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The Future of Radio – is Curation…

Robert Scoble

Robert Scoble

Inspiration and insight can come from all kinds of places. Nestled in my Google Reader feeds this morning was a blog from Robert Scoble  called “The Chat/Forum Problem (& an apology to @TechnoSailor)“. Go and have a read – I’ll grab a coffee while you do.

You’re back?

It drew me in because my experience of on-line communities is very similar to Scoble’s, and his description of the ebb-and-flow of user generated discussions really chimed with me. I also gave up on Usenet in the late 90’s, after it became a hideous, rancorous, bile-filled pit of trolls and spam. It still is today, apparently.

What he identifies is that the first wave of people really enjoy their new place to link up and discuss, but it inevitable degrades and erodes as time passes and more people come in. mySpace is pretty much heading down now, Facebook is getting uncomfortably noisy, and I’m seeing much more pervasive spam and viruses on Twitter now than a year ago. They are all eroding. His point is that blogs don’t have this problem because they are curated, and focused and on subject, and free from all the cruft that accumulates when there’s no editorial control. Good bloggers get better and get more authoritative, and bad bloggers just disappear out of view.

And I think it will be like this for radio too.

We’re just in the very early phase of the cycle that Scoble describes. Until 1990, there were only a handful of radio stations in the UK. Between 1990 and 1999, there was an explosion of broadcast stations, some of which have survived, and some of which struggle on today. In the last 10 years, the Internet has made distribution of radio (and music) easier, and contributed to an explosion of “like radio” services. In pure numerical terms, there’s never been more choices to listen to radio, music and audio, in an envrionment where the differences between the three have become blended to be almost invisible.

That genie is out of the bottle. Radio, to its credit, has not engaged in the futile activity of trying to rebottle it, which at least shows we can learn from the mistakes of the music industry. (Note to media commentators – radio people are much smarter than you often give them credit for).

The good radio stations have always acted as curators. What musos and pluggers deride as being heavy-handed playlist controls is curation that our listeners value. Some stations are more curated than others, but the principle is that rather than throwing people into a sea of music and seeing the majority drown, we create signposted swimming (and sometimes paddling) pools of music.

Of course, there’s always room for the strong swimmers, who like to dive in and head out to sea, and the great thing about the Internet is that we can also service this small, but influential, group of people. (It’s the same in speech radio, by the way, but in my opinion Radio 4 has always been an Olympic sized swimming pool of speech content, and so it should be).

If the future value to our listeners is in curation, that suggests that human-run radio stations will do better than automated-stations, and that stations with some controls will do better than those with no controls. Sure, there’s a bit of a whizz from the whole “it’s a station with no controls”, but the much vaunted Jack format which got so much interest for its “nobody’s in control” approach is just another station on the dial now. With relatively small shares in most markets.

It’ll be interesting to see if services like last.fm, Pandora, speakr, mixcloud or even Dabbl will survive the first wave of interest, and genuinely make it to the mainstream. My hunch is that unless they become more like “radio”, they’ll shrink down to the niche after the initial wave of interest has passed.

(Caveats apply – radio still has to be present, in a meaningful way, on digital platforms otherwise we can’t hope to compete at all, and we must understand that an essential facet of curation is to keep listening to our listeners, and filter out the irrelevant. Digital platforms, and services like Facebook and Twitter, can help harvest listener interests and sentiment, but it’s our job to organise and edit it).

Of course, the one service I haven’t mentioned yet is Spotify, which is very much “like radio”. It’s certainly on the crest of a wave at the moment (giving away free music helps), but the problem Spotify seems to be grappling with is that the functionality that costs the most money – the ability to pick and choose songs – is the one that fewer people are using. Whilst the early adopters are enthusiastically engaged, the next wave of users seems to be sticking it on and letting it play like radio. Unless Spotify can drive a fundamental and radical overhaul of streaming music costs, they’ll go bankrupt from the negative gap between the cost of personalised streaming and the revenues from audio advertising. If if they do drive some sort of fundamental economic change, all the existing radio operators will be in a position to swap to the same deal, so it seems like Spotify (as a free service) is doomed. The tide is slipping away from them.

What value knowledge?

Sometimes it’s really hard to make a business case for doing things that involve cutting edge technology and radio. There are many variables, estimations and outcomes, and that makes deciding if something is a good return on investment quite subjective and debatable.

  • What’s it worth to hold onto a client who was thinking of moving all their money to online?
  • How much more profitable/successful would we be if we could extend everyone’s time spent listening by five minutes a day?
  • What would happen if 10% of our listeners signed their best friend up to our e-mail list?
  • When could we get our radio station into an iPhone / Nokia / Blackberry / Android phone?

Good questions, aren’t they? Have you got an idea in your mind of how much it’s worth to your radio station to achieve those things?

If it’s more than £199, then you just qualified your own business case for investing  in a  place at Radio At The Edge 2009.

Take a look at the agenda, and work out how much value just one nugget of information could create. Then sign up, and I’ll see you there on the 9th November.

(As an added free bonus, you get to see Richard Bacon interviewing radio legend Tony Blackburn. Apparently Tony got married when he worked on an AM Radio station. The  wedding was marvellous, but the reception was dreadful. Bad-dum-tish. There. I got a corny joke in before @tonyblackburn did).

Internet Media Device Alliance


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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is why standardisation would be a good thing.

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

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

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

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

Timeshifted Interaction

Macromote by jbwan @ flickr

The digitisation of media comes with costs and justifications.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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