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Nokia, Microsoft… and Radio?

There’s plenty being written about Nokia’s decision to adopt Windows Phone 7 as the operating system for their handsets, consigning Symbian to history, and apparently moving Maemo / Meego to the back burner.

Radio has been a function on Nokia handsets for many years, and one of the unofficial benchmarks to measure DAB’s progress has been “when Nokia put DAB in their phones“.

It is then somewhat ironic that Nokia’s DAB Adaptor seems to be getting a warm reception, even though it’s shackled to a phone that appears to typify the dead-end Nokia find themselves in. (If ever there was a demonstration of the gulf between Nokia’s skills as a hardware maker and their ineptitude at writing software, the N8 running Symbian^3 is it).

So is Nokia’s “capitulation” to Microsoft a blow to the vision of getting radio into all mobile phones?

I don’t think so. This turmoil provides opportunities for the radio industry, but only if we’re smart enough to expose and nurture them.

The foundations are good. Nokia make good hardware, and radio is a function of the hardware. Whilst FM Radio reception is theoretically a function of most Bluetooth baseband stacks, making an FM Radio that works in a phone involves some skill with antennae. On that assessment, Nokia seem to do better with their antennae than some popular handset manufacturers.

It’s true that Symbian has had APIs to control FM Radio functionality for a long time, but people will tell you that the implementation is typically Symbian – inconsistent, over-complex and insufficiently reliable.

Windows Phone 7 is already surprisingly radio friendly, not least because of its lineage (or at least sibling relationship to) the Zune platform. FM Radio is implemented in all current Windows Phone 7 handsets, and the hardware seems to be good. The current APIs are naive, but that can be fixed if the radio industry explains clearly to Microsoft what it needs, and why its a good thing.

What about Nokia’s DAB Adaptor, now helplessly dragged down by a phone and platform that’s been life expired after just a few months? Frustratingly, this is simply one of the most sensitive DAB receivers I’ve ever used, and it would be ridiculous to lose that excellent engineering. The adaptor uses USB functionality, but requires a USB Host device, something virtually no mobile phone supports. But that could be changed at minimal engineering cost, and the adaptor rolled to plenty of other handsets and platforms.

Message to Nokia – don’t kill the DAB Adaptor. It’s very good. Keep it on your roadmap. Adjust it to work with Windows Phone 7. And Meego (of which more later).

The really big opportunity for radio is to present radio functionality as a strong product differentiator against Apple and Android. Apple seem to be right off radio and Android has such a fragmented approach to hardware design it will be hard to make radio a consistent  function. Microsoft/Nokia are now challengers, and challengers take risks and do things that the leaders find less easy to do.

If the radio industry wants radio to be a baseline feature of all mobile phones, it’s time to work hard with a challenger, and give up  chasing Apple like forlorn lovestruck teens. It’s time to talk about:

  • Consistent APIs that work across analogue and digital radio (in all its forms)
  • Firmware support for hybrid radio functionality
  • Receivers that are sensitive and low-power
  • Creating an environment where any developer can write an app that exploits radio functionality, and making it cool to do so
  • Agreeing business models that increase the value of radio to all parties – consumers, manufacturers, network operators and broadcasters.

It would be foolish to write Nokia/Microsoft off. They have scale and experience, and determination. Now seems to be a good time to get in at the ground floor.

A P.S. on Meego.

Full disclosure. My main phone is a Nokia N900 running Maemo, and I find it excellent. I see Meego with the potential to be a very powerful mobile OS. Maemo is a modified Debian-flavoured Linux kernel, and it demands a lot of processing power, which means battery performance is poor. But it’s slick, and it’s functional, and very very hackable. If Nokia can take Meego out of the limelight, put clever people on it, and time its market-arrival to coincide with the next generation of mobile processors, I think they’re back in the game. And Maemo has lovely radio support.

The Future of Radio – is Curation…

Robert Scoble

Robert Scoble

Inspiration and insight can come from all kinds of places. Nestled in my Google Reader feeds this morning was a blog from Robert Scoble  called “The Chat/Forum Problem (& an apology to @TechnoSailor)“. Go and have a read – I’ll grab a coffee while you do.

You’re back?

It drew me in because my experience of on-line communities is very similar to Scoble’s, and his description of the ebb-and-flow of user generated discussions really chimed with me. I also gave up on Usenet in the late 90’s, after it became a hideous, rancorous, bile-filled pit of trolls and spam. It still is today, apparently.

What he identifies is that the first wave of people really enjoy their new place to link up and discuss, but it inevitable degrades and erodes as time passes and more people come in. mySpace is pretty much heading down now, Facebook is getting uncomfortably noisy, and I’m seeing much more pervasive spam and viruses on Twitter now than a year ago. They are all eroding. His point is that blogs don’t have this problem because they are curated, and focused and on subject, and free from all the cruft that accumulates when there’s no editorial control. Good bloggers get better and get more authoritative, and bad bloggers just disappear out of view.

And I think it will be like this for radio too.

