Entertainment

THE SVC INTERVIEW: Steve Obenreder and David Finer, City Channel Pittsburgh

10/25/2017 8:22 PM Eastern
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With its collection of antiquated equipment, government TV station City Channel Pittsburgh had been described as more a museum than a broadcast facility. To change that, they called in RPC Video to modernize their entire system. Walls were torn out in the 100-year-old building, routers and other gear installed, and City Channel was born again—without ever going off the air. RPC Video’s Steve Obenreder is here to talk about it, along with David Finer, Communications Technology Manager for the facility.

SVC: Is this type of project pretty typical of what RPC Video does?

Steve Obenreder: It’s typical in that it represents sort of the broad scope of what RPC Video can do. It was a little atypical that it was spread out over roughly two years from our first budget discussions in 2014 until the system got commissioned a little over a year ago. So it was a long haul because it was a big system that had to stay in operation. There was a lot of time involved in prepping for that; you know, getting it ready and trying to find a way to switch from one system to another.

How many different facilities in this building had to be interconnected on this project?

Well, there’s signal infrastructure installed in numerous places in the building, some are active and some are drops for future use. The active and connected spaces now are of course the engineering and control room suite on the 9th floor of the building and the city council chamber, which is a big focus of the channel’s work. That city council chamber is on the 3rd floor. And then there is what they call the city stats room, which is a multi-use meeting space, on the 6th floor. The offices are also on the 6th floor. There are several other meeting and conference spaces with fiber drops nearby and ready to be added as they needed or as the budget allows. So there’s quite a few and this is a big old building so it was tricky to get around in there.

How old is that building? I think it’s even more antique than some of the equipment they had in it.

[Laughs] It is. It’s hard to believe, but yes it was. The Pittsburgh city/county building, a big old neoclassical beaux-arts design was completed in December of 1917.

Okay. Well, that sounds a little scary right off the bat when you’re talking about this extensive technical upgrade. Running fiber, knocking out walls, re-doing some of the architecture. Did you run into any problems with the building itself?

I’m not sure when we didn’t run into problems with the building. Of course, this building was never designed for the type of cabling infrastructure that we need these days. Thankfully there had been some cable access between the floors already in place from the 1982 system. That was the original cable bureau system and it was one of the biggest in the country. So we did have some ways to get around the building already, although they weren’t all in place. To be sure there were a lot of challenges in getting around that building.

And I’m figuring, in that old building they had no fiber run anywhere.

I believe there was some fiber in that building for other purposes, not for audio/visual or for video, but for network. The cameras were all multicore–big CCU cables that ran between the floors. So this was all new fiber from the council chambers up to the control room on the 9th floor and various other places around the building.

Running all of that stuff through that old building must have been an adventure in itself.

Here’s how that worked. Our PC didn’t actually pull the fiber. We designed the fiber system, we supervised it, but the city has an electrical contractor and they had worked in there a number of times. They were guys that were chosen, thankfully, because they were set up to do that kind of work. They did a good job of crawling through the building and getting things where we needed them to get. But it was not easy even for that.

That has got to at least keep things from getting dull.

There was not a dull moment throughout this whole thing, believe me. There was an unbelievable amount of cable in those ceilings. I’d never seen so much cable. A lot of it was original. A lot of it had been added. And none of it – I mean none of it – was documented any more. So our engineering guys had to go cable by cable and test them and see where they went and figure out whether they could remove them or whether they were needed. Remember, they had to stay on the air all the time so they had to pick through thousands of cables everywhere to find out what worked and didn’t work and remove them and reroute them if they needed to. That part was tedious and it went on for months—I mean months. So it was crazy. We never did a job quite like that where you had so much deconstruction to do before you could start to build something.

Did you have to upgrade the power or add more drops to it?

In the control room side, yes. Because we helped them redesign that whole space. They tore down walls upstairs and turned three small control room spaces into one large, more modern control room space. Even though our power needs aren’t astronomical, the power was a little antiquated so there are new power drops there. That was handled by the city’s electricians—but we outlined all that and spec’d it. The city council chamber had been redone for power a few years ago because they added some lighting and things.

