BBC introduces ‘virtual’ Local Radio stations

The BBC has today gone live with the corporation’s first-ever virtual Radio station.

Published: 3 July 2014
Northampton is a first, but significant, step toward us proving the potential for a fully virtualised BBC Local Radio network.
— Peter Coles, interim CTO, BBC

As part of the BBC’s Virtual Local Radio (ViLoR) project, developed by BBC Technology in collaboration with BBC Local Radio, BBC Radio Northampton is the first of an initial four stations (BBC Radio Northampton, BBC Radio Suffolk, BBC Essex and BBC Three Counties Radio) to be equipped with the latest in-studio capabilities, offering the potential to substantially reduce the cost and time needed to upgrade and run a typical Local Radio station.

To the presenters and production teams the studios will appear much like traditional studios but with the underlying equipment and infrastructure moved to a central, shared, location. Editorial teams will have full control over the play-out system and mixing desks, but the actual audio files will be stored, streamed, mixed and processed in a remote data centre, in real-time. Importantly, the system was designed to ensure that only the back-end equipment is centralised so that editorial and production teams can continue to present from the local community just as they do today.

The innovative approach, led by Geoff Woolf and the BBC Technology team based in English Regions, helps the BBC solve an important challenge of how best to refresh the equipment and systems used across the BBC’s 39 Local Radio stations as they reach the end of their natural technology life. Updating stations using traditional technology on this scale is both expensive and slow, taking between six to eight months per station. By sharing infrastructure and equipment across multiple sites, the BBC could substantially reduce costs, and time to refresh a single station to roughly eight weeks.

ViLoR is an excellent example of the BBC taking an iterative approach to implementing complex, cutting-edge technology that brings potential flexibility, efficiency, and a range of ongoing benefits to editorial staff and the wider BBC, including:

  • Improved audio quality: Audio loses integrity when converted into different formats in the traditional broadcasting process. The new virtual system ensures audio files remain in the same format throughout, with noticeable improvements to sound quality
  • Improved conversation with the audience: New social media management tools enabling Twitter, text and Facebook messages to be aggregated and cleared for broadcast on the same screen that manages phone and Skype calls from the audience
  • Sharing content: Enabling BBC Local Radio to move to the same production platform as the rest of BBC Radio, greatly simplifying the sharing of media
  • Pop-up radio stations: With much of the expensive and cumbersome equipment no longer needed in the local studio, ViLoR could be developed in the future to make it much easier for editorial teams to cover local events on-the-ground, such as county shows or music festivals.

In the future, the BBC could potentially benefit from reductions in overheads for some stations, as the physical space, power and cooling required at the Local Radio Station for on-site back room equipment is significantly reduced – down from a room the size of a double garage to almost zero. In addition, the virtual stations can be easily updated with the latest software, which can be installed simultaneously at the data centre rather than a time-consuming and costly manual visit to each of the 39 stations.

This phase begins with BBC Radio Northampton, which goes live today, with the remaining three stations to follow over the next nine months. As part of an iterative approach to implementing large-scale technology projects, the BBC will analyse the success of the first four stations, and make the necessary improvements and adjustments before taking a decision to roll ViLoR technology out across additional Local Radio stations in the future.

Peter Coles, interim CTO for the BBC, says: “This is an excellent example of BBC innovation helping us find new, lower cost and more flexible ways of providing the technology our programme makers need to deliver great Local Radio to our audiences from the local community. Northampton is a first, but significant, step toward us proving the potential for a fully virtualised BBC Local Radio network, and I’m sure we’ll see the industry begin to adopt a similar approach. We’ll continue to test and iterate the technology to help shape future plans before we decide whether to roll the system out across additional BBC Local Radio stations.”

Jess Rudkin, Managing Editor for BBC Radio Northampton, says: “Throughout the design and installation of ViLoR, BBC Local Radio producers, presenters and journalists have worked with the BBC’s technology experts, and we now have the best studio equipment in the business. Not only do our new studios and software make it even easier for us to create high quality programmes and give us new editorial options, they can also be installed in almost any building: ideal for radio which prides itself on being so close to its audience.”