We’re just in the very early phase of the cycle that Scoble describes. Until 1990, there were only a handful of radio stations in the UK. Between 1990 and 1999, there was an explosion of broadcast stations, some of which have survived, and some of which struggle on today. In the last 10 years, the Internet has made distribution of radio (and music) easier, and contributed to an explosion of “like radio” services. In pure numerical terms, there’s never been more choices to listen to radio, music and audio, in an envrionment where the differences between the three have become blended to be almost invisible.

That genie is out of the bottle. Radio, to its credit, has not engaged in the futile activity of trying to rebottle it, which at least shows we can learn from the mistakes of the music industry. (Note to media commentators – radio people are much smarter than you often give them credit for).

The good radio stations have always acted as curators. What musos and pluggers deride as being heavy-handed playlist controls is curation that our listeners value. Some stations are more curated than others, but the principle is that rather than throwing people into a sea of music and seeing the majority drown, we create signposted swimming (and sometimes paddling) pools of music.

Of course, there’s always room for the strong swimmers, who like to dive in and head out to sea, and the great thing about the Internet is that we can also service this small, but influential, group of people. (It’s the same in speech radio, by the way, but in my opinion Radio 4 has always been an Olympic sized swimming pool of speech content, and so it should be).

If the future value to our listeners is in curation, that suggests that human-run radio stations will do better than automated-stations, and that stations with some controls will do better than those with no controls. Sure, there’s a bit of a whizz from the whole “it’s a station with no controls”, but the much vaunted Jack format which got so much interest for its “nobody’s in control” approach is just another station on the dial now. With relatively small shares in most markets.

It’ll be interesting to see if services like last.fm, Pandora, speakr, mixcloud or even Dabbl will survive the first wave of interest, and genuinely make it to the mainstream. My hunch is that unless they become more like “radio”, they’ll shrink down to the niche after the initial wave of interest has passed.

(Caveats apply – radio still has to be present, in a meaningful way, on digital platforms otherwise we can’t hope to compete at all, and we must understand that an essential facet of curation is to keep listening to our listeners, and filter out the irrelevant. Digital platforms, and services like Facebook and Twitter, can help harvest listener interests and sentiment, but it’s our job to organise and edit it).

Of course, the one service I haven’t mentioned yet is Spotify, which is very much “like radio”. It’s certainly on the crest of a wave at the moment (giving away free music helps), but the problem Spotify seems to be grappling with is that the functionality that costs the most money – the ability to pick and choose songs – is the one that fewer people are using. Whilst the early adopters are enthusiastically engaged, the next wave of users seems to be sticking it on and letting it play like radio. Unless Spotify can drive a fundamental and radical overhaul of streaming music costs, they’ll go bankrupt from the negative gap between the cost of personalised streaming and the revenues from audio advertising. If if they do drive some sort of fundamental economic change, all the existing radio operators will be in a position to swap to the same deal, so it seems like Spotify (as a free service) is doomed. The tide is slipping away from them.

What value knowledge?

Sometimes it’s really hard to make a business case for doing things that involve cutting edge technology and radio. There are many variables, estimations and outcomes, and that makes deciding if something is a good return on investment quite subjective and debatable.

  • What’s it worth to hold onto a client who was thinking of moving all their money to online?
  • How much more profitable/successful would we be if we could extend everyone’s time spent listening by five minutes a day?
  • What would happen if 10% of our listeners signed their best friend up to our e-mail list?
  • When could we get our radio station into an iPhone / Nokia / Blackberry / Android phone?

Good questions, aren’t they? Have you got an idea in your mind of how much it’s worth to your radio station to achieve those things?

If it’s more than £199, then you just qualified your own business case for investing  in a  place at Radio At The Edge 2009.

Take a look at the agenda, and work out how much value just one nugget of information could create. Then sign up, and I’ll see you there on the 9th November.

(As an added free bonus, you get to see Richard Bacon interviewing radio legend Tony Blackburn. Apparently Tony got married when he worked on an AM Radio station. The  wedding was marvellous, but the reception was dreadful. Bad-dum-tish. There. I got a corny joke in before @tonyblackburn did).

Apple iPod Nano – now with FM and Tagging. Is that good?

