Brenner Emphasizes ‘Innovation’ Over ‘Legacy’
Paul Brenner is the recipient of Radio World’s 2012 Excellence
in Engineering Award. For this honor we choose individuals who represent the
highest ideals of the U.S. radio broadcast engineering profession and reflect
those ideals through contributions to the industry.
is senior vice president and chief technology officer for Emmis Communications.
He also is president of the Broadcaster Traffic Consortium, of which Emmis was
a founding member.
For us, Brenner embodies the evolving
nature of radio engineering and technical management. He’s not only technical
(indeed, a self-described geek), but he’s also entrepreneurial, business-savvy,
wise to the ways of promotion and eager to help radio find new ways of doing
Longtime readers know my belief that radio’s
technical leaders must earn “a place at the table” with the CEOs and GMs who
chart our industry course. Paul Brenner — like many of our past honorees such
as Mike Starling, Gary Kline and Jeff Littlejohn — definitely has the ear of
upper management, and not only within his own company.
WHAT’S NEXT IS NEXTRADIO
Brenner’s labor in the area of smartphones is one
big reason for this award.
Right now he and Emmis
Communications are promoting their NextRadio app to the wireless industry. It
is a receiver application for FM- and HD Radio-enabled smartphones that allows
a user to listen to local radio without using the data plan for streaming, yet
it takes advantage of the data channel to add interactivity. It was funded in
part by NAB Labs and is in final beta testing in preparation for a launch on
several smartphones and carrier networks.
“We walk into
carriers and pitch it,” he told me. “It takes me five minutes to get some of
the most technologically innovative people to say, ‘Radio is innovative again.
You’ve married the open mic with a device that someone looks at 40 to 50 times
Brenner hopes leaders in radio will come to
see that big deals with the carrier industry to get FM radio into smartphones
is crucial to radio’s long-term viability.
to mean money, it’s going to mean investment,” he says. But radio organizations
should not forget the value of their analog FM spectrum too. He’d like to see
our industry spend less time on debates over things like Internet royalties,
and focus more on radio’s “secret value” — marrying its over-the-air product
with the interactive angle. Wireless executives, Brenner insists, understand
this value and are ready to respond to it.
agreed with my assessment that getting cell carriers to turn on FM in their
phones has been “a slog.” His boss, Emmis Chairman, President and CEO Jeff
Smulyan, has been focused on that goal for some four years. But Brenner
believes the path Emmis is taking is the correct one.
spent a lot of time as an industry arguing with the wireless industry on a
regulatory basis and on a scale basis, [telling them] ‘we have 275 millions of
listeners, we do public service, our on-air inventory is powerful, we provide
EAS.’ That was the tack for so long.”
Often, carmakers, handset manufacturers and Internet software
firms see radio as a “legacy business,” a medium with good listenership that is
cheap to build products for, but one that does not bring them growth.
“As a legacy business you really have to demonstrate
innovation to get their attention. The wireless industry looks at us and says,
‘You’re trying to ride on our backs. That’s not the way this world works.’”
Smulyan and Brenner prefer a different path, one in which
radio approaches the wireless companies with the goal of being an innovative
partner and supplier.
The NextRadio app fits with that
philosophy, he said.
“It took me 10 minutes to get my
first handset maker to say, ‘Hey let’s build our first NextRadio smartphones
next year.’ We’re seeing good progress. We are at that tipping point.” (Look
for an announcement on that development soon.)
MONEY IN THE DIGITAL PIPELINE
Meantime, the Broadcaster Traffic Consortium
is now six years old, and “we’re growing like pre-IPO Groupon,” he said with a
laugh. “It’s like somebody lit a fire.”
The independent consortium consists of broadcast groups that
connected their infrastructure to create a North American network to distribute
data via terrestrial FM and HD Radio signals. The Nokia Location and Commerce
division provides the data about traffic, weather and fuel prices.
At inception, the consortium consisted of eight groups and
about 100 stations in 50 cities. It currently has 20 commercial and noncommercial
radio organizations representing about 1,500 FM stations, more than half of
them digital, and now close to 200 stations active in approximately 90 markets in
the United States and Canada.
