Visual Radio Part 1: Distribution

Posted by Jamie Woods on

It’s no secret that Insanity Radio is working on a visualised radio platform. This post will be the first in a series documenting how we did it.

For context, we’re a very small team of (mostly student) broadcast engineers. We’ve never engineered a telly station before, so this is an entirely new field and we’re practically re-inventing it as we go along.

Oddly, we’ll start at what most will consider the last step: distribution.

Falcon is built upon a Blackmagic ATEM Television Studio (TVS). The 1080p (HD) version was released a few months after we put in the original purchase orders, which kinda sucked as it limited us to 1080i or 720p. At least we have the built in encoder to work with.

Input to such a device usually would come from a station’s distribution amplifier. In this case, our TVS is our distribution amplifier and runs our main playout facility. Cheap and dirty, but reliable.

When working with online distribution, you can summarise the components in a pretty short list:

  1. Capturing the programme (“PGM”) video and audio.
  2. Transcoding this video to suitable format
  3. Serving this video to users over the Internet
  4. [Logging this captured video]

Capturing PGM

The ATEM Television Studio has a built in USB H.264 encoder. Great. Encoding H.264, even with modern hardware, is computationally expensive. If we could use this, then we wouldn’t have to worry about re-encoding later in the chain (except to downscale – but that’s not important at this point).

Problem: support for this H.264 encoder is shoddy. Live streaming with it is a bit complicated, and the drivers don’t run on Linux (why? Even Blackmagic support don’t know). As Insanity’s backbone is Linux, this left a bad taste in the mouths of the engineers. Moving through it, the first thing we had to do is install Windows Server on a spare rack server, and then the Blackmagic drivers.

Next problem: “Media Express” can’t stream. We looked at several solutions to this that could stream. We purchased an MX Light license, but discovered that it would crash after being left to free run for over 24 hours. Drat. We needed better reliability.

The solution? A piece of open source software called MXPTiny.

MXPTiny doesn’t have many features, so you have to script it yourself. We did this, but were greeted later in the chain with horrible encoding failures – likely due to a bug in ffmpeg streaming RTMP. This wouldn’t do.

After several days of scratching our heads, we came across another piece of software: Nimble Streamer. Although “freeware”, Nimble works off of a cloud configuration platform called WMSPanel. This software is very expensive ($30/month, which is massive for a community station). Fortunately, a Stack Overflow answer said after initial configuration, if you remove the node from WMSPanel it will continue to operate just fine. Great.

So, that left us with these final configurations:


Prev. Cfg: C:\path\to\ffmpeg.exe -i \\.\pipe\DeckLink.ts -codec copy -f mpegts "udp://"

Make sure to lower the video bitrate (<5 Mbps is ideal, otherwise most users will stall). Also, having a high bandwidth causes inconsistent chunk sizes in DASH, which can confuse quite a few players.

Nimble Streamer (via WMSPanel)

Set up a UDP server on localhost:30001

Enable RTMP server for the node


We didn’t need to transcode our video. For us, 1080p25, as captured from the H.264 encoder, was ideal. The less overhead, the better. The solution was easy: serve the .TS files from MXPTiny up to Nimble Streamer, which would instead of transcoding just transmux them into RTMP format.

If you’re looking for a better answer, sorry: we don’t have one.

Serving Video

If you haven’t already, read up on HLS and MPEG-DASH. Insanity’s platform exclusively uses them – the RTMP server isn’t public.

These files were generated using nginx-rtmp-module (the sergey-dryabzhinsky fork). This contained a complete enough DASH implementation to be playable with DASH.JS. Why this and not use Nimble Server? The soonest that we could get back into familiar open source territory the better.

The NGINX server was configured to pull video from our Nimble Server, and to serve falcon’s video in both HLS and DASH formats.

server {
	listen 1935;
	chunk_size 4000;
	application falcon {
		deny publish all;
		pull rtmp:// name=video static;
		allow play all;
		live on;

		hls on;
		hls_path /srv/dash/falcon/hls;
		hls_fragment 10s;
		hls_playlist_length 1m;
		hls_continuous on;
		hls_cleanup on;

		dash on;
		dash_path /srv/dash/falcon/dash;
		dash_fragment 10s;
		dash_playlist_length 60m;
		hls_variant _hi BANDWIDTH=192000;


Making It Scale

Video serving is expensive – you can easily saturate a gigabit link with ten odd clients. So, CDNs were created: CDNs are great. Most big media companies use Akamai. Most small companies use Cloudflare.

Akamai is expensive. Cloudflare’s terms prohibit you serving lots of video.

The solution? Google’s Project Shield.

Available exclusively to small, independent media groups, this was ideal for us. The best bit is that Shield doesn’t have a SLA that prevents you from serving multimedia elements.

As DASH and HLS both create long (ish) lived segments that are statically served to clients, they are ideal to scale out. The manifest files only update when a new segment is published – every ten seconds.

The edge nodes were configured to cache the manifest files for 10 seconds, and to cache the DASH segments infinitely. As the presentation delay in DASH is set to 60 seconds, this allows plenty of time for the CDN appropriately expire and update manifests if and when necessary.

Initial tests showed that if several people were playing the stream through Shield, most client requests hit its cache. With the power of Google’s infrastructure behind the project, we can hopefully sleep well at night with this platform being able to handle the worst spikes. Wonderful.