Just when you think there’s nothing interesting you can blog about, Apple come and chuck fresh meat to the wolves.
Of course, everyone’s excited about Apple including radio in one of their devices for the first time. That’s clearly good news. It would be amazing news if it was a DAB Radio in Europe, and an HD Radio in the States, but let’s work on that one. Baby steps.
Let’s assume that Apple don’t incorporate functionality into their devices unless they think users are going to go “wow – cool”. As Mark Ramsay says, Apple didn’t just throw an FM tuner in there; they “enhanced radio”, so it includes pause/rewind and tagging. Adding this kind of functionality costs real money (in material and engineering time), so we should be pleased that Apple see that as a worthwhile investment. Yes, Radio is still cool, and still valued even by the cool kids who buy Apple iPod Nanos. This is a “radio” that 15-24s will love to have.
James explains a bit about how the existing Apple iTunes Tagging works. It’s a system designed to do one very specific job, for one specific group of stations and listeners. It transmits Apple iTunes Catalogue IDs in spare RDS ODA (Data) groups, using a form of encryption (discuss…). The radio station incorporates the iTunes IDs into their FM RDS transmission, the iPod Nano receives/decodes this, and when you hit “Tag” it stores the ID/Artist/Title in memory. When you sync up your Nano with iTunes, iTunes converts that into proper store links, and offers you the downloads. It works. Listeners can tag songs on the radio, and buy them in iTunes. A similar service is also available on HD Radio, and was launched earlier, IIRC.
So what’s not to like. Isn’t this the perfect demonstration of innovative revenue generation in a digital media world?
Maybe, but I don’t think it was initially designed with the listener in mind. It looks like a system designed to turn radio listeners into Apple iTunes customers. There’s nothing wrong with that, incidentally. The rather depressed radio business got a big kick out of being able to announce a tie-up with Apple, who are highly regarded. There’s significant kudos is being allowed to play with the smartest boys on the block.
James has pointed out the weaknesses in the existing system. It doesn’t scale terribly well (although I believe either FM or HD have also started parallel transmission of Amazon IDs for their MP3 store?), and it only works for iTunes and material that’s in iTunes.
There another weakness in the system, in my opinion.
If you look at how the meta-data moves around, it goes in one direction only. From the radio station, via FM, the Nano, iTunes and to Apple. After the radio station has splurged the meta-data out on the broadcast platform, it has no control or visibility of it from that point onwards. There has to be a contractual relationship between Apple and each Radio Station for Apple to pass information about the songs sold back to the radio station. I have no idea how detailed that information is. Does it list every transaction, by every device, by time of day? Does it report transactions, or tagging events, or both? Or do they just get a $ total each month and a check for the affiliate fees?
Excluding the broadcaster from the process, and obfuscating the outcome, diminishes the value for radio. It turns us into an customer acquisition vehicle, without getting rich information on listener behaviour.
There’s also the small problem of ne’er do wells “stealing” the meta-data. Let’s assume that someone nefarious decides to strip that meta-data, and amend the affiliate ID to be their own. You might use an apparently legitimate streaming portal, or attractive device, and that money would go to the middle-man, not the radio station. The value of meta-data is increasing, and we should be more careful about whom we exchange it with. In my opinion, broadcasting meta-data risks destroying value. I do agree that meta-data should be open, but I generally think that you should know who you’re providing it to. (I’m going to blog about the side-effects of this shortly).
As you’d expect, I think the RadioTAG model is fairer. It keeps our meta-data relatively secure, whilst still allowing legitimate users (like listeners and Apple) to have access to all the information they need. It scales well, because it’s not transmitting vendor specific information over the air. The broadcaster can see who is requesting what meta-data when, and use that to track listener behaviour in real-time. And very importantly, it lets people tag *anything* interesting they hear on the radio, not just the songs.
I’m excited that Apple are into radio. I’m excited that the Nano is such a great little device. I’m excited for the prospects of Tagging on the Nano. I just want to make sure we make it great for listeners, as well as for radio stations and for Apple.
Apple iPod Nano with FM (C) 2009 Apple

Apple iPod Nano with FM (C) 2009 Apple

Just when you think there’s nothing interesting you can blog about, Apple come and chuck fresh meat to the wolves.

Of course, everyone’s excited about Apple including radio in one of their devices for the first time. That’s clearly good news. It would be amazing news if it was a DAB Radio in Europe, and an HD Radio in the States, but let’s work on that one. Baby steps.

Let’s assume that Apple don’t incorporate functionality into their devices unless they think users are going to go “wow – cool”. As Mark Ramsay says, Apple didn’t just throw an FM tuner in there; they “enhanced radio”, so it includes pause/rewind and tagging. Adding this kind of functionality costs real money (in material and engineering time), so we should be pleased that Apple see that as a worthwhile investment. Yes, Radio is still cool, and still valued even by the cool kids who buy Apple iPod Nanos. This is a “radio” that 15-24s will love to have.

James explains a bit about how the existing Apple iTunes Tagging works. It’s a system designed to do one very specific job, for one specific group of stations and listeners. It transmits Apple iTunes Catalogue IDs in spare RDS ODA (Data) groups, using a form of encryption (discuss…). The radio station incorporates the iTunes IDs into their FM RDS transmission, the iPod Nano receives/decodes this, and when you hit “Tag” it stores the ID/Artist/Title in memory. When you sync up your Nano with iTunes, iTunes converts that into proper store links, and offers you the downloads. It works. Listeners can tag songs on the radio, and buy them in iTunes. A similar service is also available on HD Radio, and was launched earlier, IIRC.

So what’s not to like. Isn’t this the perfect demonstration of innovative revenue generation in a digital media world?

Maybe, but I don’t think it was initially designed with the listener in mind. It looks like a system designed to turn radio listeners into Apple iTunes customers. There’s nothing wrong with that, incidentally. The rather depressed radio business got a big kick out of being able to announce a tie-up with Apple, who are highly regarded. There’s significant kudos is being allowed to play with the smartest boys on the block.

