WESTBORO, Mass. — "Hey – this isn't exactly rocket science" is an expression we've all frequently used or at least heard at some point in our existence.
Uniquely intriguing is an albeit slight paradox present in what some could consider a reasonably simplistic industry concept ("not exactly rocket science") currently gaining traction that happens to be spearheaded by someone whose voluminous, ultra-impressive roots are in … rocketry.
Situated 11 miles east of Worcester/34 miles west of Boston in Worcester County, Westboro (Massachusetts)-based Backbone Networks proclaims that a Mac and a mic are all one requires for "the only completely integrated radio station service comprising live production, automation, storage, streaming, syndication, live assist, and call-in phone system."
All aspects of a station are controlled by the user through customary workflow interfaces.
Stations can join together to form a network.
Moreover, affiliates are able to share content with one another "in the cloud" and can subscribe to content through syndication from third parties.
Turning radio inside out
Prior to landing in New England, self-described "old fiber optics guy" Rich Cerny was at Corning Glassware, where he was responsible for, "or at least complicit in," many of the firsts in fiber that happened there. "We did a lot of pioneering and, as fiber was changing telecommunications and broadcasting, I [founded] Backbone Networks [nearly 27 years ago," the company's extremely affable president and chief executive officer recalls. "On the side, I was [founder-president-chief executive officer] of a company called Telecast Fiber Systems, which created fiber optic systems for television broadcast production. We were active in the development of 3D HD production for digital cinematography, including James Cameron's 'Avatar,' and live stereoscopic sports.
In addition to having done television graphics work for Formula One, Backbone Networks has been responsible for considerable virtual signage for things that, as Cerny confesses, "aren't really there. At Backbone, we use 'the cloud' to breathe new life into radio broadcasting. Our 'Broadcast PBX in the Cloud,' enables terrestrial radio broadcasters to augment, streamline, and integrate phones and high quality IP backhaul communications with virtually no added equipment."
The company's foray into internet radio turned into a radio production component and, "Maybe at some point, television production," Cerny forecasts. "You can use Backbone Networks with all the fiber and internet protocol to create an incredible 'your station anywhere' experience. The idea of Backbone really is taking what used to exist inhardware and stripping away all the requirements of brick & mortar and metal to put it into software that exists anywhere you happen to be. You can tap into it and have the ability for a collaborative broadcast with multiple people in different parts of the world. They are all communicating at the same time in broadcast quality as though they are sitting in the same room with each other." (Ed. note — For a visual overview of how Backbone delivers your audio content, check out the chart here.)
Interpretation of the term "internet radio" doesn't always lead to a consensus conclusion. "Until we got into it, most of internet radio was simulcasts of things such as CBS Radio news broadcasts," Cerny remembers. "We are doing the opposite of what it used to be and consider this to be turning radio inside out. We do not take a terrestrial signal and put it on the internet – we take an internet signal from an internet station and – when a terrestrial station wants it – we send it back out to them for a revenue share. We do it, for instance, with [outlets such as] Fantasy Sports Network. One of the key advantages of Backbone Radio and our 'cloud-focus' is the ability to do remotes easily. With Backbone in the 'cloud,' you are never off the air."
Virtualization of radio
Broadcasters don't have to drive to a physical radio station in this sort of scenario, since as Cerny speculates, "The studio, transmitter, and tower might not be there anymore. We are virtualizing everything today with technology. This is just the way that radio is becoming virtualized in the production atmosphere and environment. We take the person who used to be very huge in radio and allow [him or her] to continue that experience without having to depend on the 'old' industry of radio, while keeping the radio content and experience alive."
Genesis of the name Backbone Networks actually came from the concept of fiber. "What they call 'backbone networks' today are the fiber trunks that go across and around the world [in linking] the continents together," Cerny explains. "Instead of communicating via satellite, they now use the high-speed highway of the internet. Cable companies are dealing with old coaxial cables that are relatively ancient. As a fiber guy, I can tell you that, over time, coaxial cables are going to corrode. If you can get fiber to the home – like [FiOS – Fiber Optic Service] – you are gold. We kept the 'backbone networks' name as we transitioned from fiber to the 'cloud.' It has the same impact and it has the same meaning. In one respect, when you talk about 'networks,' you [are referring] to digital data, but when you get into radio, 'networks' mean something else – many stations. Stations with commonality can now share their data with each other in the 'cloud.'"
Opting to focus on spoken-word radio rather than the music-intensive genre, Cerny observes, "Music radio is dominated by services such as Pandora and Spotify. There is really not much room for discovery radio. It is more of on-demand."
