dab digital radio radio

Balancing Content and Distribution to make a “hit”

Alpine HD Radio car display by fatcontroller @ flickr

I’ve been partly inspired by a post by Marc Ramsey entitled “Maybe the last time I’ll ever write about HD Radio“, and partly by a post by James Cridland entitled “CES 2009 – HD Radio’s Additional Channels“.

In different ways, they both make the point that HD Radio (in this example) is a technology capable of good things, of things that could rejuvenate interest in radio, but is being let down by some implementation errors. At face value, Marc seems unimpressed by the technology of HD Radio, but reading deeper, in his post he makes the point that the radio industry isn’t using HD to deliver any content that wows people. Similarly, James describes how multi-channelling, the technical capability that would allow HD Radio to deliver new content, is so appallingly badly implemented that it’s pretty much useless for consumers.

For HD Radio, read DAB Digital Radio.

Admittedly, multi-channeling in DAB isn’t a pre-requisite for delivering extra content, which is a tremendous relief, because the implementation of secondary services on most radios UIs is dismal. I don’t recommend trying to tune into BBC Radio 4 (LW) for the Morning Service on a two line LCD display with a rotary knob. It’s only because most DAB radios use a small handful of silicon providers that consistency has happened by mistake, rather than planning.

But in both cases, the failure to “wow” people isn’t a technological one. It’s a failure by incumbents to do radical things with a new platform, largely out of fear of disrupting the old one. Incumbent companies are big, and have lots of people who know how to “win”. If you’re a salesperson who knows they can pay the mortgage by hitting revenue targets, it’s potentially more sensible to stick on the side of visible decline, than leap headlong into the unknown world of change.

It’s no secret that I believe the ways we should be “wow”ing our listeners are:

  • Commercially sustainable choice of radio stations that are clearly different from streamed music and jukeboxes.
  • Visualised radio is an evolution of radio that listeners “get” the moment they see it (no pun intended). Sometimes listeners, who seem to have fewer preconceptions, get it more than people working in the radio industry.
  • Interactive radio which recognises that listeners can’t actually interact most of the time they’re listening to radio.
  • Mashable radio that makes it much easier to let listeners dip in and out of radio and consume it on their own terms.

Making this kind of change happen isn’t easy. There are challenging business, technology and content problems to overcome, and it’s not an easy win. It looks and feels easier to “win” on the Internet, as the Internet and connected devices are somewhat less frictionless in terms of technology and business models. But I think that the harder wins are more valuable, and whilst both HD and DAB are doubtless harder wins, they have unique value in preserving the role of mass-market radio in the world’s media mix.

Photo: (CC) Alpine HD Radio Car Display by fatcontroller @ flickr. My trip to CES was sadly not to be.

dab digital radio radio technology

IP + Radio – On a knife-edge between triumph and disaster

How to deal with web abusers by geranium @ flickr

There’s been lots more coverage recently of “WiFi” Radios; radios which stream via the Internet rather than picking up a broadcast signal (FM/AM/DAB). Consumers seem to be enthusiastic about them, and media coverage reflects that enthusiasm.

As it seems impossible for anyone in media to avoid making comparisons, often there’s a line somewhere in the article about DAB being “in trouble”, and that “experts are predicting that internet streaming will over take DAB”.

That would be a disaster for the radio industry, and one that’s avoidable. But more on that in a second.

It’s understandable that consumers are enthusiastic about IP-connected radios. It would appear that consumers are highly motivated to seek out choice in their radio listening, which suggests that they’re not getting that choice now. It’s also pretty clear that regardless of whatever leaps forward in technology occur, people like listening to radio on devices, not on computers. They want something radio-like, and aren’t yet ready to converge on a single-handheld media device.

DAB has delivered that choice in the past, but for a variety of complex reasons, stations have come off the platform, leaving it offering little differentiation against analogue. So if consumers are disappointed by choice on analogue, they’re unlikely to be thrilled by turning on their new DAB radio. That’s something the radio industry could fix, but the barriers at the moment are largely commercial and contractual, as well as a bit of ideology as well.

So if IP-connected devices offer the choice that consumers apparently want, isn’t it the future we should promote?

Firstly, let’s check in on that assumption of choice. We know, even in the analogue domain, that much of it is perception. Media platforms are often promoted and compared on a straight “number of channels” basis; only recently has the relatively saturated market of multi-channel TV opened up a new front on “quality” with the promotion of HD. (I find it ironic that DAB went the other way around – maybe we’ll come full circle with high-quality audio once again becoming something to attract mass-market consumers rather than just connoisseurs?). But even with this amazing choice, consumers tend to gravitate towards a small number of stations. RAJAR tells us that the average listener listens to about 3.2 stations a week, roughly 25% of what’s available to them in the typical British city. The growth in number of commercial radio stations in the last decade (many of which now seem to be unsustainable) hasn’t grown commercial market share, time spent listening, nor particularly the total stations listened to figure. So it would appear that so far choice hasn’t grown listening, and therefore hasn’t grown the total revenue coming to the radio industry.