James has pointed out the weaknesses in the existing system. It doesn’t scale terribly well (although HD appear to be also transmitting different tagging information to support Microsoft’s new Zune HD), and it only works for iTunes and material that’s in iTunes.

There another weakness in the system, in my opinion.

If you look at how the meta-data moves around, it goes in one direction only. From the radio station, via FM, the Nano, iTunes and to Apple. After the radio station has splurged the meta-data out on the broadcast platform, it has no control or visibility of it from that point onwards. There has to be a contractual relationship between Apple and each Radio Station for Apple to pass information about the songs sold back to the radio station. I have no idea how detailed that information is. Does it list every transaction, by every device, by time of day? Does it report transactions, or tagging events, or both? Or do they just get a $ total each month and a cheque for the affiliate fees?

Excluding the broadcaster from the process, and obfuscating the outcome, diminishes the value for radio. It turns us into an customer acquisition vehicle, without getting rich information on listener behaviour.

There’s also the small problem of ne’er do wells “stealing” the meta-data. Let’s assume that someone nefarious decides to strip that meta-data, and amend the affiliate ID to be their own. You might use an apparently legitimate streaming portal, or attractive device, and that money would go to the middle-man, not the radio station. The value of meta-data is increasing, and we should be more careful about whom we exchange it with. In my opinion, broadcasting meta-data risks destroying value. I do agree that meta-data should be open, but I generally think that you should know who you’re providing it to. (I’m going to blog about the side-effects of this shortly).

As you’d expect, I think the RadioTAG model is fairer. It keeps our meta-data relatively secure, whilst still allowing legitimate users (like listeners and Apple) to have access to all the information they need. It scales well, because it’s not transmitting vendor specific information over the air. The broadcaster can see who is requesting what meta-data when, and use that to track listener behaviour in real-time. And very importantly, it lets people tag anything interesting they hear on the radio, not just the songs.

I’m excited that Apple are into radio. I’m excited that the Nano is such a great little device. I’m excited for the prospects of Tagging on the Nano. I just want to make sure we make it great for listeners, as well as for radio stations and for Apple.

We’re not done talking about platforms for radio

WiMax - is it really the platform for radio?

WiMax - is it really the platform for radio?

Two unconnected but yet intertwined events have catalysed this posting. One was James Cridland writing, in The Future Of Radio – The Best Thing that:

The best thing that could happen to radio is that we stop talking about platforms, and start talking about content. Nobody, but nobody, cares about how they get content. Podcasts, online, downloads, on-demand, live, streaming, FM – they’re all just ways for our audience to get great content.

The second was the decision by German’s public service financing committee, the KEF (Die Kommission zur Ermittlung des Finanzbedarfs der Rundfunkanstalten), not to authorise increased expenditure by the public service broadcasters (the ARD) on DAB – the so-called “Re-launch” of DAB in Germany. They listed a number of factors in their decision, one of which was the failure of the largest commercial radio association, the VPRT (Verband der Privater Rundfunk und Telemedien – Association of Commercial Radio and Television) to embrace the relaunch plans. The KEF commented that it might be worth reassessing the technical options available for delivering digital radio, again.

So, I’m afraid that whilst I agree with James that content is fundamental, the platform question for radio remains very much open in some key countries. In the UK, we’re lucky enough that Digital Britain has coalesced aspirations into a concrete plan for the digitalisation of radio, despite the complaints of some people. (I wonder if there were people in pre-historic times who complained about “the wrong kind of fire”, and spent millennia grumbling that wheels weren’t sufficiently round enough). In Australia and France and Denmark, they’re getting on with the business of digitising radio with the best platform(s) to hand.

Why can’t we close this platform question down?

There is not, and never will be, a perfect answer to the question of which platform or platforms are ideal for radio. Radio varies from country to country and continent to continent, and even a century after its invention, the maturity of radio markets around the world varies enormously. It wasn’t a huge surprise to me to see the VPRT come out against change – market leading incumbents rarely want to do anything that disturbs foreseeable profits. In my opinion their projections of digital radio growth were unnecessarily pessimistic and didn’t take into account real-life experiences in the UK and Denmark. Commercial Radio in Germany is far less consolidated than in the UK or France, meaning that there are a great deal of stakeholders to influence and educate. In the absence of education, it’s hard for people to make an informed decision based on inputs from a number of sources.

It’s also the case that technology never provides answers, just more questions. As I’ve said before, it’s wrong to ask a clever technologist for a definite answer, because technology is so theoretically adaptable, there’s never a definitive answer. I’ve no doubt that the technical advisor to the KEF (just the one technical advisor, Prof. Dr. Ulrich Reimers, who is also Chair of the DVB Technical Module, and has been involved with the development of DVB-T2) can provide many technologies that theoretically solve the problem of “digitising radio”.

