Staying on air
In an inauspicious grey tower block in central Istanbul is the beating heart of a media giant. With five national FM stations and a further 13 internet radio stations all under the Karnaval.com umbrella broadcasting from the site, Spectrum Medya’s headquarters is understandably a hive of activity.
Spectrum Medya was established 2009 and grew steadily to reach its current size, acquiring numerous radio channels along the way, including Metro FM, the first private FM station in Turkey. Its five FM stations, which broadcast to 40 plus cities across the country, have traditionally been the bedrock of the commercial broadcaster, but changing listener habits and new advertising models in recent times brought the launch of new online stations and digital platforms. This has undoubtedly been a success and the online offerings are now the most listened to online digital radio platform in Turkey with over 6.8 million individual users per month and amongst the most popular in the world.
A tour of the offices, production suites and studios provides the impression of a calm and confident organisation that knows it can meet any challenge thrown at it. This is hardly surprising as the company has recently overcome one of the biggest technical issues any broadcaster can face.
The whole broadcast complex was originally installed at its current site in an eight week project towards the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007. The studios utilised what was then regarded as state-of-the-art technology. Each of the studios was connected to a central router via a fibre network, with redundancy over fibre as well as analogue cabling, ensuring that the stations would remain on air in case of any technical failures. At the time, there were four main stations, so each had a main studio and a backup.
This is how things remained until one fateful day in 2013. On this day, a technician working for one of Spectrum Medya’s neighbours made changes to the three electrical phases in the building’s power supply. While the change affected the whole building, it hit the broadcaster hardest. Spectrum Medya’s UPS was blown and subsequently the main router, along with the broadcast console in every studio was damaged beyond repair. The result was the nightmare for all broadcasters – dead air. Thanks to backup systems in place and the RCS automated playout system, stations were able to stay on air by combining automated playout with pre-recorded shows and previously broadcast content.
Taking this option created an opportunity for Spectrum Medya to repair its studios and upgrade the broadcast desks. It returned to the company which had originally supplied and installed the studios, Radikal Elektronik, to provide it with a new solution.
This solution came in the shape of Lawo’s Crystal consoles and Nova routers. The five main studios have each been equipped with the 12-fader version of the broadcast desk, while the three back-up rooms feature the eight-fader option - all with full redundant PSUs, redundant fibre optic and redundant analogue interfaces.
‘The Lawo consoles were the right choice because of the flexibility, expandability and the fact that you can program the consoles depending on the customer’s requests or needs,’ explains Radikal’s Seha Akbas. ‘The new generation Lawo digital consoles are nowadays the choice for radio stations. The wide variety of customisation options along with the future-proof topology of the Lawo system also reinforce their choice of Lawo.’
Whilst doing the very first installation in this building back in 2006, everything was planned to be as redundant and future proof as possible. However, new consoles and new technology meant that some new cabling infrastructure was still required. ‘As you can imagine the cabling and the connectors can vary from system to system,’ notes Mr Akbas, ‘but some of the redundancy options already in place are still being relied on.’
In the new system, a Nova 17 MkII I/O interface and a Nova 29 HD digital router have both been installed into the main control room. ‘The Nova 29 has the fibre connections to every studio – two for each studio,’ says Mr Akbas. ‘If one of them breaks down, it automatically swaps to the other one. If that one breaks down as well, then it once again automatically switches over to the analogue route and runs the whole system as analogue. In every studio they have two fibres and an analogue cable run, it is triple redundant. If all of this goes, there is a further link to a remote site which is redundant again.
‘There is no delay or cut in the audio flow when this happens,’ continues Mr Akbas. ‘The amount of revenue they lose when they aren’t on air even for a few minutes is huge. There has to be a lot of redundancy in the system.’
There are a total of five ‘on air’ studios and three production studios. Whilst the on air studios are where the live terrestrial radio broadcasts are made from, the production studios make up the heart of the Karnaval.com ecosystem. These production studios are where all programmers and content of the online radios converge. They also act as backup studios, should any of the on air studios experience problems.
It was only 20 days from the day the system was specified and ordered to the day it was delivered by Lawo and fully commissioned by Radikal. During this period, the radio stations remained on fully automated output, unknown to its listeners, running on the RCS automation systems.
The fact that there were no broadcast consoles available meant that all the studios could be worked on at the same time. ‘We worked during the night, but if they had a show during the day while the installation work had to be done, then they depended on the voice tracks to continue with the show while the installation crew did their work,’ says Mr Akbas.
Relying on the automated systems meant that rather than working around broadcast schedules, the main challenges came from an unusual aspect. ‘The biggest challenge was the electricity,’ smiles Mr Akbas. ‘Istanbul has a population of 17 million people and this place is in the city centre. It’s hard to get proper grounding whilst installing electronics and as the buildings are quite old, the electrical infrastructure is also old. While we were doing the technical work, properly earthing the gear was a huge challenge.’
While the project itself was relatively trouble-free, there was the nervous moment at its conclusion when it came to switching back to the in-house broadcast feed. ‘When the work here was done, they went with links to satellites and they grabbed the feed on the transmission side. While they were doing this switchover, the audio was lost for five or six seconds before the normal shows kicked in,’ recalls Mr Akbas.
‘Everyone was anxious and nervous, they had the link room right next door and everyone was on their wireless comms or the telephone,’ he continues. ‘Everyone was talking to each other, and when they cut the transmitters everyone was expecting silence for sure, but no one made any noise for those five or six seconds waiting for the audio feed to come back again. When the transmission started again everyone started cheering,’ smiles Mr Akbas. ‘Everyone gets that long five or six seconds at some point, so everyone can understand that feeling.’
With the stations now back up and running and the client happy with its new desks, there have been some important lessons learned during the episode. ‘They have a main control for the UPS but they now run two UPS’. If one breaks down, the other one automatically swaps in without any delay,’ explains Mr Akbas. ‘After the problem that they had, the electricity is also redundant.’
While the reasons leading to the installation were unusual to say the least, the outcome is a new level of robustness that any broadcaster would be proud of. Add to this the increased functionality available with the new Lawo desks and Spectrum Medya has managed to gain significant advantages from what could have been a catastrophic issue. Most importantly, all this has been achieved while the broadcaster stayed on air.