Danger zone

Muhammad Irfan keeps popping up in the most inhospitable places.
Muhammad Irfan
Muhammad Irfan

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From revolutionary Libya to war-torn Syria, BSA’s Muhammad Irfan has a habit of popping up in the most inhospitable places, and invariably leaving a trail of production and broadcast infrastructure behind him.

To paraphrase the hit 80s TV show, The A-Team, if you’ve got a broadcast or production-related problem, and no one else can help, maybe you should hire Muhammad Irfan’s team. Last year we reported how Broadcast Systems Arabia (BSA) CEO Irfan had led the project to place multiple radio transmitters in the still war-torn Libya so that Al Aan TV could broadcast audio feeds of news to the Libyan people as the struggle for control of the oil-rich state raged on.

Since then he has returned to oversee the building of a brand new four-camera news studio for Libya’s leading TV channel, Al Ahrar. The $4.5M project also included 12 DSNG vans, four edit suites, graphics, around 16 ENG cameras and Vislink antennas.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Irfan’s latest project has seen him head to the far-from-relaxing environs of civil war-torn Syria, again to bring radio news to the population from Al Aan’s Dubai base.

Irfan explains the project further: “It’s a complete radio project. Starting from a four-channel playout from Al Aan’s HQ in Dubai Media City, we next set up three transmitter points in Syria to bring humanitarian news to the Syrian people.

Last month we also customised a mobile transmitter, and BSA has now locked a new deal with Al Aan TV to integrate four new mobile FM radio vans, which will be delivered and operational in May.”

Al Aan’s thinking behind the project, Irfan explains, was that in Syria, many areas are currently without electricity, and consequently access to TV news, while the FM spectrum is dominated by state-owned channels.

Like in Libya, then, Al Aan took it upon itself to attempt to bring an independent radio news source to the people. BSA initally fitted the playout system in the Dubai Media City studios, and was then contracted in August 2012 to set up the three transmitters in Syria.

The transmitters currently broadcast to the three major Syrian cities that remain outside government control – Aleppo, Azaz and Tal Aadi.

Irfan is understandably unprepared to divulge the locations of the transmitters, particularly as the first transmitter to go live was attacked by armed forces in November last year, however he claims that the transmitter network covers a population of some 8.3M inside Syria, as well as residents of the Turkish and Kurdish cities close to the Syrian border.

In terms of the production and broadcast workflows, the set up in Syria is relatively straightforward, notwithstanding the rigours of reporting and broadcasting from a war zone. Al Aan has 12 reporters on the ground in Syria, as well as its team in Dubai.

The Syrian reporting team are joined on the ground by seven technical personal, all of whom were trained by Al Aan to maintain and operate the equipment there. The reporters use a simple audio recording set up – two microphones, a laptop and Avid recording software to ensure the best quality audio. They also have access to Sony Handicams and 20 Zoom personal audio recorders. The stories are sent back to Al Aan via FTP.

Once back at Al Aan HQ, the content is put together for playout – a total of 12 staff work specifically on the radio project at the Al Aan playout centre in Dubai, and seperate live shows are broadcast daily for both Libya and Syria as well as the general news output.

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The finished content is passed through the 100 per cent digital playout system at Al Aan, and delivered to Nilesat through Samacom. The signal is then downlinked in Syria and pushed back out as an FM signal to listeners. Both the Libyan and Syrian streams are also available to listeners online.

The equipment too is a fairly straightforward affair, albeit with a few tweaks to suit the unusual environment. BSA purchased standard transmitters from Elenos and Oniar Media, and the vendor took a fairly typical three months to manufacturer the equipment.

Once on the ground, the equipment operates much as it would anywhere else, except that it is powered by diesel generators due to the unreliable electricity supply. Irfan concedes that this makes current running costs high, around US$200 per geenrator per day, but notes that once electricity becomes available the power source will switch and the costs will drop accordingly.

The whole implementation took a total of four months, an amazing feat considering the challenges of attempting to carry it out in secrecy while a civil war raged around the team from BSA.

The Dubai playout system, meanwhile, was installed and integrated by Italian company DB Electronics, who were subcontracted by BSA while they got on with the work in Syria. DB also provided training to the Dubai team on the new playout equipment.

Of course, Irfan is not solely concerned with working in warzones. He is already well-known in the regional industry for his work at Showtime Arabia and Al Aan, where he served as broadcast operations manager before his current role, and he still regularly works with Al Aan both with BSA and on a consultancy basis today.

It seems in recent times though, he has found a gap in the market that not too many people are rushing to fill, and he is revelling in the opportunity: “I went to Libya when the war began, and now I am in Syria while the war is ongoing. I’m risking my life for the broadcast world.

Of course I’m earning well, but somebody has to go to these places and provide broadcast services. I really want to tell people that I’m really the only person or company in the region that can do these installations for you in conflict zones. I don’t know anybody else who is doing this.

“In Libya, for example I started out with a contract for Al Aan for an SNG installation, and after that I did the installation for their radio. From there Misrata TV approached me and I did some work for them.

Then I came back and Libya Al Ahrar contacted me because they know what I could do over there. Now the same thing is happening in Syria. I’ve already installed the four transmitters for Al Aan TV, now they’ve given me the job of installing a further four transmitters.

On top of this I’ve been contacted by members of the opposition in Syria who need help with SNG equipment and the like. It’s a risky business, but at the end of the day, I think we’re the only company doing installations in war zones.”

It’s an unusual claim to fame, and doubtless one that not too many people would want on their CV, but Irfan clearly feels that the rewards, both financial and personal are worth the risk. Of course, we’re all hoping that the current turmoil engulfing the region, and Syria in particular at the current moment, isn’t going to last much longer, but whilever it does, there’s at least one company that will do its best to keep refugees, rebels and civilians alike up to date with the latest news.

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Al Aan’s estimated reach in Syria
City TX: Aleppo
City & Urban Area Population: 4,868,000
Frequency: 96.9Mhz

City TX: Azaz
City & Urban Area Population: 1,923,000
Frequency: 96.6Mhz

City TX: Tal Aadi
City & Urban Area Population: 1,501,000
Frequency: 96.3Mhz

Total of City & Urban Area Population: 8,292,000

Kit List
Production
Avid recording system
Sony Handicams
20x Zoom personal recorders
4x Still camera lens kits

Transmission
5 x Elenos Indium series ETG 2000 T 2kW transmitters
5 x Eurostar satellite receiver and cables
3 x On Air Media FT2K5 2.5kW FM transmitter and exciter
3 x Aldena Omni-directional antenna
Korax X600FTA decoder

Power
Power Generator: 16KVA 3 Phase Generator Automatic, Model APD 16A, Brand: AKSA
UPS: 15KVA ONLINE 3Phase IN 1Phase OUT UPS, Model:3C, Brand: NECRON
Power Stabilizer: 15KVA Power Stabilizers Local made
Power Generator: 16KVA 3 Phase Generator Automatic, Model APD 16A, Brand: AKSA
UPS: 15KVA ONLINE 3Phase IN 1Phase OUT UPS, Model:3C, Brand: NECRON
3 x Power Stabilizer: 15KVA Power Stabilizers Local made

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