Breaking new ground with ALTc Radio

Written by Dominic Pates

On farms and lockdowns

When I was a far younger man than I am today, I used to make the Glastonbury Festival my annual summer holiday. I got to experience the likes of Blur, The Orb or Primal Scream in their heyday and witness surprise revivals like The Velvet Underground, reunited on the Pyramid Stage. The festival is such a full-on experience that it can be as much an investment of energy and emotion as it is of cold hard cash, but for a music fan, you’d get to see at least a year’s worth of gigs over just a few days. By the mid-nineties though, as levels of security increased around the perimeter fences and ticket prices started rising to significant levels, I decided that my Somerset festivalling was over and that I was only going back if I was on the bill. As I was tinkering around in various bands at the same time, it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility, but it was not exactly that likely. My last Glastonbury Festival was in 1994, the year after the first ALT conference.

Two decades on, I attended my first ALTc, at the University of Warwick. Although a professional conference is a very different proposition from a music festival, there were a few intriguing parallels. It was three days away from home, with a concentrated hit of as much of the best of what the sector represents, compacted into a full programme. The keynote speakers were like the headline acts, just at the start of the day rather than at the end of it. And the conditions were there for serendipitous conversations that would forge connections and spark discussions that just wouldn’t have happened otherwise. A Glastonbury for learning technology, in its own way. Fairly new to the sector as I was, ALTc 2014 was a professional highlight of the year. It was also pretty full-on to get to the end of. I recounted my personal pledge not to return to Glastonbury until I was on the bill and thought to myself, ‘I’ll be back at ALTc again, but not until I’m on the programme’. That set me a professional goal to aspire towards.

I didn’t manage to stay away entirely, as I continued to tinker with participation via remote means, mainly through things like hanging out at the keynote live streams on YouTube or descending down hashtag rabbit holes in the fringe conversations that would pop up on Twitter around the time of the conference. By ALTc 2019, though, I hit my Glastonbury goal and made it onto the bill with a workshop titled ‘Interrogating the Holographic Academic: A Speculative Design Workshop for Telepresent Future Learning’. It turned out that if you propose turning academics into holograms, you end up with people in the room wanting to explore the idea or push back against it, so I even managed an audience too. 

Of course, the following year, the usual timetable of professional events and general social activities got thrown completely out of kilter. The first 2020 lockdown, and like many other people, my professional and social life temporarily contracted to take place almost wholly on a landscape-oriented rectangular screen in my living room. One of the things that I’d been doing even before I became a learning technologist was co-running an Internet radio station, called The Thursday Night Show (TTNS). At the point when things like family commitments stopped a bunch of us in Brighton going out to the clubs of an evening, we ended up trying to recreate the experience in a browser and went out by staying in. When suddenly nobody could leave their homes by law to socialise and hang out with each other in Spring 2020, this led to a surge in interest for places where community was possible and already gathering in online spaces. TTNS started seeing some big audience spikes and we opened up a Zoom feature, and people would dress up for a night in and dance, alone together. Running a nightclub online was certainly a different way to experience that first lockdown.

Bringing radio to a conference

ALT couldn’t run an in-person conference in 2020, so the format for the online Winter Conference was borrowed from to bring the learning technology community together for a Summer Summit. If anyone could show other organisations and institutions how to run a conference online, it was the one that was already pretty well versed in how to do just that. Sat in my house alone, with family marooned overseas for months, I pondered the two online communities that I engaged with and socialised amongst and thought to myself ‘I wonder if I can somehow bring the two of these together?’

And so, we somehow did. ALT were responsive to the idea, as an interactive radio component added something extra to the online event. I put the call out for expressions of interest from the learning technology community and ended up with four new DJs on the show, including Anne-Marie Scott (who already did radio, with ds106) and Pip McDonald. On the Thursday night, after the conference has drawn to a close, I also played a set of songs from and about London as ALTc 2020 had been due to take place in London for the first time.

