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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.

DAB = WEB

mac stillness by shapeshifter @ flickr.com (cc licenced)

Emily Bell wrote an Opinion article on MediaGuardian yesterday about the implications of a successful takeover of GCap Media by Global Radio.

In it, she notes:

“Many think that Hazlitt had a point about developing DAB. If the future distribution of radio is going to be via the web, then investing in an alternative infrastructure does seem slightly risky.”

So what does it mean to say “the future distribution of radio is going to be via the web“? What is “the web“?

In my mind, “the web” is a convenient catch-all to describe “stuff you access through a web browser”, and most people think of that being on a PC. Some people are getting used to the idea of surfing the web on something other than a PC, and the iPhone / iPod Touch have moved the concept of handheld browsing into the mainstream.

But how does “the web” get to you?

Moving “the web” around requires infrastructure. The majority of “the web” moves around on cables; cables between ISPs, cables under the sea, cables to your house.

Some of “the web” moves around without cables.

There are technologies like WiFi and GPRS+EDGE and 3G and HSPDA and WiMax.

All of these technologies require substantial infrastructure investment, have significant weaknesses and most are very expensive. Somebody has to lay cables, build towers, buy spectrum.

DAB has an image problem.

People think “DAB = Radio”, which is reasonable considering it’s been promoted as a “radio” system, championed by “radio companies” and all it’s ever done is transmit radio.

DAB = mobile broadband.

Each “multiplex” is equivalent to a 1.152MBit/s broadband connection.  Admittedly it’s a one way connection, but then so is HSPDA on 3G (and that’s a dirty secret that networks don’t like to shout  about). And DAB doesn’t use IP, but using IP would simply make it less efficient by introducing irrelevant routing information.

The UK Radio industry has flooded most UK cities with about 5MBit/s of completely free, mobile, broadband.

The investment in infrastructure to make that happen has been big for the radio industry (bigger than it appears it ought to have been), but tiny compared to other technology platforms. Miniscule. That’s why it’s the only mobile broadband platform you can access completely free and on devices costing less than £15 to buy outright.

The problem is that “the radio industry” struggles to understand how to monetise content other than radio on this valuable platform. But “new media” people who do some research understand the strengths and the weaknesses of DAB. A particular strength is that’s surprisingly economic and universal, and the weakness of being a unidirectional technology can be circumvented by combining with other technologies, like 3G or WiFi or something better at bi-directional traffic.

So investing in DAB isn’t “investing in an alternative infrastructure” at all. Investing in DAB is investing in “additional infrastructure” for distributing “the web”, and it’s particularly good at delivering the demanding application of streaming radio which people expect to access universally, on the move, for free. (WiFi and 3G simply can’t provide the Quality of Service to deliver uninterrupted mobile audio streaming).

But you can also use DAB to distribute web-sites, podcasts, video clips, traffic and travel data, public transport information, weather forecasts, local event data – anything you can access on “the web” can also be distributed simultaneously to millions of people via DAB.

We should start saying “DAB = WEB“.

(Bootnote – as I gave this blog its title, I remembered that “DABWEB” was the name of the very first webhost for Core, Planet Rock, The Storm and The Mix, wayyy back in 1999).