So it relies on broadcasters to seek input from technologists, amongst others, to decide what platform or platforms are right for their future, and then do something daring and step forward knowing that they might be wrong. (Although, if enough people do the wrong thing together, it rarely ends up being wrong, and often becomes an expenses policy – that’s a joke for the Brits).

How do you minimise the risks of being wrong?

I recommend doing some simple checks of technology solutions against a broader picture than just technology. Only once you move out of theory and into reality do you start to get some perspective of what could happen versus what’s likely to happen.

So here’s my short list of criteria:

  1. What’s the economic viablity for radio? How do the real costs compare against existing FM/AM transmission costs, for individual operators and for the whole industry? Can it scale to current consumption levels in a cost-effective way, or is it only designed to take a proportion of current listening? (Notice I say real costs, not necessarily the costs promoted by infrastructure providers. Do your own homework on how much equipment and infrastructure access costs; don’t rely on people trying to sell you something).
  2. How mobile and ubiquitous is it? Will it go everywhere that FM can go now? Can it go in cars, in your hand, in the kitchen, bathroom, office? Is it realistic to have battery powered receivers?
  3. How future proof  is it? Is it flexible enough to adapt to unknown digital  requirements in the future? (This is where I believe HD Radio has a real weakness. HD is “digitalisation lite”, and I believe the HD operators will want more bandwidth to deliver more compelling applications). How many other people are developing on the same platform for radio?
  4. How viable is it for consumers? When will they be able to buy receivers be made at all prices levels and complexities, starting at €10 for a simple “transistor” radio? What’s the potential market size, globally? Will consumer electronic manufacturers see a coherent, unified set of service providers, asking for broadly similar requirements?

Terrestrial internet works for some of these points, but fails on ubiquity and mobility. Mobile internet (3G, WiMax, whatever) ticks some of these boxes more convincingly than others, but seems to fail on the objective of a universally available low-cost entry receiver. The Internet will be part of radio’s distribution, but not the whole. None of these criteria has a yes/no answer, and each response will vary from territory and technology.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide if these criteria are relevant, and to test your favourite digital radio technology against them. I’d be interested to see what you think in the comments.

In the meantime, the platform question remains seemingly not just open, but open-ended, at least in the minds of the radio companies who need to make decisions on their futures.

Inevitable reiteration of the usual disclaimer – these are my personal views, and not those of my employer.

Digital Britain has arrived (or is at least en-route)

Digital Britain Logo

So here’s my brief contribution to the flurry of analysis of Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report.

The biggest news is that we get a target date for switchoff (sorry, “Digital Upgrade”). 2015 is the year we should be flipping the OFF switch on (almost all) analogue radio, and offering universal coverage of DAB. That date can now be plugged into business plans, and financial projections, and hopefully provide the necessary laxative effect to the recently sluggish developments around DAB in the UK.

So, rather than dissect all of the Radio section of the report, which others will do better than I, here are the bits I particularly noted:

It’s a full switch-off (“upgrade”)

Some summaries have suggested that the 2015 deadline only applies to national radio. It doesn’t – it applies to all services being carried on both national and local multiplexes (3b.10). The only thing left on FM post 2015 will be very small scale services; either commercial or community. There is not going to be a dual-speed changeover, which leaves local radio dragging along for years with a foot on each platform. That’s good.

Support for WorldDMB Profile 1

There it is, snuck away in 3b.20 – receivers sold in the UK should be at least WorldDMB Profile 1 compliant. The box on the following page is a little more explicit in saying that we are giving ourselves a migration path to DAB+, which is the smart thing to do. Nobody seriously considers DMB-A (the Frankenstein bodge invented to make an ill-informed decision seem at least slightly less ridiculous) for radio, so let’s ignore that. Some commentators have, incorrectly, said that Profile 1 includes DRM. It doesn’t, and DRM needs to mature a great deal more before it can earn a guaranteed place alongside DAB and DAB+.

Improving Signal Quality

It’s no secret that I don’t believe DAB should be crippled by being forced into universally super-serving a small fragment of the audience that expects ultra-high-quality audio from every radio station. The market can and will decide what audio quality is right for which stations and bearers.

But I do believe that we need to offer robust indoor and handheld coverage to everyone who currently enjoys that from FM now, and by crikey, it’s not rocket science to do it. Australia’s got the right idea – power. And more of it.

There’s some more crypticness in the report. It talks a lot about achieving equivalent coverage prior to 2015, but only in 3b.23 does it explicitly recognise that indoor coverage must be more effective. It also recognises that there’s some cost in achieving network upgrades, but notes that there is opportunity for negotiation between the BBC, multiplex operators and transmission providers. That’s timely, as many of the initial multiplex transmission contracts come up for renewal soon, and knowing with certainty that it’s worth spending money on the infrastructure is very valuable.

Replanning the network

This wasn’t as explict as I had hoped for. There is reference in 3b.26 to giving OFCOM the powers to re-plan and amlgamate multiplex areas, but I would really would like to have seen a more definite commitment to re-plan at a spectrum level to get a step-change in coverage (up) and costs (down). At least there’s a statement that sorting out coverage shouldn’t be as expensive as some people might have made out it could be.