But how much choice do consumers need, and how must does it cost?

Here’s where it gets dangerous for existing radio companies. Offer too little choice (on FM/AM/DAB) and consumers will seek out the IP-connected alternative. Once they have a IP-connected radio, we have to be on it. Allow that platform to grow too much, and we’ve got a cost and competition headache that will make whatever issues with DAB look trivial. As a defence (and referring to the eponymous “long tail model”) it should be able to produce reasonable choice at low-cost on DAB, which might be sufficient to keep the demand for IP services in check.

If IP is the future, why have no existing broadcasters committed to it as their sole digital platform?

The difference between the “experts” quoted in the media and the established broadcasters is knowledge. Broadcasters have the current and forecast data on their audience sizes, the infrastructure costs for supporting that listening on IP, and the existing relationships with the IP networks. When you start modelling costs, they are breathtaking. The radio industry might end up spending ten times more on transmission than it does now. For a small start-up like or Pandora (and yes, they are small), having 50-60% of their costs as distribution is probably OK. But for the mainstream, it would be suicide. You also have to consider the effects of introducing to the picture a whole new array of gatekeepers sitting between broadcasters and listeners, looking to make some money. Net Neutrality is going to be a real battle ground in the future.

(At this point, the “experts” usually start going on about multicast solutions and so on. As far as I’m aware, multicast has been technically possible for 10 years. But the reality is that it is so fiendishly difficult to implement multi-cast AND Quality of Service as a pair, across diverse networks, knowing that every single intermediate router needs to properly support both, nobody is seriously considering it on the public Internet).

If the detailed numbers on current streaming volumes were published, people would be staggered. “Experts” would look rather silly. RAJAR gives us a hint now, saying that only 2% of listening is streamed – that’s about 20m hours a week. And most of that is to the BBC. Despite 60% availability of broadband in homes and offices, internet streaming is still tiny. But the widespread perception, even in the radio industry, is that IP streaming is bigger than DAB.

The radio industry needs to avoid IP streaming becoming the sole standard for accessing radio.

The costs of IP would make the mass-market radio model economically impossibly; doubly so in the mobile space. The growth in IP-connected devices would help new entrants like and Pandora reach the mass-market at speed, and further erode time spent listening. Consumers would end up paying to listen to radio, either directly or indirectly. Maybe that is the future, maybe that’s what people want. But should we accelerate it by forcing consumers into the IP domain to get choice?

IP is an ideal technology partner for broadcast radio.

“Experts” seem to love pitching technologies against each other. IP is better than DAB. WiMax will trump everything. DVB-H will create world peace and bring fresh-water to the thirsty. Etc. They seem to think that one technology will eventually do everything, making all others irrelevant. But I don’t see them advising the use of a 2kg hammer to put a screw into timber.

IP is a great technology for radio if it’s used for what it’s best at. Let’s use IP for delivering personalised advertising, capturing interest in things people hear on the radio, lightweight mobile interaction, on-demand, super-niche and personalised audio services. Broadcast (DAB) is excellent for the heavy lifting, delivering masses of streams reliably and in a timely manner, across wide areas at low costs (both for broadcasters and consumers). The two are complimentary, like screwdrivers and hammers. You need both in your toolkit. We need converged radios, not IP-only radios.

The radio industry should avoid getting trapped in a world where consumers expect radio solely via IP. It’s in our power to incentivise people to buy radios that support an intelligent convergence of broadcast and IP, and not IP alone. The economic incentive for existing radio broadcasters is survival. It doesn’t get clearer than that.

All opinions are my own personal ones, which may differ from those of my employer. Photo is (CC) Geranium at flickr. Oh, and Merry Christmas too.

radio technology

Internet Media Device Alliance


Streaming radio has been around for a long time, and it’s a popular activity. The latest RAJAR “MIDAS” survey shows that 31.7% of the adult population in the UK has listened to the radio via the Internet. As the workplace has evolved, the picture of the workshop tranny has been replaced by PCs and discrete bud headphones.

As with any technology, there’s now a wide range of ways to stream radio. There’s different formats (MP3, Windows Media, Real, HE AAC), different transports (HTTP, RTSP, MMS), and no agreed way to list a radio station, or describe its streams.

That wasn’t necessarily a problem when people listened on PCs, and went via the radio station’s own website to access the stream. Missing codecs were downloaded, players could be installed, and with a bit of persistence, you could get most things to play. (Although the BBC really got it in the ear for being such an early and long-standing devotee of RealPlayer).

But all the evidence is that people like listening to radio on, well, a radio. DAB is in half as many homes as have broadband internet, but gets five times more listening. The PC is conspicously not forming the centre of our entertainment universe, for various reasons.

Streaming devices have existed for a while. Do you remember the Philips Streamium? There’s certainly interest to buy connected devices, and that interest is growing as prices fall.

The problem is that putting new codecs and transport support on a hardware device in the field (possibly literally) is not trivial. Hardware devices are not like PCs (thank heavens), and need to work within more clearly defined parameters.