Strong fiber diet
At an early age, Omaha native Cerny was fascinated by scientific things such as lasers and rocketry. "When I entered the Air Force, I got into missiles," the University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate (with a BA in physics) states. "As it turned out, by sheer luck, I was a missile launch combat crew commander."
Stationed underground in Grand Forks (North Dakota), Cerny oversaw up to 50 multi-warhead, Minuteman III nuclear missiles. Fortunately, he didn't have to launch any of them, but it certainly more than satisfied Cerny's rocketry and missile captivation.
Following his November 1973 discharge from the Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC), where Cerny achieved the rank of captain, he went to work for Corning Glass where he became "a market developing guy. We developed a fiber which is now the mainstay of all fiber communications; in 1975, I introduced the first commercial single mode fiber optic cable. I was one of those pioneers and it came from what I studied when I was a kid."
Hard times though hit Corning in the early-1970s and, according to Cerny, the company, "began to bleed heavily financially," leading to a 25% layoff. Along with the individual who developed the first single mode fiber, Cerny – who managed the contract to do that – brought that technology in 1975 to Valtec, a company in suburban Worcester (West Boylston, Massachusetts). "From that point, we decided we liked non-telephone electronics," he recounts. "Back in 1980, we got into applying what we had into television production. At that time, we were doing the first television production using fiber for Walter Cronkite's [CBS-TV's space shuttle coverage]."
After that, savvy entrepreneur Cerny started several other companies using fiber optics for television production. One company he founded – Trellis Communications – designed and engineered campus-wide fiber infrastructures for state universities, hospitals and federal government facilities.
Sound and feel of "real" radio
Approximately 100 clients utilize Backbone Networks' services and a philosophical Cerny grants that some of the '[roughly] 100,000 radio stations out there' are CB operations thus, "We only have about one-tenth of 1% of [that 100,000]. We want the true professionals who are looking for high-quality production and we actually try to dissuade people from doing what we call, 'Joey in the basement.' If we could, our model is to have the Sean Hannitys of the world."
Among specific individuals Backbone Networks cites in that latter, desirable category are "MotorWeek" master technician Pat Goss who answers questions regarding automotive safety, performance, and care on his Saturday show. Former Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins tight end Richard "Doc" Walker is in that upper-tier level as well. "If you can get a professional-sounding producer, you will have a great, quality station," Cerny insists. "What we do is very transparent: It sounds just like real radio; it works just like real radio; and it feels just like real radio. The difference is that it is not expensive or capital-intensive. In addition, it is a lot easier to do and you do not have to drive to a studio – you just do it. [The challenge] is trying to find producers who have potential clients. That is how we are going to be able to leverage getting more and more clients – the producers are doing the hard work."
Customer-service issues for Backbone mainly deal with routers and mixing boards, with Cerny – who holds an MBA from the University of North Dakota – succinctly assessing, "If they can't get a signal – they can't broadcast live. Audio issues are things producers overcome in their sleep. Internet radio is easy – audio is hard."
Regarding the matter of cost, those lumped in the "Joey in the Basement" faction pay the same as ones in what would constitute a Sean Hannity-stratosphere contingent. "You can't discriminate against someone based on their success," reasons Cerny, whose company charges overages by the listener-hour. "It is sort of like a meter – the cost goes down as the success goes up. If we have enough successful people, we don't have to charge a lot."
Think of it as an extra minute on a taxicab meter. "It won't kill you and gets you a long way to where you want to go," elaborates Cerny. "We offer 1500 caller minutes a month for $150. Most people do less than 700. Occasionally though, you'll find someone who has several shows throughout the day. With volume breaks, the more they do, the less it costs."
Previous incarnations of something vaguely similar could get pricey. "A telephone system would cost $5,000, while electronics for an internet protocol – what used to be an ISDN line – costs [another] $5,000," Cerny points out. "If, however, you use a Mac desktop for the radio and an iPhone, as well as some affordable software for remotes, your payback by not needing a monthly subscription can be three or four years out – everybody wins in this situation. You can rent it and do it for as long as you want so you don't have to keep buying more equipment. As you grow, you just add licenses. There are no streaming servers to support or a drain on facility bandwidth. We are a small company and we do not charge a lot of money. Our pricing is straightforward and clients pay for only what they need."
Heralding an online change
Newspapers nowadays are clearly facing monumental challenges. Three and one half years ago (8/5/2013), The Boston Herald – with the aid of Backbone Networks – debuted Boston Herald Radio. No fewer than 12 programs with 16 different hosts or co-hosts are now heard via that online platform with shows streamed from a studio adjacent to The Boston Herald newsroom.