They record the city council meetings. What did you specify for that?

There’s a Biamp Tesira running Dante audio between the 6th floor and the 9th floor. So they have multiple channels of audio for all the microphones for the council members, the council president, and guests and speakers—for the public when the public has to speak. It was an old analog system before that and it was sort of hobbling along. For video, there are four Panasonic HE-130 PTZ cameras that work very well. There’s also wire to roll in their studio cameras if they need extra cameras or they want a human-operated camera. Those are all broadcast live over a Horizon cable channel and a Comcast cable channel—as well as streaming live on the web site for the city. They do back those up and record them, so for recording they use Grass Valley T2 servers. And then for scheduled playout they have two channels of Leightronix UltraNEXUS HD, and there’s also a large SAN system there from Scale Logic that they use for storage and editing.

The heart of the distribution system is the Utah-100 UDS router. Was there a particular reason why you decided to go with that router?

Well, the original 1982 system had a large Utah router and it still worked fine. But it was analog composite video, which of course couldn’t work for this upgrade. So there really wasn’t much discussion of another router. Utah had proven itself very worthy and the folks from Utah that we dealt with, I’m telling you, were very, very good to work with. It was a good choice all around.

What did you provide for an audio mixer for them in there? I noticed from the video that it looks like they were using a Yamaha PM-2000 before.

Yes. There was a big, old 32-channel PM-2000. We wanted, and they wanted, to have that same feel. A lot of what they do, especially during council meetings, is ride faders. People talk all over the place during those council meetings. So we wanted a mixer that someone can sit down and easily say hey, I can run this for most operations. We chose the Soundcraft Si Performer 32. It had 32 faders. It’s easy to do basic things on it for almost anyone, but there’s a lot of digital memory and digital features on that mixer that make it work very nicely if they want to dig a little deeper.

You had a great local crew there to work with at City Channel Pittsburgh with all of David Finer’s people.

David was wonderful to work with. We told him this could take a long time. And he was so enthused about finally replacing that ancient system that he was patient with us and as we poured through it he was great to work with.

I mean great to work with. Thanks for being with us Steve. Now we’re going to switch gears and actually hear from David Finer, Communication Technology Manager for City Channel Pittsburgh.

SVC: This was a complete renovation and a monumental project. I know you’re excited about how it all came out.

David Finer: It’s been about eight months since we finished this project and I still get giddy talking about it, sharing it, showing it. It was just so exciting to see the changes from the first day I got there to when it was finished.

And this wasn’t just dropping in a new sound mixer and laying some cable. This was about knocking out walls and getting down and dirty from the ground up.

Yeah. When I got to the city of Pittsburgh four years ago we were in a really outdated facility. And not just the equipment, I mean the walls were covered with early 1980s carpeting. It was just a really old-looking, tired, somewhat dirty space and it just wasn’t very comfortable to work in. So we had to completely overhaul absolutely everything, but at the same time, we had to stay on the air throughout the entire project. So almost every single time there was a live city council meeting, the construction had to stop. City council meetings, as you probably know, are not 10 or 20-minute how-do-you-dos. They can sometimes run four, five, six hours.

I noticed a big old Yamaha PM-2000.

That is correct. It was state of the art in, I believe, 1981 or 1982. It was approximately 300 pounds. It took, I think, four of us to lift it out of that space when it was time to move it. There’s something to say about the manufacturer that it lasted as long as it did, but it never should have, if that makes sense.

Yes. We had one of those in our remote truck at Georgia Public Broadcasting back in the early 80s and I got very familiar with it. Good old ballistic VU meters and everything.

Absolutely. It was a beast and it did exactly what we wanted it to up until the last day we used it.

And what were you doing for a video switcher?