Which is why standardisation would be a good thing.

The IMDA (Internet Media Device Alliance) is a collaboration of manufacturers and broadcasters who are going to make using a streaming media device as simple and consistent as possible. Something a consumer can pick up and use within minutes.

It’s going to involve some compromises, and some tough discussion. It simply isn’t possible to support everything in a sub £100 streaming device. Some limits will have to be set that exclude some existing devices and broadcasters. Not everyone will get exactly the functionality that they need.

But the prospects for broadcasters are very good. We’ll have a clear idea of what formats, transports and bit-rates we should be using. It will mean a way of consistently advertising our stream-locations, programme schedules, live and on-demand content. We’ll be able to provide visual information and simple interactivity to a standard, rather than having to tailor everything on a device-by-device basis (as is the nightmare in the mobile space, due to the somewhat patchy adherence to behaviours by certain manufacturers).

You can find out a bit more about IMDA at the website. If you’re a broadcaster or a manufacturer, do get involved, because this is another great opportunity to Agree on Technology, Compete on Content.

dab digital radio DMB radio technology

Standardising the standards – why DAB Digital Radio profiles became essential

DAB Digital Radio Receivers Lineup (C) DRDB 2008

The Eureka 147 project, from which DAB Digital Radio was born, bequeathed us a very feature rich, powerful and flexible multi-media broadcasting platform, neatly optimised for small, mobile, battery powered receivers. In fact, as a piece of technology, the core EN 300 401 spec and its associated standards (EN 302 077 etc.) are often imitated and are hard to beat. For mass-market radio broadcasting, I believe it is an unbeatable technology.

The core standards were written as a pan-European project to create a digitisation path for radio; an early example of Agree on Technology, Compete on Content. Whilst there are daft things in there (over 10 categorisations of speech programming, only 2 categorisations of “Pop” and “Rock” music), the core has been on-air since 1995, and remains virtually unchanged.

Being fine technologists, the original specification writers left lots of hooks and places to extend the specification. That’s why DAB has so easily incorporated DAB+ and DMB (Mobile TV), and spawned a myriad of interesting data applications – Slideshow, Broadcast Website, EPG, TPEG, IP over DAB (to name but a few). Whatever problem you have to solve, EN 300 401 provides a pretty good starting point. Without over-simplifying things, if you can write packet-orientated IP applications, you can probably write applns for DAB too.

But somewhere along the way, the community lost track of the real reason to Agree on Technology – and it’s receivers. It’s all very well writing the coolest ever DAB application, but what if nothing can receive it? E P I C F A I L…..

I’ve grumbled enough about the individual nations of Europe (and elsewhere) tinkering around without thinking about the implications of their actions. Nuff said.

The outcome was that too many manufacturers, particularly the automotive manufacturers, just found it too confusing and risky to build receivers. Last time I looked, there were three different audio transmission systems, three different ways of visualising radio, two ways of adding browseable content, two ways of transmitting text information, two ways of downloading Java apps to the receiver, and nobody seems to have agreed completely yet how to transmit traffic and travel information. Not only were receiver manufacturers confused about what to support in their devices, broadcasters and regulators couldn’t decide what to do either.

In an attempt to get some direction back into the matter, WorldDMB have produced (after due consultation with the relevant stakeholders) a set of standard receiver profiles, which attempt to balance functionality, complexity and cost, whilst retaining a goal of European-wide interoperability.

  • The Profile 1 receiver is pretty simple – audio (all three types), simple text display. The Profile 1 receiver is the market entry receiver that demonstrates that DAB Digital Radio is a mass market technology anyone can afford. I would hope to see €15,- receivers available Europe-wide within 5 years.
  • The Profile 2 receiver is, in my opinion, where it’s at – or more precisely, where the money is at for the broadcasters. Profile 2 requires a colour screen and supports simple visualisation (amongst other things). If Profile 1 is analogue radio made digital, Profile 2 is proper digital radio. Profile 2 ought to be attainable by all “radio” manufacturers, and Profile 2 (automotive) has to be a slam dunk when you see what people like Audi have in store for our cars.
  • The Profile 3 receiver will probably never get built. Seriously. Profile 3 is the all-singing-all-dancing-it-does-everything-the-licensing-costs-will-be-horrendous profile. What I expect will happen is that a device that already includes pretty much all the relevant technology (and nasty licensing fees) will use Profile 3 to integrate DAB into the device. Think Nokia N-Series, Apple iPhone, Google Android (because I certainly am).

Hopefully by creating some more definite “standard receivers” from the standards, it will enable to confident decision making and commitments. Without it, the market would have stalled in hesitation and uncertainty.

So the ball is back in the court of the broadcasters to broadcast services that consumers will want to buy new radios from manufacturers to receive. That’s natural order of these things. And hopefully, in the future, my colleagues from across Europe will be talking together about how to evolve radio, so that we avoid another clearing-up session in 5 years time.