Updated information is provided throughout the day by the paper's editors and reporters. "Executives there don't think the paper is on a death watch," Cerny stresses. "They want to make sure they reach their readers in every possible way, so they went in with both feet right off the bat. Rather than just one show a day, which is what most stations start out doing, they began with six different ones from 6:00 am until 6:00 pm."
Offerings such as "Morning Meeting" with reporters Hillary Chabot, Jaclyn Cashman, and Tom Shattuck can be found on Boston Herald Radio, as well as a Friday 12:00 noon show with one of the market's legendary sports talk hosts, Eddie Andelman. "The Boston Herald was the first one for us and it was followed by Warren Buffett's flagship news outlet The Omaha World-Herald, which has a four-hour afternoon sports show they send to a number of different Nebraska radio stations doing Cornhusker football," details Cerny, who – for full disclosure – provided invaluable expertise to TALKERS publisher Michael Harrison in launching TALKERS Radio, a vehicle on which novel programming concepts are showcased. "We are looking to do more with newspapers and media outlets that have a lot of reporters and content to generate," Cerny underscores.
No fan of royalty
Proficiency in developing internet radio came in the early-2000s for Cerny, and some nine years ago (2008), his company started applying technology on college and university campuses. "With the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, we created the largest college radio network on the internet," he boasts. "We host a network of 50 – 100 college radio stations around the country. This gave us an opportunity to work out and test the software. As we went into the commercial business, we were not crazy about the royalties [that had to be paid] for music. Music radio is [terrific], but we want to work more [with spoken-word programming]. Music royalties for college and educational stations are a lot different than for commercial [entities]. If you are not getting a nice, flat rate all year long like a college or high school facility, royalties will [help prevent you] from making a profit. When we looked at it, we thought everything about internet radio was great – except those music royalties. In the last five years, we have really kicked things up with [talk and sports]."
When it comes to isolating a preference between dealing with radio or television, Cerny, who employed laser-based fiber television and digital cinema production systems as chief executive officer and co-founder of Artel Video Systems, candidly puts forth, "It is easier for me to work with television [mainly] because I am not a radio person. I'm an old television production guy – and television has so much more money. [Backbone Networks' vice president and chief technical officer] George Capalbo loves radio because his father was the vice president of engineering for RKO Radio. George tagged along with his dad and knows everything about radio from the technology side. He's our designer, architect, and prime developer of the integrated production, automation and streaming software and technology. I take what I know from the television side; [he does the same with radio]; and we put it all together."
Another principal player in the organization, vice president of business development/corporate counsel Paul Kamp, was Pacer Software's director of server systems/corporate counsel before managing corporate business and technology development at Sun Microsystems. Several other Backbone Networks partners are in software development. "It is the brushing of technology that makes the opportunities," Cerny emphasizes. "We take the concept of creating software as a service – not as a product."
Attaboy praise abounds
Firmly convinced that Backbone Networks is the only company in this particular space so far, Cerny concedes he would not be surprised if a number of others were to emerge. "Right now though, we don't see anyone else doing exactly what we do. People tell us they are amazed that we are the only ones [involved with] this 'cloud thing,' where everything is integrated, making it easy-to-do. They can spread the word about their community or organizations to every part of the globe on hundreds of devices – including phones, tablets, computers, and car radios."
Word-of-mouth referrals and, to some degree, reliance on the internet constitute the bulk of the company's marketing efforts. "We tend to focus on trade shows so we can meet face-to-face with people and reinforce their buying decision," accentuates Cerny. "Five years ago, I would have thought this would have opened up into a huge television network, as well as a radio network – that day may still come."
Although many are not quite willing yet to accept internet radio's capability, Cerny maintains, "I do think we are coming around to see the opportunity for the progression in radio to get out of the studio. We thought all of radio would be dead by now, taken over by music on the internet. The reality though is that you need [elements such as] news, weather, sports, and election coverage. You still have to have everything and radio is still incredible."
One particular concept that Cerny believed would be further ahead by now is Dash Radio, which debuted in August 2014 and has more than 3,000,000 subscribers. Its users are said to spend an average of 35 minutes per session on music channels and 90 minutes per session on talk stations. "If [Dash Radio had taken off], I think more people would have invested in internet radio," he theorizes. "I see [what we are doing] as really being the salvation for great talents who stations can no longer afford. It is a great way for them to extend their careers. We've been getting many positive strokes and 'attaboy' [feedback from our clients] who never knew something like this could be done. We are the technology guys who are happy to stand in the background; make stations easy to operate; and have people succeed. We don't want to own the content or dictate what people can do. The only accolade we will take is the fact that this works to make a great radio station. I would love to see what we originally started with TALKERS Radio become the Westwood One of the internet – I think we can do that."