'On the Air' JHMI Taps an Associated Press News Director To Put Health NewsFeed Back On Radio By Mike Field Health NewsFeed, the award-winning radio news service that distributes 60-second stories about Hopkins medicine to radio stations across the country, has returned after a two-year hiatus. Originally broadcast in 1988 and continuing through 1993, the five-times-weekly series of minute-long programs highlights the latest developments and advances in health care and medical science at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. The revitalized series will follow a format similar to that of the original programs, which in 1991 received a William Harvey Award for Medical Reporting and a New York Radio Festival Award for excellence. Targeted at general audiences with a "news-you-can-use" emphasis, the segments will eschew complicated medical jargon and instead concentrate on delivering strong stories, relevant topics and clear reporting. "The goal of Health NewsFeed is to enhance and maintain Hopkins' reputation for teaching, research and patient care by getting our experts on the air every day and explaining our science in ways everyone can understand," said Health NewsFeed director Jack Sheehan, a former Associated Press Radio Network anchor and reporter. Sheehan came to the Medical Institutions in February after two decades in the broadcast news industry. He is charged with returning Health NewsFeed, stopped because of budget cuts, to the airwaves in an expanded version. Johns Hopkins creates and distributes the programs at no charge, making them available to any radio station that wishes to use them. The stations in turn are free to sell advertising spots to "sponsor" the programs, effectively making them a potential revenue-generating source for the stations. Sheehan said he hopes to produce more programs and distribute them more widely at a fraction of the previous per program cost. The secret, he said, lies in the new digital technology that has recently become available. "The key to the success of the new Health NewsFeed is doing everything digitally," Sheehan said. "Essentially the words coming out of the researcher's mouth will be the last analog component. Everything that follows will be digital." Advances in personal computer technology make it possible to record, play back, edit and mix full-fidelity stereo sound on an ordinary personal computer. Using two off-the-shelf computers, some microphones, headsets and a commercially available software program, Sheehan has constructed a fully digital sound recording "studio" within a regular office cubicle at the Office of Communications and Public Affairs in East Baltimore. Unlike a traditional recording studio, which needs elaborate soundproofing and banks of expensive reel-to-reel tape recorders, the new studio required only a modest investment to create digitally "clean" recordings clear enough to satisfy any radio program manager. "Sound recording quality is a limiting factor in distribution," Sheehan said. "If the program doesn't sound razor-sharp, full fidelity, crisp and clear, the stations won't use it." Previously, recordings were made and mixed in an old-style studio in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs, then beamed via satellite to stations around the country. "A new digital telephone system, using a technology called Switched 56, now allows us to transmit full fidelity sound over ordinary telephone lines," Sheehan said. "Since the process is fully digital, there is none of the signal degradation or electrical noise found on ordinary phone lines. The audio coming across will literally have CD player quality." Health NewsFeed will also operate a toll-free telephone number that will allow radio stations to call in at any time and download the pre-recorded programs at their convenience. Previously, they were distributed once a week at a specific time through a satellite link. If a program manager forgot--or was unable--to retrieve the satellite broadcast, the program was then unavailable for the week, except by low-quality phone feed. The new programs should be available at 1-800-MED-RADIO starting May 15, the tentatively scheduled launch date for the new series. Any individual with a modem-equipped personal computer and an audio card will be able to download and play back the programs on his or her own computer. Sheehan encourages comments and suggestions from throughout the university. "There is no story related to Hopkins health sciences that I will not consider doing," he said. "I want to hear from anybody and everybody. As long as we can find a way of making the science understandable, then we will consider it. We want to explore scientific advances, new trends, interesting ideas, current controversies--anything that will allow us to tap into the wellspring of Hopkins science and expertise. Health NewsFeed needs to be every bit as interesting and diverse as Hopkins medicine itself." Health NewsFeed also will operate its own computer bulletin board, offering news releases, scripts, cut sheets and other current material for journalists or anyone with an interest in medical news. The sound files containing weekly Health News-Feed programming also will be stored and available on this machine. In a separate venture, daily 90-second pieces, covering many of the same stories, will be prepared and distributed to the New York-based Bloomberg Business Radio network, using the Switched 56 technology. In addition to regular play on the network's 30 stations, the programs will be available online to the more than 30,000 financial managers currently subscribing to the Bloomberg--a financial service that includes a special computer system carrying stock quotations, market analysis, news and related features. Despite radio's insatiable demand for fresh programming and new stories, Sheehan isn't worried about running out of ideas. "I knew about Hopkins before coming here, of course, but it wasn't until I arrived that I realized how cutting-edge the work being done here is," he said. "It's like going to Disneyland for the first time. Every single day I see something new. My job will be to tell the rest of the world about it."
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