(Photo – (C) DRDB – Digital Radio Development Bureau)

radio technology

Twitter and the realities of SMS

FailTheWhale by Twitter

So Twitter SMS updates are no more. I couldn’t have been less surprised by Biz Stone’s blog post, but it would have been nice for them to have ‘fessed up before they stopped sending the texts. Actually, I’m kind of relieved, as now I know that when the phone beeps, it’s actually a message for me, rather than amusing but ultimately random musings from people far from me.

I’m relieved for another reason too.

Twitter have justified ceasing their “European” service on the basis that they couldn’t reach an agreement with the network operator(s) to provide SMS on the same basis as the US and Indian operators. They haven’t said exactly what the basis is, but I’d bet good money that one of the models proposed was an “offsetting” model, where they only paid for the imbalance between messages received and messages sent. They probably figured if they could get the costs of managing the balance manageable, they could probably cover the remaining costs through advertising.

But I’m glad Twitter weren’t able to get that agreement. I, and many others, have been trying since 2001 to cut a deal that would recognise media operators (radio and TV) as promotional channels that would build SMS traffic, and that we should be given a deal that recognises that. But no deal. And to a large extent, history has proved that SMS has grown to immense proportions in Europe because of the difference in pricing between voice calls and SMS, and not down to a few radio and TV stations using it. It would have created a bunfight of unbelievable scale if Twitter had “done a deal” that wasn’t offered to the rest of us. European telecoms regulators have this very strong sense of “Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discrimanatory“, and I suspect they might have waded in with a view.

Us Europeans are obsessed with SMS, and it generates immense revenues for the networks. On a straight capacity basis, SMS is about the most expensive way to communicate with someone, but it’s created a premium  niche, occupying a unique space in terms of personal/pervasive/urgency (and of course, flirting). But that isn’t the case in other countries, and I can see that other network operators might like the idea that Twitter could create the “cool” that would see SMS reach the same epic proportions (and profits) as Europe.

I think Europe is going to evolve again, and that evolution will be catalysed by events like this. I’m still connected to Twitter because I have Fring on my mobile and a (virtually) unlimited data plan. Whilst it hammers the battery pretty hard, Fring is my IM client (on which I receive Twitter updates) and my VoIP client (on which I save lots of money, and have a single number that reaches me wherever I am). Coupled up with Opera, GMail and Google Maps apps, and I’m pretty much set for mobile. And that’s all on an elderly Nokia 6680. SMS is still darned handy, but the rest of my connectivity is moving to IP.

IM is the future of messaging, and I’m surprised that more radio stations aren’t offering IM gateways. After the enthusiasm with which we seized SMS early on, it’s time to jump a new breaking wave of talking to listeners, and particularly those younger listeners we find it difficult to communicate with. Interoperability is a big barrier (it’s hard to chat to someone not on the same system as you), and there isn’t the same commercial imperative to fix that (remember, SMS used to be “same network only” when it launched, but the lure of 10p per message soon fixed that problem).

So Twitter isn’t invincible, and isn’t above the rest of us. It’s just another media company, battling for attention, share of mind, and eventually, ad revenue.

dab digital radio radio

George Lamb – Saviour of Digital Radio?

Applause by svenwerk @ flickr

George Lamb is the mid-morning presenter on 6 Music, one of the BBC’s Digital radio stations. 6 Music has a tendency to take itself, and its music, rather seriously. It was apparently born from (or heavily influenced by) the ashes of BBC Radio London when that station reinvented itself as a more news & current affairs station called BBC LDN. Indeed, the previous occupant of the 10am – 1pm slot on 6 Music, Gideon Coe, was a luminary of BBC Radio London and somewhat of a music guru. 6 Music is under the wing of Lesley Douglas, who’s main job is looking after BBC Radio 2.

George’s arrival certainly shook up 6 Music, and generated plenty of heated debate by the music loving listeners to the station. He’s suffered criticism like few other presenters have, and he’s borne it well. His show is best described as unique, and somewhat less reverential about music than some of the other 6 Music presenters.

So why is George Lamb potentially “the Saviour of Digital Radio”?

In many ways, for the same reason that Chris Moyles can claim to be “the saviour of Radio 1”. George invokes serious passion in people; love him or hate him, everyone has an opinion on him, and his fame spreads way beyond the 520,000 people who listen to 6 Music each week. Just this week, I grabbed an Arena magazine (for a surprisingly long flight to Sweden – who’d have thought it was nearly 3 hours from Bristol?), and there was an article entitled “Black Sheep” all about George. People are talking about George Lamb, and the radio station he’s on.

George Lamb is the best marketing 6 Music has got. And in turn, it’s the best marketing Digital Radio has had in years.

A lot of earlier marketing about Digital Radio was pretty functional. “Buy a radio and get more channels“. Unsurprisingly, the mention of individual stations was very vague, because nobody wanted to promote a competitor’s station. Audience levels across the board were small, and it was virtually impossible to buy a radio, so nobody wanted to invest in station specific marketing.

