R.A.P. Interview: Dave Biondi

Dave Biondi, broadcast.net

dave-biondi-dec01by Jerry Vigil 

This month’s RAP Interview steps away from the production studio for a moment to focus on a unique website and a unique Internet radio station. While dot coms were dropping like flies, broadcast.net continued its growth and has become one of the most popular portals for radio engineers, managers and more. The man behind it all is veteran radio jock turned engineer, Dave Biondi, who most recently has gone full circle and found himself back on-the-air, or rather on-the-net with BNet Radio. Dave’s music-based Internet radio station offers a special twist: its target demo is radio people.

JV: Tell us about your background in radio and how broadcast.net came to be.
Dave: Well, I was a rock ’n roll disc jockey for 23 years. Actually, there were a few years where I did some country, too. I started out in Phoenix and wound up in Houston, Texas. I was also Program Director at KEYN in Wichita, Kansas for a while, and I was General Manager of a station up in Salina, Kansas. I worked at big stations and small stations, and I always worked the afternoon drive shift. And then I decided that I was kind of getting tired of the bean counters running radio stations, and so I got into the engineering part of it, which I had always had an interest in all my life. At one time, I was the engineer for 17 radio stations in Houston.

Then I started, and still have, a contract engineering company called Broadcast Service Company. We still take care of seven radio stations in and around Houston, and I have a staff of several engineers that help me with that. About 7 years ago, I visited one of my electronic supply houses that had just started their Internet business, and they suggested that I get a domain. They asked me what I wanted, and I said it would have to be something to do with broadcast. At that time broadcast.com, which is the one I wanted, was owned by a guy in California trying to get a job. Of course, he later went on to sell it for 5.7 billion dollars to Yahoo. Anyway, they said, “well you know we might be able to fake something here.” Back then, to get a .net domain, you had to be an Internet service provider. So they said I was going to be an Internet services provider, and it worked.

So, I got the domain and we piddled around with it for a while. I started some list servers and things like that and started getting some action on it. I went to an NAB show one year and started talking to some of the vendors there, and they all showed an interest in advertising. I got several clients at that NAB and it just started growing from that. But broadcast engineers were a little slow on the take when it came to the Internet. We were in business two years before we ever saw any black, and then all of a sudden it really started taking off. broadcast.net has grown to be a portal to the broadcast industry on the Internet. We now have over 400 people that advertise with us. We have grown to the point now where we have about 18,000 unique page views a day, which totals to probably about 5,000 unique users a day.

Broadcast-Net-logoJV: Who would you say is the typical visitor to the site?
Dave: The user base is definitely broadcast. We did some surveys with some giveaway stuff and got some information and found out that, strangely enough, one-fourth of the people that use us are General Managers. The reason I think General Managers use broadcast.net is because their chief engineer comes in and says, “I want a crutzo.” “Well, what’s a crutzo?” the GM asks. Then the engineer gives some lame explanation, and so the General Manager says, “Okay. I’ll get back with you,” and he goes to broadcast.net and finds out what a crutzo is.

We do have a lot of jocks and a lot of production people visiting the site also. But the bulk of our users are broadcast engineers. We have one radio list server that we host that has 3700 broadcast engineers on it, and it’s a very active list. People who have a problem with a transmitter will post the symptoms in there along with what they’ve done already, and usually within 20 minutes there are 5 or 10 answers about the problem from people who have had the exact same problem before. And many times, the design engineer for the transmitter will be there answering the questions because all of the product vendors monitor that list server. Bob Orban and Frank Foti are both on the list and get into heated discussions on it. Foti is with Telos of course, and those two are probably the gurus of audio processing for broadcast in the world.

But many of the vendors—the console manufacturers, the software people—are on there mainly to cover their butts. You know, somebody gets on there and starts badmouthing their product, they want to know why, and they want to be able to respond to it. And it works quite well. A lot of them have become heroes out of the deal.

