Sometimes the simplest things are the most important things. On Nerve Radio, we use Social Media a lot to get listener feedback, and a few years back, the station acquired a touchscreen computer to go into the studio to manage this. The interface that was done for it was a simple one, with options to check Twitter, Facebook, and SMS messages. It also had a clock on it so the presenter would have an accurate time to announce, and a way of monitoring the studio webcam.
When I started as Head of Technical on the station, I noticed that the screen mainly stayed on the Twitter feed. Although presenters announced that listeners could text in, messages were missed due to the infrequency of the messages and that part of the screen was often overlooked. The way Facebook had been implemented, and changes to how Facebook works meant that the existing screen wasn’t practical at all.
I had also embarked on making sure that any clutter was kept out of the small studio that we use, and the touchscreen computer sat on the desk with a keyboard and mouse – the second set on the desk with the set connected to the play out computer – taking up space, and being pointless that a touchscreen computer was using a mouse. It was clear to me that a revamp was needed to the touchscreen system.
One of the first things I did was have the screen mounted onto the wall of the studio, taking it off the desk. The screen can now be moved around according to presenter preference. I also took the mouse and keyboard off as they weren’t needed, and started work on revamping the interface. I wanted to take the existing elements of the touchscreen interface but make them easier to view quickly.
It occurred to me that there was no clock in the studio at all, and although there was one on the playout software interface, it was a digital clock; past experience and looking into research into this meant that I knew that people struggle to take a digital time (ie, 17:35) and voicing it in an understandable way (ie twenty-five to six in the evening). So on the interface I added a ‘textual clock’ to give the presenters an easy way of reading the time. A standard analogue clock is also on the screen to help the presenters ‘visualise’ the time themselves. The next thing that occurred to me was that it didn’t really matter how listeners got in touch with the studio; whether via Twitter (by far our most common method), Facebook or text message, as long as they were on the screen to be seen by presenter was the most important thing. So I took the three separate feeds and respective APIs from their providers to combine them into one list. Messages sent within the last ten minutes are highlighted so that presenters only have to glance at the screen to know if there is a recent message. The interface also connects to the schedule database used for the station’s website so that if there is not a live presenter in the studio, the interface will not retrieve messages. This saves on making excessive API calls.
Based on comments by our presenters, I also added two further things to the touchscreen interface. First was one that displays the programme that is next on-air. This was simply done by, again, connecting through to the schedule database to display the current programme and the next programme (these two items of data are used in several parts of the Nerve Radio website, both externally and internally, including the Nerve Radio Player (NRP), another thing I have introduced since September 2012).
The second addition was the ability to view how many people are connected to the Nerve Radio stream at any one time. Again, this was simply a case of connecting to the statistics generated by the Icecast server we broadcast through and collecting the listener count figure. Although requested by presenters, many presenters have found, however that this has turned out to be a mixed blessing. It also, for obvious technical reasons, only shows the number of connections to the Internet stream; more than one person can listen to one stream connection for instance, and – although some presenters can’t understand why – it doesn’t count people listening when we do our twice-annual FM broadcasts.
A future enhancement to this that I aim to work on before the start of the new academic year in September is to add email communication to the display. I haven’t done this yet as there are some points to consider, the main one of which is how to display a message that can be longer than the message length being sent and received. The part of the screen that currently shows the contact information is also in place to allow announcements to be sent into the studio by the Nerve staff and committee. Again, this is work I aim to do over the summer, and it will be included into an internal web interface for various Nerve administrative tasks.
The touchscreen interface has been coded using PHP and MySQL, and hosted on an internal server – the previous interface was hosted on the main Nerve website which, as well as meaning that it was publicly available, also caused problems on the rare occasions that the web server was down or when web traffic outside the University was high. It is important to note that for this write-up, I have split the sections up; for instance, when the schedule database is connected to, this only happens once per programme rather than the three or four times that the write-up may imply.
This was submitted into the Technical Achievement category for the 2013 SRA Awards. I wasn’t expecting it to win, but I wanted to get my name, and Nerve’s name, out there. This is the response I got from it:
- This seems like an interesting project to bring a lot of things together onto a ‘dashboard’ and put it at the presenters fingertips I like that you’re bringing the feeds together as one stream to make this easier to use, although I can’t fully see why the presenter would need to see their own webcam on the screen, I’m also sceptical about telling presenters how many people are listening to them (but that’s not really technical criticism).This sounds like a nice little application, and really useful to your station (if not hyper-technical). I don’t know that this is incredibly innovative, but that said most professional stations don’t integrate texts, twitter and facebook that well into one interface so maybe I’m being unfair.
- This a good solution, improving functionality using existing kit.
- This clearly identified a need and the entrant has used his own skills to bring it into use. Would suggest that more consultation with the production teams takes place in future before development – e.g. knowing how many people are listening during a show can be offputting! The clock is a clever idea.