Globalizing Community Outreach with Streaming Media

go to original, with critical reviews

Developing and Broadcasting

When a new radio station in Portland, Oregon, sought to interview education experts for a series of programs exploring strategies to help students' academic performance, it turned to the college of education at the University of Oregon. The education faculty was well-suited to this endeavor. The research of its memberssome of whom had careers spanning 30 yearswas highly regarded, the subject of National Education Association documentaries (most recently on February 24, 2000) and an article [cite and include in references] in Education Week. The interview series provided a platform to inform education professionals, alumni, potential students, parents, and the general public about research and outreach activities in educationranging from strategies for dealing with destructive behavior to improving early reading performance. Yet Oregon's size and rural nature248 school districts are scattered over almost 100,000 square milesand the station's broadcast range (75 miles from metropolitan Portland) limited potential audiences.

To address this, the college of education looked into using streaming media to extend the delivery range beyond Portland to the rest of the state, and even to a national or global audience. Streaming, a method of delivering multimedia content over a network, was developed several years ago to address the problem of delivering large media files over limited network bandwidth. Instead of linking to a standard audio or video file that requires downloading the entire file before it can be played, streaming uses client and server software in tandem to transmit and receive data simultaneously, allowing the user to begin listening to or viewing content shortly after starting the download. The client side buffers several seconds of multimedia data before sending any data to the speakers or video decoders, compensating for any momentary delays in delivery.

There are a number of different streaming formats available. The most familiar types are RealPlayer, Quicktime, and Windows Media Player. As the college of education began to consider its options for providing streaming content, the station involved in the project, KPAM-AM 860, explained that it streamed its broadcast through StreamAudio, a company that currently serves more than 730 radio stations and that recorded over 3.2 million user-sessions in January 2001. A growing number of Internet service providers (ISPs) offer radio broadcast streaming ( [what does this URL illustrate? Generally, we link URLs to specific words or phrases (see above examples); to what should we link this one?]

The encoding software developed by StreamAudio incorporates Microsoft's Windows Media Player technology to create an active streaming format (.asf) file. The file is then transmitted to StreamAudio's servers and linked to the radio station's Web site. The file-encoding and file-serving processes occur in real time; listeners can phone the station with questions during the program. This process seemed ideal for our[i.e., the college of education's; please identify early in the article that you are a faculty member in the College]purposes. StreamAudio even graciously agreed to serve archived editions of the interviews at no charge for several weeks following the broadcasts. The radio station also generously agreed to provide the college of education with tapes of the interviews and permission to copy and redistribute the tapes for a small fee (to cover the cost of materials, handling, and copying the streaming files on CD).

To promote the upcoming event, we created Web pages to explain to clients how to prepare their computer system for receving the broadcasts. Some pages featured pictures of the faculty members, and others provided links to articles related to the discussion topics, which we updated each week with a link to an archive file of the interview ([again, from which words do you prefer we link this URL? Perhaps "archive file"?]We also modified our home page to feature a teaser about the upcoming interviews to generate interest among students, faculty, staff, and other visitors to the college of education's Web site (See sample:[should this URL link from the phrase "home page"?] The university public relations office released local and statewide announcements about the upcoming broadcasts, and university alumni and school districts throughout the state were mailed brochures about the program.


I have learned to be skeptical of technology vendors' claims, so, before the broadcast date, I installed Media Player on a number of different platforms to test the streaming performance. As I had feared, there were problems. The first problem I encountered was a file-naming problem that made playback fail on Macintosh computers. StreamAudio's technical support staff recognized the problem immediately, and modified the file name to resolve the problem.

The next problem I encountered, which came after the series began to air and the radio station began to archive files, was that Media Player 6.x was unable to play the archive files on a number of different platforms (Media Player 7 was not yet uniformly available for all operating systems). I contacted StreamAudio again, and they agreed to look for a solutionthough they admitted to having little experience with Macintosh clients. StreamAudio's technical support staff said that their encoding software incorporates streams of Flash and javascript during file creation to generate clickable advertising and to collect listener demographics. They speculated that this modified the file header enough that the file appeared to be corrupted when opened directly in a Media Player 6 client. Since, at the time, Media Player 7 was not available for Macs, Windows 95, or Windows NT 4 operating systems, this represented a particular problem for an education environment with large numbers of these clients.

We [I?] also tested the broadcast remotely on slow modem lines, and found severe inconsistency when streaming the file at speeds of less than 56k. Unfortunately, StreamAudio could not resolve this problem. The software they had developed for producing the archive files encoded the file at a transmission rate that was too fast for low bandwidth connections. [Are you considering other types of audio technology for the future, ones that will not have these problems?]

Fortunately, KPAM provided conventional audiotapes of the interviews. Terry Kneen, instructional systems coordinator for the college of education, digitized the audio, and we edited out news and commercial breaks with Sound Forge. Kneen converted the resulting files into a streaming Quicktime 4 format and used a digital media utility called Media Cleaner to adjust the streaming rate, which produced files that could be streamed at speeds as slow as 26,400 baud. He installed a Quicktime streaming Web server that ran the OS X operating system to deliver the files. Links to these compressed Quicktime files replaced the links to the StreamAudio archive files (See[from which word(s) should we link this URL?]. After these successful alterations, the files played uninterrupted on both PCs and Macs (equipped with Quicktime 4), even at slow modem speeds. 


So, with some effort, we eventually accomplished our taskalthough, because the original broadcast files could not be streamed properly, audiences at home could not listen to or interact with the interviewees during the broadcast itself (except for those users with a higher speed DSL connection, rare in Oregon outside of metropolitan areas). The logs for the college of education's Web server revealed more than 1,700 page requests [during what period?], from international locations as well as local and national listeners. Despite some difficulties, the college's administration remains optimistic about the potential of this technology to share research and scholarly activities with a global audience.

[Consider responding in more depth to the comments of critic W, who wrote: "The article cries out for some kind of closure that summarizes listener response and any impact the series might have had. Anything about the hit pattern that indicates the hottest topics? Did UO get any feedback from listeners? Was UO satisfied enough to schedule a spring series, e.g., was it worth the effort? If the series didn’t get a lot of response (which I suspect or the author would have reported it), what does the author feel needs to happen to increase the impact in the future?" You needn't respond to all of these questions, and your response needn't be lengthy -- just some indication.]


[Here please include references to the most recent NEA documentary and the article in Education Week.]