Stephanie Snyder, Technical Director, Yahoo! Broadcast Services, formerly broadcast.com, Dallas, Texas
Broadcast.com features programming from 420 radio stations and networks and 56 television stations and cable networks. It also delivers a large selection of non-traditional broadcast programming including full-length CDs and audio books and broadcasts games and other programming for more than 450 college and professional sports teams. Basically, broadcast.com is in the business of delivering audio and video programming to computer users. If you have a computer with Internet access, you have access to all of the above. And like traditional broadcast mediums, web-casting also has commercials and requires audio production. That’s where Stephanie Snyder comes in. Stephanie is the person responsible for creating broadcast.com’s audio production department from scratch just two years ago. She was hired as the company’s Production Director and is now their Technical Director. The company itself has also gone through some recent changes. It has been acquired by Yahoo!, another Internet giant, and now bears the name Yahoo! Broadcast Services. This month’s interview with Stephanie takes an inside look at production and more at one of the world’s biggest and fastest growing Internet companies.
JV: Tell us about your background in the biz and how you wound up leaving radio for the studios at broadcast.com.
Stephanie: I started in traditional radio back in 1988 and did the typical work at the college station and found that I could get paid to do this kind of stuff. Wow! So I began in San Antonio, Texas. I cycled through about five or six stations in San Antonio over the course of about eight or nine years. I was working at WOAI in San Antonio as a sports producer where I was doing the production for the Spurs Radio Network along with some other things, and we had just begun to put the WOAI signal out over the Internet. To do that we used a company called AudioNet based up in Dallas. I had worked with them on a couple of different projects, and they gave me a call and recruited me. They said, “Look, we’re doing some really interesting things with the Internet. We’re trying to put broadcasting out over your computer, and we could use some people with the broadcasting background.” So that’s how I ended up at AudioNet. Since ’97, when I made that move, the company has changed its name from AudioNet to broadcast.com and most recently, Yahoo! Broadcast Services. So it’s been interesting.
JV: You were hired as a Production Director but have a new title of Technical Director. What are your responsibilities there?
Stephanie: I was promoted to Technical Director in February, and I have taken on some different responsibilities since then. I am no longer handling the day-to-day production, but I came on board in ’97 to take on production among other things. I built our production studio, established our production departments, and basically introduced the idea to AudioNet/broadcast.com of using traditional radio-style commercials.
JV: So you’re to blame! How were the commercials being handled when you got there?
Stephanie: When I came on board, our audio commercials were being done by one of our computer programmers who had a Radio Shack microphone plugged into his sound card on his PC on the desktop in the office. We’ve made a lot of changes since then.
JV: As the Production Director there, what differences did you notice between the radio atmosphere and that of Yahoo! Broadcast Services, an Internet broadcaster?
Stephanie: Well, it’s funny because this is definitely a computer company, so the culture’s a bit different. But in some ways, it’s very much something that a radio Production Director would recognize. We are creating commercials for clients, and we are working with Account Executives. So that leads to all of your standard Production Director type hurdles along the lines of, “Hi, I’m the new Account Executive, and oh, by the way, I have promised that when I go meet with my client today at noon for our lunch meeting I’ll have a spec spot done. You don’t mind dropping everything that you’re doing right now and recording a spec spot for me in the next fifteen minutes, do you?” We also have the standard problems of not getting the copy or getting the copy late or having to wait for someone to finish the copy or changing it three times after you’ve recorded it. So in many ways, what we do as far as the audio production end is very much something that a radio Production Director would recognize.
JV: One big difference between radio and Internet broadcasting, with regards to commercials, is that you also have the video and graphics to deal with.
Stephanie: We do. That’s something we’ve added probably within the last eight months or so. We were doing strictly audio only for about a year or so. We’ve added what we call our multi-media ads which have graphics, computer animation, and in some cases traditional video as well.
JV: How is the video production being handled?
Stephanie: We use our audio production staff to do the audio end of the commercials, and then we have computer programmers who do the actual graphics and animation. It’s a joint project with a couple of different departments.
JV: It’s easy for someone to get confused these days when it comes to the various Internet audio formats and players required to access them. What are the basics of Internet audio?
