most experienced engineer and has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to studio design and acoustics. She is also great at assessing risk when it comes to broadcasting from any location.

The studio setup in Kate's home in Bologna, Italy
Kate’s home studio in Bologna, Italy

We hired an office space from an American-Italian documentary film maker. Room acoustics were a challenge, however Andrea worked with the owner to build acoustic panels and make the broadcast area more useable.

We decided that Ethernet LAN connections would be the most reliable option, so our world-class networking team designed a solution allowing Hughesy and Kate to feel as if they were in the same room. To get the remote studio onto our WAN, we installed an SD-WAN appliance attached to the fibre-connected internet router. This allowed all the devices in the room to be visible on our network and accessible like a studio in our building. Once everything was set up, we could easily access the codec remotely. Software defined networking has come a long way in recent years, and we are using it more than ever to connect our facilities over long distances. In this case it proved an absolute winner.

Our primary fibre connection was paired with a Netgear Nighthawk LTE modem using the TIM network in Italy to provide SmartStream PLUS redundant streaming over Ethernet to the ViA.

Our studios can combine multiple return mixes with talkback and IFB functionality on a single mono audio source. Each day the team would do a combined segment with the Carrie & Tommy Show. One day we had Kate in Italy, Dave Hughes in Maroochydore, Carrie at her home studio and Tommy in Darwin. 4 locations, 4 ViA codecs, and all sounding like they were in the same room. Days like this are pretty normal for our drive shows. We love the challenge and without the ViA or Merlin, we couldn’t deliver such flexibility.

We used the Toolbox web-GUI for 90% of our configuration which gives us great control. We can remotely adjust Kate’s Send / Return mix, mic and headphone levels. With the ViA’s built in audio processing we can deliver a clear sounding broadcast quality line paired with a Neumann KMS105, which is the same mic we use in our studios. In my opinion no other mic matches its sound and with the ViA it ensured Kate’s audio quality matched that of our studio.

The show has been on air seamlessly for nearly a year now. From the start Kate felt at home with the setup and was extremely happy with the result. She would continuously praise the reliability of the technology. Dave Hughes back in Melbourne said it was: “Incredible! The technology worked better than when we’re in different studios around Australia.”

In terms of the codec itself, there were no issues. The ViA is portable, simple to use, robust, flexible (with its multiple ways of connecting), sounds great, and has everything built into it that you need to make OBs reliable. We have used them in cars, busses, bikes, boats, beaches, bars. Doesn’t matter where you are, it does the job.

There has been discussion now that we use so many ViAs in the field as to whether we even need to build studios anymore! I’m sure that would never eventuate, but we often laugh about where the future is headed with such great technology becoming available.

Our Executive Producer Sacha French probably sums up the entire experience best:

“From day one of the broadcast the quality of the audio coming from the Italian studio was excellent. Unlike other remote broadcasts where there might be a delay that impacts the flow of the conversation between the presenters, using the ViA codec we didn’t have any issues with delay in prep meetings before the show or on-air during the broadcast. We would frequently have guests coming on the show who had been listening in the car on the way in and they’d be shocked when they arrived to find out that Kate was sitting in a studio in Italy. If we didn’t mention that she was in Italy, then there would be no way that the audience would know that she’s not in the studio with Hughesy. The combination of the chemistry between the presenters and how well they know each other, and the quality of the audio, meant that the show didn’t miss a beat with the presenters being on the other side of the world from each other.”

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Gino’s Codec Configuration Summary and Technical Tips:

1. Tieline Music PLUS mono encoding at 64kbps sounds great and the bit rate is low enough to not compromise quality or introduce unwanted delay.
2. We tested Opus and aptX Enhanced, both really great sounding, but just didn’t give us the confidence that Music PLUS provides.
3. We configured programs on both the dialing and answering codecs with an Auto Jitter setting of 60ms minimum and 160ms maximum, on both primary and backup connections. I would also suggest – if latency is an issue initially – making sure programs are set up on both the remote and local studio codecs, particularly the answering codec.
4. Throughout the year we have monitored the reliability of the WAN connection and although the fibre service delivered solid bandwidth of 100mb/s, we did encounter several unplanned outages. We were never guaranteed to get something with 100% uptime. However, with SmartStream PLUS redundant streaming and 4G, we didn’t need it to always be online, we just needed it to work at ~85%. The 4G seemed reliable on the TIM network in Italy. This was a pre-paid service that I was able to top up on their website where required.
5. Do as much real-world testing as you can prior to going live. If we hadn’t tested each possible scenario of a failure, there would have been many times where Kate would not have been able to be part of the show.

Other SCA Outside Broadcasts

We use ISDN with the ViA quite regularly – usually on sports broadcasts where ISDN is available at stadiums. We also use the matrix router for other OBs that may require a small PA system, where we can create a mic loop mix that can route to PA or Studio depending on the state of the Mic ON/OFF button.

As we phase out ISDN, IP is becoming the only choice for an outside broadcast; it’s just a question of whether we use the public internet, wireless, WAN, SD-WAN, satellite etc. The advantage is there are so many options with IP, particularly where you may not have conventional copper or fibre services.

Generally, we use the Merlin for AFL Broadcasts and large-scale OBs where there are more than 3 announcers and a PA System. We use the ViA for broadcasts that have fewer than 3 announcers or require battery powered operation from a vehicle or remote location.

If we are sending any music content, we connect in stereo. For Italy, we only needed a single mono mix sent back to our studio as the content was speech only.

The ViA is portable, simple to use, robust, flexible (with its multiple ways of connecting), sounds great, and has everything built into it that you need to make OBs reliable. We have used them in cars, busses, bikes, boats, beaches, bars. Doesn’t matter where you are, it does the job.
Gino Canzano
Engineering Manager, Southern Cross Austereo (SCA)

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