How this media company became the first to broadcast entirely on Linux

The first to broadcast entirely on Linux

You don't need a hefty budget for Linux to get on the air—and when you're ready to scale, so is Linux.

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It was 3am, and I should have been asleep after four straight days of non-stop preparing for the upcoming LinuxFest Northwest. Instead, I sat in my hotel room with only my laptop screen to light the objects around me.

There on the screen was the final piece of the puzzle that would finally bring success to a mission I started on my first day as the host of the Linux Action Show.

In December 2014, I got an unexpected call from Chris Fisher, the owner and operator of Jupiter Broadcasting. He wanted to know if I would consider an on-air position for the largest Linux podcast in the world. I accepted and started early the following year.

Soon after I arrived at Jupiter Broadcasting’s main office in Arlington, Washington, Chris and I sat down over Buffalo wings to discuss life at Jupiter Broadcasting. I explained to Chris that I had a few concerns, including my almost cartoon-like inability to remember anything, my hectic schedule, and my desire to see Jupiter Broadcasting become the first podcast network to run entirely on Linux.

I had met people in Linux media before, and I had heard them talk about how open source was better—more secure, more stable, and easily available. I’d also seen their attitude after the show was over and the curtain was drawn: Many of them weren’t about to risk their business on a half-baked piece of code cobbled together by a bunch of amateurs.

So Chris’ answer surprised me: “I would really like that.” He didn’t ask for details, which was good because I didn’t have any. He didn’t give me some one-to-one mandate that any solution we deployed on Linux would need to do everything exactly as it was done on a competing platform. His criterion was far more reasonable: Find a way to get Jupiter Broadcasting on the air using an all-Linux solution, and he’d put it into production.

Later that year I had an ongoing disagreement with one of our producers, who was going to facilitate a broadcast from LinuxFest Northwest. I had found a way to bring uncompressed 1080p video into Linux, but a software solution was not yet available to switch FFmpeg sources. I had looked extensively into Snowmix, and I knew it was capable of doing what I needed it to, but something wasn’t quite working. "We could hire a developer," I proposed. "I’ll pay for it; then we could broadcast entirely on Linux. It won’t be just that we’re live from LinuxFest Northwest; it will be a spectacle in and of itself.”

Our producer was unimpressed with my enthusiasm. He told me that another local podcaster had volunteered to bring a Mac and would facilitate the broadcast using proprietary software.

Being relatively new to the company and not wanting to rock the boat, I dropped the matter. I gave up on testing software and prepared to settle into broadcasting on a Mac.

The night before LinuxFest was a busy time at the studio. We had filmed two shows that day, and I had taken on the task of converting Angela, another on-air personality, to Linux.

I was in the middle of editing footage of her experience when the phone rang. It was the other podcaster—due to a personal issue, he was unable to attend LinuxFest and would not be able to provide any equipment.

We were all shocked and disappointed. Then I realized what an incredible opportunity had just been handed to me.

I grabbed a spare laptop, a System76 Bonobo, reloaded it with a fresh install of Linux MATE, and got to work.

I took the laptop back to my hotel and noticed that a new up-and-coming software project, which had been rewriting their codebase, had released one of the first versions of their software: OBS Studio.

It didn’t support keyboard bindings to switch input, it didn’t support streaming to multiple sources, and the external preview function didn’t work, but it did provide a way to switch video inputs.

The next morning I burst into the studio and went straight to Chris’s office. He was preparing for a show later that day, and while he didn’t say anything, his face told me, “This had better be important.”

“Chris, I’ve got this new software called OBS working on this Bonobo. I think it could work to broadcast at LinuxFest Northwest.”

Chris sat up in his chair. He instantly recognized what a huge breakthrough this was, and what it could mean for broadcasting on Linux. Then he slumped back, rubbed his forehead, and said, “That’s great, man...but we can’t run a broadcast on a laptop through USB. We need a powerful desktop—one with PCI capture capability. And with one man down already, the budget is razor-thin.”

I went downstairs, where Allan Jude was preparing to go on the air with Chris to do TechSNAP.

“Allan, we need a new broadcast machine so we can do a production entirely on Linux,” I told him. "Would you split the bill with Chris and me?”

Allan mumbled something about how FreeBSD and ZFS were better than our silly Linux nonsense, and then, in his proud-friendly Canadian accent, he said simply, “Sure.”

After Chris and Allan finished the show, we all piled into the car and drove to the electronics store. We each picked out a few of the necessary components and brought them back to the studio.

At 5am Friday, after being up for nearly 26 hours, we had a working desktop that was broadcasting video of the kitchen at the studio.

2015 was the first year I was a host of the Linux Action Show—and the first year we broadcast it entirely on Linux.

A few months later, System76 invited us to broadcast at their campus in Colorado. Again, having no budget for equipment, we landed at the Denver airport without a plan on how we were going to pull off a broadcast.

After arriving at System76 and explaining what we needed to make the broadcast happen, we headed to one of the last remaining Radio Shack stores to purchase some C920 webcams. While we were gone, the System76 team had built us a custom broadcast rig. I shouldn’t have been surprised as we were at the head office of a team of people who build Linux rigs for a living. Still, I was surprised by how quickly they were able to throw together an exceptionally powerful machine, custom-built for our broadcast.

After I installed the OS, I started to install the requisite software and was struck by this revelation: You simply couldn't do this with proprietary software. The operating system alone would need to be purchased and licensed. The hardware would need to be specific to that operating system. You would need to jump through activation loopholes to get the broadcasting software up and running.

In contrast, here I was with a computer that had just been thrown together for us (albeit by a company that does this for a living), a free and open source operating system, and software that was developed by a team of volunteers that was as capable as any you'd find at an expensive proprietary alternative.

The following year, we custom-built three Linux workstations, which replaced the remaining non-Linux computers at JB One. Linux and open source had proven to be not only as competitive as its proprietary alternative, but it surpassed every expectation we had. The audience immediately noticed an improvement in the video quality. Being on a single platform created a cohesive broadcast environment in which any machine could fill in for another.

In 2017, the Linux Action Show ended, and I faced a new road ahead. We launched the "Ask Noah" show, a weekly talk radio show in which I took the hard-learned lessons of producers and colleagues telling me what Linux and open source couldn’t do and taught listeners on how to do those very things.

We knew Linux and open source could perform well on a shoestring budget, but what could they do if we had deeper resources?

Having Altispeed Technologies open its checkbook to fund a project is a lot like your big brother show up to back you in a street fight. We were able to custom-build a room for broadcasting, purchase the best broadcast mixer money can buy, factory Dell machines with hardware specifically for Linux, encode and distribute all of our audio over IP, and deploy Linux-based remote broadcasting hardware.

Today the "Ask Noah" show takes calls from all over the world, has been downloaded more than 450,000 times, and is broadcast from a studio that would rival that of iHeartRadio or Cumulus Media. The difference? It’s running entirely on Linux—always has been and always will be.

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’ve proven that anyone who has a desire can have a voice online. We’ve also proven that you don’t need a hefty budget for Linux to get on the air—and when you’re ready to scale, so is Linux.

I have attended every major Linux conference in the U.S., and to date, I have not seen anyone else doing live broadcasting on Linux. In 2018 alone, the "Ask Noah" show was live at the Ubuntu Summit, SCALE, and LinuxFest Northwest, and we’ll be live from Southeast LinuxFest, where I’ll be speaking about how we’ve stood on the shoulders of open source to do high-quality production entirely on Linux.

About the author

Noah J. Chelliah -