Suite 102.5 Prime Time Live: Keeping Music [A]live in Italy

Italian radio station, RTL 102.5 curates a bespoke studio environment for the region’s most acclaimed and emerging talent to perform live and connect with fans amid the COVID-19 crisis. TPi’s Jacob Waite reports…

Italian radio station RTL 102.5 has curated live entertainment for the best part of 46 years. However, at a time when performing artists, technical production staff and the region in general has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, finding reasons to provide a strong sense of community, solidarity and support has been crucial to Italian morale. Since October 2020, every Monday at 9pm – the ‘prime time’ slot of Italian radio schedules – RTL 102.5 has transformed its greatest hits radio station into a ‘live nightclub’. Broadcast over the airwaves, online, on television and a through a bespoke mobile app, Suite 102.5 Prime Time Live provides a space for the region’s acclaimed and emerging artists to perform live from RTL 102.5’s studio in Milan and connect with their fanbase via Zoom meet and greets – not to mention work for technical production crew.

With COVID-19 spreading across the globe last March and Northern Italy’s Veneto region one of the worst hit areas, last summer’s RTL 102.5 Power Hits Estate 2020 [see TPi #255] provided respite for the region. At the heart of the project was a team of longstanding collaborators, including: Executive Producer, Fabio Marcantelli; Filming Director, Luigi Antonini; and Producer’s Assistant, Fiona MacKay.

The trio, along with RTL 102.5 President, Lorenzo Suraci; Technical Production Supervisor, Stefano Pretoni; and Sound Engineer, Jonathan Cascio, sat down with TPi – virtually – to discuss their latest project.

“It took roughly two days to put Suite 102.5 Prime Time Live together from idea to reality,” Suraci began. “We have such well-prepared staff at RTL 102.5, so it was a simple transition to take what we have learned from RTL 102.5 Power Hits Estate 2020 to develop this new concept.”

With dedicated medical personnel onsite, the technical production staff and performing artists take COVID-19 swab tests prior to entry. Once on site, they are privy to PPE in abundance as well as a well-constructed live stage setup. The only thing missing, of course, is an in-person audience. “Thousands of people tune in on the radio, television or online to watch Suite 102.5 Prime Time Live,” Suraci said. “Those who tune into the show wouldn’t notice the significant steps we’ve taken to ensure that the set is COVID-19 secure,” which is exactly, he said, what the team strives for.

“We have transformed our radio studio into what you would ordinarily consider a live nightclub,” Marcantelli began. “At the moment, it is impossible to present any live entertainment experience in front of an in-person audience in Italy, so, Lorenzo has developed a format to host an interactive performance to a digital crowd over Zoom, the television and the radio.”

The show has already played host to a range of Italian music stars, performing live in an intimate setting, including: Zucchero, Biagio Antonacci, Elisa, J-Ax, Guè Pequeno, Tiromancino, Pinguini Tattici Nucleari, Fedez, the negramaro, Elodie, Gazzelle, Mahmood, Manuel Agnelli and Rodrigo D’Erasmo, among others.

“Each artist or band chooses from 10 rearranged tracks to perform, either acoustically or semi-acoustically, exclusively for RTL 102.5,” Marcantelli commented. “From the performing artist’s perspective, they jump at the chance to regain this club-sized performance, which may have been overlooked in the past.”

As frequent demonstrators of indomitable human creativity and technical proficiency during the most difficult times for the region, the Suite 102.5 Prime Time Live line-up often features local and emerging talent, as well as big name stars in Italy. “Ideally, we would like to introduce foreign artists to the platform, but given the current travel restrictions in light of the pandemic, that is currently on hold. However, it is a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on the talented musicians and artists in Italy,” Marcantelli said, adding that line-ups are “fully booked up until June”.

In the Milan studio, narrating the evening as a voiceover is RTL 102.5 Live Broadcast Presenter, Gigio D’Ambrosio, who acts as a link between the guest and the fans via Zoom. Typically, four fans interact with the artist during the initial performance. At the end of each set, the artist enters a ‘social room’, where Italian influencers, Paola Di Benedetto and Laura Ghislandi comperè the after-show meet and greet section for fans connected via Zoom. “This is as close as the audience can get to a backstage pass at the moment,” MacKay remarked. “Suite 102.5 is free of charge and accessible to all, maintaining the spirit not only of a live performance but also backstage.”

The weekly radio set is dismantled with a new live stage erected and technical infrastructure assembled by RTL 102.5’s technical crew – Low Frequency Technicians, Nicola Spilotros and Michael Triverio; Video Operator, Christian Alberton; Sound Operator, Beppe Di Dio Pa; and Audio/Video Operator, Fabio Romano – led by Technical Production Supervisor, Stefano Pretoni.