But now Digital Radio is maturing, it does make sense to start marketing stations, and what a great way to promote a station by employing brilliant new talent, and talent that invokes passionate discussion – good and bad. (Given a choice, I would much rather manage a difficult but brilliant presenter who invokes polarising feelings in his/her listeners, than someone easy, bland and unassuming).

6 Music aren’t the only station investing in presenters as marketing. Planet Rock (560,000 listeners per week) has had stars like Alice Cooper, Rick Wakeman and Gary Moore on its presenter lineup.

The cleverest way to continue to grow Digital Radio listening is to make it the home of great new talent.

For the next stage of Digital Radio’s growth, I don’t believe we need to spend millions of pounds on “above the line” marketing like billboards or bus-sides or TV. Word-of-mouth about great talent spreads through the Internet, through Facebook and Bebo and onwards, particularly if it is a bit niche and a bit hard to get hold of. And given the relatively low revenue levels on Digital Radio, this risk involved with trying out new people is way lower than it is on analogue.

Commercial Radio, for once, has a level(ish) playing field; as many people can listen to Commercial Digital radio (through DigitalOne, or the considerable coverage offered by the network of local digital multiplexes) as can hear the BBC. If Commercial Radio can start stations that can house great talent, and work the PR and the exposure right, then it stands to gain as much as the BBC. It just needs to get comfortable with the idea of working bigger in an industry that previously considered “big” to be Capital FM. (A previous home to Chris Moyles, along with a string of local commercial radio stations incidentally). That doesn’t overcome the massive funding difference between the BBC and Commercial Radio, and the BBC’s ability to offer radio presenters routes into TV, but Digital Radio has narrowed the gap.

The appointment of Tim Davie (who has a marketing background) to replace Jenny Abramsky as Director of BBC Audio and Music, could be the catalyst for the BBC to do more to promote its digital radio services. The BBC Trust noted in its recent annual report that awareness of BBC Digital Radio services (at 41%) is perceived to be low, and that surely is a cue for the corporation to start working harder and smarter at promoting the services it spends quite of lot of money making.

Lesley Douglas said at the Radio Festival that it was time to stop talking about the technology of Digital Radio and start talking about content, and by George, Mr Lamb is content to talk about.

Photo: Applause by svenwerk @ flickr

[UPDATE 23-Jul-2007]

My post about a controversial person seems to have generated quite a lot of controversy, judging by the comments (and this is the most commented post so far).

I just wanted to clarify two things about the original post:

  • I am neither a fan nor not a fan of George Lamb. I’ve not heard enough of his show to make a judgement, and I rarely listen to 6 Music. I wasn’t intending to pass comment on George’s talent or lack of it. The reason I picked George was because I’d just read a big article (in a popular mainstream culture magazine) about him, and the digital radio station he worked on, and that’s a big deal for those of us who are tracking the development of digital radio globally. It’s a significant point in time to be able to say that digital radio stations have to got a point where the personalities on those stations can garner coverage and exposure for what they do on their radio shows. I hope more digital radio stations can use that to their advantage, and to the advantage of the medium as a whole.
  • When I talk about preferring to manage difficult but talented personalities, I’m not referring to anyone in particular. I’m going back to when I used to be a programme controller (of both analogue and digital stations) and was working alongside, and for, other successful radio programmers. Managing a great talent who polarises opinion is very hard work, and can be immensely frustrating, but you have to believe that it’s the right thing to do. Managing personalities is very hard. By contrast, managing unassuming, safe, competent radio presenters is pretty simple, but it doesn’t make radio that makes people laugh, cry, amused, amazed or enraged. And if it’s not doing that, what’s the point?

So please forgive me for inadvertently straying onto the battlefield, and consider me limping off, tending my wounds. But I’m still glad that it’s a digital radio station that’s creating such controversy.

dab digital radio DMB radio

Unbiased advice on DMB, DAB and DAB+?

Confusion by LuluP @ Flickr

It’s really great to meet radio people from around the world, and talk with them about their own plans for digital radio. But I’m often surprised about how much confusion surrounds DAB, particularly the (mis)information about DMB.

It’s important that radio people inform themselves properly and independently about the technology choices they are making. This isn’t as easy as it seems.

Follow the money

What isn’t widely understood is how money flows around the business of consumer electronics these days. You might think that a manufacturer makes money through retail margins – selling radios at a price higher than it cost to produce them. That’s certainly true, but the economics of the last decade or so have eroded retail margins to be incredibly slim. You don’t make much money simply by selling radios.

One of the issues that is new to radio people is IPR – Intellectual Property Rights. IPR represents some “cleverness” that a company (or group of companies) has thought up to make technology work better/cheaper or both. Legally, they “own” that idea or process, and they can choose to licence it to third parties. A modern consumer electronics device (like an MP3 player) may have IPR from twenty or thirty companies in it, and everyone of those companies is entitled to a licence fee. There has recently been a case where consignments of MP3 player have been seized because the manufacturers have not been paying the IPR for using the MP3 technology.