We have another list server… I don’t know whether you’re familiar with the “cart chunk” standard, but that’s the new data standard that’s going to be encoded with all broadcast audio, the data that has the year and the artist and all that other information. Well, the people that are developing the cart chunk standard have a list server with us. We host almost all of the state broadcast associations for free. We host the Society of Broadcast Engineers’ website, plus about 60 of their chapters are hosted for free on broadcast.net. It’s our way of giving back because all of these organizations have supported us quite well just by word of mouth. You go to an SBE website, and you’ll probably see someplace on there a “thanks to broadcast.net,” and that’s helped us market the merchandise a little bit.

BNet-Radio-LogoJV: How do these “list servers” work?
Dave: They’re basically discussion groups. It’s an opt-in deal where you opt to subscribe to this discussion group. It’s a closed list of people that have personally subscribed to this list server. They have to take action to do so. And when you post to that list, within 15 minutes everybody that’s subscribed to it gets a copy of that e-mail. When they respond to it, everybody else that’s subscribed gets a copy of that within 15 minutes.

JV: Orban has a list like that for the Audicy.
Dave: Yes. We serve that list, too.

JV: Sounds like broadcast.net is doing quite well in an economy where the dots took a dive.
Dave: We’re just astounded everyday at the response. And the growth in the last few years has been amazing. I’m not getting rich off of it, but people do pay. It costs to advertise. It costs to even have your name listed on broadcast.net. You look at the list of people on the front page; they’re paying at least $75 just to have their name listed there along with their link. We don’t have a banner ad on that front page that isn’t paid for, and they cost at least $250 and as much as $550 a month.

JV: What production related items can our readers go to your site and find?
Dave: Well mostly they can keep on top of the new equipment. Of course, like you said, Orban has their list server that is hosted there, and you can subscribe from our list server page. In general discussions, the radio tech list that I mentioned that has 3700 people on it has an awful lot of production people on there, and the reason is because many of the production people want to understand the technical aspects of their production facility. Sure, there’s talk about transmitters and rats and generators and all that kind of stuff, but it’s very broad based, and production equipment is definitely included in the discussions. We also have list servers for Program Directors, but that’s not very active right now. We have a music discussion list and an air checks list. We have a very big user group there with the broadcast air checks—lots of people that just collect air checks and trade them. There are some big jocks on there that just love to get air checks from other people and talk about what’s going on in the market, that sort of thing.

The big thing that you can always depend on broadcast.net for is being the place to find gadgets. With an advertising base of about 400 vendors, there is always a resource there. We have corporate chiefs of big chains of radio stations that, when they boot their computer up in the morning, the default page is broadcast.net because they know that they need to find things. It’s just a resource to locate things on the Net that relate to production and broadcast equipment in general.

JV: Well, your latest venture is your own Internet radio station. How did this begin?
Dave: About three years ago we started doing some streaming for the Texas Sports Radio Network. They produce high school and college football, basketball, any kind of sport. We’ve had wrestling matches on there, soccer, the whole thing. The Texas Sports Radio Network found that radio stations were becoming very expensive to go out and acquire time from to put ballgames on the air. And many times, when they got the radio station, it was some little Podunk station that didn’t have much range. So, they started streaming ballgames over our system on the Internet, which required us to have people here. At that time, I think we were streaming maybe 5 or 6 games max, and literally one person could take care of the facility. Now we’re streaming… well this Friday night we’ll stream 67 games simultaneously.

We have a big operations console with all kinds of lights, buttons, switches and knobs on it for each of the 72 phone lines that we have coming into the facility. And each one of those phone lines is sent over to an audio card through an audio coupler where people call in on a POTS line, just a regular old telephone line, from the ballgames. It feeds the audio in through our console and out into the audio card on the computer. We have multiple encoding servers to do that, and we have been able to get five sound cards operational at one time on each one of them. And these are just little Sound Bblaster cards. Getting 5 Sound Blasters to work on a single machine is a little tough sometimes. We had to go through about 20 different computer motherboards before we found one that would work adequately.

JV: Are you using a RealAudio encoder for these games?
Dave: No, this is for Windows Media. Windows Media has, I think, become much more accepted by the general public than RealAudio, and the reason for that is because they’ve got Windows Media for Macs now. Actually, there has been Windows Media for Macs for some time, but usually you had to jump through hoops to get it to work. Now Windows has finally come out with a player that is very easily set up on a Mac. So, we’ve got that audience covered too.