And now – drum roll – the best bit…

In fact, it’s so good, it’s the only bit I’m going to quote verbatim from 3b.31:

Functionality and interactivity must become central to the DAB experience.
EPGs, slideshows, downloading music, as well as pause and rewinding live radio
must be developed and brought to market on a large scale. Broadcasters and
manufacturers must seek to develop and implement digitally delivered in-car
content, such as traffic and travel information.

Well, we waited a decade, and now it’s a formal part of the plan to digitisation. Digital Radio must prove its worth by doing something… digital. If we don’t use the platform and spectrum we’ve been given (and will continue to get for free for a while – 3b. 27) to evolve radio, what’s the point of doing it? Same value, different platform?

If the other parts of Digital Britain are designed to create confidence in building transmission infrastructure, and writing long-term financial plans that support transitionary investment to achieve that, then this is the statement that should create the confidence in investing in a new kind of digital radio, and it’s about a content led experience that’s enabled by a universal, free-to-air technology. If the rest of the report stabilises the ship, and gives it a shove in the right direction, this is the bit that signals the start of true innovation and digital change for radio.

The iPhone helps revolutionise DAB Digital Radio

95.8 Capital FM iPhone Application

95.8 Capital FM iPhone Application

My joining GWR Group coincided with an explosion in the use of music research to decide what songs got played, and how often. The data drove a new format – the “Better Music Mix” that rolled across Southern England in the mid and late 90’s. Hundreds of listeners were surveyed every week to track their changing interests on a track-by-track basis.

Despite that intensive process, there was one thing research couldn’t do. It couldn’t tell you if a new song was going to be a hit with the audience or not. Only after people were familiar with a song could they give you an opinion – virtually all new songs scored badly, simply because they were unfamiliar. The only way to see if a song was popular or not was to take an informed decision, use a bit of “gut feel” and start playing it – albeit gently at first. After about 6 weeks of exposure (assuming a few other stations were also playing it), and you’d start to see the opinions form and polarise, and you could decide to bin it or stick with it.

That experience from the analogue world is equally applicable digitally.

A lot of Digital Radio’s attributes are simply extensions of analogue radio; more stations, improved sound quality, better reception, easier to tune. They all address familiar radio functionality that listeners have found wanting in analogue. It’s not surprising, then, that these are the messages that have most impact with listeners when they’re thinking about reasons to go digital. And in turn, these become the headline messages of a marketing campaign for digital radio.

It’s interesting to compare the motivators people have for purchasing a digital radio with the attributes they say they most value having bought one. Pre-purchase, the concept of text information scores virtually nowhere – nobody buys a Digital Radio to get text information, and it seems to be an utterly valueless attribute. However, post-purchase, it soars to be one of the top five things that people love about their Digital Radios. Before they experience it, they can’t understand it, and so can’t value it. It only takes a short experience to get the benefit, and, even more interestingly, for it to become a differentiating factor between radio stations. Shortly after the launch of Core, research showed that listeners loved the real-time text information on the display, and absolutely slated Radio 1 for not doing the same. (Annoyingly, the BBC fixed that far faster than we expected them to).

We were lucky that text was a de-facto inclusion on almost all digital radio devices, even if the implementation is pretty ropey, on poor displays. (If anyone can show me a DAB Digital Radio that implements the “Clear Message” command in DLS, I’ll be amazed).

The problem is that we need to go further in using Digital Radio to create new functionality and better differentiation between analogue and digital, and between digital and on-line streaming services. And a further problem is that our audience won’t understand what the heck we’re on about until we show them.

I did a demo to the GWR Board in ’98/’99 (along with Dirk Anthony) of our concept for a classic rock radio station called C-Rock (yes, ha ha). The demo consisted of an audio CD, brilliantly imaged by Scott Muller, and a series of HTML 3.0 webpages, which advanced using HTTP META REFRESH tags (this was the 90’s – AJAX was still a bathroom cleaner). It demo’ed our vision of what Digital Radio should be like – a fusion of audio and images. Of course the audio bit of that demo became Planet Rock, and very successful it is too.

But the visual bit of that got stuck for a decade. Listeners couldn’t understand it, so manufacturers wouldn’t build colour screen radios, so multiplex operators wouldn’t allocate capacity for it, and sales teams wouldn’t even consider selling it. Log jam.

Then the Apple iPhone changed that completely.

Quite unexpectedly, the iPhone has provided the catalyst to get visual radio taken seriously. It could (should) have been Nokia Visual Radio, 5 years earlier, but NVR was so horribly badly implemented, it never got any traction. (There’s a moral in there for Nokia, I’m sure). But it’s been the iPhone, and its colour screen that have provided a trial environment for visualised radio, and the feedback from listeners is overwhelmingly positive.

The Global Radio iPhone Apps aren’t the only radio apps that support visuals (although clearly, they’re the best). There’s Absolute Radio’s iAmp, TuneKast and the now last.fm has announced that they’re visualising their player as well. Collectively they’re providing data on listener appreciation (high) and the volumes of visuals delivered, which in turn sizes the commercial opportunity.

