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PODCAST 178-2: RPC Video & City Channel Pittsburgh – Complete Renovation

Show 181, Part 2

SVC Podcast – Show Notes – Show 181-2

In this edition of the SVC Podcast, Contributing Editor Bennett Liles talks with Dave Finer, Manager of City Channel Pittsburgh, a public access, educational and government TV station that recently got a complete renovation to replace thirty year old technical equipment. To best apply the resources, the station called in RPC Video to help in the transformation. David completes the story on how the building, video, sound and routing system were brought up to date and modernized.


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This is the SVC Podcast from Sound & Video Contractor Magazine with David Finer of City Channel Pittsburgh. Show notes and equipment links for the podcast are on the web site of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at

Headquarters of local government TV programming, City Channel Pittsburgh had been making do with thirty-year-old cameras and sound mixers and the place needed a complete renovation. They teamed up with RPC Video, got to work and the final result is stunning. Communication Technology Manager David Finer is with us to complete the story on how it all came together, coming up on the SVC Podcast.

David, nice to have you with us on the SVC Podcast from City Channel Pittsburgh. And the complete renovation was a monumental project and it represented a quantum leap in the broadcast technology. We were talking to Steve Obenreder at RPC Video last week, your partner on this, and I know you’re both very excited about how it all came out.

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. [Timestamp: 1:17]

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 When I got to the city of Pittsburgh four years ago we were in a really outdated facility.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 1980’s carpeting. It was just a really old-looking, tired somewhat dirty space and it just wasn’t very comfortable to work in. So when you say it wasn’t just a brand new audio mixer you’re absolutely right. We had to completely overhaul absolutely everything but at the same time we had to stay on the air throughout the entire project. [Timestamp: 2:03]

I’m sure that was a little more than interesting with some of the very old gear probably duct taping things together temporarily.

One of the interesting parts was when I went to the Pittsburgh city council president and explained the project I said this will go a lot quicker if we can just record city council meetings on one camera and then replay them later that day instead of being on the air live. And I was told no, we would like to be on the air live. So almost every single time there was a live city council meeting the work, the construction and renovation and upgrade project, had to stop. City council meetings, as you probably know, are not 10 or 20-minute how-do-you-do’s. They can sometimes run four, five, six hours. [Timestamp: 2:53]

Yeah, politicians can certainly get long-winded. Especially around election time.

A little bit. [Laughs] So on the days that we had city council meetings to show on the air live there was essentially no construction renovation or upgrade work done because we had to stay on the air. [Timestamp: 3:10]

Well what was the specific state of the equipment that you were using? I know most of it went way back. I was looking at the video and as they panned across the mixer I noticed it was 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. [Timestamp: 3:44]

Yes. We had one of those in our remote truck at Georgia Public Broadcasting back in the early 80’s and I got very familiar with that one. 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. One of the things I said to someone else once was when I walked in there for the very first time it was like walking into a television and video production museum. I was really astonished at not just the Yamaha mixer, but all of these things were still in place and still working. [Timestamp: 4:18]

And what were you doing for a video switcher at the time?

We had an old Grass Valley switcher. I don’t remember the model, but the program bus of buttons at one point just totally stopped working. And we had been telling the city for a while that these were – 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. So we had to get it done. We explained to them without this we’re doing a one-camera meeting and of course they at that point understood. So we made the purchase right away. [Timestamp: 5:08]

Right. Threaten less cameras and they’ll probably do anything you want. We were talking about the timeline and you had to stay on the air so 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. It was almost like 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. Once the walls were knocked down – it was middle of May 2015 when the walls were knocked down. We finished the project, I want to say, 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, but it took us about a year and three months to do the entire project. [Timestamp: 6:00]

Was any of the old stuff repurposed or being that antiquated did it all just have to go?

No, everything went.

Yeah if I had repurpose anything that old it would be making me nervous about just moving the problem. I’m sure you were glad to see it go.

There were a couple of points in the project where almost as if there were mini celebrations. Taking the Yamaha audio mixer out was a celebration day. The walls coming down obviously was a celebration day. One of the things we did was the control room became a construction zone. Ceiling tiles were out, the walls were down, there were 2×4’s all over the place. And as we moved from the old control room the countertop and we moved to what was essentially a picnic 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 picnic 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, the new desk space, we were then able to move pieces from the picnic table to the new desk space. [Timestamp: 7:37]

This new gear must have to handle a wide variety of production. 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 the community. In the past the staff did anywhere from, I don’t know, 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. So it’s a lot of stuff that we’re doing. 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. [Timestamp: 8:52]

Last week when Steve Obenreder was giving us his take on all of this he mentioned the 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 for those long meetings, I mean we’re not doing football. It’s not a constant motion going on. So 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 we went with four cameras so now instead of having people down in council chambers sitting behind a camera, we have two people in the control room; one doing recorders, audio and CCU’s 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. We’re able to do other things at the same time. [Timestamp: 10:05]

Yeah, I guess go out on field shoots and editing?

Yeah. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens enough times where a department will call and say we have a press conference and we used to have to say we can’t do it. We need people doing council. And now when somebody is not doing council they’re able to run out at a moment’s notice and cover these press conferences or cover these events that various city departments want us to give TV coverage for. [Timestamp: 10:29]

And how are you recording the meetings?

We’re recording them actually in three ways. We have some Grass Valley DVR’s. Those are just simply backup files just in case everything else goes wrong. We have a DVD recorder. There is still some pushback. People still want their DVD’s. I’m happy that they don’t want videotape. That was a big win on my part. So a DVD recorder and then our playback server which is Leightronics, we record there as well and that becomes our playback file. So when meetings are at 10:00 in the morning they replay at night at 7:00. [Timestamp: 11:05]

I’m sure that some of the planning for this had to take into account you might be short on people sometimes and the equipment had to be placed where at times you may have to do the one-man band sort of thing.

[Laughs] We don’t want to do that I mean, 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 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 so we have to do it. [Timestamp: 11:45]

Well you’ve had a few months to at least wear the shine off of some things 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, I told them when it was done 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. So there was a little bit of growing pains getting 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 really have equipment that is younger than the staff. [Timestamp: 12:41]

Hey, that is a big step and I know it’s great to be able to walk into the control room and not have to worry about what’s not working today. And I sure wish you the best with it. It’s David Finer, Communications Technology Manager for City Channel Pittsburgh and the total revamp of their broadcast operation. Lots of things the government does and you bring it to the people. That’s a very important job and I’ve enjoyed hearing about it.

Thanks very much for having me. This was a lot of fun.

Thanks for joining us for today’s SVC Podcast. Show notes and equipment links are on the website of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at Next week we’ll have a brand new story. Come on back and we’ll see you then.

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