The author of this commentary is with The Car.SW Org, a software subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group. He is a former radio and media development engineer at Audi AG and is a steering board member for hybrid radio standardization organization RadioDNS.
Three years after the successful launch of hybrid radio in Europe, Audi is offering this new feature in most of its 2021 vehicles, including models available in North America.
Innovation — what Audi calls “Vorsprung durch Technik” — is an ongoing part of development in the automotive industry. The challenge is always to keep pace with trends and technological advances.
However, it’s unusual that such innovations involve the car radio, which many drivers take for granted — a feature that is “just there,” like the steering wheel.
Hybrid radio is a new innovative feature that is helping radio to stay relevant in the highly competitive entertainment world in the connected car.
In 2012, I wrote my master thesis about hybrid radio for Audi Electronics Venture GmbH, the pre-development department for Audi AG. I spent a whole chapter defining what hybrid radio is.
The term is often used the wrong way — for example to sell kitchen radios that have more than one reception method. Is it a hybrid radio because it is equipped with an FM and DAB tuner and you have to press a source button to switch between modes? To me, hybrid means that both reception methods need to work together somehow. With just two modules inside this is not the case; the kitchen radios in question did not even manage to provide a shared preset list.
Therefore, I argue that hybrid radio is about merging at least two worlds in order to create a better user experience. Back in 2012, the fundamental idea was to combine a conventional broadcast radio with the upcoming internet connectivity in connected cars. This was the next logical step after my colleagues had developed a unified station list with the combination of FM radio and DAB radio together.
The use case of switching seamlessly from broadcast radio to the online stream when the car leaves the reception area evolved into the main feature of hybrid radio.
Metadata is key
In recent years, display resolutions of in-car infotainment systems and the screen itself increased in size. While an FM radio usually shows a frequency and an eight-character RDS name, the hybrid radio uses the whole screen area to display station metadata, e.g. station logos, that it receives via online connection.
In this way hybrid radio got a more modern, contemporary and appealing look. RadioDNS standardizes how to receive station metadata, and this helps developers to get an easier access to longer station names and online logos (see https://radiodns.org/technical/documentation/ for more about this).
The key to a good hybrid radio experience is metadata. Audi, as a longtime member of RadioDNS, regards the latter’s open approach as the easiest way to support hybrid radio.
Together with RadioDNS, Radioplayer and a few German broadcasters, we wanted to solve the so-called chicken–and-egg problem. They made sure that we can receive the data via RadioDNS or the Worldwide Radioplayer API (WRAPI), while Audi, for its part, developed the first in-car hybrid radio for the European version of the Audi A8 in 2017.
The main feature of the Audi MMI infotainment system is “hybrid radio seamless linking,” which enables the radio to switch from broadcast radio to the internet stream and vice versa whenever necessary, using Fraunhofer Sonamic time scaling technology . Seamless switching works best when the delay between the broadcast radio signal and the online stream is below 15 seconds. The majority of stations in Europe are even below 10 seconds. Support of up-to-date online station logos is an additional feature.
With the premiere of the Audi A7 in 2018, we introduced the feature “automatic radio song identification” to Audi customers, providing answers to the recurring question, “What’s that song?”
Now, the artist and song title of the currently playing song appear on the display along with album art. Needless to say, that process happens in the background so that customers do not even have to press a button to identify a song.
Our automotive partner Gracenote helped us to develop the technology behind it.
After launching, we received very positive feedback from the industry as well as major European markets, extending their coverage of RadioDNS metadata from almost zero to 80% in only three years.
The biggest driving force that enables many stations for hybrid radio is Radioplayer Worldwide. Almost all car lines from the Audi A1 to A8 and the Audi Q3 to Q8 followed the pioneers A8 and A7 and eventually introduced hybrid radio.
Additional brands within the Volkswagen Group added hybrid radio to their models as well. For example, VW brought it onto the market with the Touareg in 2018 and Porsche with the Cayenne and Taycan.
Coming to America
It has always been one of our priorities to launch hybrid radio in the U.S. and Canadian markets.
From a technical point of view, many of the challenges were solved with the European release; we only needed to adapt our seamless linking engine to cooperate with HD Radio.
However, we needed support from the U.S. and Canadian radio industry. Without them offering station data in the RadioDNS service information format, hybrid radio would not be possible.
We presented hybrid radio to the industry at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in 2018 and 2019, as well as at the fall Radio Show in 2018. This year, I participated at the NAB Show 2020 Express and showed radio stations how important hybrid radio is for them.
The connected car offers many entertainment options beyond broadcast radio, such as streaming, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto or SiriusXM with 360L. In the past, these entertainment options were difficult to use and not as convenient as radio; they were not even the standard equipment.
Today, the connected car makes it easier to use these entertainment options. It allows an app-like experience with additional features, such as voice input. Over the radio, customers can select from a variety of streaming audio services that provide unlimited content.
Hybrid radio is helping to create new business opportunities for broadcasters because it ensures that radio has its place in the connected car of the future.
Here is a list of reasons why broadcasters should use hybrid radio, excerpted from my presentation for the NAB Show Express 2020:
- Extending the coverage area for your station
- Listeners stay longer on the station, even if they leave the reception area
- Seamless linking experience helps when the FM signal is distorted
- Analytics from streaming radio sessions
- By tracking the user agent during hybrid radio streaming, the session lengths can be a good index of how good the broadcast coverage is
- For example, short sessions can indicate that the core reception may have issues in some areas where the signal is not strong enough, the consequence being that a customer would most likely switch the station
- Shaping the radio brand in the dashboard of the car
- Radio can be visually on par with streaming services again
- Metadata is an enabler of possible future functionalities such as easy access to the podcasts of the playing station
I am delighted to note that upcoming 2021 Audi models with hybrid radio are on sale now in the U.S. and Canada. iHeartMedia will provide RadioDNS support for hybrid radio in Audi cars. In addition, Radioplayer Canada supports us with data from more than 350 Canadian radio stations.
I am looking forward to seeing more stations offer hybrid radio data in the RadioDNS service information format so that customers can enjoy a great radio experience in their new Audi vehicles.
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