In the late 1990s, the planners of the Public Radio Satellite System (PRSS) proposed a new scenario for the future of program distribution — a centrally managed digital “content depot.” Producers would deposit their shows in the depot as files, which stations could order up for delivery. Full-length, high-quality audio files would arrive on stations' hard drives as routinely as e-mails.
When these plans were first developed, the basic technologies to perform these tasks had been around for a while, but no one had figured out how to stitch them together for a radio network's producer-to-station distribution system.
Now that time has come. This spring PRSS expects to begin handling most public radio program distribution through the ContentDepot.
The ContentDepot is a unifying platform for many new content-delivery options developed as radio people learned their way around digital and online technologies in recent years. It will use the technological options appropriate to the delivery job — usually satellite but sometimes the Internet. Live programs will go out in real time; audio files of prerecorded shows will move well before airtime.
As a service agency for the whole public radio system, we hope to simplify the lives of programmers by also providing online access to other program inventories.
The ContentDepot is the third generation of the PRSS, which since 1979 has provided a centrally managed infrastructure for stations to receive programming from networks and independent producers. The ContentDepot will transform this system by replacing multi-channel, real-time audio feeds with Internet-protocol streams and file transfers of programs.
The ContentDepot harnesses the combined power of station automation, satellite transmission and easy-to-use web tools in an integrated, full-service distribution network. We designed it in response to users' wish lists: Station staffs sought to spend less time finding, scheduling and recording programs. They wanted fewer CDs in their mailboxes and easier access to both program-related information and the programs themselves. Producers wanted better tools to market their programs and more information on which stations were airing them.
With the ContentDepot, the PRSS infrastructure will become something like a private Internet but more efficient at transmitting content than the public Internet. As with today’s PRSS system, hundreds of stations at once will be able to receive a program through the satellite pipeline, including stations in remote locations without reliable access to the Internet.
But the ContentDepot also will incorporate the public Internet for user communications and as an alternative method for downloading some types of content. Someday, if broadband access becomes more ubiquitous and reliable, the ContentDepot could move toward the Internet as its major means of transmission.
Probably the most significant change to come with the ContentDepot is that it will liberate station operations staffs from having to capture audio feeds "by appointment." Instead, we will send programs as files, often much earlier than needed. Programs and promos recorded in advance will be packaged by producers and the system will deliver programs to stations ready for broadcast.
Next spring, PRSS will send the stations new satellite receivers that will work with their automation systems to store, route and prepare programs for broadcast. Stations that have no automation will receive a basic automation interface that will enable transfer and playback of program files.
The new system will virtually eliminate “missed” or impaired program feeds. When stations receive corrupt files and when content needs to be updated, the system will automatically refresh the files by sending new packets or program segments. These changes should significantly ease stations' workflows, freeing time and resources for more important tasks.
As with many technological innovations, ContentDepot will put more power in a smaller package. It will be simpler to operate than today’s system and will take up less space at stations. Two storage receivers for file transfers and two streaming audio decoders for live programs will replace the seven demodulators and Satellite Operating Support System (SOSS) that many stations now use to receive programming and intrasystem messages via satellite.
We have already upgraded satellite-receiving equipment at stations to prepare for ContentDepot start-up. That three-year project, completed in June, made sure all interconnected stations can receive ContentDepot signals and communicate with PRSS backup satellites.
Technical staffs at some stations will need to add to their skill sets. They'll not only need to maintain their broadcast engineering skills but also gain a solid grasp of network management and information technology. As we prepare to begin using the ContentDepot, the PRSS will provide extensive information in a variety of forms to help stations plan for the new environment (see "Making the Transition" below).
Networks and independent producers will have new options for distributing programs through the ContentDepot. Some prototype services of the new system are already available and in use.
The ContentDepot Catalog, which will morph into the portal for the new system next year, was launched in 2003 on the PRSS website (www.prss.org). The catalog already lists programs from more than 100 producers and distributors. Content includes program metadata, graphics (logos and photos), web modules, audio promos, and samples of programming for stations to audition.
Many producers have already begun the transition to the new system by encoding and electronically delivering ContentDepot-ready files of their programs to the PRSS via the catalog. They'll save money they used to spend to mail CDs and digital audio tapes to uplink operators.