“We integrate the existing equipment in the radio station with an external OB van,” Pretoni explained. “Every Monday, we dismantle our preexisting radio setup in the studio, erect a new stage and change our camera positions and lights for the live show. A separate studio handles the virtual meet and greet with the fans and the artists via Zoom, which is additional equipment supplied by JVC.”

The studio equipment includes eight Panasonic AW-HE130 cameras, three JVC GY-HC500 cameras, two Panasonic AW-RP50 controllers, two Tecnopoint ceiling dollies and a Tecnopoint floor folly, Tecnopoint tuning control software, a Grass Valley Kayenne video switcher, two Vip X Evertz multiviewers, five ChangHong Chiq laser projectors, three JVC Monitor18 Arri L5-C Fresnel light projectors, five DTS Scenaled 80 Fresnel light projectors, a Digilite Pulse MX lighting console and two broadcast graphics servers.

The outsourced equipment for the external and additional OB van, provided by PerFanTV, contains three Sony HXC-100 cameras, a For.A HVS-390 video switcher, a pair of BLT video servers, five Sony XDCAM HD/SD switchable recording and playback units, two Evertz VIP 12 multiviewers, a Drake Pico intercom system. Sound Engineer, Jonathan Cascio oversees stage and OB van sound, featuring the deployment of two Axia Fusion Audio mixing consoles, four Shure ULXD wireless microphones with SM58 capsules and four Sennheiser 300 G3 IEMs.

The additional OB van provides Cascio and the team the opportunity to use an indoor mixing console, a Yamaha QL1 mixing console for stage sound, and an external Yamaha QL5 mixing console along with a RIO 32 Yamaha stage box.

“The sound design is reminiscent of what we considered as ‘club sound’,” he commented, explaining that even during the radio broadcast, muffled club noise you would expect to hear in the corridor of a dancehall is piped into the audio feed to add atmosphere.

“Everybody involved is happy to be afforded the opportunity to work again, from the backliners, rental companies, camera operators and sound technicians to the artists at such a difficult time for live entertainment.”

TV Director, Luigi Antonini and Lighting and Photography Director, Luigi Nino oversee the visual aspect of Suite 102.5 Prime Time Live, bringing a virtual audience as close to the action as possible. “It has been a unique experience to pilot this style of broadcast in the region. As far as I am aware, this is the first time that this type of weekly event has ever been broadcast in Italy,” Antonini reflected. “There have only ever been semi-spontaneous sets by artists at Italian radio studios, however, we are the first to do it with this kind of continuity and production value.”

Antonini explained that the integration of the studio’s surroundings are just as important as the technical kit when it comes to creating a bespoke narrative for each episode. “The way I tell the story of the episode is thematic and for each episode, the theme is reinvented. Camera angles are considered in a different way, given the interaction between the automated cameras, manual camera operators and the performing artists,” he explained. “We have tried not to try to replicate a standard live TV performance look; it’s much more of an interactive experience for the audience. Making our surroundings look like a live club as well as the addition of remote cameras on track brings the audience right into the action, as if they are stood a few metres away from the artists.”

Before the Monday airing, performing artists receive the same style of promotional campaign as a standard live event – such as radio adverts, TV commercials, and social media coverage. Harking back to life prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, posters adorn popular commuter train stations in Italy, as if, in Antonini’s words, it were a “proper gig”.

“Nowadays, artists are approaching us to be on the show,” Marcantelli noted. “This pursuit is very important for Italian morale. At the end of every performance, the artists are really grateful for the opportunity to perform and interact with their fans, at a moment where the opportunities to do so are minimal.”

The rest of the Suite 102.5 Prime Time Live team comprises: Artist Lineup, Lina Pintore;  Social Media Supervisor, Massimo Galanto; Content Creators, Giulia Taiana, Massimo Lo Nigro and Alessandro Mele; Label and Fan Club Coordinator, Jody Fouqué; Artist Zoom Connection Technicians, Cristian Trotta and Stefano Fontanini; Research and Development Supervisor, Eugenio La Teana; Press Officer, Valentina Facchinetti; Graphics Department team of Fausto Comincioli, Marco Volpi, Alessandro Baccoli and Sara Genovese; Production, Ivan Novellino and Giacomo Meligrana; and Make-Up Stylists, Paolo Demaria and Patrizia Anno.

“It’s vital to provide live entertainment experiences at such a dark time for the region,” Marcantelli concluded. “Suite 102.5 Prime Time Live is going so well that we are in the process of investing in a warehouse to tie into a proper live set later in the year.”

Suite 102.5 Prime Time Live episodes can be listened to on RTL 102.5, RADIOVISION on channel 36 of the DTT and Sky channel 736. Or via the digital link listed below.

This article originally appeared in issue #259 of TPi, which you can read here.

Photos: RTL 102.5