We’re encoding at the low bit rates, 16 kilo baud, which is fine for telephone quality audio. As a matter of fact, we tried going up to 22 for a while, and you didn’t notice much difference in quality, plus you were beginning to pick up barrel effect because it was passing highs. So, we backed back down to 16 kilo baud. Anyhow that’s how we got started in the streaming business.

JV: And once in the streaming business, it was just a matter of time before your own Internet station was online.
Dave: It was November of 1999 when it came to be. It had always been a dream of mine to set up an internal radio station on the Internet right here in the office. One of the reasons is, we have a lot of what I call “old fart radio people” that work here, and I think we’re all frustrated disc jockeys from the past. The guy that answers the phone for us is Chuck Scott who used to be an anchor for ABC Contemporary News. He worked at WLS in news for several years and makes me sound like a choir boy. I have several other people that work with me here that have been on the air. So through broadcast.net I was able to do a very unique thing.

One of my bitches had always been that Internet radio sucked because somebody would get himself a CD player, plug it into their Sound Blaster, and they’d have an Internet radio station. No processor, no nothing. So through broadcast.net I was able to call those people who were advertisers already and say, “Hey, here’s my concept. I’ll promote your product if you’ll give me the product to promote.” And so the people at Telos were very gracious to me and gave me a $9,000 audio processor plus a telephone system so I can do interviews and stuff like that. They gave me an Audio Active MP3 encoder, which is pretty unique. We have a full traffic and billing system, just like a radio station does. We’ve got Music One which is a music scheduling software program. And as of about 3 weeks ago, we have the Scott Studios SS32 top of the line software to actually run the radio station, and it’s terrific software. We’ve been real pleased with it. We have about 3200 songs on the hard drive. These are all professionally dubbed and ripped by Scott Studios. Prior to that, we had Halland Broadcast Services ripped music.

We’ve not done this cheap anywhere. We have Symetrix audio processors on the microphones. The microphones are RE27s. We’ve got the little studio set up with boom mikes. The table that it’s on is made by a company that makes studio furniture. We use the Logitech audio engine. I’m using V-mix software, which goes with the Logitech audio engine and allows you to have a console on the screen. It looks just like a console and works just like a console. We used CAT 5 wiring throughout the entire studio and used the Radio Systems’ StudioHub system for patching audio and that sort of thing, both analog and digital. We started out with the Digigram audio card, the big one, the 440. Now we’ve got two Audio Science cards in our automation, and I now have the Digigram card in the computer that I record spots and that sort of thing on. In the next week or two, we’re going to start doing the voice tracking that goes with the Scott Studios, with all the voices that we have around here, so we’ll sound very live. And commercials? Yes, we do run commercials on BNet Radio. They are for products for the broadcast industry—consoles, software, things like that that broadcasters need, even voice imaging people advertise. We’ve had several people that have bought spots on BNet Radio. One of the console manufacturers that advertises with us, second week he was on he sold a quarter of a million dollars worth of consoles in England based on an ad that was heard on BNet Radio.

JV: There was a happy advertiser! What the format of BNet Radio?
Dave: We’re basically a pop oriented oldies station. We play everything that’s hot today, but the bulk of the music is oldies. And it’s programmed in the old Todd Storz fashion or Gordon McClendon fashion, just like top 40 used to be. There’s 4 stop sets an hour, and most times you’ll find something in those even if it’s a PSA. But the bulk of the programming is for the broadcaster. For example, we have a newscast from one of the trade magazines for General Managers called Radio Business Report. They FTP a newscast to me every day, and believe me, the listeners that we have are broadcasters. The reason I know that is because if I don’t change out that file every day, I get calls from General Managers saying, “Hey, where’s the new newscast?” I never thought a broadcaster would listen to an Internet radio station, but they do.

And the amazing thing is that the listener base isn’t limited to our market. One night I went back and did a little live stint on the air for about 20 minutes and opened up the phones, My first call was just outside of Chicago. The second call was from a little town in New Mexico. My third call was from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And it’s not uncommon to walk in at 3:00 in the morning, bring up the server, and there are 50 people from the Pacific Rim listening. One of the neat things is that not only can you tell how many people are listening; you can tell where they’re listening from. It’s awesome. You’ll see them listening in Germany or France. We have a huge listening audience in France. We get requests from there.

