Three years ago, the hot buzzword in media was “convergence.” This referred not only to the assault of unending media from the cable and phone companies but also the convergence of mobile technology.
While the promised convergence has taken place to an extent, it certainly hasn’t expanded the platform for broadcast radio. This is puzzling because IP radio, even over a 3G network, can deliver world-class audio better than most iPod downloads or even IBOC feeds.
So why hasn’t broadcast radio, the largest audio content provider in the United States, taken advantage of the opportunity to expand its platform? This also is puzzling, especially regarding the potential of the new mobile 3G market.
According to the major carriers expanding their 3G networks, the 3G phones are flying off the shelf, far outselling HD Radios. Seventy percent of all the new cars being sold in 2007 have auxiliary audio input capability, including everyday Fords, Chevys, Dodges, Hondas and Toyotas. Internet radio listenership in the work environment has skyrocketed, so the ability of audiences to continue to listen to their favorite stations while commuting home should be a given.
Why aren’t people listening to their favorite broadcast stations on their mobile phones? Is this unique to broadcast radio or IP radio overall? Will the iPhone change that?
On the surface all the pieces are in place. It should be happening but it isn’t, the primary reason being poor audio quality. With regard to 3G mobile streaming, there is a total lack of promotion on the part of the carriers and the streamers themselves.
Add a social phenomenon that is unique to the United States and things start to get clearer.
(click thumbnail)The graph shows transparency compared to PCM linear audio. Since most streams are MP3 or WMA they are in fact some of the most inefficient. 48kbs, actually closer to 40 kbs, is close to what a lot of stations are using with the MP3 or WMP. In order to make 48 sound better, sampling rate is reduced, resulting in poor quality audio with a bandwidth cost that is the same or higher than the highest-quality stream.The quality
Quality is important as more and more people get online and take advantage of the variety available on the Internet.
In radio, there is a strong correlation between high audience numbers and audio quality. Radio broadcasters in particular seem to be concerned about a potential audience’s ability to hear the station with a dialup modem, whereas Internet-only stations typically will provide a choice. If they don’t, they will opt for higher bandwidth, more efficient codecs or a combination of both to provide a fairly high-quality sound.
While some of the major groups have posted significant numbers for their Web streams, one has to look at the number of stations being streamed and then compare those numbers to successful IP-only stations that typically offer no more than five or 10 channels, not including custom playlist services.
Major-market broadcast group CEOs announce they have an Internet strategy, yet their streaming audio quality is just awful. How can one have a strategy that doesn’t have a viable product? Savvy broadcasters use their audio stream to further promote their overall product.
This phenomenon seems limited to radio broadcasters who evidently do not want their streams to compete with their broadcast signal. The strategy of most broadcasters is to use a codec that reaches the most players, especially in the office environment where downloaded players or plug-ins may not be allowed.
Then they make sure that they can reach dialup clients as well, so they cut the combined audio and data bit rate to 40 kbps or less, which adds “phasey” artifacts while compromising audio bandwidth and stereo imaging. Some stations even stream in mono! And I haven’t even addressed the crummy ad insertion and sound effects that go along with some of these “strategies.”
This sounds bad on PC speakers and worse on cell phones. I’ve talked to engineers at some broadcast groups who are committed to quality and who don’t like what they are putting out, but corporate strategy is to minimize cost while bringing in residual revenue, using the stream as a promotional tool for the station instead of making it a viable product that can generate self-supporting revenue.
I am not promoting any type of codec here because they all sound great if operated at their “sweet spot.” Instead, this is about quality, plain and simple, because broadcasters are competing against netcasts and podcasts that sound very good.
These originate not just from Internet-only streamers but also from podcasters that target millions of iPods and other portable media players. Broadcasters are not promoting their stations by sounding bad. The revenue will never do more than “cover cost.”
If broadcasters are to maximize their investment as content providers, they are going to have to think differently, taking full advantage of the audio quality the Internet can provide. In doing so, they also cross-promote the station’s other transmission platforms. As long as a station’s strategy is based on minimizing costs, the full potential of the Internet as a revenue platform will be minimized too.
In fact, many people who listen to Internet radio are passionate about it. They don’t use dialup; they use broadband. These days, people without broadband aren’t interested in streaming or they’d have more than a dialup. People who listen to the Internet don’t mind getting the player that will get them the quality stations they want. Listeners not using Windows Media can overcome port 80 issues.
With WiFi, WiMax, 3G, IP and more, Internet radio can deliver what HD Radio promises, but with millions of receivers already on the market. Internet radio is radio with no geographic limits — radio that can be taken anywhere there is Internet service. For many small- and medium-market broadcasters who are balking at the HD fees, Internet radio could be seen as an HD alternative as long as it delivers HD or better quality.