Stephanie: There are basically two major ways you can encounter audio over the Internet. The first would be a download and the second would be a stream. The difference is, a download is something that you have to copy onto your computer before you can use it. That’s what we run into in the case of MPEG3 or MP3 files that people download off the Internet. They go find this file, copy it onto their computer, and then they can play it back or copy it to a CD or whatever they’d like to do with it. In the case of streaming, you actually experience the information as it comes across in real time over your computer connection. With streaming, you connect to a server. The server recognizes what audio you’re asking to listen to and then sends that audio to you across the Internet as it’s happening.
JV: As far as players go, it seems there’s some competition between RealNetwork’s RealAudio player and Microrsoft’s Media Player. What’s the story there?
Stephanie: Well, I can’t speak too much to the competition between the two, but I can tell you there are some different formats out there. In many cases, you could compare it to the way people use different word processors; everyone has their favorite. And the major ones that we come across, and the formats most of our broadcasts are done in at the moment, are for the RealPlayer and Microsoft Windows Media Player. Those are the two that we use on the most common basis, and each of those has streaming audio features. They both do video as well, and they work in a similar fashion in that they both stream the audio from a server through the Internet to your player.
JV: Didn’t Yahoo! Broadcast Services use RealAudio exclusively back when the company was known as AudioNet?
Stephanie: When we started, yes. It was the only game in town. Quite simply, RealAudio came out before the Windows Media, which back then was called NetShow. Real had a head start, and they came out first.
JV: Any idea which format is the leader these days, Microsoft’s or RealNetwork’s?
Stephanie: It’s gone back and forth, but I can’t tell you exactly. That’s not really my area. There are a couple of other formats out there as well. There are MPEG players that you can now download off the Internet that are beginning to introduce streaming MPEG. You may also have seen, if you are a Mac user, that QuickTime will now do audio and video streaming as well.
JV: It doesn’t sound too different than the way we use the various recording formats that we have now—CD, DAT, MiniDisc, etc.. Sounds like it’s a matter of “pick your flavor.”
Stephanie: It’s very similar, and that’s a good thing to keep in mind as you start hearing about MPEG and how MPEG3 is going to destroy the record industry as we know it. I don’t believe MPEG3 will destroy the record industry as we know it any more than recordable CDs or recordable DATs, or for that matter, cassette tapes twenty years ago. It’s a format. It’s a way of getting the audio to the users.
JV: Tell us about the production studio you built. How did that evolve?
Stephanie: Well, as I said, we started with a computer programmer who had a Radio Shack microphone at his desktop. Obviously, that wasn’t giving us the best audio quality, and that really limited some of the things we could do. We were pretty much limited to one voice reading a script, and generally that voice was whoever we could grab from whatever normal work they were doing that afternoon.
I came in and we made the change pretty early to a very small Mackie mixer, a CD player, and a cassette deck just to do some very basic, very bare bones production. Back in ’97, we were working with very limited audio quality. At the beginning, audio over the Internet was something new, something neat, but it was certainly not high quality. In the very beginning, especially with some of the very early software, it was tough to get AM quality sound. It was not the easiest thing to listen to. Then the software improved. The bandwidth or the amount of space that we had to send the information increased as well, so we were able to provide much higher quality audio as we moved forward. After a month or two of working with the real bare bones Mackie with the CD player, we moved into a new building. AudioNet moved from a very small warehouse in Deep Elum in Dallas to a much larger converted warehouse. We built an entire new interior for the building and had a whole lot more space to deal with. So we moved our little Mackie into basically a closet so we would at least have a room. Before, we had just been working on the open floor with all the programmers. Again, not the best for audio quality. So, we at least got ourselves a little closet, but that still wasn’t optimal. At that point we started the sales job on upper management to improve to a better production setup.