JV: What are your peak listening times?
Dave: Our peak comes at about 1:30 CT, and I’m sure these people are just listening from their offices mostly in the United States, although if you do traces on them, you’ll find them all over the world listening at any time of the day or night. From 9:00 in the morning Central to probably about 3:30 Central, we’ll average between 200 and 300 simultaneous listeners. We’ve seen as many as 1750 at one time. The first year we were in operation, we went out to the NAB and did a remote broadcast for the National Association of Broadcasters. During the 4 days that we did 9 hours a day live, we had over 10,000 people hear this radio station. And all I was doing was interviewing boring people. But it sounded good. We piped it in ISDN through the Telos ISDN boxes all the way from Vegas to here and then re-broadcast it from here.

JV: On a busy day for BNet Radio, how many people will tune in within a 24-hour period?
Dave: Right now we’re averaging between 2500 and 4000 a day. During the day, the TSL, the time spent listening, is incredible. Those people that come on at 9:00 don’t go off until 3:30. So obviously, they are in fact listening from their office. I can’t prove that, but when you do the trace route on the IP address, you can see that most of these are registered to a business, and many of the businesses are radio stations.

JV: The processing you’ve done with BNet Radio sounds really good, and you have multiple streams available for people to listen to. Tell us more about this.
Dave: We have 5 different streams running. Well, actually there are only 3. I’ll tell you about that in a minute. We have a low speed stream at 20 kilo baud. It is stereo, and I may even go mono on that because I am experiencing some barrel effect since we put the new audio cards in and got real good high frequency response. It gets a little garbaged at times, a little artifacted, and I don’t like that. I think mono-izing it would probably take care of that. Our most listened to stream is the Windows Media stream that is running at 64 kilo baud. Now of course for that you have to have at least an ISDN Internet connection or better. But these people in offices, they’re on a T-1 at least.

The third stream, is actually 3 streams in one. Using the Audio Active MP3 real time encoder from Telos, we’re able to take the digital audio—we use AES/EBU all the way through the station—and go into the Telos real time MP3 on the fly encoder which it sends out TCP/IP over to a machine that is called the Audio Edge. The Audio Edge then distributes it in MP3. Now the joy of distributing in MP3 is that not only can you listen to it on your WinAmp or your favorite MP3 player, you can also listen to it on a Windows Media player, and you can listen to it on a Real Audio player. And you don’t have to pay Real Audio any fees because it ain’t real audio, which they’re really upset about. All we do is create a .ram file for the Real Audio, an ASX file to call the Windows Media, and an M3U file, which is a playlist file or a playlist call, which will call the live stream from your WinAmp or whatever. And so all three platforms are covered there with the 64k MP3 stream.

Now because we are doing high speed MP3, the people at IM Networks, which was formerly called Sonic Box, has picked our stream up as one of the ones that they list in their IM Networks Tuning Guide. And Philips just came out with a new stand alone IM radio. You just plug it into your local area network and turn it on like a regular radio. It’s got AM and FM on it too, but it’s got IM on it, and there’s about 800 stations there that you can select from on the dial, and we’re one of them. As a matter of fact, since we got the Scott Studios thing, we now have the “now playing” feature which allows that particular radio to display what song is playing. They’ve come a long way. The Sonic Box started putting out their own little radios that required you to be within 1,000 ft. of a computer, but it would allow you to select from a bunch of radio stations on this little radio, just dial it up on the knob. I have one sitting here in front me. It’s a little purple thing, and it works great as long as you’re within 1,000 ft. of your computer. It’s like a pager that you plug headphones in, and you carry it around with you wherever you want.