Phone carriers don’t want netcasters to stream. The carriers want their customers to buy content at a premium and at the carriers’ convenience, so podcasts or downloads are what it is all about. That is where carriers want the business and that is where they point the promotion.
The reason is simple: bandwidth. Downloads can go at any speed. They can be time-shifted to low usage times. Live streams are a different story.
The real mind-boggler is this: The streams and live content that carriers promote not only sound horrible but use some of the most inefficient codecs on the market today. The balance sheet says they can only justify the content if it is spread over many phones. Instead of the lack of quality perceived by the listener and the impact that the codec’s efficiency will have on the entire network, the compromises of the past drive the technology.
Again, the potential for quality is there; it is just not being addressed. Content of all sorts just isn’t making it (except porn, of course). The recent failure of both ESPN and Amp’d, both content-rich MVNOs, highlight the surprising lack of interest in content on 3G phones.
Surprising also is that this is really limited to the United States, which points to the real problem regarding 3G media services — all of them, not just live streaming.
Sure, why not? It seems to be a good time to point the blame for just about everything on the politicians.
The United States is virtually the only developed country that still allows cell phone use, even texting, while driving. People are too busy using their phones for photos, texting and calls to be using them for entertainment. That is what they have their iPods for, and if they plug their 3G phones into the car it will mean they have to unplug their iPods. Unless the user knows some really good stations, the iPod is going to win the quality war.
So the bottom line is that the same carriers who are dumping a bunch of money into content that isn’t selling also are dumping a bunch of money into lobbyists to help make sure the idiot in back of you in the Hummer has to right to text whomever, whenever. Of course this means they don’t buy content.
That being said, we now have the promise of a phone scheme that is based on content first and the phone second: the Apple iPhone.
While the iPhone will undoubtedly change the picture with regard to mobile content, it is not the revolution that many had hoped it would be. The iPhone’s dependence on a dated 2.5G network was a concern at first. However, one realizes when looking at the actual capabilities of the phone that like the rest of the mobile industry, this model is based on podcasts or downloads. Unlike the 3G phones that allow streaming, the iPhone does not.
So on the surface, it appears that the iPhone will not supply the kick needed by streamers wanting to take advantage of what should be a great market and platform. In reality, the iPhone may still provide the necessary push because it has spurred competitive products from the traditional phone manufacturers and competing carriers. That competitive product will be based on 3G and that does include streaming, so there is hope.
Broadcast radio, for the most part, has never really understood the Internet. Instead of using the platform as an extension of the programming, radio broadcasters use it to promote their primary delivery platform. The difference between the two is the difference between delivering a high-quality product to the end-user, regardless of medium, vs. attempting to get people to listen to the broadcast station by playing an inferior product over the Internet. This is akin to promoting steak by serving Spam.
If a group’s “Internet strategy” is based only on minimizing cost, this strategy cannot compete with the Internet broadcasters who are serious about their audio. Competition always will defeat those who don’t compete. If you are streaming, compare your product to the Internet-only stations that you’re competing against. They will start taking broadcasters’ ad dollars away only if broadcasters let them.
Check out some of the “better” stations, including iTunes.com, Tuner2.com and Shoutcast.com. If you’ve got a true 3G phone go to m.tuner2.com. There are a lot of places to look, but take the time and compare your stream to others. Dispassionately evaluate the content and audio quality of your station’s streams. Are you delivering a product that people want to hear?
It is logical for radio to take advantage of the additional platforms that the Internet provides. The Internet is nothing more than a means for broadcasters to extend their presence, keeping listeners who are on the move or on the road.
There are no additional fees for quality. Depending on which codec used, improving quality may not even require more bandwidth, unless of course people actually start listening to you because you sound “good.” At that point, you might even be able to get some real ad dollars and not just leftover auction revenue. It’s there for the taking, but only if you’ve really got a quality product outside your primary platform. Sadly, most broadcasters don’t.
Broadcasters have to understand that the Internet is much more than a promotional vehicle. The potential that the 3G network holds, even without carrier support, is staggering. All it will take is a commitment by the broadcasters to the technology.
Broadcasters are spending a good deal of money promoting HD. Why not hedge the investment by promoting the additional platforms that are available to your listeners? Unlike HD’s inability to compete with satellite radio in the new car market, 3G holds the potential of actually allowing a station to start cashing in on both the primary and supplemental channels that have been developed.
Increased use of hands-free technology and auxiliary audio/data I/Os in automobiles will continue to simplify the use of the multi-media handsets that are continually emerging. With the proper promotion, listeners can be made aware of how to listen to your content everywhere and will actually want to.
No matter what happens with the iPhone, CRB or just about anything else IP-related, the Internet is here to stay and so are those who want to deliver live media. If you want to be in those offices and on those phones, and get the ad dollars that will be associated with those streams, you need a quality product that goes well beyond programming.
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