Radio will never die, if the past is anything to go by. It seems it is as immortal as it is ubiquitous and there is little doubt whether our existence here on planet Earth would have turned out the same without it. The first automobile, the first air flight, the Russian Revolution, both World Wars, the neon light, the helicopter and instant coffee; the radio was there to broadcast it all. Simply put, the radio has shaped our lives in an immeasurable way and we owe a lot to it.

One radio station that’s stood the test of time is Jacaranda FM, previously known as Jacaranda 94.2. They have been broadcasting English and Afrikaans programmes in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Northwest Province since 1986 and now boast an audience of more than 2 million, which is nothing to sniff at and is very important to Gauteng, the nation’s most competitive radio market. Equally impressive, they are the number one station among Afrikaans home listeners and South Africa’s number one independent radio station.

While other radio station’s listenership figures have been dwindling, Jacaranda’s figures are on the rise with an estimated May 2013 audience census of 1 855 000 which is almost 100 000 more than last years’ June figures. Given this state of rising popularity it only made sense that after many years at their studios in Centurion they announced the development of a new studio location in 2012. This location is now revealed as their newly built facility on 14th Road, Midrand next to the M1 highway. Of course, new premises call for an overhaul and often a complete replacement of studio equipment. This is exactly what was done.

Out with the old, in with the new

Upon entering the new studios, it is clear that Jacaranda’s new facility was designed to be slick, modern and state of the art. All of the right trimmings are in the right places with all the current amenities that one would expect along with some you wouldn’t: fingerprint access, a broadcast technology museum, funky music-related wallpaper, a gym and even a health spa. The reception area is brightly lit with natural light and if you had to glance up you would see the words ’LEKKER TO BE HERE” on an upper wall. For those that work there, I could see how that might be the case.

Andrew Pike, Technical and IT Manager at Jacaranda FM, was kind enough to show me around the studios and all the new gear installed there. Andrew was responsible for procuring and commissioning the installation of the new equipment and is incredibly knowledgeable in radio technology.

Built from the ground up, planning for all the new equipment to be installed at the new Jacaranda FM occurred from the very beginning. There are two on-air studios; one for the breakfast show and afternoon drive and another for the mid-day shows.

The core system at Jacaranda is based around a Telos Systems Axia system interconnected via network over an AoE protocol called Livewire. Telos Systems is a world leader in broadcast equipment technology and its Omnia division is found throughout most commercial radio stations worldwide. They are also the progenitors of the Livewire protocol for radio station applications.

“The heart of how the studios work is based around the Axia equipment,’ says Pike. “It’s all IP-based so if I’ve got mic one open, it’s got an IP stream number so it’s available anywhere in the building. I can route it or I can move it around on the desk. One of the great features of having the Axia system is V-Mix. You can mix sources together, route them so basically what we do is take the two studios, mix them together virtually and send them to the broadcast processor.’

In terms of specific Telos hardware, Axia Powerstation Console Engines along with Element control surfaces were installed. The Powerstation is the “brain’ of the on-air mixing system that provides a multiple of inputs in both the analogue and digital domains and connects to the control surface via one six-pin cable. In the case of Jacaranda FM, each studio receives two Powerstations for complete redundancy in case of failure and all of them are connected over the Livewire network.

Playout and scheduling duties are handled by RCS GSelector and Zetta software running on 12 server PCs running Intel i7 chips, 16GB of RAM and Microsoft’s SQL server platform.

Pike comments: “Really what we see here is just the GUI interface. There is a server where all the audio is all stored and plays out from. So if I log in from this studio, what I look at is just a picture of what’s happening on the server.’

As mentioned, all audio and play out material is stored on a server which turned out to be housed in a very well air-conditioned glass-cased room a little down the hall from the studio we were standing in. This room also contains some very big racks that house all the broadcast processing required to get a station on the air. However, since Jacaranda FM broadcasts to multiple regions, there are multiple processors employed to handle each region. First, each region is fed via a Telos Zephyr XSTREAM ISDN transceiver over Telkom ISDN lines. The main transmitter is then paired with an Orban 8600S, which is their flagship processor and all other regional transmitters are paired with Orban 3500 processors. The main transmitter is a Rohde & Shwarz NR8200 10KW FM.

The wrap

The radio world, like any audio platform, has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. It too has experienced the ebb and flow of change from the days of analogue right through into the convenience and power of digital. Jacaranda FM’s new facility is certainly testament to this necessary adaptation that many studios have had to go through and given the technology at this level it is easy to see that they are secure in transmitting into the near future and beyond.