The DASH server is currently configured to store/serve 1 hour of video. We’ll likely up this in the future, but in the mean time this allows us to reconstruct video. As there is no transcoding of DASH segments, this is trivial.

A piece of software (Grabby, soon to be on the Insanity Radio GitHub) is able to pull DASH segments and reconstruct them without much overhead. This works by concatenating the initialisation segment with the segments we want. This is done twice: once for video, once for audio. ffmpeg then joins our two temporary files together to create our final rip. It’s also able to use ffmpeg to forward video to YouTube and Facebook over RTMP.

When used as part of this design chain, there is absolutely no loss in quality from multiple encoding. We’re still using the original H.264 data from the Blackmagic, so video is never re-encoded after capture. This also allows us to run the software on inexpensive, low-end hardware.

The next post in the series documents how to automate vision mixing



Email: Vulnerable To Blacklist

Posted by Jamie Woods on

This morning I received an email informing me that the Insanity Radio mail server had been added to two email blacklists.

*Groan* go most system administrators. This usually means one of our users’ has had their email account compromised, probably by using a weak password. Most of the time, this is probably right. However, the reasons behind this were more alarming than you’d consider, and actually point to a vulnerability within most Postfix/SpamAssassin set-ups.

A bit of background: Postfix is a mail server. SpamAssassin is a server which is fed emails and responds with a score on how spammy the email is. Combine the two and you have a pretty good way to filter out spam. However, this is where it gets a bit more tricky.

Postfix has a concept of filters – a way of running email through a bit of code. There are two main types, before-queue and after-queue. before-queue will apply the filter before the email is accepted by the server, and after-queue will apply after the email is accepted.

The problem is that most SpamAssassin set-ups work after-queue. This means that your incoming mail server will accept spam emails before it scans them. If it rejects an email later on, it will send a response to the sender saying it bounced, and why.

You’ve probably seen emails from “MAILER DAEMON” saying stuff like “The email you tried to send your thing to doesn’t exist”. It’s pretty much the same.

Now, there’s actually a surprisingly easy way to exploit this. This could be used by an attacker to quite comfortably destroy the reputation of a mail server. Scary, huh? The attack can be done in a few simple steps.

  1. Connect to your target mail server.
  2. Send the most horrible spammy email you can, one that checks all the boxes on SpamAssassin
  3. Set the envelope address to a honeypot address
  4. Rinse & Repeat

The mail server will send a bounce email to the honeypot address, and will get added to an email blacklist as a result.

The best solution is just to install amavisd, and just let that handle interconnecting to SpamAssassin.


How To Make A (Non-Linear) Radio Station

Posted by Jamie Woods on

Radio is pretty linear. By linear, I mean that your content is only really designed to be played out once; then you move on and it is all but forgotten.

So how do you make this compatible with this crazy new internet-age, where this isn’t the case at all?

Technical Background: The BBC, along with EBU, are working on a system called ORPHEUS. Its end goal is to build a studio that almost automatically does this for you. However, this is going to likely take decades to trickle down to smaller broadcasters, so there’s no reason we can’t work on our own solution in the mean time. This post hopefully outlines some of the requirements such a system actually needs. Some of this is somewhat-plagairised from a presentation I saw at a conference, but we’ve elaborated a bit more on the ideas to make them a bit more realistic.

Linear radio looks a bit like this:

  1. Create a show plan and work out what you want to discuss
  2. Perform your show on air, probably not sticking completely to the plan.
  3. Evaluate how you think it went, get feedback from others, etc.
  4. Repeat.

Creating content for, say, YouTube, looks rather similar:

  1. Create a plan for your short, and work out what you want to discuss
  2. Record it, probably multiple times
  3. Edit the raw video down, add titles and graphics, etcetera. Make small improvements, perhaps by refilming a segment.
  4. Publish the video
  5. Look at the analytics and possibly comments.
  6. Repeat

(For a podcast, you can probably follow the same steps as above, but without the video)

So, it’s clear that the thought processes are pretty similar. But how can you take a radio show and put it on social media?

Well, first, you probably want video to go with the audio. The ideal solution here is an easy thought: record some video at the same time as audio in your logs.

The next thing is a bore: rights management. If you use beds, the license for them may not cover social media. If you catch the intro or tail of a song in a link, you can’t use it. So, we need a way to remove content that could be infringing – or we could somehow license it for YouTube. The latter is operationally hard, so we’ll go with the first and engineer it into our system.

Next, you need to actually be able to locate the segment you want to share. But how do you find it in the recordings amidst songs? You then need to be able to work out when to start and when to end the video. Naturally, you could select a whole link here if it’s not crazy long. We need a way to be able to work out when in the video.

So, three things we need to consider to make internet-ready content:

  1. Video to go with your audio output – how do we make this video good?
  2. Editing the original mix to subtract content – where do we even start doing this?!
  3. Locating where our target links are in this video – how do we find the position of our content?

The next series of posts will look into how to solve our three problems. We will look at 2 first, as the solution provides many benefits.



Posted by Jamie Woods on

This blog details the technical changes that occur under-the-hood at Insanity Radio 103.2FM, a community radio station who live in Surrey.

Why? Our technical operations are very fast paced, and we do a lot of things that aren’t industry standard. But we want them to be.

Feel free to pinch any of the ideas on this site for your own use, commercial or otherwise. Also to criticise, etc. We’d honestly love to hear feedback.