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Friday, 15 October 2010


Stephen Hill


This paper does valuable work extinguishing some of the lingering objections to fully embracing digital operations, particularly wrt to mobile bandwidth issues and automobile operation of IP "radios."

On a bad day I see reactions to these 'issues' as more foot-dragging by public media personnel who are just not comfortable entering a new medium with a substantial learning curve, new paradigms and new technologies to be mastered.

Comments like Steve Rubin's are sadly typical -- he points to a "problem" that in 2010 is ironically the opposite of what he describes. Sure, some retrograde webcasters are still using inferior quality low bit rate Real Audio or MP3 streams that they encoded ten years ago. But the typical 64k AAC stream today actually exceeds the audio quality of FM. It has a full 15khz bandwidth, and a noise floor that is at least 30db quieter than FM under optimum conditions. 3G mobile data bandwidth easily handles 64k stereo streams of excellent quality. This is no longer an issue.

There's one point in your piece that requires comment because recent technical developments make it less of an issue. You say "With the most common IP distribution protocol (“unicast”), the more successful you are in reaching listeners, the more bandwidth you will need to rent."

This is true for normal hardware servers located on private networks or on dedicated Content Delivery Networks. But the latest generation of "cloud" CDNs like Amazon's new CloudFront do not require fixed bandwidth allocations ordered in advance. You pay only for what you actually use, and the services scale on-demand as required.

Cloud hosting is a fundamental increase in infrastructure efficiency which has already started to drive the cost of basic operation down even further. In a future paper you will be saying "don't consider pricing of bandwidth to be an obstacle."

Your final point that "now is not too soon to act strategically" is a fascinating example of the kind of polite, qualified rhetoric that has characterized public radio discussions about digital for the last ten years.

The time to act strategically was five years ago, when you and other public radio progressives were pushing for a truly strategic response to the challenges and opportunities inherent in global digital networks.

It did not happen then. It is happening now by default in some of NPR's digital initiatives, and particularly in the work that is being done by NPR, PRI, APM and PBS to build a "Public Media Platform" -- but in a way that is limited and will not be nearly comprehensive enough to change the way business is done in the system, or to improve the position of public radio vis-a-vis new competitors like Pandora and other content aggregators.

Individual players on the national or local levels of the system may have their own strategies, but I'm afraid that alluding to any kind of unified strategy for public radio or public media as a whole is wishful thinking. The diverse federation we have is handicapped by "channel conflict" and ill suited for comprehensive action, which would require a unified public offering and major changes to the underlying business methods.

Let's face it: as a network, we don't do strategy.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Public radio will also need to differentiate itself more clearly as Dennis suggests. We are already noticing a certain "digital fatigue" among some demographics, i.e., the embarrassment of riches syndrome caused by the proliferation of apps accentuating the divide between the early adapters and the rest. Much of this remains anecdotal, so more research is needed. But an overabundance of offerings may simply confuse those whose goal is community (such as public radio can provide) as opposed to those who are fascinated with the latest set of neat toys.

Steve Rubin

What this AKT paper does not discuss: The audio quality of IP radio. Some of it is fairly poor -- far less than AM -- and this surely affects the adoption rate of IP radio. Listeners, either consciously or sub-consciously, make note of the difference and adjust their habits to meet their preference (some don't notice or care, while others expect good high fidelity). I suspect this issue will be solved in time as broadband gets broader. But for now, I would consider it an obstacle to the advancement of this medium.

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