Audio ambition

Arabic FM is the first radio offering from the newly established Arabian Radio Network – one of many planned for the umbrella group. Digital Studio looks at the vision and technology behind Dubai’s newest radio start-up.

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By  Daniel Anderson-Ford Published  November 14, 2001

Arabic Radio Network|~||~||~|Launched on September 1, Al Arabya is the first offering from the Arabian Radio Network [ARN], a radio station consisting of a range of music, news, entertainment and Arabic culture aimed specifically for Arabic listeners. It can perhaps be seen as a reaction to the dominance of Western style radio channels, although it has clearly looked carefully at the Western model of production and broadcast.

The station, as all ARN’s will be in the future, is broadcast from a transmitter positioned on the Emirates Tower, giving it a perfect advantage in terms of line of sight. Moreover, it is one of a growing number of broadcasters to take residence in the Dubai Media City, and the company seem confident of the impetus this will give them.

“Al Arabya is our first primary service,” explains visionary managing director Mekki Abdullah. “We are first and foremost an Arabic network, so we though our first offering should be a specifically Arabic one. We want to position ourselves as the first commercial network for the Arab world.”

ARN is not the first radio project Abdullah and his colleagues have been involved with. In the past he helped to set up Radio 4 in Dubai and Radio 1 and 2 in Abu Dhabi, so what’s so individual about this effort? The answer seems to be in the way the service is tightly organised through its technology and practices, and takes something from the UK model of radio production.

“Al Arabya is like a CHR [Contemporary Hit Radio] station, similar to those in Europe,” explains Abdullah. However, due to a controlled media scheduling system – we have invested a lot of money in software to analyse our playout and demographics – we believe this is part of the first truly formatted radio station for an Arabic audience.”
So what was behind the vision to start a radio network, and what was the main driving factor?

“We looked around us at Dubai, and when are surrounded by things like the Burj al Arab and even Dubai Media City itself, you realise that you cannot do things by half. We did not want to start a small FM station, get some DJ’s and sell some adverts – although it would have been cheaper to do so. Then I do not think we could be a Dubai business. We needed to produce something that was fast, dynamic, technologically driven and sexy.
“Something that could be in Dubai and grow with Dubai. And that is the basis of what you see around you today.”
||**||Systems check|~||~||~|
Walking through the dedicated offices of ARN, the professionalism of this fully digital facility is immediately obvious – as is what was a large investment in technology: testament to Abdullah’s vision and diligence. Two newly established broadcast studios provide the backbone for transmission, the first of which dedicated to the music shows, and the second for news and current affairs broadcasting. Both are equipped with, among other things, Studer X and are controlled using Dalet technology – of which more later.

On the production side, there is a dedicated editing facility for news bulletins and an impressive journalist and sales office sitting centrally. Completing the set is the master control room, from which all the broadcast schedules are compiled and agreed upon.

Central to the workflow and production of ARN, specifically focused at this time on the transmission of Arabic FM, is the Dalet 5.1 audio automation solution, based on a standard Windows network.

The Dalet solution comprises of four software applications based, in the case of ARN, on four Compaq Proliant servers, allowing in each instance desktop access to all the media required to build the radio channel.

First among these is the File Server application. File Server allows the radio broadcaster to archive all the music required for broadcast, in a range of audio file formats such as MPEG-2 or WAV. Music transfer is handled by an application called TrackFiler, new option for Dalet 5.1, ensuring optimum sound quality and bit rate.

Working with a sophisticated search engine developed by Dalet, users can include essential information regarding the recorded media. Explains Dalet’s Middle East sales director Eric Charles, “this can be anything from artist name and song title, to the tempo of the music, duration of the track and even copyright details”.

He continues: “This means that when the producers come to formulate a playlist, file retrieval is easy. Dalet 5.1 has a powerful internal search engine, allowing users to refine the search right down.”