Bringing learning technology and music radio had worked well enough that ALT asked me back for more. At the 2020 Winter Conference, I managed to recruit another cluster of new DJs that also included two volunteers from the conference committee (Richard and Lyshi), who decided to do a joint show together despite having never met each other before. Learning technologists being what we are (and with a lot of help from existing TTNS crew), we manged to pull together a live show in this way that passed off with barely a hitch. The UK was still undergoing waves of lockdowns by Autumn 2021, so for the main annual conference, it was back to three days online and with some added radio. Two more new DJs joined the stable on this occasion, as Darren Gash and Coco Nijhoff came on board. 

By 2022, ALT was tentatively stepping into the precarious world of running a conference in a hybrid way and TTNS remained along for the journey. The DJ stable was becoming more settled, I played a set of songs from Manchester (the physical location of the conference), Darren did a set as DJ Wafflemeister, Pip played as Notorious P.I.P. and Coco completed the line-up. It also ended up one of the more memorable times I’ve ever spent on the radio as it turned out to be the day that Queen Elizabeth’s death was announced. I had to figure out at pretty short notice whether my little Internet radio station had any broadcast obligations in the circumstances to respond to the moment. Internet radio being global, we concluded that we didn’t and that the show must go on, so we ended up soundtracking delegates’ journeys home (or moments of switching off, if they were joining online).

Bumping into each other at a sectoral event in early 2023, Maren Deepwell asked me if I’d again be up for bringing radio to the next in-person conference. The difference being that this time it would be a more substantial part of the overall programme, rather than just an after event. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I jumped at the chance. To extend the 90s Glastonbury metaphor that opened this post, what I didn’t realise was that it would end up something like organising the John Peel Stage at Pilton, while the main team focused on the Pyramid Stage and ancillary events.

Scaling things up

Figure 3: View from inside the booth

Fast forward to Warwick, then. ALT provided a glass-fronted booth for the station amidst the exhibition stands, making it an actual pop-up radio station rather than just another DJ broadcasting from their home. We broadcast live over the Internet throughout the entire conference and throughout the two exhibition floors at the venue too. This meant that delegates arriving at or wandering through the venue were confronted with music as part of the sensory mix of the event – not as common as it might sound. The programme consisted of a mix of on-site music sets from the booth, live online ones beamed into the venue and onto the Web, and pre-recorded shows, including a spotlight of various podcasts that explore different issues across post-secondary education and learning technology. The roster included well-known figures from the learning technology sector making radio debuts, a handful of new voices to add to the mix, and some of the existing TTNS DJs that had come via previous iterations of ALT Radio.

On Day One, Julie Voce and myself opened proceedings with an ‘ALTc Radio Breakfast’, intended to bring a little wake-up call to the event. We were followed by Peter Bryant from the University of Sydney, with a look at Australian interfaces between disruption in music and disruption in education. ‘Hosts’ Corner’ followed, where I got a chance to speak to ALTc 2023 hosts Santanu Vasant and Lawrie Phipps, with ALT Trustee Puiyin Wong making her radio debut after that. James Clay from Jisc and myself held a ‘Listener Requests’ slot, then we handed over to two live online sets to soundtrack the drinks reception at the main venue – DJ Wafflemeister, MC Hermit and Daveobotic, topped off by Coco with a ‘Post Punk Potpourri’. 

Day Two on site had DJ debuts from Alice Chapman (amongst the ALT Awards winners and a committee member), Donna Lanclos (joined by Peter Bryant), and Lauren Ketteridge (another conference committee member). Live online, we had Maha Bali and guests live from Cairo with a breakfast pre-note discussion on AI and education, and Notorious P.I.P. closed the day with a set titled ’The Sound of Learning Technology’. Live on site on Day Three, we had Day One keynoter and TTNS returnee Anne-Marie Scott interviewing the previous night’s ALT Award Winners, and Anne-Marie again in conversation with outgoing CEO Maren Deepwell. Mark Childs make his live online DJ debut as Dr Rock to close conference proceedings and pave the way for another Thursday Night of regular programming.

