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Brenner Emphasizes ‘Innovation’ Over ‘Legacy’

Paul Brenner believes radio can be innovative again when it pairs its open mic with the smartphone

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.

Brenner 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 things.

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.

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 a day.’”

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.

“It’s going 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.

Brenner 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.

“We 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.)

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 year.

“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.

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 those?”

Thankfully for Brenner, he works for an executive who seems to think the same way.

“Smulyan 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.’”

Through his 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 going?”

Brenner 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.

For encouraging 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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