I find it ironic that Apple, having kept radio out of the iPhone, has inadvertently provided our best research source yet into a truly innovative change to radio, and one that our listeners could not possibly have understood or valued without experiencing it. Now the initiative lies with the radio industry to implement it and promote it before that innovation gets stolen by the on-line streamers.

The Myers Report and DAB Digital Radio

BBC Radio Holby co-shares with Classic Gold

BBC Radio Holby co-shares with Classic Gold - from a Casualty shoot in 1999

John Myers’ report “An Independent Review of the Rules Governing Local Content on Commercial Radio” was published yesterday, and it’s well worth committing time to read through in detail.

If you’re outside the UK (or even outside the UK Commercial Radio Industry), you might be wondering why a report into the regulation of local content on commercial radio should involve Digital Radio.

I will very briefly précis 95% of John’s report. Commercial radio has got into a perilous state financially, through a combination of over-farming (too many new licences, not enough associated audience/revenue growth) and increasingly burdensome costs. The currently regulatory system promulgates this situation, and without urgent change, there is a real risk of sectoral failure.

John’s remit was to consider the regulatory environment surrounding local content, but Digital Radio (and digitisation in general) is brought to the report in a number of places. (I’m not going to talk about the issues and suggestions in respect of local regulation that John raises in his report).

A key tenet of the report is that the current regulation of localness is wholly inappropriate for the media environment of 2009 and  onwards. John mentions several times that it should be considered unreasonable for licensed radio operators to work under local content regulation when Internet radio does not. In my opinion, John has somewhat over-played the threat – current and future – from Internet delivered radio to support this argument. I believe the issue is that listeners are seeking choice and innovation, and that if the licensed industry can’t/won’t provide that, people will find it from new operators. In this respect, the method of delivery is largely irrelevant. Existing operators stream over the Internet, and new services can start on DAB (but see below too). It probably depends on how much choice you have to deliver to remove the incentive to buy IP-connected radios to seek out new stuff, and your estimation of the value that exists in the “long tail” of radio. In my view, radio operators have all the tools the need to reach out further down the long tail if they believe it’s profitable to do so, and have a unique advantage of doing so on both IP and into protected spectrum which will deliver universally into the fixed and mobile domains (that would be DAB then). Even with broadband penetration heading towards 80%, Internet listening is very very small, and dwarfed by DAB listening.

Whilst outside the direct remit of his report, John clearly identifies that costs and revenues are a problem for the radio industry. Growing numbers of stations have raised sectoral costs, and revenues are declining. Changing the regulation of localness would relieve the industry of some costs, but John is right to identify that the implementation of DAB has saddled the industry with burdensome long-term costs that it can’t support in the current environment. I agree. He reviews the rapid licensing policy of DAB, and notes that many of the multiplex areas licensed were barely able to profitably support one or two local FM services, let alone the addition of a local multiplex. Understandably, John has avoided detailing why DAB is so expensive, but you’ll know from my previous posts that I have a much more unequivocal view – the multiplex spectrum plan was too complex which drove up the infrastructure complexities, and the transmission provider offered prices that now look very unattractive. John suggests that the costs of DAB can be made more realistic by re-planning into a less complex configuration – which I hope also translates into fewer sites running at realistic power levels. This is a sound recommendation which I hope OFCOM and DCMS take note of and get moving on quickly. Sadly, DAB+ still isn’t mentioned, meaning it remains taboo in the UK. That’s a mistake in my opinion, but as I’ve said before, it’s an issue of frightening complexity, and I can understand its omission.

The most contentious recommendation, in my view, is this. John recommends that one of two things should happen; EITHER Broadcasters should not be allowed to run multiplexes OR the cost of multiplex access must be more directly regulated by government to ensure it remains at or below the equivalent analogue cost. I’m very much hoping that John made the first suggestion for it to be roundly and loudly rejected from all sides, leading adoption of the second approach. In all honesty, I don’t think either is optimal. It has long been an issue that the gatekeeper regulation of multiplexes included a loophole that allowed the gatekeeper/broadcaster to attempt to cross-subsidise the carriage of their own stations. This probably made sense in the heads of the accountants, but was a dismal failure on the ground. The high cost of DAB carriage deterred many new entrants (although that could also have been policy – deliberate or accidental) and thus multiplexes lost money in reality, even if the paper accounting looked OK.

But it had a far more detrimental effect, and one that goes to the root of the slowdown of DAB in the UK, and the failure to see enhanced revenues from going digital. DAB did not grow and flourish with new and innovative services that consumers were expecting. And neither did it deliver new things to advertisers in any volume. In short, the policy hindered the very innovation that the industry needed from digital. The reason that no data services launched in the UK was due to an unholy interplay of effects around multiplex ownership, costs and infrastructure capabilities.

