School Radio: Initial efforts

October 4, 2009
Click here for the class blog post

Click here for the class blog post

The week before last, with our new studio now installed, I took the first steps towards staring our school radio station at Robin Hood. With pressure of time bearing down on me in the first weeks of my NQT year, I decided to do this as one of our ‘Learning agreement projects’, where a group spends the first hour of each day working on a negotiated project.

At the moment we are working on helping the pupils to build up their concept of what a project could be, and the planning of both how they will manage their time, what the end outcome of the project will be, and what they will learn through doing it.

Having ‘negotiated’ the title of the project (after seeing the studio my group could think of no other projects!), myself and a group of six children set about planning the project. We decided that they would produce a short radio show to put on our class blog. They split themselves into two and decided to do features on jokes, school news, a weather report, and an introduction. After discussing with me the various styles of presentation they could go for, they decided they would like to write scripts for their parts to read, so that they knew what to say and could make sure they had interesting content, and were not just ‘chatting’.

Over the next few days, whilst they were researching using their new netbooks, I gave a pair at a time an introduction to the studio equipment. We covered the mixing desk, the computer, the special keyboard, the microphones, and the headphones; talking about what each thing did, and having a play with them. We also talked about how radio presenters sound, and they highlighted the need to be confident with their delivery.

They found the concepts behind the computer playout system, Myriad, quite straightforward, easily recognizing the ‘carts’ of songs and jingles, and the audio players. They also enjoyed having a go at talking over the start of records, as Myriad provides them with a countdown to when the vocals kick in in songs. With a little direction, and some evaluation of ‘practice runs’, they found the mic technique fairly straightforward, helped by the fact we have some nice microphones with a wide area in which they pick up sound. However, they found the mixing desk quite hard to understand. I did not explain that you could pre-cue songs before you played them, but just gave them a chance to mix two songs together. Most of them could start a second song playing at a good time, but several ended up playin g two songs at once, and found it hard to get their head round the fact songs needed to be controlled in three places at once: on the computer, they keyboard, and the faders on the desk. We might take a while before they are confident self-op DJs, but I was impressed with them as presenters.

I really had very little input into their scripts, and they recorded their pieces on the Friday in a single take, ‘as-live’. They presented confidently, especially as they are not that used to hearing their own voices as they speak in headphones, and it was interesting how much of the language they had already such as ‘now over to my friend…’. I did not explain the editing capability of the system to them, but two of the girls immediatly asked if I could cut out the ‘umms’, so I showed them the audio editor and how I would do that. I then took the recordings away and added the music, as we had by this point run out of time.

This project was a bit of an experiment really. I was interested to see where they would take it, what areas they would be confident with, and what they would find difficult. Overall I was impressed by their ‘media saviness’, and the confidence with which they selected content and presented this material. This experience was very useful for me in getting a benchmark of how pupils might work in our school radio station, and with some reflection will influence how I begin to implement the radio station in more of a school-wide way.

You can hear the finished radio show on our class blog.

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School Radio: Introduction & Equipment

August 26, 2009

In addition to our introduction of 1:1 computer access at Robin Hood School, we will also be starting our own school radio station. The development of this is something I will be document on this blog, as I hope this can allow us to share ideas with other schools looking at/already working on the same thing.

I gained a lot of experience working on student radio in my days at Sheffield University, from building the studio and presenting/producing shows to managing the station for two years. Therefore I feel fairly confident in terms of the technical and content sides of this project- I just need to translate this into the school setting, which I think will be quite  a challenge.

