Studio board

Is radio ready for a futuristic world with no physical air studio, where all of the station’s music, spots, IDs, voicetracks and other audio ingredients exist in the cloud, easily assembled, mixed and sent to the transmitter from a tablet or laptop? It’s no pipedream. Tech provider RCS has developed a system to do just that – as part of an initiative that could change how radio is constructed around the world.

The ambitious project, called Zetta Cloud, is being introduced initially as a disaster recovery solution that would allow stations to keep broadcasting during an emergency that cripples its on-air studio. Such a system would have allowed, for example, Townsquare Media to not blink an eye when a ransomware attack took its automation system offline in early April, leaving numerous stations scrambling for programming. RCS is positioning the cloud-based system as an insurance policy against a computer system crash, a flooded or fire-damaged air studio, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes or just about anything that causes an audio breakdown.

Zetta Cloud, which launches in beta form this August, is being pitched as a first of its kind radio recovery system that uses site replication technology to duplicate all of a station’s audio – music, spots, promos, logs, voice-tracks, you name it – in the cloud. An entire radio station could be replicated in real time, allowing it to get back on the air within minutes from any remote location that has internet access. It’s being marketed as a less expensive alternative to building ground-based redundant on-air studios, which could also be knocked out by a virus or catastrophe.

“Whatever the reason… you have a problem on the ground… you pull up a browser, start your station in the cloud and it will start streaming with your audio assets, with your sound, with your entire environment,” Philippe Generali, RCS president and CEO, told Inside Radio. The system sends a high-quality audio stream directly to the transmitter, allowing the station to remain on the air when nothing is working at the studio. During an emergency, talent can provide emergency updates via voicetracks cut from a laptop, that can hit the airwaves within 3 minutes of being recorded.

Stepping Stone To Larger Paradigm Shift

Generali and other RCS brass have been presenting the cloud-based disaster recovery system to radio groups around the world; it was demoed for broadcasters at the NAB Show in April in Las Vegas. But disaster recovery is just a stepping stone to a deeper layer of a larger cloud strategy at RCS. What Generali calls “dematerializing the studio” may be disarming to air talent that have for years plied their trade in a physical studio with a traditional board and proximity to station staff, resources and guests. Under a cloud-based paradigm, programming can be created and controlled from anywhere. A host can take their virtual studio to where news is being made and send audio directly to the transmitter.

Such a paradigm shift was made possible by an FCC rule change that went into effect in January 2018. Broadcasters are no longer required to abide by the decades-old main studio rule, which required stations to operate a main studio within 25 miles of a station’s city of license. The rule change also did away with the requirement that the main studio must have full-time management and staff present during normal business hours. Abolishing the main studio rule had the support of all the largest radio groups, who would likely benefit most from eliminating the number of main studio locations across the country.

The RCS disaster recovery system is a significant step toward the role that cloud technology could play in radio’s future. “This is only the beginning of the overall cloud strategy of RCS,” Generali explains. “You’ll be able to run your entire radio station from the cloud. It can operate from anywhere and you can choose where you want to direct that high-quality stream, to which transmitter. This is where we’re going, we’re dematerializing the studio.” The plan is to ultimately port all of Zetta’s automation, music scheduling and traffic features into the cloud.

RCS is also working with sound processing companies, console manufacturers and other radio vendors to put their functionality in the cloud as part of an integrated package. “You’ll see some pretty cool stuff in how to operate a radio station at a much reduced cost with minimal footprints in the market – if you want to,” Generali says. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a studio with a big star and everything. It just means that if you choose to operate differently, you’ll be able to do that at a much reduced cost of hardware.”

But does a studio-free, cloud-based ecosystem sacrifice some of radio’s local connection? Generali thinks it could offer a new way to connect with listeners. “The other way to look at is the host has a tablet with Zetta inside, and he goes where the action is to do his show with his tablet. The studio is dematerialized because he doesn't have to be sitting behind a desk. It’s the ultimate proximity. You are as close to the people or the events as you can be. We keep the essence of what radio is,” he says.—Paul Heine