Another early ContentDepot feature is an online service called Content Exchange. Producers and stations in a community of interest — whether it's geographic or subject-specific — can share short-form audio content, such as news segments, interviews, and actualities, along with scripts, graphics and web modules. The service can simplify collaborative production efforts, for example, as in the case of a service launched in May by the North Carolina Public Radio Association (see box).
With the evolution of the ContentDepot’s front end on the Internet, or portal, it will become a one-stop shop for public radio programming, information and promotional items — pulling together content produced by networks, independents and stations. The ContentDepot portal will have tools to help producers market their programs to stations and track which stations subscribe to them for broadcast.
Program directors will be able to research, audition and subscribe to new programs through one convenient interface. News directors will post and retrieve news pieces through the portal's Content Exchange feature. Our goal is to offer centralized access to all programs, either through individual listings or as a springboard to other specialized online program services, such as the Public Radio Exchange.
For the past two years, PRSS staff members have spoken at numerous public radio meetings and we've posted a great deal of information about ContentDepot technologies on our website. As the ContentDepot's design evolved, we shared decisions and construction plans with station engineers at the annual Public Radio Engineering Conferences. We demonstrated online interfaces to producers and program directors at Public Radio Program Directors meetings and consulted with station managers and staffers in advisory groups and focus groups. We created training modules, held station interconnects and conducted surveys of equipment and attitudes about the new system.
In the home stretch, we'll hold a series of ContentDepot Operations Workshops to help users get ready for the new system. The free workshops will be designed for station operations staffs but are open to all. We've enlisted public radio professionals to serve as trainers, giving in-person demonstrations and answering questions. We're planning similar events for program producers. (See box for dates and locations.)
We held our first ContentDepot workshop at the California Public Radio meeting in San Luis Obispo in August. Michael Black, the featured trainer and g.m. of WEOS-FM in Geneva, N.Y., explained to about 30 attendees how the new system will streamline station operations.
"You're going to love this thing!" Black told them, speaking from his experience running a station with limited resources. Of course, as with any technology transition, we know not everyone will embrace change immediately.
We're encouraging producers to use the ContentDepot Catalog and to submit programs electronically if they haven't already done so. They can call us for assistance or consult training modules on the PRSS website. Our staff will continue to work with producers who don't deliver files for some reason, but our pricing structure — approved by the NPR Board in July and taking effect when the system is operational next year — includes incentives that will encourage producers to use the new tools.
On the station side, we will work closely with local engineering and operations staffs to plan equipment installation and networking before introducing the new equipment in the spring. We may help install it at some locations where assistance is needed. We'll also provide help in coming months through online materials, through station interconnects and sessions at the Public Radio Engineering Conference in April. After the system rolls out — now planned for May — we'll also offer Help Desk assistance.
We expect to operate the old PRSS system parallel with the new one for 90 days while stations complete the transition.
Technologies made familiar by the Web during the past decade are making it possible to fulfill more seamlessly the role of the PRSS as a shared, comprehensive resource, leveraging public radio’s shared investment in common infrastructure, which has been central to our mission since the system was created 25 years ago.
As public radio grows, so will the need for tools to manage its unique and diverse content. Digital broadcasting — HD Radio — offers stations exciting possibilities for secondary program channels. Producers will use the ContentDepot to provide program-associated data (PAD) along with their programs to feed text information displays on new HD radios. The PRSS satellite capacity is available to support the increase in production and distribution of public radio content that is projected with these new services.
Who can predict what other initiatives may emerge in public radio? As stations and producers learn their way around the ContentDepot, we expect them to develop increasingly sophisticated uses of the technology and perhaps even new business models for public radio.
In his acceptance of the Edward R. Murrow Award in 2001, the late Rick Madden, radio vice president at CPB, noted that public radio is “not a ‘smaller-is-better’ enterprise anymore, and none of us can think with that mindset.” As new programming options converge with the ContentDepot and other new technologies, the possibilities for thinking big in public radio seem greater than ever.
Pete Loewenstein has been NPR's v.p. for distribution since 1985, responsible for the Public Radio Satellite System. He was part of the team that designed and started up public radio's first satellite system in the 1970s and has headed refurbishment efforts for subsequent generations. In 2002, he received CPB's Edward R. Murrow Award for fostering the growth, quality and image of public radio. For more information about the ContentDepot, see www.prss.org.
Web page reposted Sept. 6, 2007
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee