How to rescue radio

towerRadio used to be wireless audio on a broadcast band. That’s still the short version of every dictionary definition.

But now radio is streamed audio. That was already the case when webcasting* showed up in the ’90s, and even more so with the rise of, SiriusXM, Pandora, rdio, Spotify and every other audio service delivered over the Net.

And now Apple delivers a crowning blow, with this:

This isn’t just the height of presumption on Apple’s part. It’s a body-snatch on all of radio, as well as a straight-up knock-off of Pandora.

But it’s actually worse for radio than it looks here.

What used to be called Radio (iTunes’ collection of webcasting radio stations), which had already been pushed down one directory level to “Music,” is now available only under a new button called “Internet.” (See the screenshot above.) Worse, it won’t appear unless you open preferences in iTunes and check a box to turn it on.

So Apple clearly hates radio as we’ve always known it, and could hardly be more passive-aggressive about subordinating it to their own closed, exclusive, silo’d and proprietary service. (Here’s some bonus evidence.)

So where does this leave plain old over-the-air radio — you know, the kind that fades away when you drive out of town?

Simply put, in a new context. That context is the Net. That’s the new broadcast band. Here on the Net (where you are now), audio servers are the new transmitters and mobile devices are the new portable radios.

So, some advice.

For stations, networks and chains:

  1. Normalize to the Net. That doesn’t mean just “digital first.” It means recognizing that the Internet is your coverage area, and the new native land for all forms of radio, including Satellite. This is the lecture that @JeffJarvis has given for years, correctly, to his friend @HowardStern and to @SiriusXM, where Howard (also correctly) anchors the whole link-up.
  2. Recognize that the Net does not belong to the cable and phone companies but to nobody, which is why it covers the world. Think of it as a world of ends (where every audio source and every listener is a separate end), and NEA — nobody owns it, everybody can use it, and anybody can improve it. Including you.
  3. Choose a streaming URL (or a set of URLs) for your station(s) that will be as permanent as your over-the-air dial positions. Make sure you’re streaming in .mp3 or some other standard codec that all mobile apps can receive. (Right now the burden of finding a streaming URL in the first place is a pain in the ass.)
  4. Transmit over the air in HD. Yes, HD has problems, and the adoption rate is still low. But it’s an all-digital bridge between net-casting and over-the-air.
  5. Continue to use RDS (RDBS in the U.S.) with your analog signals. That way it will display your identity and content on radios equipped to do so, most of which, so far, are in cars.
  6. Support every possible app that moves toward re-creating the old dial-based radio experience. The closest I’ve seen so far is the BBC’s iPlayer app, which isn’t available in the U.S.
  7. Have truly unique programming. If you’re running what dozens or hundreds of other stations are running, you’re just a relay.
  8. Look toward making more money from subscriptions and voluntary donations than from advertising. More about that below.
  9. Think in terms of relationships, and not just listeners. This is essential because listeners have communication power now too. Don’t waste it by looking at them only as populations. This isn’t easy, because the grooves of one-way-one-to-many non-relating are nearly a century deep. But those who relate best will win biggest.
  10. Make podcasting a normal and easy part of your mix of offerings. More listeners will listen, more of the time (which they will make for themselves.) And, if you can’t easily podcast because you’re doing music, see the last section below.

For app developers:

  1. Keep up the pioneering work done by Tune InWunderradioPRX’s Public Radio PlayerStitcher and the rest. But note this…
  2.  No app yet (to my knowledge, at least) re-creates the simple experience we got from knobs, dials and uncomplicated read-outs on good old-fashioned radios. In effect we’re still stuck where mp3 players were before the iPad came along with its scroll wheel. Only now the shitty experience is on our mobile devices, including our Apple i-things.
  3. Ease the experience of listening, and recording (like with, across everything possible. I know this isn’t easy, because chains like Clear Channel (with its iHeartRadio) and the BBC like to limit listening within their app to their own stations. But this isn’t what most listeners want.
  4. Work toward a single easy non-proprietary way to support subscription services (such as SiriusXM) and volunteer-pay services, (such as public radio stations in the U.S). Everybody with that model will make more money, much more easily, if the process isn’t different for every station, every network, every service.
  5. Symbolize relationships (especially paid ones) with UI elements that are easy to read and universally used and accepted. I recommend the r-button, which the VRM development community came up with, and which is there for the taking. The ⊂ represents the person’s side of the relationship, while the ⊃ is the ‘caster’s. If you’re interested, talk to me about it.
  6. Think relationships, not just listeners.

For equipment makers:

  1. Quit making shitty radios. The receiving circuitry and antennas for most home and portable radios have been awful for awhile now, and I don’t expect them to get better. But I think there is room for some companies still making radios to put out a few actually good ones. And include HD. (The best makers of portable radios, C.Crane and Sangean, don’t do HD — yet. And Sony, which used to make the best portables, hasn’t cared about radio in decades.)
  2. Ibiquity (developer and licensor of HD Radio technology): change your game. Adoption by equipment makers is clearly too slow and too hard. Hell, you’ve been around since 2001, and now you’re bragging on just the first car to feature it. This search on Amazon for “HD Radio” should bring up lots of results, rather than a few hens’ teeth. And do whatever it takes for the champions of good reception — C.Crane and Sangean — to jump on board.)
  3. Make radios that hunt easily from over the air analog to HD Radio to streams on the Net. That’s key to The Transition.

For everybody:

  1. Lobby to overhaul the complex and market-hostile royalty system for webcasting, and its inequities with over-the-air broadcasting. Replace it with something sane and respectful of the all-digital world to which we are moving.
  2. In respect to the link above, note this language: Sections 112 and 114 require that rates for the statutory licenses for webcasting and for ephemeral recordings must be the rates that most clearly represent the rates that would have been negotiated in the marketplace between a willing buyer and a willing seller. That boldfaced language is a relic of the DMCA, which was passed in ’98 — just three years after the dawn of the graphical browser, before anybody could imagine that the Net could support willing buyers and sellers of streamed music. The effect of this has been to marginalize or kill music podcasting, to name just one victim. Nobody wants the rights-holders to get screwed, but everybody should recognize by now that its the music itself, and the relationships between artists, distributors (including radio service operators) and listeners that are getting screwed by the current system. We can do better. Hell, it’s almost 2014. Let’s get this done.

* “Webcasting” should have been called “netcasting” in the first place. As Wikipedia says at the moment (at that last link), “Essentially, webcasting is ‘broadcasting’ over the Internet.” The difference is important because the Web is something that runs on the Net, rather than a synonym for the Net.

19 responses to “How to rescue radio”

  1. So where is DAB in all this?

    Note here that the UK plans to turn off the VHF-FM band at some stage in the future once DAB penetration is high enough.

  2. > So where is DAB in all this?

    They don’t have DAB in the US (or in most other countries).

    > Note here that the UK plans to turn off the VHF-FM band at
    > some stage in the future once DAB penetration is high enough.

    There are no plans to turn off FM. The plans are to broadcast the national stations (BBC etc) exclusively on FM and to use the freed-up FM bands for “hyperlocal” broadcasting. I assume this means schools, hospitals etc. but perhaps it will actually result in lots of transitory pirate stations.

    The only thing you can do about this is contact your MP, who may not be aware of how much of a stink the British public is likely to kick up when it finds out that over 100m FM radios will suddenly stop being useful. (That’s not counting the FM radios in phones etc.)

    Doc Searls

    Radio broadcasting is extremely efficient and therefore “green”. Digital delivery over the internet consumes bandwidth, which may be significant when delivered via mobile carrier networks, where bandwidth is a limited and diminishing resource. (With Internet and/or Wi-Fi delivery, radio bandwidth is trivial compared to video.)

  3. Thanks, Julian and Jack.

    On the “green” issue, good point. This is why I want to see terrestrial over-the-air radio better integrated with digital over-the-net ‘casting.

    In Europe, and in the U.K. especially, terrestrial broadcast has been much more “cellular” than in the U.S., with RDS on FM handling smooth transitions between multiple transmitters for single stations or networks. Here in the U.S. our degraded form of RDS, called RDBS, doesn’t do that. Just is one more reason why far more energy gets sucked off the grid for terrestrial radio in the U.S. than in the U.K.

  4. Julian Bond

    Andrew’s piece is fine. Despite all the industry hype — which is basically an attempt to browbeat consumers into buying DAB radios — we are not close to the stage where the government dares to announce a switchover date. That’s even allowing for the con trick whereby “digital listening” via the internet or Freeview is counted as a vote for DAB instead of as a vote against DAB.

    Also, it now looks as though smaller stations will not be forced to move, following this:

  5. Thanks again. I’ll hold off saying much more while I dig into the whole DAB in the UK thing. Whatever it is, it’s way ahead of what we’ve got in the U.S. Or so it seems, anyway.

  6. One of the problems with DAB is that it’s a very old system: roughly as old as the web. It started in the 1980s and has been broadcasting since 1995, so it uses MP2, not even MP3, let alone anything new. This limits audio quality, given the limited bandwidth. Frankly, I think it’s now a waste of money (good money after bad).

    Also, the ITU has just produced a recommendation for 5:1 sound which needs 440kbps for digital radio and TV surround sound

    There’s also growing interest in DRM+

    This gives you both the option of good audio quality (HE-AAC) and efficient use of spectrum (can even use AM bands). Power consumption is low so it’s much greener than DAB. As an open global standard, it might be a good way for the US to go.

    1. Right. Industry-driven standards such as these tend to give us an idealized way of doing something from the past; while new laws regulating the same tend to protect yesterday from last Thursday. All very complicated, but fun to follow, even if the situation is, as the military taught us to say, fubar.

  7. Doc, I’ll post more about this over at my blog, but one note: I see radio as branded entertainment, not simply audio via one or several distribution channels. This is an idealistic view, of course, because it presumes that the content is actually unique and compelling – and it too often is not. But a content-centric strategy is the only way out in a world of choice where consumers are hungry for the next blockbuster.

    Your mention of Howard Stern is an example here. Brand Stern is where the value is, not the channel that bears his name per se.

    1. Hi, Mark. Thanks for weighing in.

      To be clear, my thrust in describing radio as audio streaming is not toward its content but toward its horizons, once they are unbounded from what one radio guy I know calls “transmitter mentality.” I also agree about the value of content, and about the pre-eminence of brand value (e.g. Howard’s). If we differ, it might be around radio-as-entertainment, unless we define entertainment very broadly. For example, more than 10% of radio listening in the U.S. is to public stations, and most (or much) of what public stations broadcast might be described as “informative” rather than “entertaining.” Although, as we know, anything can be both. 🙂

  8. Good news – then we don’t differ. While I used the expression “branded entertainment” I really mean “branded entertainment and information.” In fact, I commonly group radio with other aural media under the banner “audio entertainment and information.”

  9. […] Media, online radio, radio, radio industry, streaming TweetHow to “rescue” radio? Doc Searls has some ideas, and Doc’s a very smart man. He is, among other things, the co-author of the classic The […]

  10. Doc, Mark is really referring to personality driven infotainment. Because of the signal to noise ratios in media today, the personal brand and reputation of the content hosts is key to the success of any audio or video program these days. Though I do see examples of great audio series being produced today with talented, but most unknown folks that are just great at delivery terrific audio content. Radio is become just one way to reach an audience that is local, but could reach a national or global audience with less locally focused content. It is just a matter of time and a generation before radio really sees the the audio consumption shift digital/internet audio that is gradually sweeping over the world. Unless radio shifts, it will have a very small role in the future media landscape.

  11. […] that came up during Interview: How to Rescue Radio. Great Radio Resource: Project VRM John Taylor Gatto […]

  12. Belated correction to my December 1, 2013 at 9:37 am comment above:

    > There are no plans to turn off FM. The plans are to broadcast the national
    > stations (BBC etc) exclusively on FM

    This is obviously nonsense and should say:

    > There are no plans to turn off FM. The plans are to broadcast the national
    > stations (BBC etc) exclusively on DAB

    My apologies for that.

    At the moment, BBC 1-4 and Classic fm are broadcast on both FM and DAB. When these national stations become DAB-only, at some time yet to be decided, the FM waves will be available for other “local and hyperlocal” stations, as the Digital Britain report puts it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *