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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.

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.

Googling the future of Digital Radio

A number of articles and blogs have drawn attention to the ability of Google searches to provide early indications of change. Google announced that they were providing information on people searching for infomation about ‘flu to map outbreaks, and this week there was an article in The Economist about how eerily accurately the decline in people searching about Ford cars was reflected in actual sales decline.

So what does Google’s clairvoyance tell us about DAB Digital Radio?

Let’s kick off with the basic trend of “dab radio” anywhere the world.

Google Trends for DAB Radio Worldwide (Click to enlarge)

Google Trends for DAB Radio Worldwide (Click to enlarge)

As a piece of calibration, this seems about right. Not surprisingly, the two countries that have really “got” DAB, the UK and Denmark, are pulling all the hits. And there’s a surge interest around Christmas which absolutely matches what happens to sales. (And Bristol is high source of traffic – can’t imagine why (OK – probably because Virgin Media have a connection to the Internet here…)).

The trend is pretty static, globally – but you can see the growing noise in the press about DAB, which continues fairly unabaited. (No, I can’t explain why Danish is inexplicably the top ranked language. Maybe the pro-rata’ed access to Danish language articles is much higher than to English language articles?).

So, let’s narrow it down to the UK.

Google Trends for DAB Radio in the UK (click to enlarge)

Google Trends for DAB Radio in the UK (click to enlarge)

Restricting the analysis to just the UK really don’t change thing very much at all, which probably gives us an insight into how much the volume of queries worldwide is driven by and influence by the UK. I think this means we probably drive virtually all the Google queries for DAB Radio. (More on that in second).  If I remember correctly, 2004 was the first Christmas that the BBC really pushed DAB, probably because they actually had some new radio stations to talk about. My intepretation of the declining peaks at each Christmas is that people need to know less about DAB and need to less searching to find out who sells it. And there is a drift downward in the number volume of queries. Does that mean that people want to know less about it, because they already know enough? Is that too optimistic?

But we know the UK is DAB-happy. What about the other big European country which was apparently so enthusiastic about implementing DAB. How does it look in Germany?

Google Trends for DAB Radio in Germany (click to enlarge)

Google Trends for DAB Radio in Germany (click to enlarge)

This looks rather weird. It suggests, from the shape of the graph, that overall query volumes are tiny. I compared the width of the “Country” bar graph (in the Worldwide chart) for the UK (98 pixels) with that for Germany (6 pixels). I know that’s horribly inaccurate, but it indicates that there’s probably about 15-20 times more queries for DAB coming from the UK than Germany. That Bayern comes top of the list doesn’t surprise – but it’s hard to tell if it’s because it’s the Land that is most active in DAB, or just the largest  of the Länder.

As the media seems to be keen to promote Internet versus DAB as the battle of all time, let’s have a look at the relative performance of those terms in Google Trends. Firstly, across the world.

Google Trends of DAB Radio and Internet Radio, Worldwide

Google Trends of DAB Radio and Internet Radio, Worldwide

Not entirely surprisingly, globally Internet Radio is searched for a fair bit more than DAB Radio. The average ratio is 10.8 : 1, but that seems to suggest that DAB is actually out performing Internet Radio in terms of interest and search terms. Let’s assume that most of the DAB searches are coming from UK, Denmark and Germany with  a combined pop’n of 147m, against a global population of 6.77bn. That’s a much higher proportion of searching for DAB Radio than Internet Radio. (Although people might also be searching for other terms).

The decline in the search volumes for Internet Radio is confusing, given that it’s apparently in its ascendancy. It’s much more apparent than the slight decline in DAB searching we saw in the UK. The only explanation I can suggest is that as Google gets used more by “normal” people, they are slightly less inclined to search out Internet Radio than the more geeky early adopters? Or has everyone got an Internet Radio now?

You can see from the bottom of this graph the country-by-country breakdown, indexed against DAB. (If you index it against Internet Radio, the country lineup becomes Mexico (!), Germany, Netherlands, Brazil, Peru, United States, Switzerland, Canada, Spain, Austria). Germany is interesting – more of that in a second. And you can see that in the UK, Internet Radio and DAB radio are about the same.

So let’s look at the UK in detail – DAB Radio versus Internet Radio.

