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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.

Korean Air Crashes and French Digital Radio

대한민국 터치다운 - McCarran Intl Airport, NV USA (CC) gTarded at Flickr

대한민국 터치다운 - McCarran Int'l Airport, NV USA (CC) gTarded at Flickr

I’m enjoying Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers. In the same vein as Freakonomics, it looks deeper into why certain people or events deviate from the norm, become exceptional – why they are “outliers”. It’s helped create a new view on something that has puzzled and frustrated the world of Digital Radio, and handily includes references to Aviation and Korea, which is where we start.

One of the chapters in the book is called “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes“, and describes the infamous crash of Korean Airlines flight KE801 into Guam in August 1997. (There’s an episode of Air Crash Investigation that covered it – Part I, II, III, IV, V). To summarise, the pilot flew his 747 plane into the ground, despite the instrumentation and the crew being well aware of what was going to happen in good time to be able to avoid the accident. 228 of the 254 passengers died.

It happened at a time when Korean Airlines was putting planes into the ground with worrying frequency. In the book, Gladwell says Korean Airlines was crashing planes 17 times more frequently than United Airlines. This wasn’t due to badly maintained aircraft, or dangerous conditions – the crews just kept crashing their planes. (I don’t know if “17 times” is accurate, but I do know that it’s a well established rule in flying circles never to fly KE metal, and one I have myself stuck to rigidly, preferring to route LHR-FRA-ICN on my trips to Korea).

The obvious conclusion is that Korean Airlines crews were incompetent, but Gladwell suggests it wasn’t incompetence – it was deference. The Korean culture is so deferential to figures of authority or power, the  members of the crew who could see danger increasing simply did not feel that they could bring it to the captain’s attention. It was socially unacceptable for them to question his judgment, or even infer that he wasn’t fully aware and in control of his aircraft. Looking at the transcripts from the flight recorder, it’s excrutiating listening to the First Officer hint and suggest to the Captain that they might actually be flying straight into the ground. Only when there’s less than 7 seconds to impact does the First Officer clearly call for a “Go Around”. Too late.

This degree of deference can be measured – the PDI (Power Distance Index) measures the degree to which people are deferential to figures of authority or power. The PDIs of many nations (cultures) have been measured, and there is a remarkable correlation between  the amount of deference in a in culture, and the plane crashes in those countries. It seems to be that such a degree of deference negates the value of having subordinates to help provide vital input and monitor situations.

So where’s the connection with Digital Radio?

It turns out that there’s another nation with a high PDI. France. France has a  PDI value of 68 – it’s a highly deferential nation. (In context, Britain and Germany have values of 35, and Austria just 11).

All of a sudden, things are clicking for  me. Here’s why.

France chose a non-standard version of DAB – a cut-down version of mobile TV (basically, mobile TV minus the video, or with very little video). Something that the Koreans (them again) invented and dubbed T-DMB. The most prominent figure in that decision for France to the use Korean originated T-DMB system was a man called Sylvain Anichini.

M. Anichini was the Director of Technology for Radio France – in hierarchical terms, he was pretty much at the top of the roost in French Radio. For whatever reasons he had, he became a passionate and vehement supporter of T-DMB. And he would give not a moment to anyone who didn’t agree with his decision. It’s maybe understandable that he repelled approaches from the other DAB nations, on the basis that his “sovereignty” might be undermined. I believe he stormed out of more than one WorldDMB meeting, and was very insulting in public session to a number of fellow professionals. It might also be the case that M. Anichini found dealing with Koreans, and their deferential culture, much more appealing than dealing with those apparently insolent and disrespectful English and Germans.

What’s interesting is the number of people within the French radio industry who privately disagreed with both M. Anichini’s decision, and his behaviour. I’m aware, both directly and indirectly, of heavy sighs when discussing the path being followed, but I (and others) could never understand why those people who were uncomfortable with the direction taken would never raise the issue more openly. I was obviously failing to understand the immense gulf between our culture and the French culture, and what appears to be a overriding and almost smothering cultural barrier to challenge bad decisions made by a person above you. (Maybe this is also why the French are so apparently tolerant of the dalliances of its politicians?).

What was happening in France with DAB had parallels with what happened to flight KE801. One man, whether intentionally or just out of disorientation, was about to bring everything crashing into the ground, and his subordinates and colleagues could not do anything to stop it.

