It's Radio, Jim, But Not as We Know It

The Divergent Paths Open to Broadcasters Could Make the Future a Very Different Place
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The Divergent Paths Open to Broadcasters Could Make the Future a Very Different Place

It's an exciting time for radio, with lots of activity in many different directions. The celebrated cover story of a recent edition of Wired magazine cited "The End of Radio (As We Know It)," presenting numerous new formats as potential successors.

As in other transitions, there seems to be two schools of thought to radio's evolution: incremental and disruptive. The transition to HD-Radio - and for the most part, to satellite radio as well - seem to represent the incremental approach, while the disruptive element includes all of the truly new delivery forms, generally characterized of late under the "podcasting" label, but extending beyond this, especially as time goes on.

What is often lost in these binary comparisons is the point that both models can and often do coexist in such evolutions. Eventually one form may dominate, but this may take a long time, particularly when the installed legacy base is as substantial as AM/FM radio's. The most likely scenario in the near- to mid-term, therefore, is a straddling of the fence by audiences, so broadcasters need to keep a foot in both camps.

Diversity or dilution?

That may be easier said than done, however. Consider that while it's expected that emerging platforms will be quite volatile in their early days, requiring frequent recalibration of their worth, radio's legacy environment is also experiencing substantial incremental transition at the same time.

So today, broadcasters are faced with the challenge of managing both incremental and disruptive change simultaneously. Given funding constraints placed on all technological ventures, there is serious risk of either spreading one's investments too thin by so broadly hedging bets, or missing the boat by focusing strongly on what turns out to be the wrong direction.

Nevertheless, the roster of items to watch continues to expand. On the legacy side, broadcasters face the IBOC transition in the United States, and the DAB transition elsewhere. The latter is experiencing a second wave with updates to the format now being finalized, and a compatible extension called Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB) coming online in some regions. Meanwhile, the DVB-H and DRM formats slowly are moving forward in both domestic and international environs, as well.

All of these designs start from a base of existing broadcast facilities and operators, be they AM/MW/SW, FM or TV, with an eye toward moving these incumbents into their next generation.

Stretching legacy's legs

Yet a point often lost when evaluating these options is that if such formats are intended as legacy extenders, just how much extension can they provide? We're already seeing how the Eureka 147 DAB and DVB-T formats allowed backward-compatible extensibility to accommodate DMB and DVB-H respectively (along with other incremental additions to DAB for electronic program guides, enhanced error correction for advanced codecs and datacasting, subscription radio and more). Will HD Radio have similar extensibility, or is it a one-trick pony? Any new format must be examined not just for what it can do today, but how it will fare over the long term.

HD Radio's primary extensibility feature is its ability to move from hybrid analog-digital to all-digital mode, which is valuable from a long-term transitional perspective, but also intrinsically involves the ultimate loss of backward compatibility. It is hard to imagine FM analog (or even complete AM analog) broadcasting's shutdown, so the value of such extensibility is somewhat dubious. Nevertheless, its ability to be done on an individualized basis by each station on its own schedule - and the inclusion of an interim Extended Hybrid mode for FM - provide good potential flexibility for the industry.

An unanswered question in this area involves how any other HD Radio extensibility issues will be managed, however, given the unique single-vendor control that Ibiquity Digital wields on the format. Will the NRSC continue to be a venue for such updates, as the WorldDAB Forum has done for Eu-147/DAB (taking over management of the format from its original developer, the Eureka Consortium)? And what if other countries besides the U.S. adopt HD Radio, as recent Ibiquity action at the ITU seems to portend? Will the format retain uniformity or compatibility with U.S. HD-Radio receivers?

Finally, the largest open issue in the legacy world is what will happen in the datacasting space. Will HD Radio datacasting be just another lukewarm success like RBDS, or a largely unfulfilled promise, like SCA data? Or will it open wide new service and revenue opportunities to broadcasters, perhaps even serving as a bridge to new media delivery (e.g., audio file downloads via "tricklecast")?

Jumping the fence

Then there's the other side of the equation, where wholly new forms of content distribution are emerging, as we've discussed in several recent columns. The good news here is that broadcasters don't have to develop and maintain the delivery pipelines, but the bad news is that they don't control those pipes, either.

This can be a workable tradeoff, however, especially given broadcasters' continued retention of their exclusive rights to scarce legacy channels all the while. Broadcasters may not own and operate the new media delivery systems, but they can pretty well manage their audiences' transition to it via careful cross-promotional and service-package differentiation efforts.

It's important to grasp how formidable this onslaught of new offerings vying for listeners' attention may be. What we've already seen - from iTunes to podcasting - is likely just the tip of the iceberg, with a wide range of brand-new offerings taking shape just beyond the public horizon at present. These next-gen service launches will likely proliferate with numbing frequency over the next year or so, creating a bubble that will eventually burst, or at least shrink, in the years beyond. Where radio will take its eventual place in the consumer preference map after this cycle settles is a key consideration, and one which several leading-edge broadcasters are already taking steps to optimize.

Perhaps most interesting to contemplate today is the form that some new end-user devices will take. There is much discussion at present on the "converged receiver," most likely a wireless phone + digital radio. This is a rich target that broadcasters could address from both service directions. More on such a world next time.

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It’s Radio, Jim, But Not as We Know It

Who would dare predict the future in print? Nostradamus for one. And me. I predict that analog FM and AM radio will appear a pretty thin offering in 10 years’ time when compared to other media and delivery platforms emerging now and yet to come.