Jimbo Kipping, LBJS Broadcasting, Austin, TX
by Jerry Vigil
MPEG1-Layer 3, or MPEG3, or MP3. They all stand for the same thing, and while the technology itself is not new, they are the new buzzwords on the Internet. MP3 appears to be one solution to making digital audio files small enough to travel the Internet while maintaining broadcast quality. We touched on the uses and potential of MP3 in an interview with Bumper Morgan last year [November 1998 RAP], and it was clear this compression format offered many uses for radio. Jimbo Kipping, Director of Production at LBJS Broadcasting in Austin, Texas is also putting MP3 to good use and has taken things a step further by organizing a network of MP3 users in the market. This month’s RAP Interview takes a look at LBJS Broadcasting in Austin and how Jimbo and company are taking today’s technology by the horns and applying it to radio production. Get more detailed info on MP3 in this issue from the article ”The Future…For Now” by Craig Jackman.
JV: Tell us a little about your background in radio.
Jimbo: I have been doing radio since the age of fourteen. I started out in Albuquerque, New Mexico then worked in Killeen, Austin, and other smaller markets here in Texas. I kind of cut my teeth with the programming side doing mornings, afternoons, and every day-part imaginable, but mostly mornings. I was the Programming and Ops Director of a group in East Texas as well. During all this time, I also enjoyed doing killer production. I have always had my side business, PowerHaus Productions, and more recently, Voice Over Austin. My schooling background included Singing and Acting in high school and college which has really helped me in what I do today. Being a musician has also helped.
I came to Austin about six years ago because there was an opening on the morning show on our 93.3 frequency, which was a country station then. So I quit as Operations Manager in the Nacadoches-Lufkin area and come down here to do the mornings. From that point I hopped into the production department before the country station blew up, and I’ve been doing full-time production here in Austin ever since. I was Production Director for three stations then become Director of Production overseeing all five entities once we merged last year.
JV: How many stations are there in Austin, and what’s the population?
Jimbo: I’d say about twenty-five. Austin itself has about 550,000 people, but when you include the whole outlying area between Round Rock, Georgetown, down to San Marcos, you’re talking about a million five. This market is really growing.
JV: What production are you doing for the stations, and what are the formats you are working with?
Jimbo: I do commercials, and I also do a lot of the imaging for most of the rock side and the news/talk side as well. That commercial aspect will never go away, no matter how much they want me to focus on one thing.
KLBJ-AM is one of the heritage news/talk stations that has been around since the forties. Incidentally, we have people from the original heydays of KLBJ-AM who still work here. We also have KLBJ-FM which has been the heritage AOR for twenty-five years. The country station, which is now country again, is KLNC-FM. It changed formats around seven or eight months ago, and it’s really exciting because they’re putting some serious attention and passion into it, which they had not done when we did country the last time. The jock in the box just didn’t work for us before. The other two stations that we have were part of the merger. They are KROX-FM, which is a new rock station, and the other station is a Triple A called KGSR-FM.
JV: How many people are handling production for all the stations?
Jimbo: We have two Production Directors, a Continuity Director, and me. Phil Vavra and Patrick Stanger are the Production Directors, and Candace Andrews is our Continuity Director. These folks are incredibly talented, and we all do some pretty killer stuff for the Austin Market.
JV: Tell us about the production studios. Are you still using carts?
Jimbo: Nope. We use DCS, Digital Cart System from Computer Concepts, but I foresee a possible change with that in the near future. We have three full-blown digital production facilities right now, but they’re not consistent from room to room. We have the Korg Soundlink digital audio workstation, one of the grand daddies that came out about six years ago. We got the Korg right after I got here, and the first one was about forty thousand dollars. The second one was twenty-five thousand dollars, and now they’re worth about two thousand dollars.
Right now, we’re in the process of getting all of the rooms connected via network with Windows NT machines running SAWPro with 120 megs of RAM, fast SCSI hard drives, and CD burners. We will have a total of five rooms once we get all connected. Then we will be able to do sessions in one room and transfer it to another room to continue working on it. It will be set up with a server where we can store some audio, maybe sound effects and a couple of beds we use all the time, and we’ll also use it for archival purposes. Instead of archiving on DAT, we are going to be archiving on hard drive. That way, anybody in the building can pull up an MPEG file that we have on the server and play it at their desk. Gone will be the days of salespeople coming down and saying, “Hey, I need to hear cart number 114. Can you stop what you’re doing and play it for me?” We’ll do a hard copy backup on CD ROM as well.