Of course, with Digital Radio, nobody got hurt (apart from a bit of pride) and nobody died. Compromises were made, and positions adopted that allowed the French decision to accommodated, albeit at a financial cost for the entire DAB community worldwide. M. Anichini left Radio France at some point after the decision was taken, but before licences were awarded by the CSA.

So what did Korean Airlines do to turn around their appalling safety record? They hired an American and enforced the use of English in the cockpit, as a way of breaking down the deferential barriers created by the Korean language. It seems unlikely that the same approach would be appropriate for Digital Radio in France.

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

Digital Britain Logo

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

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

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

It’s a full switch-off (“upgrade”)

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

Support for WorldDMB Profile 1

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

Improving Signal Quality

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

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

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

Replanning the network

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

And now – drum roll – the best bit…

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

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

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

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

The iPhone helps revolutionise DAB Digital Radio

95.8 Capital FM iPhone Application

95.8 Capital FM iPhone Application

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

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

That experience from the analogue world is equally applicable digitally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the Apple iPhone changed that completely.

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

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

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

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.

The Myers Report and DAB Digital Radio

BBC Radio Holby co-shares with Classic Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Radio changes and causes change

DAB Radio everywhere (CC) Nick Piggott @ flickr

It’s been a difficult time for radio lately, and for digital radio doubly so. Since Fru Hazlitt made her dramatic announcements on 11th February 2008 (the “2/11” for Digital Radio), it’s been a rollercoaster ride, consisting mainly of the scary bit of going down very fast and being apparently about to shoot off the edge of the tracks to certain death.

Radio is contracting. The contraction that means I’ve been saying goodbye to lots of colleagues, and that’s seeing many small analogue services go out of business, is also squeezing what can be done with digital radio. The enthusiasm for digital radio has evaporated, as the costs of an ambitious network build-out became crushingly apparent, and the revenues that should/could be generated from digital haven’t arrived (or been hit by a contracting industry).

Going Digital had a profound effect on the UK Radio Industry. The regulatory policies that set up Digital also shaped the analogue licensing regime, and committed the industry to investments stretching over long periods of times. The Digital Radio envisioned by the people who set it up doesn’t fit well with the plans of the people running the radio industry now.

Something had to change. If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know that my hope was that some deal could be arranged to make the cost of the network more managable, and that the industry could reorganise itself to plan an inherently more cost-effective plan for digital. Some of that would have involved changing the digital infrastructure to reflect real-life requirements.

And now, nearly 14 months after Fru’s big announcements, and with Global the biggest commercial operator in the industry, things are changing.

The first big change is that Global is doing a deal with Arqiva, the transmission provider, which will see Arqiva take over DigitalOne (the national multiplex operator) and NowDigital (the local multiplex operator). This makes Arqiva a licence holder in their own right, and it’s the first time that multiple DAB multiplex licences will not be held by broadcasters (Ayrshire is already owned by Arqiva, due a regulatory anomaly when EMAP purchased SRH). In return for Arqiva taking over the multiplexes, Global will only pay for the capacity it uses, reducing the costs of transmission. As both DigitalOne and the NowDigital muxes are rather empty, this is a fairly considerable cash saving.

I think Arqiva have got a good deal. They will have to compromise their financials for a period of time, but I suspect that in the mid-term, demand for DAB capacity and infrastructure will grow, if not in the current configuration, then in something than can be met using the infrastructure currently in the D1 and Now networks. They now hold spectrum licences, and that puts them in a good position when it comes to any network replanning. The relationship has been spun on its head.

OFCOM has provided the other big change in the Digital landscape. Their submission to Digital Britain has proposed radical changes to the UK’s regulatory regime, both analogue and digital, in response to the changes that the financial difficulties of the previous year have brought. A lot of the headlines have focussed on the proposals by OFCOM to dramatically change the analogue regulatory regime – reducing the burden of producing local content; allowing the emergence of quasi-national brands that could theoretically have the scale to provide plurality to the BBC; explicit recognition that smaller commercial licences may never be viable financially. This seems to make the assumption that local brands cannot challenge the BBC’s dominance, or may not be able to hold onto the revenue to stay alive.

In my opinion, the most interesting and positive statement is that D2, which failed to get to air as a Single Frequency Network (akin to D1), could come back to life as a series of regional networks with effective national coverage. One suggestion is to blend the existing regional muxes together to create D2. This recognises that a true national SFN isn’t massively commercially valuable, and that’s a great move forward in my opinion.