I can understand John’s call for broadcasters not to be gatekeepers, given the circumstances, and maybe it will always be an unresolvable conflict of interests for a broadcaster to try and encourage competition and innovation against its own stations. I think the Australian model of multiplex ownership and regulation bears careful inspection, to see if it can be exported to the UK. I don’t believe it’s right for there to be no involvement from broadcasters in the development and management of their digital platforms, and I don’t believe an infrastructure provider operating in isolation has the right incentives to manage costs, coverage and functionality appropriately.

In respect of costs, the evidence is that DAB, when deployed in a sensible configuration, is naturally lower in cost than the equivalent FM coverage. Indeed, that was the whole point of DAB; to replace 6 identical sets of infrastructure costs with one single cost carrying 6 stations – but we lost sight of this somewhere. If DAB is replanned properly, and if the cost is equitably shared amongst the users (without daft “uplifts” for functionality), it will be cheaper than FM. Of course, someone has to bear the risk of the whole cost before it’s shared out, and that’s a tricky one to answer. But if broadcasters want to address the long-tail with more services, they’ll have to bear more costs of infrastructure and spectrum, and it’s naive to deny that.

John’s report uses the opportunity to address many of the failures in the UK’s DAB deployment, and I’m glad to see his recommendations concurring with many of my own suggestions. Now the report has to be acted upon by OFCOM and DCMS, and swiftly.

Google exits radio – is that good or bad?

What's Google Doing With Radio? (cc) James Cridland @ flickr

Google’s exit from the radio arena this week wasn’t necessarily a huge surprise. It was a bold move to try and port their successful advertising business from the Internet to radio, and to do so without primary control over the inventory they were selling and the environment they were selling into. But it didn’t seem to be getting the prominence in the marketplace to make it successful.

Google created a relatively rich technology ecosystem in order to support the on-line trading of  radio airtime. They acquired dMarc, and set about re-branding and reworking that company’s playout system, to relaunch it as Google Automation, with integral support for Google’s APIs for advert insertion. They worked with the vendors of other major playout systems to extend the number of playout products supporting Google ad insertion. They created a pretty good, simple, on-line interface to allow people to book airtime campaigns, and monitor the performance of them. And the Google Creative Marketplace allowed advertisers to find creatives to make their radio adverts.

There are some things that I don’t think we’ll really miss. I was really disappointed with the Google Automation product, which I didn’t think was worthy of having the Google brand applied to it. When I think of Google, I think of innovative UI design, clever APIs, and rich-meta data. Google Automation didn’t live up to those expectations, and I think there are much more capable and exciting playout products in the market.

Google tried to sell radio advertising as a commodity; buyers didn’t know what stations their ads were going to run on, and they only had vague controls over formats, demographics and geographic area. That Google was unable to commoditise radio is probably good news. It means that brand values, production values and market prominence are still important, and that advertisers want to be heard in the right environments.

But there are some things that I hope radio can hold onto after Google has left. The principle of on-line trading of airtime is really interesting, and could mark a change in the way that radio is sold, in the same way that airline shifted their business from selling through travel agents to selling through websites. The cost of processing those orders and transactions could fall, which means more money going to programme making, and maybe even more money going to make better radio adverts. It might even open up radio to new advertisers, particularly in the small non-metro markets that find life particularly hard.

I thought the Creative Marketplace was a very cool idea. I wonder if it will live on in another guise? I like the idea of many individual, freelancing creatives being able to connect with so many prospective customers – a trading floor for creativity. Great idea, and a shame for it to get lost.

The technology behind the project was good, as you’d expect from Google. Radio airtime scheduling is still somewhat archaic, often involving the nightly transfer of flat text files, and it’s difficult to really deliver on radio’s ability to be immediate. Google created a set of APIs to schedule and insert adverts in near real-time, and get the reconciliation back almost as quickly. Ad breaks were filled just minutes before they were played out, which is the way it should be. We should keep that as the benchmark for airtime scheduling, giving us an almost unique position in mass-media.

Google have said that, whilst they’re withdrawing from radio, they will keep this technology and develop it for personalised advert insertion in on-line streaming. I’m not sure that will give them any more success. If the radio industry is smart, it will create formats which will deliver targeted demographics with low wastage, meaning that the efficiency gap between broadcast advertising and personalised advertising will be fairly narrow, reducing the financial incentive for advertisers to get into the altogether smaller, more complex and more opaque world of streaming advert insertion. (Let’s see how Spotify does with that one).

One thing I was surprised about. Google did some clever technology, but didn’t really introduce any innovation into radio advertising. They didn’t seem to offer a service that encompassed advertising on-air and on-line or on the radio station’s website, something that is more routine in radio companies own sales forces. Why didn’t Google see the opportunity for synchronising visuals, audio and interactivity and offer radio stations a streaming “tuner” that did all that for them? That kind of differentiation might have given them the edge they needed.

Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect Google to have a vision for innovating with radio advertising. That responsibility seems to rest with us.

Photo: What’s Google Doing With Radio by James Cridland @ flickramusingly taken at NAB in 2006 in Rome, IIRC.