About five years ago I started the process of DAT-ing everything that either comes in or gets produced. We are now cresting 32,500 elements all on DAT, and we have them all in a FileMaker Pro database where we can look anything up. “Give me everything for Comp USA.” Boom! There it is.
Now, with MPEG 3, we’re able to really focus on a different way of archiving. Not to say that we’re going to take all thirty-two thousand cuts on DAT and transfer them to the new backup system. But from this day forward, we’ll be archiving with MPEG 3, on CDs and on the hard drive. When we fill up a directory with five hundred cuts, we’ll take those five hundred cuts and press them to a CD ROM just so we’ll have a hard copy, and we’ll either keep them off site or in a locked vault in the facility.
JV: When did you come across MP3?
Jimbo: I had heard about people using this a number of months ago. I did some investigation and found that the quality you can get with the savings of space were just tremendous. The sound was great. So we decided to archive everything that way. And with our new network, it will be a time-saver to have it accessible from anybody’s desk in the building. They can literally be on the phone with a client when the client says, “Hey, remember the spot I did last year?” They can look it up on the database, find the exact identifier number, go to a certain directory on the hard drive, pull that spot up and play it at their desk.
JV: You’re not only using MP3 internally, but you’ve expanded its use outside of your facility as well. Tell us about this.
Jimbo: While investigating MP3 for our internal use, I kind of stumbled across something. There is DG(S), and there is DCI. I am a member of DG in my home studio. When I linked up with them, they filled me in on exactly how to get audio from my facility to their facility so they could ship it out. MPEG3 was the standard that they used. I’m thinking, well, I don’t know if that’s the case from DG to their terminals at other stations, but to get it to them via the Internet, boom, MP3 was the way to go.
So, I’m thinking, gee thanks! I appreciate it. Now don’t send the hit squad out, but I had the idea to organize this. I heard people were using MP3 on the Internet elsewhere in the country, but there was really no organization to it. I thought, let’s start the ball rolling here in Austin, and that’s what we did. We contacted all the major players here in the market—aside from some of the non-coms and Christian stations that maybe don’t run a whole lot of spots from the secular community—and we had a meeting one night. We had engineers, Production Directors, jocks, just the whole range of representation from all the stations. We got together and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we did this?” I kind of picked up the torch and ran with it, and we got together in this meeting to determine which would be the best way to set it all up. Do we get an FTP site where everybody uploads their commercials to this FTP site, then everybody has to go get their spots? Or do we just send them as attachments to e-mails?
In that meeting it was determined that this has to be so idiot-proof that anybody could use it. All you have to do is check e-mail. If there’s an attachment, you open it, double-click, and it starts playing. That way, the person who comes in over the weekend to do production can just check for e-mail, click on an icon, and dub the spot, as opposed to having to log onto an FTP site, find the spot, download it, then dub it. So we decided we’d do e-mail attachments. Once those spots come in as e-mail attachments, we then archive directly from that file. So, along with the stuff we produce in house, anything that comes in as a dub from across the street goes directly into our MP3 database.
JV: And you don’t even have to play the file to record it to the database. You can just copy it as you would any computer file, which only takes a couple of seconds.
Jimbo: Absolutely. Copy it over and change the name. And the beauty about the way technology is changing is that there are on-air playback systems out there that let you use MP3 files as well as WAV files, and you can copy those directly over to the playback systems without having to do your traditional dubbing. Of course, if there’s a slate at the beginning, you’d have to do some editing. But for the most part, the traditional way of dubbing is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
JV: I understand that there’s a ten to one compression with MPEG3. Is that correct?
Jimbo: Absolutely, but that all depends on which sample rate you choose. You can encode higher, but the rate we use is 128 kilobits per second. If you had a sixty-second stereo WAV file, that would generally be about 11 or 12 megs at 44.1kHz sampling, sixteen bit. You take that same file and convert it to MPEG 3—and I recommend the Audio Active encoder from Telos—and that gets that file down to under one meg. I think it actually compresses down to 970K. With that much compression, you can actually attach that file to an e-mail and send it across with no problems with the Internet service provider.
JV: That was my next question. I’ve heard that some ISPs limit the size of the file you can e-mail.
