Earlier this month, as the president announced Osama bin Laden’s demise, NPR’s Robert Smith noticed on Twitter that revelers were congregating at Ground Zero. He grabbed his gear and headed into Manhattan. A few hours later, Smith was reporting live in high fidelity, playing back sound bites as if broadcasting from the D.C. studios. No engineer at his side, no setup — and, importantly, no cell-network fuzz.
It was 4 a.m. and Charlie Mayer, NPR’s director of operations, was listening at home, stumped.
“As the operations guy, it’s my job to understand how everybody gets on the air,” Mayer said. “I emailed him, I’m like, ‘Robert, that was a great two-way, how did you do it?’ And he’s like, ‘Fool, I did it with my iPhone!'”
An iPhone 4, running on Verizon’s 3G network, with a standard field mike and an adapter plugged into the headphone jack. Smith pulled off what might have required days of planning just a few months ago — sending engineers to install an ISDN line at the site, Mayer suggested, or equipping the reporter with a $3,000 satellite phone. A low-quality cellphone connection would usually have to do for breaking news. “Sounds fine,” Mayer said, “but it’s not like being right there.”
I thought I was impressed last month when I wrote about a Boston radio reporter who used her iPhone to record interviews for a story. That was kid stuff. It turns out NPR has been experimenting with radio-quality live broadcasts on mobile devices and wireless connections.
Smith used an iPhone app called Report-IT Live to make the connection. No IP addresses or ports to configure, just a user name and password. NPR worked with developer Tieline to streamline the app for maximum simplicity — not so much for reporters like Smith, but for tens of millions of broadcast-capable citizens out there. “We think of that as being for anybody with an iPhone,” Mayer said. “Every iPhone in the world is potentially an NPR recording and transmission tool.”
To hear the kind of difference in quality we’re talking about, check out this example from WNYC radio. It’s the same bit of audio, first as it was heard on air (over a scratchy cell connection), and then as it was recorded with Report-IT on an iPod touch connecting over a Verizon MiFi. (The switch happens about 27 seconds in; here’s the MP3.)
People who are far away or unavailable in person can talk to a host without that “faraway” sound. The Report-IT app is a free download, though NPR pays server licensing fees. Mayer walked me through the setup during our interview; it took less than a minute to get “on the air.”
Of course, cellphones have been a reporting and broadcasting tool as long as they’ve existed, but there’s always been a tradeoff in quality. The 3G infrastructure is not always reliable enough for on-air use; it’s too slow and prone to dropouts. In 2008, during the presidential race, reporter David Greene was using pro gear on a 3G connection while conducting a live interview from Hillary Clinton campaign’s party. The connection dropped midstream. (And you complain about dropped calls.)
“I feel horrible about that,” Mayer said. “But at the same time, if we don’t do that, we don’t learn, we’re always afraid of this technology, and we don’t advance quickly.”
While NPR is currently using 3G with Report-IT, Mayer said the Next Big Thing is Verizon’s nascent LTE network, also called 4G. He said it’s like jumping from dial-up to a cable modem. An LTE connection costs NPR about $50 a month, whereas a satellite phone costs about $6 a minute. So far, though, LTE coverage is still spotty — limited mostly to urban areas, and the connection does not work overseas.
NPR made its first successful LTE broadcast last month, a 24-minute interview with Sen. Kent Conrad on Talk of the Nation. The technology got another big test when President Obama visited Facebook a few weeks ago.
Reporter Ari Shapiro was sent to Palo Alto, Calif., with a portable Comrex kit and an LTE connection. “In that kind of a situation you have very limited time to file, and so we had a very narrow window in which we could talk to Ari,” Mayer said. Shapiro and Mayer were on opposite sides of the country, testing the connection and getting poor results. It was nerve-racking.
“The White House press staff shows up and says, ‘Okay, we gotta move!’ At this point Michele Norris is walking into the studio to do this interview, and it’s one of tense moments where you say, ‘All right, let’s give it a shot.'”
It went off without a hitch. The listener hustles through Facebook’s corridors right alongside the press corps. An old-fashioned phone connection can’t capture that. “That kind of interview would absolutely have been done on a cell phone a couple of months ago,” Mayer said.
If and when the iPhone supports LTE, reporters will have a killer mobile broadcasting kit in their pockets. (A number of Android devices already support LTE, but new NPR employees are given the choice of a BlackBerry or an iPhone. The vast majority choose an iPhone, Mayer said.) The lines between professional and consumer equipment continue to blur, but there will always be a need for indestructible, professional-grade equipment, Mayer said.
“We realized a long time ago with IP audio that one size would not fit all,” Mayer said. “There’s not going to be one connectivity solution, one hardware solution, or even one workflow that’s going to work for everything that we do.”
The tech has come a long way since Smith worked for community radio in Portland, Ore., 21 years ago. He jerry-rigged a grocery cart with a car battery and a microwave transmitter to pull off remote broadcasts. “You would have to orient this giant antenna microwave thing and bounce it off a building,” he said.
“This is amazingly easier,” he said, referring to his iPhone. “I will say, though, that as I was at Ground Zero I had to keep ducking into delis to recharge my iPhone. I wish I had the car battery!”
Photo illustration based on an image by Guillaume Lemoine used under a Creative Commons license.