Here’s a specific example: To enable DAB+ or DMB requires an audio encoding technology called HE AAC, combined with a technology called SBR (Spectral Band Replication). These two technologies cost €1.60 and €0.15-€0.20 to licence per receiver respectively. So every DAB+ or DMB enabled receiver generates €1.80 to those companies who own the IPR rights. Multiply that across every radio sold in the world, and that’s a substantial amount of revenue. Put it another way, if you sell a DAB+ radio for €20, as a manufacturer you might get €0.50 from the retail margin, but as an IPR licensee you might make €1. Making radios is not as profitable as making the technology to go into radios.

But here’s an interesting thing. A DMB device also needs another technology called MPEG II Transport Stream. That adds another $0.50 per device. So a DMB device automatically has a higher cost, even if it only ever decodes audio. And there’s another $0.50 per device flowing to an IPR holder (or group) somewhere.

So who owns this IPR?

It’s not always clear who benefits from these extra licensing fees. But it does stand to reason that the companies who have IPR rights in a particular technology will be those companies most enthusiastic about promoting it and getting it widely adopted. And boy, there’s no wider adoption than radios. (100m radios in the UK alone – only 70m mobile phones). It’s a vast vast opportunity. If you’re an IPR holder, even if it’s only a total of €0.10 per device, you could be looking at millions and millions of Euro in licence revenues for decades to come – just by persuading someone to use your technology.

So now it makes sense why a technology company might fly people around the world, and make expensive “prototype” devices to encourage uptake of that technology in which they might have IPR rights -both declared and potentially hidden too. A few hundred thousand Euro in airfares, flights and prototypes might net millions of Euro return.

(It would be like the petro-rich countries encouraging the development and universal adoption of the internal combustion engine. Whatever the development and marketing costs were, they would quickly be dwarfed by the petro-dollars rolling in for decades and decades).

Take your technology advice carefully

Here’s a harsh statement – don’t trust technology suppliers to give you impartial advice. They might benefit substantially from your decision. They are selling you a solution, and your consumers will be paying for it with every device they buy, for ever.

So now you have an insight to the motivation of technology suppliers, who can give you impartial advice?

Well, the answer is that few people can give you genuinely impartial advice. But I would suggest that other broadcasters probably have objectives more similarly aligned to your own, and rarely have an IPR interest, so their advice might be far less prone to distortion. But of course, they don’t make any money from their advice, so sometimes it’s hard to justify spending a few hundred Euro one a flight and a hotel to discuss these things.

I’m disappointed that our colleagues in France have an expectation of Digital Radio that’s virtually identical to ours, but have been sold a completely different set of technologies to delivery it – technologies that will add about €0.75 in IPR to every single digital radio sold around the world. We can’t afford to make that mistake again.


Sometimes it appears that technology suppliers would prefer the simplicity of DAB to be obscured from broadcasters. It obviously helps them sell a solution if the solution looks hard.

DAB isn’t complicated, but you do have to know your options.

Everything in DAB starts with the multiplex, and the multiplex can support a mix of technologies all co-existing in the same set of spectrum and on the same infrastructure. The most prominent DAB applications are:

  • DAB – confusingly, the same name as the multiplex. DAB refers to the original method of broadcasting radio using the MPEG Layer II audio encoder, and this is now largely superseded by DAB+. You can add visuals to DAB using Slideshow at frame rates of up to 1fps.
  • DAB+ – the way to transmit Digital Radio. DAB+ is a direct upgrade of DAB. The great thing about DAB+ is it supports exactly the same data services as DAB, so there is a clear migration path for countries using DAB now (like the UK) into DAB+ without starting from scratch again.
  • DMB – the way to transmit mobile TV. DMB is substantially more complicated and expensive to transmit, and on the receiver, than DAB or DAB+. Unless you absolutely need to transmit TV (moving pictures with synchronous audio), you should not be considering DMB at all. The extra IPR load on the receiver of DMB is nasty, and makes the idea of a €50 radio with a colour screen virtually impossible.

I don’t think I can make it clearer than that. Don’t use DMB for radio, as it’s unnecessarily complex and expensive for radio, even radio with visuals. Use DAB+, as it was beautifully developed (largely by broadcasters with no IPR interests) to work brilliantly for radio. DMB was knocked up in a hurry to support mobile TV – it works, but it’s not elegant. But you can mix them all together in the same DAB multiplex just fine.

Radio companies of the world need to stick together

Together there is enough knowledge and understanding of the technology within broadcasters not to have to rely solely on technology suppliers for advice. The problem is that we appear to be really lousy at talking to each other about it. The WorldDMB Technical Committee helps a bit, but often decisions are being taken at higher levels than that, and there simply aren’t enough commercial radio broadcasters participating in WorldDMB.

