Six tips for using Skype on the radio
Radio stations are using Skype on air more and more. Fair enough, I have no empirical data on this but it’s what I hear and what I see going on in radio studios.
Skype’s increasing use is good for listeners. At its best, a contribution over Skype can sound far clearer than a telephone or even an ISDN call.
It’s good for contributors too. In better quality you can make a bigger impact in a discussion. Politicians make the ugly trip to the BBC’s Today studio rather than contribute from the breakfast table on their mobiles for that very reason, among others.
And let’s not forget the cost benefit. Once you’ve organised an internet connection a Skype call with a radio station is free. This is a particularly big issue in international radio so it’s no surprise that the BBC programme World Have Your Say uses Skype as one of the ways it brings in distant listeners in crisp clarity.
At the other end of the broadcasting scale some community radio stations I’ve visited have found that an old PC running Skype can be an effective low-cost replacement for a telephone balance unit.
There are other online VoIP services of course: industry systems like Tieline, Telos Zypher and Comrex are ideal for professional radio broadcasters but radio stations that want the best quality audio from all their contributors need to pull-in contributions via a consumer platform too. Of these Google Talk and Oovoo have given me good results but it is Skype that appears to be most widely understood and installed. In addition, to my ears at least, the performance of Skype’s proprietary SILK super wideband codec is hard to beat.
Despite all this however, Skype is not designed for radio. Some tuning-up of the Skype application and the accessories you use can help to draw out its best and present you on air in the best possible light.
So here are some tips which will help your Skype contributors optimise their on-air fidelity:
1. Use a proper microphone in the right place.
The microphone inside your webcam or somewhere inside your laptop is far from ideal. It’s not near your mouth for a start. I recommend using a headset microphone like this.
Even the cheaper ones like this Sennheiser model (£15 at the time of writing) will make a big improvement and they move with your head. Once you’ve set the distance between your mouth and the mic it never changes.
Place the the microphone about 5-10cm away from your mouth but, crucially, not directly in front of it as direct blasts of air will “pop” the mic. Different microphones will exhibit different sensitivities to sound and air movement so just try it and listen. You can call Skype’s test service and use a phrase such as “Picky people pick Peter Pan peanut butter“.
2. Set the microphone level manually.
Skype’s automatic microphone level feature is pretty good for normal Skype chats but it “hunts” for sound when you’re not talking and this “sucks-up” the level of background noise. You’ll want to avoid this effect because it makes the radio programme harder to listen to. It will also force the studio operator to fade down your audio when you’re not speaking. Then when you do speak your voice will have little impact because you’ve been turned down!
Defeat the automatic mic level. In Skype go to Tools > Options and then look for these controls on the Audio settings:
Untick the box marked “Automatically adjust microphone settings”, the speak normally into the microphone while you adjust the slider. Aim to see the green bars moving up and down across about three quarters of the scale. Then save the settings and close the options panel.
3. Use headphones, not a loudspeaker.
You don’t need anything fancy. A pair of iPod buds will do. The trick is to keep the sound coming back from the radio station away from your microphone and therefore going back to the station again. So, headphones rather than a loudspeaker. If you’ve taken my advice and organised a headset like the one above you’ve already dealt with this.
4. Turn off Skype video.
You want to maximise the quality of the audio. Turning off video ensures that no bandwidth is stolen from the sound in order to make pictures.
5. Turn off other things on your computer that compete for internet bandwidth.
Don’t download or stream anything during your Skype call. Close down browser windows you don’t need, especially those which have live or ‘pushed’ content on them such as Facebook, Twitter and GMail. Cancel those fileshare transfers and leave your holiday photo uploads to later.
6. Turn off alerts.
Skype alerts don’t use much data but you’ll want to avoid distracting noises and pop-ups while you’re on the radio. Turn off the unnecessary “Notifications” and “Incoming Sounds” in the Options panel so you can concentrate on your radio appearance and listening to the other contributors. Trust me, it will be better that way.
If you’re in radio, feel free to share this guide with your contributors, and please add your own tips to the comments. I will update the page accordingly.