When we got into the closet, we bought a digital audio workstation and ran Sound Forge. Once we made that little step and got the closet with Sound Forge, we kept pushing, and in December of ’97 we started plans for a full-out audio production studio. We ended up going with a modular isolation room design. We used Acoustic Systems out of Austin, Texas and built ourselves two ten by ten isolation rooms facing each other so we could have a talent side and a production side. We added SAW32 and still used Sound Forge for some basic single track audio editing. We put in multi CD players, multi DATs, and a pair of Telos Zephyrs so we could pull in voice talents from all over the place. And we basically moved up from there. We now have, I won’t say state of the art, but a pretty impressive setup here. It can certainly handle just about any audio production that needs to be done.
JV: How many people are involved in doing the production now?
Stephanie: Day-to-day production is now handled by one of the people who used to be my assistant. I used to have a couple of part-timers who would help me out carting things up as it were, although we don’t use carts. They just did the digital equivalent of carting things up. And I got myself a full-timer in October of last year. She proved to be pretty up to speed, so she took over most of the production back in February when I was promoted. Her name is Jessica Nelson. I did it for two years and turned it over to her a few months ago.
JV: So what keeps you busy now? What’s a typical day like?
Stephanie: Oh, it’s always something. I can’t say that it’s the same day twice. We may be working with a group from China today; we might be working with a group from Austin tomorrow. There’s really no telling. We’re doing an awful lot of live broadcasts, and we have a lot of exciting things going on. There’s always new software. There’s always new ways of using the technology, and so we do a lot of forward thinking.
JV: It really seems like the technology is changing almost monthly.
Stephanie: That’s fair. That is certainly something that we’ve noticed. Again, I’ve seen this company grow from basically a shoebox company running out of a very small room in a not so nice area of Dallas to a world-known company. It’s really been exciting.
JV: What are a couple of highlights that you’ve experienced there during the company’s incredible growth?
Stephanie: Well, there have been a number of things that we’ve done over the years. I would say some of the big exciting things were in ’97 when we carried our first Super Bowl, and last year we had the Victoria’s Secret broadcast that made the national headlines. Everybody heard about that one. We started doing video in mid-1997. At the beginning, the video was just as painful to watch as the audio was to listen to in ’95. But again, the quality has improved tremendously and has taken some great steps in the past eighteen months.
JV: When I visit www.broadcast.com on the Net and pick a radio station to listen to, for example, I get the commercial first, then the station’s audio begins to play. Is this pretty much the standard format for commercial delivery there?
Stephanie: That is the standard format, although you will notice, especially if you caught some of our college football broadcasts over the last couple of years, we do some commercial insertion inside some particular broadcasts.
JV: Sounds like it’s getting a little more like radio broadcasting.
Stephanie: Exactly. And time segments are the same because we’re usually working off of a network broadcast, so the time segments are still thirties and sixties. The basic format is still the same; you’re running an audio commercial.
JV: Who handles the commercial copywriting?
Stephanie: We have a part-time copywriter who does some copywriting for us. Much of our ad fill staff works directly with the agencies, so we get agency spots or scripts from each of our clients. We do some copywriting, but not much.
JV: How are audiences targeted? What happens when a client comes to you and says, “I want eighteen to twenty-four year old men?”
Stephanie: First, that’s a big chunk of our audience. There’s an awful lot of the young male demographic on the Internet. There’s also an awful lot of women in their twenties to fifties who are in the Internet shopping environment. How do you target them? It’s actually in some ways easier than targeting for radio because we have general categories of our programming. In that way, it’s much like a cable station in that we have a number of very specific categories. So if you want business programming and you want to target businessmen, you would run your commercial before the business content, the business channel as it were, of broadcast.com. If you want to target video game users, you would play your commercial before the video game review programs that we run. If you want to target college sports audiences, then we can run your ad before each of the college sports games. Unlike radio, where they may have it on for some time, people are generally coming to the Internet looking for specific programs.
JV: When visiting broadcast.com links, I’ve noticed the commercials are sometimes of poorer technical quality than the content that follows. Why is that?
Stephanie: We still run a large number of our commercials at the lowest common bandwidth. Quite simply, the reason we do that is to hit the largest audience with the ads. There are still more people out there who have 14.4 modems, the very slow modems, than people who have ISDN or DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) connections for their home office. So, for the most part, even now that we have higher bandwidth options, we still run a majority of our ads at low bandwidth. So, if your 14.4 user tried to click on a very high bandwidth signal, let’s say for example a very high audio quality concert, they’d still be able to hear the advertising even if they couldn’t hear the program. Not that that’s the best way to go about it, but we do target it that way.