JV: You can clearly hear the difference your broadcast engineering has made on the quality of the audio on BNet Radio. Perhaps as time passes, everyone else broadcasting on the Net will learn the tricks of doing it right.
Dave: Well it does take some knowledge in this area. They’ve tried as much as they can. I have to give them credit; they’ve tried very hard to make streaming as user friendly as possible. There have been several companies that have come out with boxes that are theoretically plug and play—you go out to a concert, you want to stream it, you plug your mikes or your sound system into it, turn it on, it encodes and sends it back; but there’s still some knowledge that is necessary. My biggest problem was I had to learn about networking. How the Internet even works. What the hell is an IP address, and why do I need it? And so streaming is not for the faint hearted, but it’s not brain surgery either. It’s a very learnable thing. A few years ago a lady named Peggy Miles and I were talking and said, there needs to be some kind of association. So, we started the International Web Casting Association and immediately people like Real Networks, Microsoft, and every other streaming company in the world came on board. And one of the things we’re trying to do there is get across to the public that yes, you can do it on your own, but it will probably sound like crap. You need a pro. Microsoft on the other hand would like to let everybody think they can have their own radio station in 5 minutes.

JV: Well, since we’re not dealing with transmitters and towers and RF, it does seem rather simple to the average person to start their own Internet radio station. I mean, just get a little mixer with a cheap version of some sort of automation system, throw my MP3 music to the hard drive, send it out on the stream and boom, I have a radio station. But it’s obvious in just listening to BNet Radio that there’s some serious processing technology at work.
Dave: Well absolutely, the processor that I’m using, is called a Telos Omnia. It’s the Omnia.Net. They have an Omina.Am, the Omnia.Fm, and the Omnia.Net, which has audio processing curves in it that are specifically designed for the Internet, for codecs that are used with streaming. For instance, you never ever, ever, ever want to clip anything on the Internet because the codecs will go crazy. On the other hand, with the old AM processors, that’s how you made it loud. And a lot of the FMs, that’s how they made it loud. But there’s not a loudness battle on the Internet. Yes, you have to sound powerful; yes, you have to sound big; but you don’t fight every other station in town who is louder than you. So you can be a little bit more conservative with the processing.

Unfortunately, I’m an old rock jock and I love processing. I like a lot of processing, and we’re probably processing BNet Radio more than we should. But in a way, since we’re playing so many oldies, I thought it kind of sounded right. But to show you how simple it can be, one of the stations that streams with us here…actually I don’t know if you’d call it a station, it’s a computer in our server farm back in the back. As a matter of fact it’s a little old cheap computer. It’s like a 300 Pentium or something like that. They use WinAmp with a playlist. They come in and put things in their playlist every day manually. They picked up one of the WinAmp plug-ins that does cross-fading and they’re on the air with that and no processing whatsoever. It comes out of their audio card and goes into the encoder and that’s it. And believe it or not, they have an audience. In peak times of the day, they’ll have 30-50 people listening, playing Tejano music. It’s called Bandido Radio.

JV: How many stations like that are you guys serving up?
Dave: Gosh, I don’t even know how many total stations we have now. Some of our most successful stations include a station up in Toledo, Ohio, WBGE that streams through us. They have a unique situation where they’re a fairly low power FM. They do well in the ratings, but they’d do better if they could penetrate buildings. Well they can penetrate buildings with the Internet. On their morning drive show, I’ll come in sometimes and they’ll have 200 people listening. Now at 7:00 at night, they may have just 10 people listening. So it tells me that for that particular purpose it’s perfect. In other words, they are achieving their building penetration. They’re sending their exact same programming, sans commercials, to the Internet. They’re very successful with their streaming.

The University of Houston has a classical station that is very popular in Houston. Again, many of the people that listen or want to listen to that radio station are located deep in the bowels of some metal building and can’t pick up the station. So they’ve gone to streaming. They’re doing an MP3 stream and their listenership on that stream skyrocketed once the people found out it was there.

And here’s an interesting thought. I have another station at a university here, Texas Southern University, that’s a non-commercial station of course. On their stream, they will send full blown commercials to the Internet. Because they’re non-commercial, they can’t do that on the terrestrial broadcast. But when the underwriter announcement is playing terrestrially, they’ll play full blown commercials on the Internet. They can do that legally.

And back to the University of Houston again; they’re putting up a second stream besides their classical stream. They have a full news staff, and they’re putting up a second stream and are going to put news on their second channel. With the Internet, a radio station that’s a daytimer could stay on 24 hours a day. Many stations have their automation system already in place; why not let it roll?