For my first post I am going to run down the thinking behind our equipment choices, and advice I would offer regarding equipment to other schools looking to do the same thing

Radio Packages

It needn’t cost much to get started with a school radio project, and I have seen some schools do it with little more than a computer and a microphone. However, we really wanted to go for a fully featured radio station, so it was decided to set aside a room in school for a studio and kit it out comprehensively. There are several companies offering packages that cater for school radio, which provide all the equipment and software that you would need to start a station. These provide a great solution for schools wishing to build a studio, but who may not have the technical experience. Despite the fact I do have the experience I still felt that the P Squared ‘Small’ package was actually the best route to go down, as it provides very good value for money. One of the big deciders for that was the fact that P Squared provide with this package a license for their Myriad software, which is used by many stations in the industry, including the student station I managed. This comes as part of the package at a price well below what you would pay for it separately. This software will allow our pupils to try out lots of different types of radio production, as it allows for everything professional presenters use- from count downs to lyrics in songs, to full automation of jingles and sweepers. They also provide licences for two additonal PCs so you can prepare audio setups for shows without having to be sat in the studio- even when other shows are going out on air.

The package also includes everything from headphones, microphones, cd players, to the computer that runs the playout (playing audio such as music) and streaming (sending your show out to your listeners). Having dealt with them before they are also an excellent company, and offer some free training for a member of staff when you purchase the package.

Compression/Limiting equipment

The one thing I did order separately to the package was some a compressor/limiter. This is a unit which you run your entire radio programme through and it levels out the differences in volume between the presenters and the music, and generally gives it that punchy sound which you can hear if you compare BBC Radio 1 (VERY compressed) to Radio 4 (No compression used). The limiter also stops the signal from overloading the inputs on the computer if someone turns things up too loud, and stops it distorting on loud peaks, such as if someone shouts. These are often optional extras to these packages,l but the units offered are closer to £400 than the £70 the one we ordered cost. Whilst they are undoubtedly better quality I really think this is overkill for a school station, however, the model I have ordered is more configurable, but much less user friendly, and compression is not the easiest thing to get your head round at first.. so you might want to tread carefully if you are looking at buying something like this.

Mixing desk options

Some of the more expensive packages also come with ‘proper’ broadcast mixing desks. Personally, I also think these are overkill for a school radio station. They will undoubtedly be more durable than the cheaper alternatives, and they ‘look the part’ a little more. However, I ran a student station which broadcast 13 hours a day every day on a Spirit Soundcraft, and we never had a problem with it. As far as I know it is still in use now, 4 years later. One thing I would say is that you will need a desk with stereo channels, so that there is one fader controlling both the left and right of audio signals. Many mixing desks have mostly mono channels, which will mean you have one fader for the left and one for the right hand side of any audio source- which is ungainly for radio, and confusing for presenters.

Portablility vs. Usability

You can get this equipment in flightcases, allowing easy portability and storage, on it’s own, or built into a custom made desk. Whilst the flightcase option might sound attractive to schools who are short of space and want to use it with several classes, I would question how portable it really is. Between the CD players, mics, computer and mixing desk there are quite a lot of cables to connect together, and I would say the process of getting all the gear out and connecting all of these is likely to be quite daunting and time consuming to teachers who do not have experience of using professional studio equipment can see this resulting in some schools in this leading to the equipment sitting unused gathering dust, so I would seriously consider if this is a possibility before investing in a portable system. Personally I think a dedicated studio space is far more preferable, and any more portable broadcasting could be achieved with portable recorders, mobile phones, or even laptops running skype (more on this once I’ve tried it out!).

For our station we have a dedicated space, in a room which leads off one of our year 5 classrooms. We have also gone for the built in desk option, which will house the equipment in a well organised way, as well as making it look professional. I think having our dedicated space gives us lots of benefits besides the obvious practical ones, and I can see lots of potential for allowing the pupils to design branding for the station, and encouraging them to get into the right frame of mind when entering ‘the studio’.

I hope this post might be of use to anyone looking at starting a school radio station, and I would be happy to offer specific advice on equipment if anyone needs a hand. In future posts I will be looking at the organisational aspects of broadcasting in school, live broadcasting vs. ‘pre record’ or podcasting, and following the work we do on developing our station at Robin Hood School.

Links to schools already noted for their radio stations:

Ballsall Common Primary School

The Downs CE Primary School

Lickhill Radio

Leamore Primary School

Please send me any more links to schools who are established in this area…