Google Trends for DAB Radio & Internet Radio in the UK

Google Trends for DAB Radio & Internet Radio in the UK (click to enlarge)

In the UK, the two search times are neck and neck, with DAB just edging out Internet Radio on the basis of the seasonal interest around Christmas. It’s very interesting that the media perception is that DAB is in a ditch and Internet Radio is it – but that’s not what Google’s users are telling us. Notably, the amount of coverage of Internet Radio (the lower graph) is much much higher than DAB Radio, but it just doesn’t seem to be reflecting or driving interest. That does kind of figure – lots of Media noise about Internet Radio, but real people are looking at both.

Finally, a quick trip back to Germany to see how Internet Radio is doing there…

Google Trends for DAB Radio and Internet Radio in Germany (click to enlarge)

Google Trends for DAB Radio and Internet Radio in Germany (click to enlarge)

No DAB huh? I guess people will look for their radio choice va the Internet then. But still that dramatic decline in relative search volumes for Internet Radio recently. I’ll be intruiged to see what this graph looks like once the Germans have started promoting DAB+ to their population.

So, what can we conclude fro this graph-fest?

  • In the countries that have promoted DAB, it seems to be in rude health, and with no significant decline in interest, despite generally negative media coverage in the last year or so.
  • Internet Radio doesn’t seem to be growing interest relative to the growing amount of (largely positive) media coverage of it.
  • Relative interest in both DAB and Internet radio is declining as more “normal” people start using Google to look for stuff that interests them. But interest in Internet Radio is declining faster than interest in DAB Radio.
  • In Germany, people are interested in Internet Radio (presumably to seek out choice) and would probably just as interested in DAB Radio if it were promoted with confidence.

I’m going to keep an eye on “The Trends” and will maybe update in 6-12 months time. (I’ll also hopefully have some first data for Australia, in which DAB search terms rate 0 across the board).

P.S. Just to reassure you that the terms DAB Radio and Internet Radio are what German speakers would search for (well, as much as any British person) I speak enough German and know enough German speakers to be reasonably confident that the results aren’t skewed by the language difference.

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.

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 Last.fm 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 last.fm 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.

Internet Media Device Alliance

IMDA Logo

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.

Conferenced Out? You need fast acting RATE!

(cc) This guy is boring by Narisa at Flickr

Autumn is certainly the conference season. If you’ve trooped round Le Radio, NAB Europe and The Digital Radio Show, all in the last week, you’re probably feeling like you’ve had enough death by powerpoint, and thinly disguised sales pitches for “strategic consultancy”.

But let me encourage you to come to a conference with a difference. Well, many differences in fact.

Radio At The Edge (RATE) is the radio conference which looks at how technology is changing the business of radio today, and what the leading-edge trends are that we could be exploiting in the coming year(s). This is where we discuss the new world order, whether the new world order has in fact already collapsed in a heap, and if the new world order is a complete load of rubbish and we should all go back to sending status updates as smoke signals and poking using sharp sticks. And leave tweeting up to birds.

So it’s not your normal, dull, play-16-songs-in-a-row-and-have-nice-jingles type radio conference.

It’s also darned good value as radio conferences go. £200 for a day’s worth of high value information, and a fair amount of entertainment too. With names like Iain Lee, Richard Herring, Andrew Collins, you’d pay for the comedy alone – if it wasn’t also that the bill includes the world’s most tech-literate reporter and prolific blogger, Rory Cellan-Jones, Peter Davies (Head of Radio from OFCOM), and Leo Laporte – Chief TWiT.

Lastly, there’s drinking at the end, and drinking in a proper pub, with proper beer – not a god-awful overpriced chain hotel dribbling sad pints of generic beer at a crowded bar staffed by communication-challenged staff. Did I mention I’d been to NAB Europe this week?

So I can’t recommend it enough, other than to say you should probably attend for the novelty of being at a conference on radio’s future that I’m not talking at – but my good colleague Robin Pembrooke most certainly is.

Radio At The Edge, Monday 10th November, Westminster. All the details and that all important registration form are here http://www.radioattheedge.com/

Photo (CC) This guy is boring by Narisa at Flickr

Hat tip to Andy on my team, for pointing out that it’s not this Monday…

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)