TIP OF THE WEEK – 2016 09 07: Choosing an Automation System

I remember my first air shifts using automation software, back in the 1990s. It was, by today’s standards, a fairly basic system. All it could do was play, move and fade. It took away the ability for me to use my finely honed operating skills to deliver a tight, professional presentation.

However, over the years, radio automation software has developed into a tool that can deliver what I used to be able to achieve using CDs, cartridge tapes and vinyl records.

I can play songs live on air; I can preview items coming up; I can mix songs and voice with music beds; and as long as the audio is in a digital format, I can play it.

These days, there is a huge range of radio automation systems available, ranging in price and features.  Network stations require all the bells and whistles, and are willing to pay the price for that. At the other end of the scale are the community, Internet and low power stations, who get by with low-cost or even free software.

The key question is this: “Which system will most reliably deliver the on-air results that we need?”

Obviously, not knowing your needs, I can’t tell you which system you should use. However, I can help you with a list of questions that will help you choose the best system for your needs.

  • Is it easy to operate live on air? It is essential that your system can be easily learnt and operated by your live presenters. Remember, their primary goal is not to be a software engineer. Their prime goal is to be a friend to your listeners, and they need to concentrate on that – first and foremost. De-complicate the ‘operation’ side of the presenter’s job. Choose a system that will allow you to make the main playlist screen as clean and uncluttered as possible. Make the most used functions easily visible. Hide all other functions in menus. Set up keyboard short cuts for your most-used functions (including space bar for “play”). Simple is the key word!
  • Will it play all file types? My experience is that audio arrives in all shapes and sizes. If your system only plays one type of audio (eg, WAV or MP2), then you will spend a lot of time having to convert all your audio files.
  • Do I have the right hardware? Will the system operate easily on the computers I have, or will I have to spend money on upgrading my machines? Is it compatible with my existing sound cards? Do I need to install a second sound card in my on-air computer? (actually, for previewing audio, I recommend that you do, or at least buy an external USB interface).
  • Is it compatible with Windows 10? As much as we loved Windows 7, it won’t be around forever. Which brings up another important question…
  • Is the system being developed? A system that is regularly upgraded by the developer will weather the storms of new operating systems, bugs and hardware issues. It will also mean that its features and usability are being improved, often with input from users! Before you sign, just make sure you ask the price of software upgrades!
  • Does it come with an Internet encoder? Even if you aren’t streaming on the net at the moment, doesn’t mean you won’t be in the future. In our experience, it is far simpler to have an encoder built in to your automation software, in your on-air computer. That way, you can be sure that meta data will be streamed with the audio, so the listener will see song information and artwork on their Internet player.
  • Will it operate on auto? Can you easily create playlists, and leave it running all night? Can it insert and play scheduled programmes at the right time, when there is no-one in the studio?
  • Will it allow you to voice track? If you can’t afford to pay a presenter to be in the studio on Sunday morning, you can at least add a human touch to your automated programmes, with recorded announcements – called voice tracks. Some systems include a voice track function that will allow you to record and insert announcer breaks into an automated playlist. With others, you have to use external recording software, and manually import each voice track into the playlist – which is more time consuming.
  • Can it create playlists automatically? In some stations, the announcers spend most of their preparation time manually choosing the songs for their programme. In fact, it’s better that they spend their time preparing things to talk about! Many systems include an automatic playlist creator, which can make everyone’s life much easier. Alternatively, you can buy stand-alone music scheduling software. You just need to make sure that it will be compatible with your automation system.
  • There are lots of other things we could discuss. Does it have a pre-listen function? Will it keep a record of what you play – for reporting purposes? Does it have a music library, where you can manage your music, and input the all-important meta data? Will it automatically import news bulletins every hour from the news service you subscribe to? Can you operate it from home if there is an emergency? Does it have a cart wall function (instant audio files)?

Of course, the best advice I can give you, is to download a trial version of any software, and put it through its paces. Remain in contact with the developer. Before you buy, make sure that it will do all you need to do, and will need to do in the foreseeable future!

Happy automation

James

 


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Added: Wednesday, September 7th, 2016
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