That needs fixing before we fall into another IPR trap that will cost us all money.

dab digital radio radio technology

The Internet is not a risk to Radio

Participation Levels in Online Services by EduBlogger @ flickr

I was at the Media Guardian Radio Reborn conference last week, and Claire Enders showed us one of those scary “share of display advertising” graphs. True to form, every sector was either in decline or clearly looking a bit feeble (radio in the latter group). The share of spend was on the vertical axis, and the sectors (TV, National Press, Regional Press, Radio…) along the horizontal access, although “Outdoor” was inexplicably absent.

The only set of bars in growth was the set labelled “Internet”.

But this strikes me as being wrong; it’s an invalid comparison. “The Internet” is just a set of interconnecting networks, using an agreed communication protocol. There’s no business called “The Internet Ltd/plc” (although doubtless Google are working on that right now).

A more accurate set of labels would have been: “ITV & other commercial TV operators”, “Guardian & other national newspaper publishers”, “GCap Media plc & other commercial radio operators”, and… “Google & other search engines”. That would be a far more accurate indication of where the money is going. Money doesn’t go “to the Internet” – it goes to companies who have used “The Internet” as a platform to access consumers that they were previously unable to.

What a more accurately labelled graph would show us is that advertisers are moving their money to where they feel it is more effective, a feeling that’s re-enforced by apparently magical accountability for every display and click. (Can you tell that I’m sceptical?). The problem isn’t “The Internet”; the problem is that traditional media owners have failed to keep up with their clients’ demands, or (and probably more realistically), educated their clients to have more reasonable demands.

Google & Co. have a substantial audience. OFCOM tells us that 65% of the UK have “The Internet” (of which 86% apparently have “Broadband”, whatever that means). Here’s what’s interesting – whilst the content consumption on the Internet is fragmented beyond belief (and this blog contributes yet another consumption pin-prick on the map), the commercialisation and aggregration of that audience is in the hands of a much smaller number of media sellers. So actually, what Claire was really trying to tell us is that advertisers trust Google to deliver better results on a “per click” model or multimedia display model, than they do with incumbent TV, Radio or Newspaper companies.

The challenge for incumbent media owners is to change the perception of advertisers about “The Internet”. Some of that needs to be through real, demonstrable, product development, and clawing back some of people’s media consumption time that is now spent with Google, Facebook, et al. Incumbents allowed competitors to steal audience from right under their noses because they didn’t think “The Internet” would ever be a platform of significant reach. Now it’s up at 65% coverage, compared with ~90% for TV and Radio, and 50%-60% for Newspapers (national readership survey).

But the second challenge is to offer a commercial proposition that is attractive to those starry-eyed about “Internet” advertising. That’s a mix of really good, effective, communication with consumers, and believable and trustworthy measurement.

I think it’s amazing how much trouble Kelvin Mackenzie caused the radio industry by selfishly trying to derail RAJAR by claiming it was inaccurate. One person created an environment of anxiety about the reliability of RAJAR’s measurements, but everyone apparently finds Google utterly trustworthy and really truly believes that they measure every click and every ad delivery. Maybe they should look at some of the Javascript that delivers the ads, or work how many splogs there are out there? Or survey how many people have ad-blockers? I’m not trying to undermine the on-line advertising ecosystem, but there needs to be some reality about the fallibility of any system.

The radio platform is used by 90% of the population, and commercial radio used by 62% of adults. Commercial radio is about at parity with “The Internet” in terms of reach, but ahead on time spent consuming. With Digital Radio we have a platform that’s capable of delivering a similar digital advertising environment as “The Internet” platform, but is still far more ubiquitous in every part of life. I believe we’re still a long way off, in behaviour terms, people using “The Internet” in the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom; and thankfully economics will continue to make using “The Internet” in mobile environments a great deal more expensive than receiving digital radio. So if we can use Digital Radio to deliver advertising propositions that are the same as the ones delivered on “The Internet”, that can be measured as reliably, and are demonstrably as effective, we stand a chance of revitalising interest in what radio companies can offer advertisers.

dab digital radio radio technology

Too much technology

YouFM by NickPiggott@flickr

This week I was lucky enough to meet up with my colleagues and peers in the German commercial radio industry, and spend a day at a seminar organised by VPRT in Berlin. It gave me an insight into their world, and their situation, which I’ve been lacking for a long time. It also made me realise that they’re being let down by some technologists.

DAB Digital Radio has been dominated by public service broadcasters, and the membership of WorldDMB is testament to that fact. Of the hundreds of members of WorldDMB, only 3 commercial radio companies are represented; GCap Media (UK), Channel 4 Radio (UK) and Commercial Radio Australia. The UK’s approach of co-operation between the public and commercial sectors has been an exceptional undertaking. Only recently have commercial broadcasters begun to engage with DAB, visibly in Switzerland, France, Australia, Germany, and the mood is changing elsewhere.

What I’ve learnt in my two days with my German colleagues is that they’re asking very good questions, and indeed probably more informed and relevant questions than we did when we kicked off DAB in the mid-90’s. There are lots of questions that need answers, and when those answers have been gathered and assessed, then there will be a decision on a commitment to Digital Radio.

Not unsurprisingly, quite a lot of their questions are about making the right technology choices, and this is where I believe they’re being let down by some technologists.

