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Net replaces satellite for NPR

National Public Radio is using the Net to distribute a popular radio program while the Galaxy 4 satellite is out of commission.

At 6:10 p.m. ET last night, thousands of radios tuned to National Public Radio's popular drive-time show All Things Considered went dead.

That's when the Galaxy 4 satellite, operated by PanAmSat, spun out of control, cutting off most paging services throughout the United States as well as other Net and broadcast providers that rely on that satellite for their feed.

NPR depends wholly on the satellite to distribute All Things Considered to radio stations across the country, said M.J. Bear, director of new media for NPR. At the time of the outage, the two-hour show was in the middle of its second broadcast feed of the afternoon and it still had one more feed to go before the afternoon drive time would be over.

Stations were left high and dry--but not for long.

"It took a couple of minutes to realize this was a big satellite problem," Bear said. "Our Webmaster said, 'I think we may be able to stream the signal through the Internet.'"

NPR already makes many of its shows available through RealAudio feeds on its Web page. But it had never used the feed before to distribute shows for broadcast. It hadn't even been set up as a backup. But Webmaster Robert Holt thought it was a viable solution, so he, along with the staff of six others, got to work.

They got clearance from NPR's chief operating officer, mounted a special Web page for its broadcast affiliates, and set up a 14.4-kbps and 56-kbps feed of its show. Within an hour, stations were back on the air using the Net. And by this morning, dozens of stations had hooked up to the Net for the feed.

"This is the first time we've ever fed out a program via the Internet to put on the air," Bear said.

Not all stations are Internet-ready and All Things Considered is giving radio stations other ways to get to the show as well, such as alternative satellite providers, ISDN lines, and phone bridges, Bear said.

But the sound quality on the 56-kbps feed is much better than the phone, Bear said.

RealNetworks, producers of RealAudio, also pitched in by providing NPR redundancy, Bear said. She added that a few dozen stations are using the Net feed.

"Something like this can only solidify what we do," Bear said. "It's being creative and using technology in order to serve. And that's what NPR is all about."