Move to ContentDepot: At long last, it’s for real
Radio gives a ‘collective sigh of relief'
It’s taken about three years longer than planned, causing numerous headaches and perhaps more than a few nightmares, but on Oct. 1  the Public Radio Satellite System will officially complete the move to its new digital ContentDepot distribution system.
More than 90 percent of the 427 public radio stations that use PRSS have already moved to the new system, according to Pete Loewenstein, NPR’s distribution v.p. “We are working now with the last bunch to get them fully prepared for the transition,” he said.
That means being ready to receive all programs and related material from ContentDepot, which sends programs to subscribing stations as digital files, often long before airtime. It also requires leaving behind the Satellite Operating Support System, which has coordinated pubradio’s real-time satellite feeds for more than 25 years.
NPR began building ContentDepot in 2002 and planned for systemwide use by 2004, but software development problems, incompatibility with stations’ varied technical systems and users’ reluctance to adopt a new way of trading programs repeatedly postponed completion.As the bulk of stations began moving to ContentDepot last November, NPR had to work out numerous glitches — mostly compatibility issues, Loewenstein said. Early this year, NPR extended the rollout by several months and, after an April summit with ContentDepot users, developed a prioritized work plan to finally complete the project.
The undertaking has been “enormous,” Loewenstein said. “We obviously underestimated the time required to get all the things done that needed to be done.” PRSS engineers, local stations, and program producers and distributors had to troubleshoot and adapt to the new system, “not to mention all the software and systems that needed to be developed,” Loewenstein said.
“It’s been the most dramatically disruptive change to the system since it was put in place in 1979,” the year that public radio moved to satellite interconnection.
“The degree of cooperation and collaboration throughout the entire public radio community through this process has been absolutely spectacular — from the producers to each of the stations,” Loewenstein said. Although the massive job of building and launching the new interconnection system has been frustrating at times, he described it as one of his most rewarding projects in 36 years at NPR. Seeing “how the community can come together around a project like this” made it so.
“It’s a point of celebration that we can all collectively breathe a sigh of relief,” Loewenstein said.
On Oct. 1, there won’t be a magic moment when engineers at NPR flip a switch and something dramatic happens, Loewenstein said, but it marks the formal completion of the switchover. Then PRSS can begin thinking about dismantling the old system, now serving as a backup while stations integrate ContentDepot into their operations.
Running both systems in parallel takes staff time and satellite capacity that will soon be redirected to other needs, namely continued enhancement of ContentDepot, Loewenstein said.
The new system isn’t “perfect, but it will do what we need it to do,” said Scott Hanley, chair of the NPR Board’s Distribution/Interconnection Committee and manager of WDUQ in Pittsburgh. “The old system is tired and worn out and probably obsolete — we can’t replace many key parts of it,” he said. “It’s important to get off of it and stop using two systems.”
Work is needed on ContentDepot’s imperfections, including the web-based interface through which users retrieve and upload content, according to Loewenstein, as well as the messaging system that sends text announcements and alerts in place of the ancient DACS system.
NPR will also begin to evaluate “emerging needs” that ContentDepot must prepare to fill, Loewenstein said. “We need to understand what those are and start to work on addressing them.”
“This is the beginning of a new foundation, really, for what needs to be addressed in public radio’s content distribution needs.”
You’ve got mail
ContentDepot offers many advantages over its predecessor interconnection system. The biggest is its adoption of an Internet-like file transfer protocol that frees station operations staffs from having to record programs off the satellite on a fixed schedule—or scramble to find a backup copy if they miss a feed.
“We no longer have to record a live feed of Car Talk at 8 a.m. Mountain time for rebroadcast later,” said Matt Weesner, senior technical operations manager for Colorado Public Radio. “It shows up as a file on our system.” His station’s switch to full use of ContentDepot last week was flawless, he said.
Once a station’s personnel set up subscriptions to all the satellite-fed programs in its broadcast schedule — a labor-intensive process, according to several sources — ContentDepot enables the station to receive the shows without staff in attendance, said Don Creighton, a consultant and former v.p. of technology at Minnesota Public Radio who has expertise with Internet Protocol networks. In addition, ContentDepot feeds programs more than once “so that errors in the first feed are taken care of in the second feed,” he said.
Each program’s audio is delivered along with related content—promos, graphics, web modules and even video, according to Loewenstein. “All of that fits together in one common bitstream, instead of being delivered in separate forms. Files take up less space and move more quickly.”
Producers also see advantages to ContentDepot’s subscription-based delivery system. “One of the high hopes for producers who use this system is getting insight into carriage,” said independent producer Sue Schardt, newly appointed executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio. “This is a very important part of the system—to know who carried your show.”
“The old way, producers threw their program into the river and it floated downstream, and stations had to be standing there alongside to catch it,” said Loewenstein. “Now programs are sent in non-real time at faster speeds to stations’ own equipment, to use at their convenience with little human intervention.”
It took lots of human intervention to get ContentDepot working right, but some station execs and independent producers who were early adopters now sing its praises.
“When we first started rolling this thing out, it was a mess,” said Sid Selvidge of the Memphis-based music series Beale Street Caravan, who was one of the first indies to move to ContentDepot. Biggest among his problems was incompatibility between ContentDepot and an Apple computer he uses in production.
His Mac uses OS 9, an eight-year-old operating system no longer supported by Apple. The first workaround solution failed, but Selvidge now has another that works: burning the program file onto a disc in his Mac and then uploading it from a PC that runs on a newer operating system.
“It’s not an elegant solution, but it’s workable, and it’s a shorter trip across the hall to my PC than putting a CD in a FedEx envelope and walking it over to be shipped,” Selvidge said.
“The system has gotten better and better and better from my standpoint, and I think it will continue to get that way,” he said. “The staff at PRSS are all really on top of their jobs and trying very hard to make this system work.”
The Public Radio Satellite System has laid out a priority list of upgrades and fixes for its year-old Content Depot program distribution setup.
Based on user input, including a Users Summit on April 4, the NPR-managed PRSS now has a to-do list. For instance, it plans to set up customizable ways of alerting stations to changed plans for satellite feeds and for breaking news, possibly including automatic calls to cell phone numbers (or silent e-mails, if the recipient is on the air), says PRSS chief Pete Loewenstein.
PRSS will also look into standardized handling of national promos so that stations can use automation to store and insert them in the broadcast stream as they do with programming.
Also on the priority list: speeding up portal performance and help desk response, improving program database searches, and allowing uses to create customized reports on program activity.
Web page posted Oct. 21, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC