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Snags slow move to ContentDepot

Most of pubradio delays switchover

Originally published in Current, Feb. 12, 2007
By Mike Janssen

NPR has hit more bumps than expected in rolling out the ContentDepot, public radio’s new program distribution system, and has extended operation of its longtime distribution system as a backup until at least April.

After almost two years’ delay, NPR launched the system based on automated digital downloads Nov. 1 and expected to retire its predecessor last month. But technical glitches have complicated the introduction of the new system, and many stations and producers are grappling with a steep learning curve.

Only 22 of 423 stations have fully switched to using the ContentDepot, according to NPR. Those in the process of switching—123 stations—have put many extra hours of work into monitoring downloads, entering program data and vetting the flow of audio files and streams from NPR’s satellite to their airwaves. Another 218 stations are set up and capable of switching but have yet to do so. NPR does not know the status of 60 other stations.

“In some cases during this stage of rollout, we have, unfortunately, turned 5-day-a-week jobs into 24/7 oversight for scores if not hundreds of producers and stations,” wrote Scott Hanley, chair of the NPR Board’s Distribution/ Interconnection Committee, in a Jan. 26 memo to the public radio system. “I am sorry to have this burden placed on some of you at a time when efficient, reliable operation is more important than ever.”

“Until you run up against the wall, you don’t really know where the problems lie,” Hanley told Current. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know, and now we’re learning.”

NPR has heard from many frustrated station staffers in recent months. “This thing was shipped out to stations not exactly ready for Broadway,” says Jeff Smith, operations coordinator at NET Radio in Lincoln, Neb. Because of Smith’s lack of confidence, the Nebraska network continues to rely on the Satellite Operating Support System, the ContentDepot’s predecessor.

Other station engineers see the difficulties as an inevitable chapter in adopting a new technology and expect to overcome them.

“It’s not unusual to develop a system that is breaking new ground and to see that you have to make changes as it is implemented,” says John Holt, director of engineering and operations at WAMU in Washington, D.C. Similar delays and problems cropped up in the early days of both public radio’s first satellite distribution system in 1979 and SOSS in the mid-’90s, Holt says.

Grappling with major change

The third generation of the Public Radio Satellite System, the ContentDepot marks a dramatic shift in program delivery for stations and producers. It feeds programs via NPR’s satellite, like its predecessors. Yet it frees stations from receiving the programs in real-time, allowing them to sign up for automatic downloads of content stored as digital files.

The system is designed to integrate with stations’ automation setups, easing the flow of programming from satellite to air. NPR can deliver replacement files automatically or by request if program episodes are corrupted or need updating.

“Undertaking this was really the most aggressive transformation of the national interconnection system that we’ve done up to now,” said Pete Loewenstein, NPR’s v.p. of distribution. Since NPR began planning the ContentDepot in the late ’90s, NPR has trained hundreds of station staffers and program producers and ordered new receivers for all 430 connected stations.

Meanwhile, system lobbyists are asking Congress for $73 million over three years to support the Public Radio Satellite System. Of that sum, $23.7 million would go toward new contracts with satellite transponder suppliers, while additional funds would purchase related hardware and software upgrades.

The sheer scale and complexity of the transition has caused repeated delays. NPR initially aimed to introduce the ContentDepot in December 2004 but encountered more than a few obstacles.

Stations have responded with frustration and disappointment. In 2005, NPR member stations gave PRSS, NPR’s distribution arm, an overall satisfaction score of 8.5 out of 10. Last fall, after two more delays in the ContentDepot’s rollout, the score fell to 7.7.

PRSS earned only a 5.2 for its efforts to implement the ContentDepot. “The negative impact on evaluations of reliability, value and satisfaction appears to be driven by the difficulties in implementing the ContentDepot,” said an NPR memo. “This interpretation is reinforced by direct comments from stations.”

The ContentDepot’s introduction has required many additional hours of work at stations. The system divides weekly schedules into individual hours, and each station must subscribe to programs for all 168 hours by entering data via the ContentDepot’s web portal. Signing up for additional programs such as NPR newscasts and backup feeds adds to the keyboard labors.

Programming the decoders that receive live feeds required several days of continuous work at Boston’s WBUR, says Michael LeClair, chief engineer. The signup process “was a pretty difficult thing to throw out to the system,” he says.

NET’s Smith says he also faces days of work to sign up for NPR’s fundraising programming via the ContentDepot. And he fears that a malfunction at his station or an upgrade at NPR could force him to repeat the signup process.

Smith is also uncomfortable because stations must now rely on NPR to feed live programs correctly. Under SOSS, he says, stations could deal with errors on their own. “I’m not comfortable with that at all,” he says. From October to December, NPR had six failures in feeding live programs.

Showing producers the ropes

NPR has worked to address technical errors under its control by updating the ContentDepot’s software and troubleshooting various transmission errors.

Loewenstein attributes some complications in the rollout to the technical diversity of the ContentDepot’s hundreds of users. NPR must not only troubleshoot its own equipment but help producers and stations meet each other’s needs.

Under the ContentDepot, producers have more responsibility for encoding their audio files properly and providing correct metadata. Some encoding processes can disrupt automation systems, and unclear file names can stump station employees looking for specific programs in their storage archives.

NPR has asked producers to give their shows intelligible names but found in a recent survey of 365 files that 60 percent did not comply with their specifications. Thirty percent of the shows also suffered from technical problems that made them more difficult to automate for playback.

Some producers also define start and end dates that can cause accidental deletions of unaired episodes. NPR has addressed these issues in training workshops.

“Producers have to be aware of these kinds of things and enter the right information,” says WAMU’s Holt. “That’s probably the biggest problem—getting a thousand different users, producers and stations, used to a new system that is really revolutionary.”

One producer who has had to master these issues still calls the ContentDepot “a hell of an improvement” over SOSS. “It puts a lot of control back in my hands rather than diversifying the control over a lot of different avenues, and I like that,” says Aaron Read, technical director for The Infinite Mind.

Read says the ContentDepot speeds up program delivery, eases updating of episodes and gives Infinite Mind staffers more information about which stations are downloading the show—a big plus for a small production house that lacks a full-time affiliate relations staffer.

Web page posted Feb. 27, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER ARTICLES

University-owned stations try Internet2, which can send video with e-mail speed. But it's largely off-limits to pubcasters, 2000.

ContentDepot will end satellite system's practice of real-time feeds with a scheduling that dictates that stations must either tape or broadcast them, 2002.

NPR distribution chief Pete Loewenstein describes plans for ContentDepot, 2004.

To trim costs, the parallel rebuild of PBS interconnection system puts on the speed, 2005.

Software hiccup delays rollout of ContentDepot, 2005.

LINKS

Hanley's memo.

The NPR-run Public Radio Satellite System, operator of ContentDepot, offers training for both stations and production houses.

PRSS explains ContentDepot technology, which uses Internet protocol (IP) data transmission.

 

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