Watch the video in full at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qENEQ1qClUw
I'd think they should, in any radio company...Music by Ignite Jingles. Clips from an ATT video from the 1960s.
Television, as we know, is changing rapidly - significantly more so than radio. Viewers to live TV are declining, as audiences get more used to on-demand services like Netflix, Hulu, Stan, or iPlayer. So, TV platforms are trying new things.
At the beginning of this year, the TV system that I subscribe to - a little Australian set-top-box called Fetch TV - added a new channel. It’s a true-crime channel called Oxygen, run by NBC Universal, and it’s on channel 101.
Oxygen is an interesting model - because it isn’t actually a television channel at all.
Sure, it looks like a television channel. It appears in the EPG alongside all the other television channels, and it has a broadcast schedule, too, 24-hours a day. If I flick through the channels in an evening, I’ll flick past Oxygen just like every other channel. You can watch it just like any other channel - you can watch a show, then the show finishes, then something else will start.
In fact, Oxygen is just a collection of on-demand TV shows. On the TV Guide, it exists as a virtual channel - the EPG slot there to promote the shows available on-demand. When you channel-surf into Oxygen, it isn’t giving you a live TV channel at all - in fact, the show conveniently starts at the beginning. It’s an on-demand service - not a live TV channel. Programming has been chosen based on how well it’ll perform as an on-demand product.
What could radio learn from this?
Imagine - you tune into the radio, and the first thing you hear is your favourite song. Followed by, yes, the live presenters (at least, recorded live five minutes ago). A radio station that gives you the travel at 8.20am and only at 8.20am, because that’s the time you’re just getting ready to drive into work. A radio station that has everything that makes great radio - presenters talking about the football last night, the ride into town today; but a radio station that has nothing that makes for bad radio - no poorly-targeted advertising, no overplaying of my favourite songs.
If we were to think of great music radio as a jigsaw, made from short pieces of on-demand audio content, rather than a live unalterable stream - what would that mean?
That “jigsaw” could be assembled just for me, on my mobile phone. And for you, on yours. And a version of that jigsaw also assembled for those listening on FM - with less of the personalisation, but otherwise should sound virtually identical.
Is the future for radio something which is devised as a collection of on-demand audio, assembled for each listener… and where the FM transmitter is just another listener?
Does radio need a bit of Oxygen?
Last year, Chris Evans was the presenter of the most listened-to breakfast show in Europe - The Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2.
The BBC earns most of its money from a television licence fee, currently US$195 or so, which households in the UK have to pay if they have a television. This licence fee (and the sale of programmes to other broadcasters) pays for the whole thing - so there are no commercials or sponsor credits on BBC Radio 2: it’s entirely commercial free, and perhaps that’s why 14.6m people tune in every week.
Of course, that’s not entirely true. The BBC does a very good job of promoting its own services. Were they to spend money on similar advertising elsewhere, that would be a very high bill indeed. So there is plenty of promotion of new BBC television shows, and plenty of breathless interviews with big BBC stars who often have something to plug. But that’s fine, and that’s not really “commercial messaging”.
Chris Evans left the BBC at the end of last year; and has just started presenting The Chris Evans Breakfast Show on Virgin Radio, arguably one of the smallest national radio stations in the country, with 414,000 listeners.
Virgin Radio (a trademark of Virgin, yes, but owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in the UK) is a commercial radio station: but the Chris Evans breakfast show is entirely commercial free. There’s not a single commercial in the entire three and a half hours.
Of course, that’s not entirely true, either. He’s sponsored by Sky, one of the UK’s largest TV broadcasters. There are occasional sponsor credits, but if the first show is anything to go by, there’ll be plenty of promotion of new Sky television shows, and plenty of breathless interviews with big Sky stars who often have something to plug. But there won’t be a single 30-second ad for washing powder, sausages, double-glazing, or anything else - “not for the first hundred years,” said Chris - presumably exaggerating slightly - in his first show.
It’s a canny move. If the only thing holding his previous audience back was the prospect of radio commercials, Virgin Radio have removed that objection. And why not.
In truth, the loss of commercial inventory from the breakfast show won’t damage the station much: it stands to considerably gain from the marketing and halo effect that its new big star will have.
When radio’s online competition has a much lighter ad-load, or no ads at all, it’s a clever move to work to rethink commercial radio’s revenue model. Good on Virgin Radio for giving that a go.
Try to listen to the new season of Fortunately, a podcast from the BBC, and you’ll be told you can’t.
It’s a show that BBC produces which never makes it on the radio. Instead, it follows the same genre as many podcasts do: two friends chatting over a coffee with a special guest. The “friends” in this case are Fi Glover and Jane Garvey, two broadcasters who share the same kind of humour; the podcast itself is recorded in the coffee shop in the “BBC Piazza”, the public space outside the BBC’s gleaming Broadcasting House in central London.
Last year, the BBC launched a new smartphone app. Called BBC Sounds, it contains bespoke content like this, as well as radio shows (on-demand and live), and some music mixes. Mistakenly, the app was launched before it had reached feature parity with its predecessor, BBC iPlayer Radio. It’s also not available outside the UK.
BBC Sounds requires listeners to register before they can listen, just like Spotify. This offers personalisation opportunities, one would assume; but it also means that some within the BBC have begun focusing on how to increase what is known in technology circles as the “MAU”, the number of Monthly Active Users, believing that this is a key performance indicator of the success of the app.
The drive for a higher MAU number isn’t, by itself, a bad thing. Along with measuring the overall time-in-app (which should similarly increase), it’s an important measure of how successful the app is.
However, it’s a fine line between encouraging listeners to use the app: and bullying them to. Which brings us back to Fortunately, which started a new season this week but you’ll not be able to listen to it on anything other than the BBC Sounds app. The podcast has been withdrawn from all other podcast apps, and replaced with a plaintive message that “we used to be here but we’re not here any more”.
Good business sense, you might be thinking: which is a valid point of view. Except: what business is the BBC actually in? Its core area of expertise is making great radio (and TV) shows. Further, its money comes - in the main - from the UK’s licence-fee payers, who have already paid for this programme to be made. The most important measure of success for the BBC, surely, is how many people consume and enjoy its programmes: and to that end, withdrawing programmes from other platforms is short-sighted.
There is a limit to how many apps people will install; and while pulling shows into your own walled garden might be a strategy for some, audiences should really be drawn to your app because it’s really good, it offers great recommendations, and works brilliantly. If you need to bully audiences to install a new app by taking things away from them that they’re already paying for anyway, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Tune in to many FM stations with RDS signals in France, Italy or the USA, and you’ll notice that some stations try putting some now-playing information over the 8-character radio station name. Watch, and it slowly scrolls through a song name, or - worse - some advertising. It’ll normally scroll once every two seconds, due to the way RDS works, so it scrolls really very slowly; and errors on transmission can mean you lose chunks of the data (and thus chunks of the name).
Worse, if you try saving a preset on your car radio, quite often it will store the name currently being transmitted; so there are vast amounts of cars on the road who think they’re listening to “PIZZA” or “RWAY TO HE”.
This doesn’t sound as if it’s a great user experience, because it isn’t. The broadcast regulator in some countries bans this - the UK is one of them. But, more to the point, it is explicitly not allowed under the RDS specification. “PS [‘Programme Service’] must only be used for identifying the programme service and it must not be used for other messages giving sequential information”, the RDS specification warns.
The advent of digital hasn’t fixed this, either.
In Denmark, if you turn on your DAB radio and try tuning around, you’ll notice something odd happening. Bauer have named all their stations starting with a “_” character, so “_Radio Soft”, “_myROCK” or “_Radio 100” are all together (at the bottom of the list), below every other station.
The thought, presumably, is to keep Bauer stations together. The reality is that listeners will only see “myROCK” appear below competitor “Rockkanalen”, and that means that this decision breaks everyone’s ability to tune in alphabetical order - making digital radio much more confusing for everyone. Being fair, the DAB specification only says that this name “shall identify the service”. But even so, where would we be if everyone did this? And why should a listener care - or know - who the overall owner is?
DAB+ in Australia is similarly broken. Travel to Brisbane in Australia (pop in for a coffee while you’re here) and you’ll notice one station on DAB called “1116 4BC” and another called “4BC1116 NewsTalk”. Both these stations are identical, but the owner of this station appears to be spamming every DAB radio set by getting two listings for the one station.
Once more, the DAB specification allows this - you can have more than one service listing pointing to the same subchannel. But this isn’t really very good behaviour. If everyone put two different names for the same station on the multiplex, where would we be then?
The internet, too, is a world of specifications that are barely followed. When submitting a podcast to iTunes, you’re asked for the name and author of a podcast. Of course, some people started adding all kinds of nonsense into the “author” field, to help them appear higher in searches. The nonsense has irritated Apple so much, they’re now kicking podcasts out of their listings who are just spamming keywords into podcasts. Apple cares about the user experience; and it seems some podcast providers just don’t. Good on Apple for saying enough’s enough.
So, I know it’s really very dull - but just occasionally it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves that standards and etiquette are there for a reason.
Will what you’re doing delight your audience? If you’re just wanting to irritate the audience, perhaps you’re in the wrong industry.
I’m swearing at my smart speakers a little this week.
I’ve a few Google speakers in the house, including a Google Home Hub - the one with a little screen on it. It’s great as a radio from my point of view, since it has a decent-ish speaker on it (better for voice than music, though). It’s good for radio, since it has a good big screen that contains a logo and the station’s name - to aid recall if anyone asks me what station I’m listening to.
I also have an Amazon Alexa, which at the moment is on my desk for testing things, but is normally outside.
I use these devices to listen to the radio, as well as to other things. It’s normally a simple job. “Listen to XXXXXX” normally works. Sometimes you have to ask it for “XXXXX on TuneIn” to give it a nudge that it’s a radio station.
“LIsten to ABC Radio Brisbane”, I ask it, and it dutifully tunes in.
“Listen to BBC Radio 2”, and it works just the same.
“Listen to 4ZZZ” however… not a chance.
4ZZZ is one of my local community radio stations. It plays a decent mix of music, has a wide variety of programmes, a decent local news service in the morning, and - all in all - is a lovely listen. When I can get the speakers to play it.
4ZZZ is pronounced “4 triple-zed” here in Australia, and that’s the incantation I’d like to give the speaker. It fails.
“4-zed-zed-zed” would be the most obvious next step. That doesn’t work either.
“4-zee-zee-zee” *does* work on the Google smart speakers. “OK,” the smooth-sounding australian Google voice says. “Tuning into 4-zed-zed-zed on TuneIn”. So it doesn’t understand 4-zed-zed-zed but says it as confirmation. OK.
And I still don’t understand how to do it with the Amazon Echo. I’ve asked Amazon support about it, since 4ZZZ is listed in TuneIn, and they responded agreeing it’s a problem and they’ve escalated it to a senior engineer. A month later, it looks as if it might work, though it responds “Playing 4Z” which isn’t, quite, right.
If you work for a radio station, pop down to your local electrical store and check how easy it is to get your station on a smart speaker using the default listen experience (without installing any ‘skills’). It might surprise you.
About 50% of all radio listening happens in the car (the figure’s lower in countries like the UK, but higher in places like the US).
In many ways, radio’s best in the car. Radio - the original multitasking medium - lets you concentrate enough to drive your 1,300kg (2,800 lb) metal death-machine along busy streets alongside soft, vulnerable fleshy pedestrians, while you enjoy an unfunny stunt from breakfast show presenters who are such awful people you’d never let them into your house.
Radio’s popularity in the car is clearly important to us as an industry. But the experience of a car radio hasn’t changed much since the original car radio in the 1950s. We have to remember two random numbers to listen to a radio station - a frequency and a preset number. Switching between FM, AM (and DAB) often changes the user experience entirely.
The experience for DAB is especially poor in most cars. My Toyota Prius (yes, I’m one of those) lists stations on DAB by service ID, not alphabetically; and lists ensembles separately.
In the US, HD2 stations offer usability issues in a car. If you want to listen to Bloomberg Radio in San Francisco, you need to tune to 103.7 FM, then wait a few seconds (no, really), then hit the ‘up’ button to find the HD2 signal. A triumph!
It’s good news, therefore, that someone’s trying to fix this on behalf of radio.
Radioplayer, the not-for-profit project that is now in many different countries including Canada, the UK and Germany, showed a research prototype last week in Berlin. It highlights how we in radio want the in-car experience to be.
Tuning is by station name, not by random frequency. Station names are announced by voice before the audio starts (good for your station’s brand awareness). Decent quality logos are on the screen while you listen. And, probably most importantly, there are no “band” buttons - if a station’s on FM, HD2, DAB or just the internet it gets equal prominence. The radio will even switch between FM and the internet if it needs to - and back again.
It’s just a reference design for now: but auto manufacturers already know how important a decent radio is in a car. Hopefully this will give them the information and the data they need to help make a better one.
This is important work for our future - and deserves our support.
Automation Killed The Radio Star, says the latest blog from Dick Taylor, a US radio writer.
Two things about this.
The first is the use of a lazy Buggles headline. Radio is still very much alive, with 9 out of 10 people in most large countries listening every week. Nothing has killed anything.
I collect lazy Buggles headlines. The song was, of course, the first song to be played by MTV, back in the days when it played music instead of vapid reality television shows. Amusingly, radio outlasted MTV.
Every time we repeat a “killed the radio star” headline, we reinforce the thought that radio is, in some way, in trouble. It isn’t. For parts of the US population, radio is more popular than television!
The other part of Dick’s blog post that I disagree with is the finger-pointing at technology - in this case, automation.
It takes people to use, or misuse, any form of technology. Technology, by itself, isn’t capable of being good or bad.
The postal service is not a bad thing, just because occasionally people send bad things through it, after all.
Automation is capable of getting the best out of your programming. It’s capable of a warm friendly voice overnight, instead of a tone or piped-in programming from the other side of the world.
Automation is capable of polish and tweaks that were impossible in the age of cart machines and turntables.
Poor automation is poor radio, granted - but we’d be foolish to claim that all automation is poor.
New technology, used well, has the potential of delighting our audience, and out of that, bringing ratings and revenue. Used badly, it can have the opposite effect.
But, as is hopefully relatively clear, I’m a fan of what new technology can bring to radio. Including automation.
If anything killed the radio star, it’s the humans who used automation badly. Perhaps radio needs less of those types of humans.
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