Jimbo: Most of the people who are on this network have their own backbones to the Internet, so that hasn’t been a problem. There’s only been one or two dial-ups where we’ve run into limitations, but mostly their limits are like two or three megs. So, if you just send individual files rather than several at once, it’s not a problem. If you send eighteen cuts for TV sweeps, you’re going to be doing a few more e-mails. The standard here in Austin among our group is to e-mail a max of one or two spots at a time. There have been people who have sent four or five, but they knew that we had our own backbone and our own intranet, so there really was no problem.
JV: What kind of Internet connection do you have at the stations?
Jimbo: We have the equivalent of two T1 lines between here and a company called Outernet which is directly linked to the Internet. The connection is really fast. The big test will be coming up in May when we will be entering TV sweeps, and Austin is renowned for running tons of TV spots. I produce a lot of TV spots for the Fox affiliates. That reminds me, when we instituted this partially with a couple of people about a month and a half ago during the February sweeps, the TV station that was typically calling up doing Zephyr sessions with everybody found out we were doing MPEG3. He said, “Wait a minute. I’m archiving all my stuff with MPEG3. Why don’t I just e-mail the spots to you?” So he found out through the grapevine that we were doing this and shaved two hours of work off his day by just encoding his work and sending it to the people via e-mail rather than with all those individual Zephyr ISDN sessions.
In another case, I had a call from a production house in San Antonio that had heard we were doing this. He sends us show type material, like thirty-minute shows. He’s using SAWPlus down at his production facility, and now he’s going to start encoding with MPEG3 and sending the shows to us via e-mail, as opposed to pressing it to CD and sending it overnight.
JV: He’s going to send full 30-minute shows?
Jimbo: Yes, but it’s going to be cut up in segments like it is now. And the encoding for this will be mono since it’s for the AM News/Talk station, so it’s not going to take up as much space.
We’ve also worked with a radio station in San Antonio that we did some spots for. In dealing with the person at the station, I was about to send a spot via Fed-ex when I said, “Hey, do you have an e-mail account?” “Yeah.” “Do you have a way to get that computer to your board?” He says, “Yeah.” I said, “Hang on.” So I sent it to him by e-mail. He was just blown away, and because of that, now this company in San Antonio wants to come on board our little network. We call it E-Spots.
JV: That’s the perfect name!
Jimbo: It came from that meeting we had. Somebody suggested calling it E-Spots. After the meeting, I went out and registered www.e-spots.net. What I’m going to do is put together a quick little website that will show who’s on board and give the basic premise behind what we’re doing. It will be a place for people to get involved. For example, if they want to become like an affiliate, they agree that such and such is the standard they will use for encoding; this is what they use to play back, etc.. That way we can all trade back and forth. The reason why we did this is not just as a convenience to get spots in the building, but now we don’t have to rely on salespeople who are on the golf course or in the line at the bank—“Oh, I forgot to go pick up your dub! I was in line at the bank.” I’m telling you, that excuse was actually used. As a result, we are put in situations where we miss spots because we have to rely on people to go by and pick those tapes up. Now, we’ve taken that element out to a degree, and it’s really sped things up, believe it or not.
JV: What other benefits of using MP3 have you noticed?
Jimbo: When we’re sending spots we’ve produced across town, we also send a copy to the agency if there is one. They save it for their archive purposes. That means no more making umpteen tapes for the agency. “I need thirteen cassettes with that.” “Hey, here’s your MPEG file. You make your own cassettes. Thank you, see you, bye.”
And MPEG is very handy with the approval process. I just did a big project with the State of Texas from my home studio. For the approval process, I told them to go get their free player. I’m using WinAmp. Go to www.winamp.com and download the player. It’s like shareware—you like it, you pay ten bucks, thank you very much. So they went ahead and did that, then they were able to get the commercials, listen to them, and say, “Yes, it’s approved.” No more just listening to it over the phone, and you don’t have to be there in the studio tying up valuable studio time just to play the spot down a phone line that’s going to sound like crap. With this, they have full broadcast quality at their convenience right there at their desk. That’s cool.
JV: It sounds like this is going to really take off.
Jimbo: Like I said, this is being done around the country. There’s just not really much organization out there.
JV: Well, I think the idea of the web site is great. At least people can go there and learn what bit rate they should use, what the standards are, and who’s on the network. What have you found in the way of encoders?
