Previous white papers in this series:
AKT Number 1: Introduction
AKT Number 2: Prospects for IP Radio
AKT Number 3: Prospects for Broadcast Radio
Radio Platform Innovation Strategies – “All Known Thought” Number 4
“I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.”
– “Hal,” the HAL 9000 computer, voiced by Douglas Rain in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
– Attributed to John Wanamaker, 1838-1922, retailing and advertising pioneer
I was in 6th or 7th grade when I built my first radio: a primitive “crystal set” similar to the one illustrated here from the 1920s. The coil was wound around a Quaker Oats can, the detector was a galena (lead ore) crystal with a stiff “cat whisker” wire used to probe the crystal for a sensitive spot. It picked up one station – weakly (no audio amp) – no matter where I tuned. In consumer electronics economics, “dumb” is often a good thing and a crystal set is as dumb as it gets. More on this under “Consumer electronics economics” below.
On the other hand, the HAL 9000 computer in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey claimed to be a “conscious entity,” the ultimate contra-example to dumb radios. That film opened in May 1968, seven months before astronauts left Earth’s orbit for the first time on Apollo 8. The guidance computer on Apollo 8 was primitive – holding only 76,000 bytes of memory and weighing 70 pounds – and so was the kludgy radio network which relayed the “burn for the Moon” order via my Air Force squadron on Guam. Now, 42 years later, a pleasant female voice (I call her “Claire”) from my 2008 Jeep’s navigation/audio system gives me turn-by-turn instructions. Its computer, rather small by today’s standards, can store 10 billion bytes – and there’s a whole separate computer to run the vehicle.
Today’s smartphones and computers can perform radio functions and are a lot closer to “Hal” in sophistication than to the simple combination of resonant circuit, detector and sound reproducer which began radio receiver technology. Radio, at its essence, is content not the delivery device. This white paper will explore strategies that stations and their organizations might follow to keep us in the game.
For seven years I’ve been doing a media economics blog disguised as a technology blog (technology360.com), which might help explain why I’m starting this white paper with economic assumptions for both the consumer electronics industry and station economics.
Consumer electronics economics. When a consumer electronics company is trying to sell millions of units of something, the more it can “dumb it down” by minimizing the component count within a defined functionality specification, the more price-competitive it can be. Arguably, price-competitive sells more units than feature-competitive. Components can be integrated circuits, connectors, even buttons. As we saw with the story of David Sarnoff, Edwin Armstrong and Philo Farnsworth in the second AKT white paper, intellectual property is also a component cost – and not an insignificant one since today it drives the costs of the chips that are used in these wonderful gadgets.
Because of the component cost of making radios smarter, devices like smartphones that can do radio plus do other things will have an advantage. Handheld devices, in particular, need to pass the test of being compelling enough to justify space in a purse or briefcase.
Media economics. The second quotation at the top might seem odd for a public radio audience, but I don’t think that’s the case if you share these assumptions:
- The radio industry as a whole will ultimately determine the future viability of this medium, not its public radio segment. We can influence the likelihood of that success through leadership, but we’re not driving the bus.
- The economic engine of this bus is advertising, and radio’s competitive position with the advertising community will determine its ongoing economic viability.
- Ad dollars are moving to forms of advertising that address Wanamaker’s dilemma quoted above, and advertisers pay a premium for it. They want efficiency, granularity and accountability.
- All media are competing for limited user attention. Web and mobile applications are giving users compelling ways to focus their attention in ways they find valuable, and this interactivity is increasingly becoming an expectation. Wishes become expectations and expectations become entitlements.
- One-way radio is disadvantaged in both arenas. Interactivity can be in real-time or not, but the radio industry needs to embrace it.
Two of the earlier white papers have looked at the state of play for Internet Protocol and broadcast radio. I would like now to place those aspects of innovation off to the side and continue this survey with what’s happening on the software side of innovation – all of them enabled by metadata.
Never Metadata I Didn’t Like: Software Innovations
Metadata are simply data which describe other information in a useful way – data about data. An old-fashioned 3x5 library card is a good example. Use of metadata permits search, retrieval, manipulation and dissemination of information.
Metadata are used (though with different standards) across all media. Digital cameras record metadata about pictures you take. Radio stations and Sirius|XM use metadata to transmit Program Service Data (PSD), also called Program-Associated Data (PAD), to listeners via HD Radio® or analog Radio Broadcast Data System (RBDS). The following innovations all employ metadata magic.
iTunes and Song Tagging. An example of the use of metadata for radio interactivity (though not in real time) is iTunes Tagging on HD Radio. An HD Radio receiver that is enabled for this capability will have a small amount of on-board storage that, when a listener likes a tune, simply pressing a Tag button records the station’s metadata including station identity and tune. The information is syncs with the listener’s iPod and then with iTunes on the listener’s computer. The listener can then purchase the song, giving the station a commission from Apple. iTunes Tagging is supported by a sizable number of receivers. Microsoft’s Zune HD Radio Song Tagging is a similar feature. No station is going to get rich on this, but it’s a good illustration of non-real-time interactivity.
Personalized Audio Information Service (PAIS, pronounced “pace”) is federally-funded project developed by NPR Labs (partnering with the International Association of Audio Information Services, iBiquity Digital Corp. and Towson University) to provide millions of print-disabled people access to audio programming in a personalized way. Like iTunes and Song Tagging, it uses program-preference tags sent over the internet to a program source. These tags trigger the recording of programming sent over an HD Radio transmitter on a PAIS-compatible HD Radio receiver where it’s recorded for playback by a listener, effectively creating a custom podcast. A technical document describing the system is available at NPR Labs web site.
RadioDNS is an international non-profit collaboration developing a standard for converting station metadata (PSD/PAD) for radio stations already transmitting to valid web addresses in the internet Domain Name System (hence, RadioDNS). It works with analog FM, HD Radio and other digital stations, and on internet streams. The receiver needs to have either an occasional or permanent IP connection.
Although most of the RadioDNS board participants are from Europe, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has a seat on the board and Clear Channel and Cox are members of the consortium.
The station registers its domain name with the RadioDNS database and consumer devices query a look-up table using those metadata to perform useful tasks (see below). Consumer electronics and software companies can use RadioDNS services for free, while broadcasters pay a small charge per entry in the DNS lookup table.
Receivers for it are already available in Europe and the RadioDNS technology is built into a number of iPhone and Android apps.
Within the RadioDNS rubric, there are three principal areas of development underway:
- RadioVIS is a way of adding text and visuals that are synchronized with a station (album art or sponsor logos, for example).
- RadioEPG is an electronic program guide that also features what the developers call a “universal preset” enabling listeners to find your station wherever they may be. The radio can also send reminders
- RadioTAG allows you to tag programming elements that you find interesting – music or news stories, for example. The station can use this information to provide the listener a richer service or have it trigger transactions as iTunes Tagging and Song Tagging now do for HD Radio.
Addressability is a close cousin of what many multi-transmitter radio operators already do. Northwest Public Radio, which I managed until early 2008, is a network with two program services over 13 stations that stretches some 550 miles from west to east. By using addressable satellite receivers at our transmitters with on-board storage, and with memories fed through a separate channel, we were able to set up station zones for customized information. The listener in Grangeville, Idaho, no longer has to listen to underwriting credits for the Volvo dealer in Bellingham, Washington. We multiplied our underwriting inventory and gained a more rational pricing structure. Although it was used then only for underwriting and station IDs, it could do weather, news updates, and even whole programs – transmitter by transmitter rather than zone by zone. The next generation of NPR’s ContentDepot software will enable this for national underwriting – a concept known as “split copy.”
Persona Radio. Imagine yourself getting into your car one morning in Leesburg, Virginia, ready for a 40-mile commute to work in DC. On turning the key, your radio comes on, tuned to WAMU, and says (imagine the voice of “Hal” from 2001, or perhaps Carl Kasell):
“Good morning and happy birthday, Dave. There are some celebration coupons in your account with our compliments. Your retrieve button has current weather and traffic for Leesburg to Washington. It will update again in ten minutes.”
You retrieve your weather and traffic (underwritten by a Leesburg business), and then the radio begins playing Morning Edition, which it’s been storing since you turned the key. Ten miles down the road, you hit that button again to hear the updates. While it’s playing out, the radio is again buffering Morning Edition so you won’t miss anything. It’s pledge week, but as a sustaining member of WAMU, you bypassed the pledge drive “yada yada” with the normal Morning Edition segments arriving over a separate feed.
Persona Radio would provide these capabilities and more, coupled with an enabled radio. iBiquity has published a 40-page technical report on Persona Radio that you may ask an engineer to interpret. In short however, this will allow the listener to personalize radios, normally through a station’s web site or smartphone app. The user’s preferences are derived from a profile stored in the receiver (age, gender, etc.) or from the “user’s current state” (GPS location, stated activity, etc.). The following items could be personalized based on this profile:
- Audio content
- Text related to the audio content
- Text independent of audio – messages and other entertainment
- Advertisements – audio, text, and “product tokens” such as coupons
- Time and association of the service – actual live play
/display or content substitute (from memory)
Persona Radio is what its developers call a “smart radio concept.” It’s being undertaken by iBiquity Digital Corp. and the NAB FASTROAD program using HD Radio. Since the term “smart radio” has several other meanings (e.g., for so-called cognitive radios which can change frequency to avoid interference), perhaps it would be better to call it “smarter radio.” That notwithstanding, compared to the “dumb” radios we have today, these would be pretty darn smart. Some Persona Radio functions would not be available until more advanced HD Radios are on the market. With radios that can support it (as can DMB receivers in Europe) your radio can get even smarter through software updates you push to the receivers.