OFCOM firmly supports continuing with DAB Digital Radio, whilst at the same time acknowledging that other solutions will appear over time. I think the likelyhood of LTE/4G technologies becoming a primary broadcast platform is slim if DAB continues, but there’s no doubt that a converged Broadcast+IP solution is looking increasingly important. This conviction from OFCOM and Government that DAB is staying is very beneficial to Arqiva and the other multiplex operators.

One theme recurrs. In both OFCOM’s and RadioCentre’s submissions to Digital Britain, as well as in the interim report itself, there is talk of using DAB to deliver innovation for radio. That innovation needs to harness the data capabilities of DAB to provide something new, enhanced and reflective of a more complex multi-media world, and more capable multi-media devices.

There has been virtually no innovation, despite 10 years of DAB in the UK.

There’s no lack of ideas for new services, but the barriers to making them happen have been many, high and hard to scale. Broadcasters have to pay for their capacity, and that makes it hard to justify speculatively taking more than the bare minimum to carry stereo audio. The multiplexing equipment is old, and doesn’t reliably support functionality beyond audio (including a number of other very important DAB features). There is a classic chicken-and-egg problem, where manufacturers won’t build receivers to support enhanced functionality because broadcasters won’t commit to services.

That needs to change.

Global Radio launched a series of applications for the Apple iPhone (for which my team deservedly got a SONY Radio Award nomination). These applications feature RadioVIS – a simple visualisation layer for radio. Whilst I’m not going to tell you the stats, I will say that the amount of visuals delivered is considerable and demonstrates a commercial opportunity. But as well as delivering visuals to the iPhone we also publish them as DAB Slideshow into 16kbit/s of 95.8 Capital FM’s DAB stream. (Admittedly, it’s taken 10 months work with Arqiva to get the right interface to the multiplexer).

It won’t take much more work to get the technology right, but launching innovative services needs to start with a commitment to face a digital future and start moving analogue to history. It looks like OFCOM can make that commitment, but will the radio industry follow suit?

DAB – Doing It Properly

Legal Writing (CC) Horrgakx @ Flickr

In response to the publication of the interim Digital Britain report, I sent out this twitter

That prompted a small flurry of @nickpiggott replies asking me “so, what does doing it properly mean”?

Let’s start by reminding ourselves that we have the most successful implementation of free-to-air digital radio anywhere in the world. There is no discussion, no set of statistics, no spin that can deny that fact. More people, by number and by percentage of the population, use free-to-air digital radio in the UK than anywhere else. Over 8m cumulative device sales, without a penny of device subsidy or subscription. Planet Rock has almost half the audience of Absolute Radio.

So what we have is not broken, is not a failure and is not dysfunctional.

But – it could be better. We’re only using a fraction of the capabilities of the system, and the implementation was conceived without any reference models, and without any similar paradigms. Which is why it tended to follow the FM model that preceded it by 40 years (25 years in commercial radio).

I tend to work by setting a clear vision of what I want to achieve, and then working out how to get from here to there. If you start from here, and look only at the obstacles, you’d probably give up. (Maybe that’s what’s happening in other countries?). But if you think what you could do, I find it easier to find the swerves and jumps that get you round the problems. Or hope they go away before you get to them.

So here’s my manifesto for doing it properly. My manifesto, not that of my employer. And not representative of all or even part of the radio industry.

Coverage “Turn It Up”

We need higher field strengths for DAB. To really realise its strategic value, and its unique benefits, DAB has to be receivable on the move on a handheld device tucked in someone’s pocket as they go through cities – walking down streets, and walking round buildings. And that means much higher field strengths. Probably about +12dBuV / +14dBuV on what we have now. For normal people, lots lots more.

And we need to do that by using a smaller number of transmitters using much higher ERPs (emitted powers). The whole economic model of “broadcasting” is lost if you work on a network of hundreds of sites to cover the same area covered by 1 FM site now. That’s oversimplifying things, but the general principle is sound. We need to cut the number of DAB sites in use now, and crank up the power of those remaining dramatically.

Why wasn’t this done in the first place? Ah, well, thanks for asking that, because it leads into the next point…

Spectrum Planning “Make It Simpler”

OMFG the UK DAB spectrum plan is complicated. We (the radio industry) made such a rod for our own backs, and loaded ourselves down with so much cost with the current spectrum plan. The current spectrum plan is derived from the original FM plan,and was somewhat influenced by the decision to tie FM licence renewals with commitment to get services on DAB.

We tried to replicate the FM coverage model on DAB. Wherever there was a significant analogue licence that was eligible for renewal, it needed to have an equivalent DAB multiplex area. Problem is, there’s about 100 FM channels in the spectrum 87.5MHz to 108MHz. We tried to duplicate an FM plan which was carefully juggled to fit into 100 FM channels, and pretty much replicate it in 5 DAB channels. Um, can anyone see the problem here, because we didn’t spot it 10 years ago. (Yes, hello pedants – I’m aware that’s an oversimplification, but ride with me on this one).

That created the most fabulous spectrum plan, for which hat tip to the spectrum planners for almost managing to do it. Incredible.

The problem was, it relied heavily on cramming services close together, both in the same areas (adjacent channels) and in adjacent areas (co-channel channels). So the amount of interference from each multiplex had to be virtually negligible outside of its area, which in turn meant using lots of low power transmitters rather than a few bigguns.

My favourite example of this is the London III and Sussex Coast multiplexes, which are both on channel 11B. They are separated by less than 30kms. Can you imagine having two FM stations on the same frequency, with coverage areas only 30kms apart? No. Madness.

The best thing we can do is re-plan to put spectrum where it’s needed, and have bigger mux areas with wider geographic separation. It makes little sense to have Wiltshire split across two different frequencies. (I could tell you why, but you’d be in disbelief).

A re-worked spectrum plan would create less adjacent and co-channel interference, and would support fewer transmission sites at higher powers.

But, you say, how do you fit all those radio stations that used to be on 3 separate muxes onto 1 bigger mux. Well, funny you should ask, because…

DAB+ “Make It More Spectrum Efficient”

Flameproof suits on, mail filters armed, incoming abuse expected.

DAB+ isn’t about making radio sound nicer, because consumers don’t want it, and it doesn’t help anyone. The best use of DAB+ would be to allow a smaller base of infrastructure to support the same number of radio stations. That way, the cost of DAB(+) to the radio industry goes down, we can put much higher powered muxes on-air, and everyone gets a better service.

It’s a big hairy problem though. It keeps me awake at night (not kidding). I would not like even 0.01% of the 30% of UK households who have DAB radios to email me to tell me how they feel about making their DAB radio defunct. It’s not fair, and being fair is an important part of radio IMHO. I don’t have a simple plan on how we would do this, so lets file that under “needs more thinking”.

If we did get to DAB+, we would almost certainly find that we could get the radio stations on-air, and have some spectrum free, and seeing as you’re asking, I’ll tell you what we’d use it for…

Differentiation “Do something exciting”

DAB is insufficiently differentiated from analogue currently. Yes, there’s lots more stations, and its tune by name, and you get some (semi)-useful text. But it’s not the evolution it could have been. DAB has some immensely w00t technologies in it, but the broadcasters have to implement them, and educate listeners about them, BEFORE the radios get built. I take my hat off to the original spec writers, because it’s a joy to converge DAB with IP. Did you know there’s a whole “over the air” HTTP transport layer, that will move seamlessly between IP and DAB? Or a highly efficient way of distributing traffic messages. Even an IP Multi-cast tunnelling option. All there, all waiting to be used.

If we did some of this stuff, I’m sure DAB would get more exciting, and would get into more exciting devices. And, incidentally, become more valuable commercially. Which can only be a good thing. (BTW – have been told what I can talk about on the Touch Radio device, so just need to think and write about it).

Summary

So there’s my “doing it properly” 4-point plan.

  1. Better coverage through higher powers on fewer transmitters
  2. Simpler Spectrum plan with fewer muxes covering bigger areas
  3. More efficient spectrum use with DAB+
  4. Differentiation through data services

Only a few things stopping these changes

  • Infrastructure / transmission contracts which go on for a number of years still
  • Big one-off cost of changing around all the transmitters and masts
  • Complex transition from existing spectrum plan to a new one
  • Replacing ~8m DAB radios with DAB+ ones.
  • Staying alive through the recession.

But, never fear dear readers, because there is light. Digital Britain confirms what the educated know, which is that DAB is fundamentally a great technology, it’s just the current implementation that isn’t brilliant. Consumers just keep loving DAB, and it’s easy to get some data services and some new radio stations back on the air in the current infrastructure (and credit to my team for pulling some clever workarounds out on the data issue). There’s lots of clever people working in radio, who can make this happen.

I will be looking at how Australia get on. They’re starting fresh in May, and they’re going for the 4-point “doing it properly” plan on day 1. They’ll go rushing past us, and set the standard for DAB rollouts from here on. Who knows, maybe it will trigger the second Aussie invasion of radio? Grab the esky, and get the beers cold.