With the Compaq Proliant ML530 sitting at the heart of the station’s network, producers can then access digital media from their desktops. The second part of the Dalet 5.1 solution is called LogEdit, perhaps the most essential application it has. Its primary function is to allow producers to select the relevant audio material and prepare it for broadcast. This includes the ability to perform simple edit tasks.

When prepared, this audio clip can be dragged and dropped directly into the transmission schedule. In addition, producers can perform sophisticated audio mixes, such as fades and blends, and can even drop in a relevant jingle. With the associated file metadata also available, producers can easily search for material and display all the relevant information a radio DJ might need when presenting the final show. This workflow model demonstrates the advantage of many users being able to gain access to the same media server simultaneously.
||**||Revenue generation|~||~||~|
The third application is design by Dalet to streamline the radio station’s sales activity and streamline revenue generation. Called Team Revenue, the software application provides the advertising sales department with an advertising schedule into which they can drop sold space. Aside from assuring that spaces are not booked twice, the system also provides sales people with important additional information such as pricing and payment terms.

Because Team Revenue is also linked to the central server system, says Charles, “the software will automatically combine the advertising schedule with the programme running order automatically”.

Finally, ARN can complete its broadcast schedule with the Team News software application. A super-user, or in ARN’s case an Editor-in-Chief for news, can communicate with his journalists across the network. Through this, he can produce a news schedule, and send assignments to individual journalists concerning the day’s news topics.

For the journalist, the application allows journalists to receive news wires, such as those from Reuters and Associated Press, at the desktop. When the script for broadcast is produced, journalists can also assign a relevant audio clip, which is again accessed from the File Server and detectable through the powerful search engine.

From here, the system has considered the specific workflow of the ARN team, and allows an Editor-in-Chief to view the posted stories before broadcast. From his desktop, he can either reject or approve the story.

The system simplifies workflow by allowing pre-defined roles and preset templates for users. For example, the DJ interface in the studio can be configured with different log in options. When a certain DJ logs in for a show, the system will automatically trigger that DJ’s specific set of jingles.

Much of the system appears to be reliant on Dalet software and hardware, so I ask Eric Charles whether this is simply a closed system or whether it can accept technology from other manufacturers.

“Not at all. Dalet 5.1 uses an API and is compatible with MOS and XML protocols. One of our biggest applications is at ITN in London, and the station uses the ENPS newsroom system. However, ENPS does not deal with audio, so we developed an interface with them based on MOS.”

More important perhaps from ARN’s point of view is the installation time and learning curve. Rashid Hussain is IT manager for ARN:

“Dalet has a lot of success stories and we selected the product primarily because some of the seniors here have had experience with it and like its simplicity and options it offers.

“The system was very quick to train on. What has helped is that we can define levels of use for our journalists and producers in line with their level of expertise. As this grows, other aspects of the system can be opened up.”

Perhaps the options that Hussain is referring to are the systems scalability and ability to publish to the Internet. In terms of scale, the system – as it has with Dalet’s biggest customer the Canadian Broadcast Corporation – can be scaled up to 2,000 users.

Importantly, Dalet 5.1 also features the Dalet InterWeb option, providing a software front-end form that journalists can use to simply re-purpose radio content for the Internet.

As Rashid Hussain asserts: “We have spent a long time developing a high end Internet site for our broadcasts. We wanted to ease ourselves into the Dalet system, so we have just kept with radio transmission at this time, but our web site will become fully operational very soon.”

So what is the future for ARN in the UAE and is there enough advertising venture to sustain another radio venture. Mekki Abdullah is certain that there is:

“Dubai and the surrounds is a huge market and it is a big enough one provided we are in the top three. Our aspiration though is to be number one.” And of the future, Abdullah is equally buoyant:
“With the ability to broadcast cheaply via satellite, we are looking next at syndication and re-broadcast agreements for Al Arabya. However, the money in radio is taking that feed down again, because the future for radio is still at a local level. Also in the future, with developments in technology that we are tracking, I see projects in interactive and digital broadcasting. But that is some way off.

“Eventually we hope to have as many as four channels in total, and I see a great future for us.”||**||

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