JV: Many issues of RAP have discussed the distribution of commercials via MP3 and the Internet and the best ways to maintain a quality piece of audio when it’s all said and done. What thoughts do you have on this?
Dave: Well, I think there are a lot of gripes about bad spots passed through the Internet because they’re an MP3, and it’s not because they’re an MP3. It’s because the person who encoded them does not understand how to deal with MP3. It’s not like a wave file where you just plug it in, turn it on, and go. You have to have your sample rate set right. The whole thing has to be really thought out.

There were a couple of songs that I needed, and of course there’s this thing out there called Napster’s Ghost. It costs you $20 a year, and you can download all you want. So I went out there the other day, downloaded these 3 songs, and brought them in and they sounded like toilet paper. It was terrible. And this thing was sampled at like 360 or something like that; it should have sounded better than that. So I took it into Sound Forge and lo and behold, there’s the reason; the rip of this thing was terrible. And I’m sure the same thing happens when people are recording MP3s; they think they have to crank it to get better signal to noise or whatever. It seems to me that probably a lot of the problem is in the encoding process. All I did was take the song into Sound Forge and with a little manipulation, I was able to make that thing sound like it was a CD. I re-sampled it at the sample rate I needed—that’s a big thing.

One of the problems that we have today is that you’re coming out AES/EBU out of a sound card going into a console that has a different sampling rate. Then you’re going into an audio processor that has a different sampling rate, and then you’re going into a studio transmitter link that’s digital and it has a different sampling rate. Then you go out to the transmitter where you may have another processor of some kind, and then you get to the digital exciter. Well, what you’re fighting here is dueling algorithms, and what may sound terrific in a studio, by the time it gets on the air sucks, because each one of those things has its own kind of codec in and out, and each one with a different sampling rate. And a codec takes things out that you won’t notice, theoretically. But if too much is taken out, by the time it gets to the 5th or 6th exchange, it’s going to suck. And so consequently, broadcast engineers at radio stations and in production facilities need to be very aware of what is needed from stem to stern. In other words, the guy in a production house may think his MP3 plays back great to him, but you don’t know how it’s being played back on the other end. Maybe it was recorded hot, maybe it was at some weird sample rate. How was it processed? Did you use some little $20 freeware program to encode it or to decode it?

I have a MP3 to wave converter, and I went through probably 5 of those before I found one that I felt decoded it in a decent fashion. I think I wound up paying $39 for it, but it’s a great investment. It’s called simply MP3 to Wave. Now, if somebody sends me an MP3 file, the first thing I do is change it to a wave file. And then I take it into Sound Forge or something like that, clean it up, resample it, and do all the stuff to it. And since I’m on Scott Systems now, from Sound Forge you can save it as a Scott file, with the Scott encoding method. Then you take that into their TLC—their trim, label and cut program—and put in all the data you need for the actual on the air process. But by doing it that way, I’ve cleaned up all of those garbage files that have come in as MP3s.

JV: What do you see happening with BNet Radio down the road?
Dave: Well, what I hope to do with BNet Radio is truly make it a resource that is valuable enough to make people listen to it so I can support it. And to do that, I plan to get content that will hit every aspect of broadcasting, including television. You know, we’ve always been radio oriented because I’m a radio kind of guy, but recently broadcast.net has moved into television. I may even put up another channel on the Internet for television people eventually. But in the near term, like I mentioned earlier, we’re going to start doing voice tracking, making it sound like there’s somebody there even if there isn’t, and many times we will in fact be doing live shows. I hope to do a lot of product evaluations, little vignettes about products, maybe hints and tips on production or how to fix a transmitter or how to do a proof performance or whatever. All of these kinds of things because we’re able to touch a lot of people that print media would never touch, especially outside of the United States. This radio business report we air has an awful lot of information about the United States broadcasting industry in it, and we were a little concerned about that. So I asked one of our listeners over in Osaka, Japan about it and they said, “Oh, we love it man. We want to know what’s going on in the United States so we don’t have that happen here.” So they really want to know what’s going on in our industry, how much radio stations are selling for or how to do this or who’s doing what to whom. And that’s the goal of the radio station, to provide a resource that is of value to the various aspects of the broadcasting industry.

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