BTC is in the third phase
of growth. In fact Brenner told me the consortium has just agreed to expand
again, up to 24 radio groups by the middle of next year, and covering more than
100 cities. “We are responding to device and automaker demands for more HD
Radio coverage and preparing for more product releases in 2013. More market
coverage means more unit sales.”
Thus the data
capabilities of radio, Brenner said, are being converted into revenue for BTC
members every day.
For a broadcaster, BTC is a cloud-based service, designed as SaaS
(software as a service), so it involves minimal work for the station. (“Stay on
the air, that’s all I ask,” Brenner says.)
RDS is part
of that; but the BTC is, explicitly, an “HD Radio data distribution consortium
business model,” and one of its stated goals is to unify the industry for
delivery of HD data services.
“We’re showing that HD
Radio is beating satellite and mobile broadband in a very specific business,”
Brenner said, and he feels the pitch is working. At a recent Detroit conference
for suppliers of location-based services to automakers, he said, device maker
Garmin gave HD Radio a very public endorsement for its ability to deliver data
to the dashboard. HD Radio was ranked as the best technology for mass market
content such as traffic and weather.
When a device that
features Nokia content via HD Radio is sold, BTC gets a share of the license
fee that Nokia charges the customer for content. Nokia licenses dynamic content
to device makers and automakers, and BTC gets a cut for providing HD Radio
coverage for distribution.
“More manufacturers are
choosing HD Radio for data. … Garmin was all RDS before; now they have six HD
products, and they’re working to make all their portable nav devices based on
HD Radio. That could be worth up to 2 million units a year.” All told, he said,
there are about 12 million devices in the market relying on BTC-delivered
signals, a number that is growing by approximately 1 to 2 million devices a
“The founding members didn’t do this for money,”
he continued. “They did it to make HD Radio something that would compete more
successfully with satellite.” And he thinks we’ll see a notable development in
that area soon.
“Next year, it’s very likely that
certain cars will have satellite telematics removed and HD Radio will replace
it — a ginormous strategic win for
radio, taking away satellite telematics subscribers.” And another win for HD
Radio as a data delivery platform.
THE LONG VIEW
Brenner has said he takes a “long view” of broadcasting. I
asked what he meant.
“There are a lot of people in the industry who
do very well by being the best on-air broadcasters they can be. They fight for
localism and ratings,” he replied.
“The short view is
to keep operating radio the way you are, and take the risks that all the things
that evolve around you dissolve away your success. For me the long view is [to
ask], what are the evolutions of the world around us and how do we fit into
Thankfully for Brenner, he works for an
executive who seems to think the same way.
tells me don’t do anything that takes advantage of your brethren. Do things
that benefit your industry. … Jeff loves entrepreneurial people. I learned a
long time ago that if I was going to get a seat at the executive table, I had
to bring entrepreneurial ideas. He expects the traditional technology
expertise; but you have to step beyond that. ‘Bring me ideas that show growth
potential. Don’t [just] be a cost center.’”
work, Brenner now also enjoys relationships with other industry executives like
Bruce Reese, Peter Smyth, Ginny Morris, Caroline Beasley, Doug Franklin, Dan
Mason and David Field, among others.
“I have to be able
to step into that arena. I have to talk like a business person. Our entire
industry needs to do that. … There needs to be a lot more time spent on things
that have nothing to do with ‘traditional engineering.’ It’s not just keeping
the systems on the air every day. Let’s talk about apps, let’s talk about
software. … What is the technology you have that fits into where the world is
is 44 and lives in Indianapolis with his wife Carly and daughter. In addition
to the work described above, he also served on the FCC Communications Security,
Reliability and Interoperability Council body that wrote rules for new EAS CAP
standards. He is active on the NAB Radio Technology Committee as well as the
National Radio Systems Committee.
productive relationships with the wireless industry, for innovating in digital
data distribution, for leading a consortium of competitors to business and
technology success, Paul Brenner is our recipient of the Radio World Excellence
in Engineering Award.
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