Globalizing Community Outreach with Streaming Media
When a new
Portland, Oregon-based radio station sought experts in the field of education to
interview for a new series of programs exploring strategies to help students be
successful in school,
the faculty of the College of Education at the University of Oregon
considered an obvious choice. The faculty of our nationally-ranked
college represent over 30 years of research expertise. Their research has been the subject of
National Education Association documentaries and articles in Education
From the college’s
perspective, this community outreach opportunity provided an excellent platform
to inform education professionals, alumni, potential students, parents and the
general public about our research and outreach activities ranging from dealing
with destructive behavior to improving early reading performance. But Oregon is a very large, rural state
with 248 school districts scattered over almost 100,000 square miles.
Furthermore, the discussions could be of interest to educators in other states
and countries. Although Portland is
the largest city in Oregon, the radio station’s broadcast range
was less than 75 miles from the metropolitan area. So, we
explored the use of streaming media to extend the programs to a global audience.
Streaming is a
relatively new method of delivering multimedia
content over a network. Unlike linking to a standard audio or video file which
requires the browser to download the entire file before it can be loaded into
the appropriate player and played, streaming uses both client and server
software working together to transmit and receive data simultaneously to produce
uninterrupted sound or video. The client side buffers a few seconds of
multimedia data before it starts sending it to the speakers
compensates for momentary delays in packet delivery. This makes it possible for the
listener/viewer to begin listening/viewing the content after only a few seconds
(broadband) to a few minutes (modem speeds) after the file begins to download.
There are a number
of different streaming formats available.
The most familiar are Real Player (http://www.realaudio.com/), Quicktime (http://www.apple.com/quicktime/), and
Windows Media Player (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/EN/default.asp). As we began to consider our options to
provide streaming content, KPAM AM860 (http://www.radiofreeoregon.com/ ),
the station involved in the project, explained that they currently stream their
broadcasts through a service
offered by StreamAudio (http://www.streamaudio.com/). A growing list of
internet service providers (ISPs)
offer radio broadcast streaming (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/en/service_provider/service/default.asp#Radio). However, unlike many ISPs, StreamAudio
provides the service at no charge to the radio station because their software
incorporates clickable advertising to generate revenue from streaming
activity. StreamAudio provides a
450 Mhz Pentium class encoding computer to the radio station that is connected
to the radio station’s broadcast console. 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 Stream Audio’s high capacity streaming
servers and linked to the radio station’s web page. The file encoding and serving processes
occur in real time so listeners can actually call in with questions during the
course of streamed programs. This
appeared to be ideal for our purposes.
StreamAudio even graciously agreed to serve archive files of the
interviews for us following the broadcasts at no charge. The radio station also
generously agreed to provide us with tapes of the interviews and permission to
copy and redistribute the tapes for the cost of materials and handling and
copies of the streaming files on CD. Every base seemed to be covered.
To promote the upcoming event, I created a web page to explain how to prepare to view the broadcasts by installing the appropriate Media Player for a client’s particular computer system (http://interact.uoregon.edu/broadcastprep.html). I created a web page with pictures of the faculty members and links to articles related to their discussion topics that would be updated each week with a link to an archive file of the interview (http://interact.uoregon.edu/coeonline.html). Then I prepared successive home page modifications to feature a teaser about the upcoming interviews to generate interest from students, faculty, staff and other visitors to our website. Sample:
The university public relations office released a Portland-area announcement about the upcoming broadcasts and a statewide news item. Brochures were mailed to alumni and school districts around the state.
I have learned over the years to be a little skeptical of technology vendors’ claims, so before the broadcast date, I installed Media Player on a number of different platforms to test streaming performance in different environments. Unfortunately, as I had feared, problems began to crop up. The first problem we encountered was a file naming convention problem that caused playback of the broadcast file to fail on MacIntosh clients. Stream Audio's technical support recognized the problem right away when I reported it and modified the file name and resolved this problem.
The next problem we encountered after the interview series, “Kids and Schools – What Works!”, began to air and the radio station began creating the archive files was the inability for Macs, Win95, and Windows NT stations running Media Player 6.x (Media Player 7 was not yet available for these operating systems) to play the archive files. I contacted StreamAudio who agreed to try to find a solution to the problem. They admitted they were new to the technology themselves and had little experience with MacIntosh clients. In my efforts to assist them with troubleshooting this problem, I delved into the extensive Microsoft Knowledgebase on Media Player development. I found references to the need to create a text metafile for each media file and refer to this metafile in the web page link instead of linking directly to the media file. Microsoft’s Knowledgebase explained that when linking directly to streaming files using a standard <a href> tag, the browser simply downloads it like any other document, which defeats the purpose of streaming. With a metafile however, Windows Media Player opens the metafile and interprets the scripting, then uses the URL to locate the content and stream the content. A sample metafile looks like this (where path is the path to the media file):
noticed that the radio station link referred directly to the media file so I
thought this might solve the problem.
I created a simple .asx metafile and replaced my link reference. But Media Player would then report that
the file was corrupt. I conferred
with StreamAudio’s technical support and was told that StreamAudio combines
process to generate the clickable advertising and collect listener demographic
data. They speculated that perhaps
this material modified the file header enough that the file appeared to be
corrupted when opened directly in Media Player instead of through the
StreamAudio proprietary client interface
automatically launches when accessed by a Media Player 7 client. Of course, at the time, Media Player 7
was not available for Macs, Windows 95 or NT 4 operating systems, a
particular problem for an education environment with large numbers of these
also tested their file remotely on slow modem lines. We found we encountered severe
choppiness of the file streaming at slower modem speeds
(<56k). Unfortunately, this problem could also not be resolved by
StreamAudio. The software they had developed for producing the archive
files apparently encoded the file at a transmission rate that was too high for
low bandwidth connections.
Fortunately, I had asked KPAM to produce conventional audio tapes of the interviews. My colleague Terry Kneen, Instructional Systems Coordinator for the college, digitized the audio and created small, compressed streaming files with Quicktime 4 and a digital media utility named Media Cleaner (http://www.mediacleaner.com/) that could be streamed at speeds as slow as 26,400 baud. He installed a version 3 beta Quicktime Streaming Server running the OS X operating system to deliver the files.
We are now in the process of replacing the links to the StreamAudio archive files with these compressed Quicktime files. (See: http://interact.uoregon.edu/destructive.html). These files are playable by both PCs and Macs and can be streamed without a pause on slow modems.
So, with some effort, we eventually accomplished our task, although, because the original broadcast files could not be streamed properly, this prevented audiences at home (except in the rare case of a user with a higher speed DSL connection – very rare in Oregon outside of limited metropolitan areas) from listening to or interacting with the interviewees during the broadcast itself. We were pleased to note that our web server logs showed page access from international locations as well as local and national access. Despite our difficulties, I am excited about the potential use for this technology to share our research and scholarly activities with a global audience.