We had an old Grass Valley switcher. I don’t remember the model, but the program bus at one point just totally stopped working. We had been telling the city for a while—I mean, we were holding it together with bubblegum and duct tape and whatever else we could find at that point. So we actually made a switcher purchase about a year before this project. I believe we did a Wednesday city council meeting and it was purchased, delivered, and installed by the following Tuesday’s meeting. We just had to get it done. We explained that without this we’re doing a one-camera meeting and of course they at that point understood. So we made the purchase right away.

How long did it take to get all of the old stuff out? That must have been a continuing process.

It was kind of like putting a new roof on a house when a threatening thunderstorm was on its way. We had shifts of people coming in to do the construction; knocking down walls, and as soon as the walls were knocked down the second group of people came to do what they needed to do, then a third wave. It was the middle of May 2015 when the walls were knocked down. We finished the project at the very end of August 2016, so a year and three months. We would have had it done in probably four or five months total if we had gone off the air.

The control room became a construction zone. Ceiling tiles were out, the walls were down; there were 2x4s all over the place. The old control room countertop became an equipment table; we took all of the essential pieces of the control room—the CG computer and monitor, the new switcher, the old 1982 robotic camera control, a DVD recorder, a monitor for the DVD recorder—and we shoved everything onto this table and we put it in the back corner of the new control room while the new countertop and desk space was constructed. So that’s what I mean by having to stay on the air. We had to find ways to keep things running even though we didn’t want to. And then eventually once the new control room was constructed, we were then able to move pieces from the table to the new desk space.

In addition to the city council meetings, what other types of programs do you do there?

As the government access TV station for the city of Pittsburgh, as you said we’ve got council meetings. They can vary from two a week to as many as five or six a week. We do press conferences with the mayor’s office. We do informational programming; what does this department do, how can it help you? We do internal training videos. Last year we did a brand new training video for the fire department and it was the first time we had a new training video in over 20 years. We’ll do trainings for various departments if employees can’t make it or if other department members can’t make it. We go to budget forums with the budget offices. We’re about to start that process for 2018 where we will go to the budget forums out and about in the community. In the past, the staff did about 30 or 35 productions a year. Since I took over two-and-a-half years ago, the first year we did 211 and I think last year we did 308. We’re just trying to get ourselves out there so that the city knows it has an internal video production department and we are here to help them get their messages out.

I know there are PTZ cameras in the city council meeting room. Do you ever have to put a human operator camera in there, too?

Well, we used to. When I started with the city as a videographer I would sit behind a camera in the council chambers for those four and five and six hour meetings. When I got the promotion and took over as the manager, one of the things I noticed was concerning those long meetings. I mean, we’re not doing football. It’s not a constant motion going on. I found we needed to be more efficient. So instead of manned cameras in council chambers, we went with four robotic cameras. We did a bunch of tests and we found that the placement of the four cameras allows us to cover the three different types of meetings we do in the room. So now we have two people in the control room—one doing recorders, audio, and CCUs and the other doing the robotic camera control, the switcher, and CG. And then whoever is not working on a council meeting is off doing other things and that’s what I was talking about with efficiency.

Did you take into account that you might be short on people sometimes and you may have to do the one-man band sort of thing?

[Laughs] We don’t want to do that. There are times when the absolute worst is happening and one person has to leave the control room. What we do is we’ll go to a wide shot of the council chambers and the other person will run mics. So at any given time there may be as many as 16 mics at the table. So yeah, we don’t want to do the one-man band, and with the way I arranged the design of the desk space, I was hoping that we wouldn’t do a one-man band. But we can’t get around it sometimes.

You’ve had a few months to wear the shine off, so how is it all going now?

The control room could not be better. I think that through my work with RPC Video and Steve Obenreder, this is exactly what I had envisioned. We had a couple of hiccups in the first couple of weeks, obviously. With city council we had to be up and running right away so we weren’t completely trained right away and that’s no one’s fault. We just had to get up and get going. But once we got into a routine, once the staff figured out that everything was really the same, it was just newer, I think we’ve been doing great work. The camera angles are better. The coverage is better. It looks crisper. Even though the channel isn’t high definition the recordings are in high definition so it just looks better. Everything looks better, nicer, and we now have equipment that is younger than the staff.

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