In some ways, our audio production is still limited by the quality of the audio. The situations we run into with production are that you have to be very careful when working in a low bandwidth environment because very subtle effects and music are completely lost in the translation. You have to aim more for the harder hitting, the more obvious effects and music.
JV: What major steps in the technology do you see around the corner?
Stephanie: Well, there has been a lot more talk about cable modems, a lot more talk about digital subscriber lines, and that’s exciting for us because the more people who have those types of connections, the more people will get the higher bandwidth programming, the higher bandwidth audio and video. If we can move up to that higher bandwidth level with the majority of our audience, we can do a lot more exciting things with the audio production because, again, we won’t be constrained by that low bandwidth, that limitation to avoid the very subtle effects.
And in our production department, the new technology is allowing us to have some fun e-mailing audio back and forth with our voice talents. That’s something we have found really exciting over the last few months. We’re able to use voice talent through our ISDN lines using our Telos Zephyrs, but we’ve also had good results e-mailing audio back and forth because not every studio has an ISDN line. It’s disappointing to find someone we’d really like to work with but they’re located in Iowa and we’re here in Dallas. But we’d still really like to use this person, whether to have them create a spot for us or just to be a voice talent and read a spot for us. What we can do in many cases is have them record something in a digital format at their studio. We generally prefer a .WAV format because it works across many platforms. We have them record their file, be it a fully produced spot or just a voice track, and then they can compress that file using something along the lines of WinZip or other compression programs to make the file smaller and attach it to an e-mail and send it out to us. So we can get CD quality sound without even having the person in the same room. Now, we lose a little bit in that you may have to send two or three e-mails back and forth saying “Oh, can we change very slightly the enunciation on this word, or can we change very slightly the way we accented this particular piece,” but other than that, it really works quite well, and it’s quite inexpensive.
JV: What kinds of talent fees are paid for voice-over work? There must be a whole new scale since this isn’t radio.
Stephanie: There is. There is a whole new aspect in that we’re no longer asking, “Is this running in a major market?” I mean, technically, all of our Internet audio is international. You can pick it up from anywhere there is an Internet connection. But by the same token, it’s also generally running on a very segmented, very specific audience piece. It’s usually running to a much smaller audience than something that’s broadcast over the air here in Dallas, for example. We generally work out on a case-by-case basis what our rates will be depending on which types of segments we’re using them for.
JV: So it’s apparently lower than, let’s say, a typical local VO fee here in Dallas of $175 or thereabouts.
Stephanie: Our voiceovers generally have a much smaller reach, so yes. Our range is pretty broad. It depends somewhat on the ability of each particular voice talent to negotiate. It’s also in many cases based on their experience. We have some less experienced talent do this to get some exposure, and we have some more experienced talent do this to get into the new media.
JV: What do you see down the road for radio production people in this Internet arena? Are there going to be opportunities for them?
Stephanie: There are definitely opportunities. Even if you’re not doing commercials for a web site, there are a lot of free-lance opportunities for people who know audio production, who can provide sound, whether it be for a web page or for a multi-media environment. There are a lot of people who are making video games. There are a lot of people who are making multi-media enhanced training presentations, multi-media enhanced web pages. In many cases, they haven’t a clue on how to start doing their audio. That’s where the radio production people have a great advantage.
I don’t think as yet that we’re going to see the end of radio as we know it, even when we talk about interactive television and interactive Internet connections in your cars and what have you. Sometimes your hands and your eyes are busy. If I’m washing my car, for example, there is no way I’m also going to be on the Internet at the same time, whereas I’m quite likely to have the radio on while I wash my car. My eyes are busy. My hands are busy. But my ears are not. In some cases, I think the more passive aspect of radio certainly has a place as we move forward. Now, will it be individual radio stations, or will it be a few big networks over satellite radio? That’s another conversation. But I do think that being able to listen to music and being able to listen to talk show type programs still has a place.