Friday, February 08, 2008

Setting up a school internet radio station: A tech tangent

I realize that this posting is not relating to tablet PCs or Smartboards but I wanted to share a recent tech project I had the opportunity to engage in over the past week even though it has nothing to do with our AviChai grant.

Our school the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston is hosting a basketball tournament and several other schools (mostly from the northeast) are attending. With most of the games taking place during work hours we realized that many of our player’s friends and families would not be able to attend the tournament. Additionally we have alumni all over the country and Israel who have an interest in our teams. I suggested we try to set up an internet based “radio station” that can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. Since I know almost nothing about basketball and would be as useless behind the mike as a snowmobile in Houston, (I do know it involves putting a round thing inside another round thing) I found two faculty members who could provide color commentary and play-by-play. The tech end was my baby.

There seem to be several ways to set up a steaming audio feed. The most popular approach involves using a streaming network called Shoutcast which is supported by Nullsoft the makers of Winamp. Winamp is a powerful PC based media player. There is a shoutcast plug-in for Winamp which allows you to stream the MP3 files you play on Winamp to your streaming audio host server and have your “radio station” listed in the Shoutcast network. This works fine for most internet radio applications since they involve queuing pre-recorded audio files and playing them. Setting up 24 hours of music with commercials for broadcast can be done in a matter of minutes. Setting up a live feed is an altogether different matter and it did not seem as simple to set up the Winamp/Shoutcast software for microphone feed as opposed to MP3 files. For the live broadcast I used a small applet called SimpleCast which allows us to encode and stream input from a computer’s line in jack or microphone jack.

The next task was to either set up or “buy” a streaming audio server. Setting up your own streaming audio server is difficult but not overwhelming, and the software and utilities on the Shoutcast website describe it fairly well. After I read the blogs of a few internet radio broadcasters I realized that there is a serious issue of bandwidth. A simple 64k to 128k audio stream does not seem like a lot, with buffering it is even in the range of dial-up. What was not immediately apparent is that every listener subtracts a slice of your total downstream bandwidth. I realized that even with only twenty listeners I would have teachers complaining that they can’t access their email due to the reduced bandwidth. So in the end I opted to outsource the audio server. There are dozens of streaming audio server services out there with very competitive rates. Small scale basic packages are available for around ten dollars a month. As you increase the potential number of listeners, and the audio quality, you are using more bandwidth and the prices go up. We are using a 48k stream which is super for voice, and is nearly equivalent to the audio quality of FM radio reception.

Setting up the software involves inputting your domain/user name, password, server host, and network information, setting up the audio encoder, and the audio / microphone inputs. If you want better audio quality and control or the ability to have multiple inputs I would recommend a mini mixer available around $30 to $ 40. We are currently using a cheap desktop mike w/o a mixer the biggest complaint from the broadcasters is that there is no mute button and that we can’t use two separate mikes, both are relatively easy and inexpensive to fix . The software with the full streaming audio set-up was installed on a laptop in preparation for the first tournament game.

We ran a few tests the day before the first game and were pleased with the results. As we set up in the gym before the first game we connected the to the school’s wireless internet and got ready to broadcast. As the broadcast began we realized that we had no output due to instability of the wireless connection. We quickly switched to an Ethernet cable (wired) connection and have been up without a hitch.

A “Listen now!!” direct link to the audiocast was sent out in a broadcasted email and a link was put on the school website, and people started tuning in! It was very exciting to get an email from one of our alumni in Israel who was listening to the game!

Hardware costs - $0 We are using an internet connected school laptop and an old mike of mine.

Server / Host fees: Around $25 for one month of 48k stream with a 30 simultaneous listener cap. Should we opt for an ongoing subscription, the monthly prices drop significantly.

Now that it is set up we are exploring other uses for our own “radio station”. We are considering broadcasting an upcoming Siddur party and a third grade Purim play. I think it would be great for working parents who can not get free from work to attend in school performances. Imagine “Daddy/Mommy couldn’t be at your Chanukah play but he/she was able to listen to it live at the office” . Other potential uses for the technology are broadcasting school announcements, Divrei Torah, school closure and weather emergency information.

I will repost on this topic if the school decides to maintain a streaming audio host server subscription and we explore other uses for this technology.


Elky Langer said...

This sounds like a terrific project. Is it at all practical to add video to the mix or are the bandwidth and hardware requirements too prohibitive? Just thinking about those parents who would love to see their kids at that siddur party ...

Rabbi D. Nimchinsky said...

Video has its own set of unique problems, bandwidth being only one of them.

My primary concerns regarding video are security related. I would only feel comfortable with online video if it could only be accessed with a password (and even then I would feel uneasy about it) since there are too many potential liabilities surrounding unprotected video being used or hijacked in unseemly ways.

Broadcasting a school event like a siddur party, has the dangerous combination of broadcasting a child's name, image, and school. More than enough information for someone who is up to no good.

Anonymous said...

hi! i'm a student at CHAT (toronto) and my girl's basketball team was just at the tournament, and i was unaware of the broadcast until now. is there away to find the audio now, after the tournament? in a downloadable file, or just listen to it online?

Rabbi D. Nimchinsky said...

Hello CHAT student!
Unfortunately the audio broadcast only went out live and was not archived. However, video footage was taken at some of the games and some will hopefully be posted on the school's website.

radio broadcast said...

Good Project to Set up Live Radio Station. Should We show Video online?