Inside radio station KEXP (90.3 FM) in Seattle, just down the hall from the DJ booth, the dark room in the corner of the building looks at first glance like it might be used for storage, or maybe a place to sneak a quick nap.
Then they turn on the sparkling lights in the walls, and this space — approximately the size of a teenager’s bedroom — is immediately recognizable as an important setting in the world of indie rock and alternative music.
This is the home of KEXP’s in-studio performances. And starting this week, it’s going live.
Of course, the audio has always been live, broadcast on the radio and online — helping the station serve its audience both locally and around the globe. And for a while now, KEXP has also taken fans inside the space with after-the-fact videos of many in-studio performances, with some 530 videos produced last year alone.
But this week KEXP is taking the next step, launching a new live streaming-video service that will put fans smack in the middle of performances as they happen.
“To get that in real time, to be in this room when that’s happening, I think it’s special, and we hope the audience thinks it’s special,” said Jamie Alls, the KEXP chief engineer, sitting in the performance studio as he and his colleagues prepped for the station’s first live in-studio video streaming event.
The service, available for free on KEXP’s live online video portal, debuts Tuesday with a performance by the Pixies at 9:30 a.m. Pacific time on the KEXP Morning Show, hosted by John Richards.
“KEXP is fundamentally about community and enriching people’s lives through music discovery,” said Rob Knop, the station’s director of marketing. “What this platform will allow us to do is really create a focal point by which community can get together and enjoy a band or see a new artist and do it in real time. It’s a community-building tool, as well as a cool technological innovation that we have in our wheelhouse now.”
The new system is also a testament to the increasingly affordable nature of professional live-streaming technology, at least for those willing to patch together a custom system using different components and software. The budget for the whole system was about $35,000, a small fraction of comparable off-the-shelf systems, which was an important consideration for a public radio station that gets the majority of its funding from listeners.
The system pieced together by KEXP includes four Panasonic GH3 cameras with special rigging, connected via eight strands of military-grade fiber to the nearby control room, incorporating low-cost A/V gear from Black Magic Design, a MacBook Pro (16GB of RAM with an all-important Thunderbolt port), and using Telestream’s Wirecast software to connect with YouTube’s live-streaming platform.
Despite the low cost, the system includes tally lights and an audio communications system characteristic of higher-grade setups, allowing KEXP video producer Scott Holpainen to coordinate with the camera operators as he calls the shots from the control room.
Music fans aren’t the only ones who will welcome the change. The switch to live production also means welcome changes for KEXP’s production process, while maintaining the distinctive look of the station’s videos.
“For me it’s always been about knocking the post-production side out of it, because you can capture it in the moment,” explains Holpainen. He acknowledged that he will still make some minor touch-ups before making the video available for on-demand streaming afterward.)
The initiative shows that there’s still a place for immediacy in a time-shifted world.
“We have a live event happening all the time — we broadcast 24 hours a day, and there’s always somebody here. Our videos were an attempt to get people closer to that. But that was always after the fact,” explained KEXP web developer Greg Rice.
KEXP expects to start by streaming about one live performance a week on video, and building from there. The station’s future home at Seattle Center will incorporate much of the infrastructure needed for live streaming, but the current setup won’t go to waste, forming the basis for a remote live video streaming system.
Important note for audiophiles: Because of a timing difference inherent to video streaming, you won’t be able to watch the video in perfect sync with the radio broadcast. That said, the quality of the audio on the video stream is expected to be high.
The KEXP crew got its start in live video with a live performance by Mudhoney on top of the Space Needle last year. They’ve been testing their live video capabilities internally during recent in-studio performances, and they sound confident.
But Tuesday morning is the real deal, and you can tune in live to see it for yourself.