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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.

PURE EVOKE Flow – Initial review of a converged radio

PURE EVOKE Flow

Along with a number of luminaries of the radio and consumer electronics world, I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of PURE’s new converged radio – supporting FM, DAB and WiFi in one familiarly styled case. I’ve been lucky to know the guys at PURE since the early days of the original EVOKE-1, and as well as their remarkable marketing skills, they’ve got a great in-house technical team, headed up by Nick Jurascheck.

So this is my initial experience of using my EVOKE Flow, based on about the first hour of usage.

You can feel it’s a well built radio, and the piano black casing is very attractive (matches my new eee pc 901), and the power supply has shrunk right down. Plug in, switch on, and it’s ready to go.

The display is such an improvement (although not yet colour), and the initial user experience is dead simple. There’s a short “setup” guide in the box, which guides you through setting it up. Selecting “DAB Radio” did a band scan, which picked up all the stations I expected it to. Similarly, setting up the WiFi was simply a question of finding my WiFi network by name, and entering in the password. The unit obviously does a variety of “brute force” attacks to find out exactly which encryption is in use, and correctly worked out that I use WPA-PSK.

It’s quick. There’s no sluggish response to the UI, and the display and soft keys keep up with even the speediest actions. The station lists are quick to show, and the filtering (by location, genre, keywords, sound quality etc.) works exactly as it needs to when you’re handling thousands and thousands of WiFi stations.

It sounds good. That warm, rich sound is just as good as it’s even been, even on some of the ropier internet streaming.

The navigation is pretty good. The top level divides things into logical blocks (DAB, The Lounge, FM etc.) and there’s reasonable consistent use of a “back” or “cancel” function to get back where you were. The only area I stumbled around in a bit was when I was using filters to find stations, and adding them to favourites, although I suspect it’s just a case of getting use to it.

The radio is designed to be used in conjunction with PURE’s “The Lounge” website, which is a device portal. This isn’t yet live, so I couldn’t test out the interaction between the two, but I can see it’s probably easier to manage favourites from The Lounge.

Other nice features – there’s a comprehensive list of “On-Demand” and “Podcast” content, which appears to have scraped the BBC dry. PURE sounds gives you access to the kind of incidental and background audio that has made Birdsong a minor celebrity station.

Any bugs? Well, yes a few. Once of the immense challenges of doing a WiFi radio is trying to keep track of all the darned streams and what they are. I tried finding a particularly big, popular, public service pop station in Europe (not in the UK!), and found it was linked to another stream from the same PSB. So I went hunting for a way of manually entering a stream address, and there doesn’t appear to be one. Maybe I can add it through The Lounge?

Navigation of the WiFi content (even on a decent screen, with a fast UI) continues to be a real challenge because there’s just so much stuff. Again, I guess that’s what The Lounge is for.

The DAB and WiFi are two very distinct modules in the radio, which are kept separate from the main menu downwards. I couldn’t find a way, for instance, of having a common favourites list between DAB and WiFi. I have some DAB stations I want, and some stations I want to stream – I intensely dislike using my bandwidth to stream stuff I could be getting over the air. (And I get text information from DAB too, which is finally readable on this display).

The DAB is lacking an EPG, which would have been so much easier to navigate on this device. I know the support of it from broadcasters is currently weak, but it would make navigation and discovery better. Maybe that’s also something that could be integrated into The Lounge?

Overall, I like it. It looks nice, it works nice, and it’s a significant improvement in user experience over the Acoustic Energy unit that it’s taken over from in the kitchen. The SRP is £150, which seems to be in the right ball park for this kind of radio, and it does do nice things for you.

So I know what you’re thinking – a WiFi/DAB radio isn’t new.

Some of the most interesting stuff in the Flow is under the bonnet, and it’s why it’s an exciting development. PURE have talked about enabling music downloading and tagging, and the reason they can talk about those kind of developments confidently is that the Flow is built on Linux. As far as I’m aware, it’s the first large scale production DAB device that’s got Linux at the core (kernel 2.6 for the production model, if you’re interested).

This is a remarkable development. It means the radio can be upgraded to support new functionality, and that functionality can be programmed far more easily that the traditional micro-coding (which makes you go blind, sterile and your hair falls out) associated with embedded microprocessors. Nick and the PURE team have written drivers for the hardware, and used the power of Linux to build a radio that behaves really well. It’s now a connected computing device, optimised for audio and radio. Brilliant.

I’m looking forward to what the radio industry could do with connected, software based, devices like Flow, to speed up the delivery of innovation to consumers. All it needs now is a lovely QVA Colour Screen, it will be darned near perfect.