Photo: Legal Writing (CC) Horrgakx @ Flickr

Economy Crashes, Digital Radio Keeps Going

Woolworths New Malden the Last Days (cc) Fred Dawson @ flickr

The DRDB has released Christmas 2008 sales figures for DAB Digital Radio, and I think they tell a remarkable and positive story.

Obviously, if you were a bit bitter or a bit cynical, you’d focus on the fact that growth slowed down in 2008, and that “only” 2.08m Digital Radios were sold in 2008, rather than the target of 2.6m which was set in January 2008

I think they’re remarkable numbers.

Since January 2008, the bottom has fallen out of the world’s economy. I’d love to know of any comparable sector that has achieved its annual sales figures set “pre-crash”. People are losing their jobs, and even if they’re not losing their jobs, they’re reining in their spending to be on the safe side. Consumer electronics, as a sector, is down 5% in value (year on year), despite a slew of “must-have” gadgets.

But amidst the economic turmoil, the uncertainty, and the cutbacks, people are still buying radios – digital radios. 510,000 sets in the run-up to Christmas, and by all accounts, catching some retailers unaware. The sector shrank 5%, but DAB sales grew by 3%. That’s not a blip, that’s bucking the trend.

It’s interesting, because 2008 couldn’t have been a worse year in Medialand for DAB. The headlines have been dominated with sad, bad, and depressing stories on the fate of DAB. It’s been a struggle to find the shafts of sunlight.

Some of the DAB turmoil has been felt in the real world too. theJazz and a number of other stations disappeared off the dial. FUN Kids had to drop its coverage on DAB outside of London after being disposed of by GCap. Planet Rock’s future was uncertain, also when GCap announced its disposal. More and more voices were heard extolling the virtue of connected radios.

I hope that 2008 was DAB’s Annus Horribils, and that 2009 will mark the starting point of a new phase of DAB in the UK (of which more as soon as I find out what I can talk about publicly). There’s no doubt that whatever sales predictions were created for 2009 will need revising in the light of the current economic situation, and it will be miraculous if we manage to beat 2008’s numbers in 2009.

But maybe this is the point where we see that DAB is resilient, and something that consumers really want to have in their lives.

Photo: Woolworths New Malden the Last Days (CC) Fred Dawson @ flickr

An E-mail to Which?

Query (CC) amortize @ flickr

I wrote this e-mail on Saturday 24th January, to the editor of the Which? website. Which? is the UK’s consumer champion.

Dear Sir / Madam,

I would like to raise an issue with the article on your website entitled “In Store Sales of DAB Radio Could Be Misleading“.

I fear that you have been the victim of a scare campaign, orchestrated by one or two people.

It is true that some stores have had boosters installed to provide a good quality signal to DAB radios on display, but that should be framed within a context that virtually all electrical goods stores provide specific “repeated” signals for Televisions (and in Car Audio shops, for FM Radios too). In particular, you will find that all Digital TVs and Set Top Boxes are connected to cables and boosters from an external antenna. Therefore it seems unreasonable to say that sales of DAB could be misleading; the same is equally true of Digital TV, and I’m sure you will remember that there were issues with this a few years ago.

Electrical retailers tend to be based in metal-skinned buildings, creating what’s known as a Faraday Cage effect – which cuts off all radio and tv signals. It is therefore a necessity to bring signals in through repeaters for any radio or TV device to work at all.

The Radio Industry provides a very reliable “postcode checker” for coverage, at www.getdigitalradio.com – which you have failed to mention, presumably because the person or people who “tipped you off” about this story didn’t see fit to tell you the whole story. In addition, I am not aware of any retailer or manufacturer who has refused to take a return (of a properly boxed device) if the consumer subsequently finds they have inadequate reception.

I am disappointed that you don’t seem to have checked these facts with anyone from the industry representative bodies, and may I suggest that you contact (-) at the DRDB on (-) to get a more balanced view. I look forward to seeing an amendment to the article imminently.

Regards

Nick Piggott

I’ll leave you to find the offending blog article for yourselves, as they aren’t worthy of linking to.

Update – 26th January

The Which? website has been updated today to include a response from the DRDB, which does now include reference to the postcode checker, and explains why it is that some retailers need to have repeaters to get signals into the building. Well done Which? for updating so promptly.

Photo: Query (CC) Amortize @ flickr