Sounds great. So what’s the hitch? Well, unless someone comes up with a hybrid HD Radio/IP radio (see below) or hybrid HD Radio/Mobile DTV receiver, Persona Radio will take some of your digital capacity for the customized information, reducing the number of discrete program channels, not to mention traffic and visual information, you can carry via HD Radio technology today. We might see stations within a market pooling their digital capacity to provide additional bandwidth.
Hybrid radios are ubiquitous – nearly every cellular telephone incorporates more than one radio, and nearly every consumer radio incorporates separate AM and FM radios. My 2008 Jeep has a Sirius radio as well – so that’s three radios – plus a 10 GB hard drive and a video display. There’s no reason why one couldn’t build a radio that combines FM HD Radio with either on-board 3G or 4G services or with it built into a 3G or 4G USB card or tethered smartphone.
At the risk of reprising something that I posted to my blog in March 2007, check out a concept drawing here: A many-to-many radio using HD + IP. It would be a breeze to program using HD Radio’s “operating system,” Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL – a markup language somewhat similar to HTML). Brilliant or not – apparently it was the latter – the idea has gone nowhere though it’s been brought up in conversation with executives from two consumer electronics companies who might have made it happen.
I’d venture a guess that the best way to contribute to the growth and value of HD Radio would be an iBiquity-provided Software Development Kit (SDK) opening the platform for developers. Of course, we would need receivers that accepted the resulting applications, but the availability of such platforms would contribute to a competitive marketplace for features.
Are there other ways to make hybrid radios? Fortunately, yes. Well, in this case, “fortunate” depends on whether you view this as an opportunity or a threat. Some of your station’s competitors are moving into your sanctum sanctorum – the family car – by permitting the car’s sound system to interact with a smartphone. There are multiple efforts underway.
Thewhite paper I wrote on the Prospects for IP Radio mentioned one of them – the Ford/Microsoft SYNC® collaboration on a dozen current Ford Motor Company models. SYNC With MyFord Touch™ connects with your mobile devices (smartphones, iPods, etc.) and lets you control them through the dashboard in a safe and intuitive way. Radio providers will likely want to customize their mobile apps for this platform as will happen with Pandora (65 million registered users) by the end of the year (source: Variety, which also reports that Mercedes-Benz and General Motors are also adding Pandora).
In mid-November 2010, Toyota and Clear Channel announced that Clear Channel’s iheartradio would be incorporated into some Toyota models beginning in 2011. Listeners will have access to 750+ radio stations “and other exclusive content.” Clear Channel has been remarkably active in mobile and online platforms, and their iheartradio app is available for the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, BlackBerry, Android, Chumby, and Sonos platforms. It has, according to the Wall Street Journal, 10.5 million users. Technical and user interface details are scarce so far.
Top 10 List for Radio Strategies
First, some cautions. Though this white paper is written under NPR auspices, the following recommendations are mine alone and are influenced more by my 38 years in stationland than my three years at NPR. NPR (in particular, NPR Labs under Mike Starling’s leadership) has done a lot of radio innovation over the years and continues to do so, but nothing here should be construed as a plan to move forward on these ideas. Another caution is that strategy is as much about deciding what you aren’t going to do as it is what you are going to do – I’ve (mostly) ducked that one in this list. Lastly, I can almost guarantee that everyone will find something in the list with which to disagree.
Number 10 – Audio Over Mobile DTV (national organizations and stations). Work with television broadcasters and program aggregators that are launching audio services over the mobile DTV (ATSC M/H) standard to advocate for inclusion of public radio in market bundles (guide to MDTV stations). Although the (so-far) encouraging Digitial Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB) experience in Europe, which it most closely resembles, isn’t necessarily transferrable to the U.S., and there is rational skepticism about whether consumers will accept yet another device primarily to get local TV, this technology does have investment momentum in the television industry and there are plans to add audio bundles to the mix. It also is a plausible solution to IP media scaling issues. Rob Pegoraro has a hands-on report in the Washington Post.
Number 9 – Web Integration/Radio Personalization (national organizations and producers). Influence developments in HD Radio, RadioDNS and Persona Radio with an eye toward ensuring that new features can be adapted to public radio’s mission and economy. Although public radio probably has a small but important role, this has a big impact on viability of the radio medium in a media economy increasingly driven by the accountability and granularity of results that internet advertising provides. Producers and distributors need to add descriptive metadata to their programming and develop means to distribute PSD/PAD along with program feeds for stations to use in multiple platforms (RBDS, HD Radio, RadioDNS, Persona Radio, web pages, API-accessible archives, mobile apps).
Number 8 – Spectrum Priorities (national organizations). Follow the spectrum battle and respond as appropriate. Radio has interests here. First, we should support additional spectrum allocations for 4G wireless since our listeners expect to find us there with reliable services. Secondly, the FM band, in the wake of LPFM crowding, translator proliferation, “Franken FMs,” and inadequately-funded FCC enforcement of interference and even piracy rules, is becoming an interference mess. Radio has a good public service case (problematic business case notwithstanding) for additional spectrum immediately adjacent to the noncommercial band: channel 6 or even channels 5 and 6. Maybe that’s where digital-only radio should go in the longer term. It sure makes more engineering sense than putting ATSC DTV down there.
Number 7 – HD Radio (stations). This will annoy both the “analog foreverists”and the digital media advocates: Give HD Radio more time. Its acceptance will accelerate as more stations use the higher digital power authorizations and the more sophisticated features (album art and station/sponsor logos are in at least one radio shipping now). HD Radio has decent momentum with consumer electronics and automotive companies. If you haven’t done so already, you should increase your digital power by the time Persona Radio rolls out (25% of public radio stations aren’t even on the air with digital yet). True, it’s a capital expense; sometimes mostly “forgiven” by the need to replace an aging analog transmitter. There are no guarantees, but many smart people were skeptical of FM into the early 1970s but FM listening equaled AM by the end of that decade. Broadcast still scales much better than IP radio.
Number 6 – Automotive Integration (national organizations). Work with mobile device, automobile and automobile electronics manufacturers to incorporate mobile apps and interfaces featuring public radio programming, including station streams.
Number 5 – Build Community Around Mission (stations). Many, if not most, stations are using Facebook, Twitter and blogging to engage audiences around their programming. But too often these social media efforts are primarily promotion vehicles for programs and pledge and not as a medium to engage audiences in the mission. Twitter is particularly valuable for news, as Paul Balcerak of Seattle’s KIRO-TV describes (source: Lost Remote):
“Twitter’s huge for us. It’s like a police scanner voiced by the general public that also allows us to get info to people who need it.”
Your web and mobile platforms enhance your station’s immediacy and are a flexible solution to the tyranny of a broadcast schedule. You should be thinking of your station as a way to promote your local mission on your digital platforms, not the other way around (the math is more favorable). If the digital media department of your station isn’t growing – even at the expense of all others – something is wrong.
Number 4 – “There’s an app for that” (national organizations and stations). Launch applications for as many platforms as possible – at a minimum forApple’s iOS and Android devices, but there a number of darker horses that should be monitored (Windows Phone 7, Symbian, WebOS). Stations should be aware that, for iOS apps, Apple has begun rejecting radio apps that appear to be clones, changing only logo and feed addresses. Your station is a unique reflection of your mission in your community – your apps should be also.
Number 3 – Make Radio Easy to Find (stations). This is a no-brainer. Making it easy for listeners to find your radio streams should be your top web and mobile priorities. If you’re a joint licensee where radio is one of a half dozen tabs, insist on having a “Listen now” button on your home page. You’re a radio station, for goshsakes, give them radio! Way too many public broadcasting web sites make the listener really work to find the audio. This is even more important for mobile apps where poor design can turn away listeners.
Number 2 – Distributed Distribution (stations). Follow a “distributed distribution” strategy. Your transmitter reaches everywhere and your web presence should do the same. Generally, it doesn’t. Place links to your content (all of it or curated; streams and archives) with as many places in the communities you serve aspossible. Treat each such opportunity in the same way you would a translator. In the past, I’ve called it an “Easter egg” strategy – “hide” your content in plain sight all over the web.
Number 1 – Radio + Digital is Powerful (for everyone). Recalibrate your thinking about who we are. Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired and author of the new book, What Technology Wants, has the following comments in New Rules for the New Economy blog about the place of radio:
On the new mess media, rumor, conspiracy, and paranoia run rampant
.... Capitalizing on these disadvantages, broadcast will thrive symbiotically within the network economy. Sometimes real-time signals en masse are needed and wanted. Broadcast's flyover will be used, or material will be directly pushed to users. The web needs broadcast to focus attention, and broadcast needs the web to find communities. ... [emphasis added]
If our strategy mirrors thinking that it’s either broadcast or digital platforms, and if economics are the driver, we should be prepared for an either/or result that may not favor us. To reiterate Kelly: The web needs broadcast to focus attention, and broadcast needs the web to find communities. It’s the combination that’s powerful.
-- Dennis Haarsager