Technologists love to create technology. There is always a better solution to a problem, a better framework to work within, a new concept, a new library. COMET, XMPP, Ruby on Rails, Java – technologists thrive and survive on new ideas and new, cleverer, solutions to problems. German technologists are no exception, and their innovations have been exceptional – DAB, MP3, RDS – all have significant input from German technologists, and my personal experience is that they have some incredibly agile and intelligent technologists. I would trust my life with some of the guys at Fraunhofer.

But sometimes technologists’ ability to create endless solutions means uncertainty and instability. And sometimes technologists create problems in order to create solutions to justify their existence.

One of the difficulties I see my German colleagues grappling with is whether they are using the right technology for Digital Radio. Should it be DAB? Or DAB+? Or “DMB Audio”? Or DAB-IPDC? Or DXB? Or IBOC? Or…..? Nobody wants to make the wrong decision, and buy into an out of date technology. And whenever it looks like the number of choices is narrowing, a technologist pops up and throws another suggestion in the ring. And, of course, they all claim to offer the ultimate, most future proof, elegant, scalable and cheapest solution.

Of course, I can help a bit. Don’t use DAB. It’s out of date. But if the UK had hung on in 1998 waiting for a “better” technology, we’d never have got on-air, never sold 7m+ receivers, and never made a success of DAB. And at least we have a relatively obvious migration path to DAB+.

Indeed, it analogous with buying a computer. Just accept that whatever you buy will be superceded in 6 months (or indeed, may already be superceded). If you keep waiting, you’ll never buy a computer and you’ll still be scratching on stone tablets when everyone else is sending e-mail and chatting on Facebook.

It’s a shame that some technologists can’t be a bit more market aware, and look beyond their ability to cook up new ideas and bring a bit more balanced assessment. It’s not providing a solution to keep creating new solutions. Answer more questions, provide more data. Which solution is most elegant? Most spectrum efficient? Most backwards compatible? Most closely matches the requirements list? (Is the requirements list reasonable?). How much will devices cost? Who will be building them? When will they be available? And of course, who else is using this technology set?

I hope the technology issue in Germany can be closed down fairly soon. They’re definitely suffering from too much technology, and it’s not helping. If they can slim down the candidates against a list of reasonable requirements, say “no” to people trying to bounce new/unproven solutions onto them, and make a technology choice, it will tick another box on the check-list marked “Things To Do To Launch Digital Radio”.

I also caught up with Sebastian Kett and Michael Reichert from SWR, home of the rather marvellous DasDing. A blog on what they’re up to will follow….

radio technology

Timeshifted Interaction

Macromote by jbwan @ flickr

The digitisation of media comes with costs and justifications.

One often touted justification for the cost of digitisation is that digital media will be more interactive, and that interactivity will lead to new revenues, increased profitability and so on.

Great theory. But the practice is proving rather difficult, because the interactivity isn’t happening as much as people had hoped. And less interactivity means that the potential revenues aren’t being realised. Falling at the first hurdle, and all that.

Let me make a postulation as to why. Maybe your moment of interest doesn’t coincide with the time to do anything meaningful about it. Maybe you don’t have time to interact right there and then. Maybe the device you’re using is particularly bad at doing interactivity.

Here’s two examples to explain better what I mean:

  • You’re watching The Simpsons / Family Guy / American Dad (insert wittily written, Korean drawn animation of your choice). The adverts start, and one of them is an advert for a car you’re kinda interested in. Pop quiz: What do you want to do now? a) Spend 10 minutes waiting for the interactive app to download, fill in the form “SMS-style” with the numeric keypad on the remote control, and confirm your ideal time to take a test drive whilst missing the programme you sat down to watch or b) ignore or that and watch the programme you sat down to watch in the first place.
  • You’re driving in your car (maybe the one you bought off the TV?), listening to the radio. You think the presenter’s quite funny, worth hearing more of. Do you a) stop to write down the URL of the show podcast and webpages or b) keep driving and keep repeating the URL in your head until something far more important (like traffic lights, or a speed camera) causes it to pop, irrevocably, out of your head.

It seems strange to me that we demand that people go immediately from “oh yes, that’s interesting” to full scale engagement. Why on earth do we expect people to try and do complex interaction on devices with tiny little screens and a single rotary-push dial?

If we can timeshift and pause media, why can’t we timeshift and pause interaction?

Why not let people do the “complicated” business of providing their personal information using a proper browser on a proper computer, and at a time that suits them? With better user interfaces, you can design experiences that will draw people in, maybe show them other things around that time, or around that event, that they might also be interested in. It’s simply a richer environment, in terms of time, attention and presentation.

I think it’s smarter to let people simply tag / pop / bookmark what they’re interested quickly and simply across their day, and then allow them to review what they’ve thought was interesting in their own time, in their own space. Let people take control of their interactions, and do it more on their own terms. Who knows, maybe they’ll do more of it?

There some interesting work going on around this subject; updates to follow.