Production secrets of the Virgin Radio launch
Phil Critchlow, founder and director of TBI Media (Photo: Nick Edwards)
“Technically it’s quite a big challenge. Geographically it’s quite a big challenge. We’ve done things with planes and this is at least as complicated.”
Phil Critchlow is holding a multi-page spreadsheet. It’s a minute-by-minute breakdown of every planned event on the four hour outside broadcast from a moving train that will launch Virgin Radio in the UK.
One column shows the activities his team is producing on the train, another details the running order for Virgin Radio’s London studio. Colour coding highlights the points at which they’ll mesh and further columns name landmarks, junctions and stations they’ll pass along the route and measurements of signal quality for the broadcast link.
Every moment of this launch is planned and set against a GPS located route map.
The Virgin Radio Star. Photo: Radio Airtime Media
Critchlow’s team at TBI Media has built its reputation around the delivery of big broadcast events. It’s what helped the company the win the Indie of the Year accolade in 2015 at the RPAs in London and the New York Festivals.
He pitched the idea to launch Virgin Radio from a Virgin Train to programme director Liam Thompson at the station before Christmas and together they’ve developed a plan around a confirmed route that involves live music performances, a travelling group of VIP guests and which requires around fifteen production staff on board the moving train.
At the start of the journey the train will be officially named “The Virgin Radio Star” and its branded livery unveiled. The idea is bold and relevant. With British bands on board the station literally carries music across the country. It’s also a little risky, but Richard Branson didn’t build the Virgin brand without taking a few risks.
The train departs Manchester Piccadilly station at 11:00 precisely and is scheduled to arrive into London Euston at 14:58. Yes, that’s a much longer journey time than the 2 and a bit hours you’d expect from Virgin Trains but this service is rather special and the team from TBI has planned for it all to be time well spent.
The route of the Virgin Radio Star
On air you’ll hear live music, conversation with presenters Edith Bowman and Matt Richardson and their celebrity VIP guests interspersed with elements from Virgin Radio’s new studio in the Wireless Group’s Southwark building. Everything is choreographed to take advantage of the train’s location, the people on board, the available link signal and the format of the new station. Even the on-board announcements are under the control of the production team.
TBI has fitted out one carriage of the train for live broadcasting while the rest of the first class section is reserved for guests.
Edith Bowman presents live from the train
In the broadcast carriage there are three technical positions. One is a simple four mic table arrangement where the presenters can interview guests at any point on the journey. There’s also a small acoustic performance area that can be used at any time along the route.
Travis play in the acoustic area
Finally, the team has removed seats and tables from the train to rig a larger performance area from which a five piece band can play a whole set while the train is stationary at a station.
Health and safety judgements suggest it’s unwise to attempt this kind of full band performance on a moving train so the planned running order allows for a total of 70 minutes performance time at three stops along the route.
Mystery Jets play live on board in the main performance area.
Virgin Radio executive producer Mick Meadows is producing the presenters on the day while TBI Media who created the idea is organising technical delivery, the bands’ performances, physical branding and experiential elements with the VIPs on board.
To get a low-latency stereo broadcast link and a return path with talkback to the train is no trivial matter.
If you’ve ever tried making a long uninterrupted phone call from a fast moving train or relied upon onboard wifi for anything more arduous than sending text around then you’ll appreciate the challenge.
With no safe way to strap dishes and cables to the outside of the Pendolino the TBI team has settled on a Viprinet solution from Wired Broadcast. The Viprinet box “bonds” the data capacity available through twelve mobile 4G and 3G connections spread across multiple networks to provide a data pipe fat enough to carry stereo broadcast quality audio.
The Pendolino’s inbuilt antennas, front and back, provide a diversity radio solution to the Vipranet box: it continuously measures both incoming signals and switches to the best.
A separate mobile TBU channel provides clean feed plus talkback from the London studio back to the train.
Despite the inbuilt redundancy with this solution and measured coverage of 70-80% along the route there will still be places where the signal is lost. When that happens the London team will pick-up until the link is re-established.
Phil’s team has tracked the line, mile by mile, minute by minute on an out of service train to identify the definite black spots, the possibly dodgy areas and those places positively bathing in 4G goodness.
Rock steady Crewe
At the train’s first planned stop in Cheshire a rock solid signal is pretty much guaranteed. The Virgin Radio Star will spend around 20 minutes in Crewe station for a live band session. It’s a pattern that will be repeated when the train pulls into Birmingham New Street and Rugby stations.
Travis, The Feeling, Mystery Jets, Gavin James and Walking On Cars are all on the train so we’re promised a mix of live music from these British bands as the show crosses England.
Everything that happens on board will be filmed and recorded with a wrap-up film handed over to the radio station when the train pulls into London. This will provide an archive of shareable material in quality and ensures nothing gets lost, even when the broadcast link signal drops out.
TBI’s events co-ordinator Louise Segal is responsible for the logistics planning and individual production teams are dedicated to certain areas of focus. One team looks after the artists, another takes responsibility for the sound, there’s a camera team and a separate lighting team, such is the importance of producing high quality visual material.
Make time to see the official photographs and video montage from the day.
As a piece of radio and a practical project this is clearly ambitious and big but Phil Critchlow says that there’s nothing that’s particularly keeping him awake at night.
“We’ve done everything we possibly can within the available resources. I want everybody to be safe, I want them to all have fun and fundamentally I want the audience to tune in via DAB to hear the programme and when they do think this is a really cool way to launch a radio station that’s associated with a brand we really respect.”
First class return
A station launch is complicated enough – sometimes it’s a struggle just to get on air and keep the needles wagging – but Phil believes the effort, complications and risk involved in this project are justified because the return of a brand like Virgin Radio needs a big statement:
“Virgin Radio is an established brand and there will be an expectation from day one because of that. I hope this is an idea that lives up to those brand values. You need a big moment with something like Virgin to reintroduce it to new audiences as well as people who listened to it the first time around. There needs to be some Virginness about the whole thing.”
Virgin Radio is available on DAB and the RadioPlayer app in the UK and at virginradio.co.uk