All three keynotes were being live streamed on YouTube, so this was added into the overall radio mix. New pre-recorded sets included ‘Digital Education Playlists’ with Jane Secker and Julie Voce, a discussion on ‘Podcasting as Pedagogy’, and special edition of ‘My Liminal Pod’ on TEL Research, with Puiyin Wong and John Brindle. Podcasts showcased included ‘Teaching Here And There‘, ‘Talking HE‘, ‘Amplify FE‘, ‘Pedagodzilla‘, and more of ‘My Liminal Pod‘.

The main kit on site (a laptop, two mics with headphones, an audio interface, and a mixer) was provided by the external contractor working with ALT on general AV equipment provision. This saved me having to carry broadcast gear across the creaking train network and meant it was all set up when I arrived. There was also on-site AV support, as was needed for the main event. This meant I didn’t have to do all the audio and technical troubleshooting whilst also trying to run the programme and was therefore an absolute godsend. We used the existing TTNS infrastructure, which includes a website where the radio signal is broadcast from and a public Discord channel for interacting with the DJs and audience. 

Post-event reflections

So, now that the dust has settled and I can reflect a little, what was it like to bring a radio station to my profession’s main annual conference?

There was an awful lot of planning that went into it, so my huge thanks go out in particular to Katie from ALT for making it so much easier on my end than it could otherwise have been! As there were so many people new to radio broadcasting and I was going to need a break away from the booth from time to time, I decided that I should make the set up as simple to operate as possible. This meant asking presenters to give me a list of their songs in advance or an actual playlist. My Spotify account then acted as the music library for the event. I tried to keep the music levels consistent and just used faders on the mixer for speech. I mention all this more as an aide memoire to self for next time I ever agree to do something like this – there’s much to be said for ‘keeping it simple’.

I’ve been an ALTc delegate before. I’ve been a presenter. I’ve been a member of the conference committee in the past too, which gives quite a peek behind the curtain (this blog post tells that wider story). This, however, was akin to being a member of the ALT staff (or at least a contractor to the main event), which was quite a different experience to all the other modes of participation. Although it was a significant amount of work to both plan and run and it was difficult to fully participate in the rest of the conference as an actual delegate, I also really enjoyed it too. 

Being able to infuse a conference with an eclectic blend of music and range of different voices brought a very different feel to the event than many of the other conferences I’ve attended. As a rule, music at conferences is rare and is usually only played in discrete areas or deployed as filler when it is included. Music, however, can bring joy, create nostalgia, generate rhythm, and forge community – the latter aside, not typically things associated with a conference. For the presenters, it allowed them to showcase a different side to their professional selves than the ones they may usually present at these events. The overall community, whether in-person or online, seemed to respond really well to having a (licenced) music layer to their annual gathering.

A screenshot of a computer

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Figure 5: Screenshot of Voicemeeter Potato Virtual Audio Mixer for Windows

Naturally, there were challenges. For one of the sets, I’d agreed to facilitate playing the music into the mix from Warwick while the speakers were offsite at another location. I didn’t quite have the optimum setup or knowhow to be able to put a hybrid live broadcast together in time. I spent my first night on a borrowed laptop with a member of the TTNS crew trying to figure out a piece of software called Voicemeeter Potato – popular, apparently with Windows-using audio engineers. I couldn’t quite get my head around it. I tried alternatives approaches on the day but couldn’t quite get all components of the broadcast in place. The show went ahead, but without music. 

At another point, I had to shuffle the schedule around at fairly short notice. This meant quite a few negotiations over different slots and me running around the venue trying to get confirmations sorted. It also meant having to reconfigure the material that was prescheduled for automated online broadcasts. For a short period, this somehow resulted in different recordings playing on top of each other on the radio stream, which was a little jarring to listen to. Again, huge kudos to colleagues on and off site who kept their heads and helped out while I was trying to do the same to keep the show on the road.

