dab digital radio radio

Balancing Content and Distribution to make a “hit”

Alpine HD Radio car display by fatcontroller @ flickr

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

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

For HD Radio, read DAB Digital Radio.

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

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

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

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

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

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