Jimbo: There are a number of free encoders for MPEG3. I don’t know if you’ve been watching, but the music industry is just shaking in their boots because of this. There are a number of free encoders out there, but the one problem with those free encoders is that they might not necessarily be licensed to utilize the MPEG3 technology. That’s one thing that the Audio Active encoder is. It’s licensed to use the technology. Hence, they have the highest quality, in my opinion, than any of those freebies out there. The Audio Active package is called the Audio Active Production Studio. It has been written up in many publications. There’s a Production Studio Lite version that’s like seventy bucks. You get an encoder and a decoder. Then you can get an MPEG file, convert it to a WAV file, and directly import that into a program like SAWPlus or SAWPro, which we use here at the stations as well as at my home studio. Likewise, you can take a WAV file from SAWPlus and convert it to MPEG3 for archive or distribution purposes.
JV: Stations in a market the size of Austin typically have more direct business going on the air than stations in larger markets. Your production department must be producing a ton of commercials between all five stations.
Jimbo: Absolutely. The interesting thing about our department, Sound Design, which is the production arm of the LBJS Broadcasting Company, is that we do a lot of writing ourselves. It doesn’t necessarily come from the salesperson, and we don’t have an on-staff writer. The two other full-time production people and I do a lot of our own writing, which does take quite a bit of time. We’re getting the salespeople to where they can do more of their own writing, but that’s a training process further down the road, once we get the facilities in place to actually have them write their own copy and utilize the templates that we will have set up.
But the interesting thing about the Austin market is that we have an incredible amount of agencies that use the production departments of radio stations, not only here, but throughout the city. And because of that, even though it might not be direct sales, we’re doing a lot of fully-produced stuff for agencies. The spot might just be for our company, but it might also go across town. If I were to put a ratio to it, I would say we have forty or forty-five percent locally produced, and the rest would be the dubs. Generally, if you get to a market like Dallas or Houston, you get a ton of dubs and very few locally produced commercials. That’s why we have the amount of people that we have here full-time, to handle the amount of fully produced spots that we have. We do full-blown productions with sound effects and all. It’s not just rip-and-reads. And we work with the clients one on one when we can. That’s a little different from other production departments here in the market, I would say.
You know, radio has become such a game of monopoly. It’s not the same as it was with the mom and pop shops anymore. And there are so many production guys in general who are trying to handle too much. I don’t think it’s just in this market, but when you get three, four, five, or six stations under one roof, to try to handle it all yourself is death. I mean, there’s just no way to handle it all. Just in our building, we’re pushing forty sales reps with an average of fifteen to twenty clients on the air at a time. There’s just no way for one person to handle that. Even with several full-time people in our production department, we still rely on some rip-and-reads from time to time, the stuff that doesn’t need as much attention. Those we can pass them off to some of the on-air personalities, and they do a lot of the dubbing and tagging as well.
JV: Voice Over Austin, Powerhouse Productions, and five radio stations. Are you staying busy?
Jimbo: From dusk until dawn, man. It’s amazing. I work all the time. I get here to the LBJS Broadcasting Company at six a.m. No sooner do I get out of here, and I turn right back around at the house and do more of the same.
JV: Tell us a bit more about your home studio.
Jimbo: I actually started using SAW back when it was just “SAW.” So I’ve kind of grown with them to a 32-track studio. At the home studio, I’m doing stuff for radio and television, and since the Austin market has become such a hotbed for film work, I try to do some film stuff as well. At home, I use ISDN with an ISP for Internet access. With that, upload time on the 60-second spot in MP3 is about two minutes. A standard 56K connection would take about six or seven minutes.
JV: I take it there’s some German history in the name of your business, PowerHous Productions?
Jimbo: My air name for the longest time was Jimbo Powers. That’s where PowerHaus Productions came from. The spelling of “Haus” is because my real name, Kipping, is very German, and haus is house in German.
JV: Any plans for the future?
Jimbo: I just bought 11.4 acres of land out in the Hill Country by Willie Nelson’s place. The hopes are, within in the next five years, to actually build about a twelve-hundred square foot facility to do VO and audio work as well as post work for video and film. It’s called the VO/Ranch. Hey, I’ll have pictures on my web sight soon. I’m actually thinking about importing 150 or 200 grape vines and having a little vineyard. This will calm me down after a stressful day of writing and producing! Anyone for a glass of JimBeaujolais?