To some extent, it felt like being at the breaking of a new medium. I spoke to quite a few people at Warwick who might consider themselves ‘seasoned conference attendees’ and none of them had encountered something directly comparable from the different professional gatherings that they had collectively attended. We’d all encountered things like recordings being made amongst conference crowds for appearing in later podcasts, or things like ‘backstage’ interviews of supplementary materials to the main programme. This was a feature at Jisc’s 2023 Digifest in Birmingham, for example, where delegates could watch interviews with key speakers that was then live streamed onto YouTube. Jisc’s James Clay had previously been involved in something similar at ALTc itself, having developed the ‘ALT Live Beta’ experiment at ALTc in 2011, modelled on the likes of televised backstage interviews at Glastonbury. 

Ofcom in the UK offers something called a ‘Restricted Service Licence’ (RSL). RSLs are for legal and limited spectrum allocations that are typically granted to radio and television stations looking to broadcast within the UK to serve a local community or a special event. These licenced services are typically broadcast on low-power FM or AM signals, are time-limited, and tend to be used for things like trialling a radio project ahead of an application for a permanent licence. Worthy FM, Glastonbury’s official onsite radio station, operates under an RSL. Being Internet radio and with a different context, this set up didn’t require sorting out an RSL beforehand. One less thing to do, at least!

Do it again?

Here are 10 things I’d do differently, if there were to be a next time:

  1. Run the show in venue from a Mac rather than a Windows device. The onsite laptop was clunky and a bit difficult to operate. Macs also run a piece of software called Audio Hijack – brilliant for configuring and routing audio, but which I only started exploring properly shortly beforehand.
  2. Complete the programme line-up earlier. This would leave more time for confirmations, changes and communications. 
  3. Get someone else to do comms (promotion) and engagement (when live, making more use of the chatroom and canvas on TTNS). I didn’t really have any chance to make use of or encourage some of the interactivity features we have built in to TTNS, but that would add to the community aspects of the event.
  4. Recommend that the radio component was promoted by the conference as a ‘Free’ tier for delegates within the overall conference package. This could widen the potential audience for the event. That said, we still managed just over 1,200 unique listeners overall for the conference programme, which was pretty good as listener figures for Internet radio go.
  5. Encourage presenters to promote their own shows, via whatever channels they might typically use.
  6. Test complex set-ups (eg hybrid ones) more thoroughly beforehand, and definitely before arriving on site.
  7. Put more set up time in beforehand when on site, to get more familiar with the kit.
  8. More thoroughly test the setup offline with local AV team and pre-broadcast with remote listeners to get things like mic/music monitoring balance on headphones and stereo mix in the live stream right.
  9. Have another pair of hands around, to help with onboarding DJs, interacting with listeners, and to give me an occasional break. 
  10. Ensure that the radio feed is the audio playing throughout the venue (eg site AV aren’t playing something different in the gaps between speakers in the main hall) and that the mix is well balanced around the venue.

If you’re curious about what learning technology sounds like and missed it during the conference, you can catch selections from ALTc Radio replaying on Friday afternoons (13:00 – 16:00) on TTNS

1 Comment

  • Alan Levine says:

    I just have to chime in with some hearty shouts of “BRILLIANT” that ALT has woven live radio into the conference.

    My experience is old and dated having done a bit of the adhoc early DS106 radio when the gear was a laptop and hodgepodge software, done informally on the edges of conferences.

    Always thought a viable platform, but never convinced my colleagues, would be a 24/7 internet radio station for open education, mixing the live with recorded sessions, the folks at Reclaim Hosting and DS106 Radio are still at this, alas I have not gone live in like 6 years.

    There’s hard to match the energy of live streamed audio, especially to reach father than video. Looking forward to following the TTNS show.

    ALT is awesome.

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