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Radio, at Your Service

Third-party operators may help radio succeed in new business ventures

In the Nov. 4 issue we considered how the convergence of radio and Internet might work, given the expected growth in devices that connect both media, essentially for the first time.

Now let’s look at the possible third parties that might rise to the occasion and help broadcasters benefit from this and other anticipated trends.

Again, the idea is not wholly new. There have been precedents for these kinds of partnerships in the television environment, and even some early work in the radio space on similar processes, but recent developments (like tagging) have spurred the concept to new levels of awareness and interest.

To assist our discussion, let’s explain the basics and define some terms.

The premise begins simply, with a broadcaster’s transmission of data generated by another party. Such “datacasting” also is an old idea, as in the paging and other services that FM stations long have transmitted via their subcarriers. What’s different here is that this third-party data is program-associated. In other words, it’s a “hybrid” datacast model, where data generated by others references the station’s own program content.

For example, the tagging process described last time includes data from a third party that is generated in response to the song a station is currently playing, which the station then transmits via its RDS and/or HD Radio datacast channel(s). Thus externally produced data is synchronized to the station’s internally generated content — a truly new mechanism, provided by an entity that we’ll call a “Service Bureau.”

Of course, tagging is only one of many features that such an arrangement would allow. Let’s explore them.

A little help

The Service Bureau concept allows a station to extend the value of its own signal’s distribution and/or content with little or no extra effort on the station’s part.

In the case of tagging, the station’s playlist and audience are leveraged to help a music store sell its product, and the station benefits with a commission on the sale. Yet the station did nothing to engage the transaction beyond initially setting up a deal with a Service Bureau and then going about its normal broadcast processes. The Service Bureau takes care of all the other connections and work that enable the transactions.

Another existing example is “title and artist scrubbing,” by which a Service Bureau simply verifies the spelling and formatting of the now-playing data from a station’s music playout system and transcodes it as necessary for proper presentation on multiple platforms (e.g., RDS-PS, RDS-RT+, HD Radio PSD, a station’s Web site text window, streaming media player metadata, etc.).

This illustrates another value of the Service Bureau in that it can provide content for any number of service platforms or distribution channels, whether they are transmitted by the station (e.g., via RDS) or not (e.g., via the Internet), and at no additional encumbrance to the station.

Moreover, the Service Bureau can continue to research new options in this regard — perhaps even influencing their development on broadcasters’ behalf — and quickly add them to the suite of distribution services when mature and appropriate.

In this respect, the Service Bureau is like a publicity agent for the station, continually seeking out venues to spread the word for its client, while the client concentrates on maintaining and developing its traditional business.

Where the Service Bureau idea really earns its keep is in aggregation. Beyond handling multiple output streams and formats as just described, there may be cases where the Service Bureau also manages several “input” services and puts them together in optimum fashion for the station’s benefit.

An early example of this is found in tagging, where a single Service Bureau can manage and insert tags for its client stations from multiple online music stores. Again, the station sets up a one-time deal with a single third party, and the Service Bureau takes it from there.

Metaphorically, the Service Bureau acts like the center point in the hourglass, where all the grains of data “sand” must pass on their way from the source domain above to the user domain below. This enables easy and ongoing abstraction of the broadcaster’s content and/or delivery value to other entities via the Service Bureau’s engagement.

By the way, we’ve been considering the Service Bureau as a true third-party operator, but for a large enough collection of stations, the group might instead set up its own internal Service Bureau that provides such processes for its members.

Thinking ahead

Beyond these applications, there are other, more forward-looking opportunities that a Service Bureau model offers. Consider that a given Service Bureau likely would have arrangements with many stations, both within a single market and around the country. These established relationships would allow the development of collective applications, whereby a group of separate but cooperating stations could act in an aggregated fashion through a Service Bureau for their mutual benefit. Again, each station would need to deal only with the Service Bureau, and the Bureau could identify and pursue such affinity-based opportunities on all stations’ behalf.

One example we’ve discussed previously involves the creation of a collective electronic program guide (EPG). Here the Service Bureau collects schedule and other data from radio stations in a given market, and delivers it back to “bearer” stations in that market (i.e., those who might transmit the data via an HD Radio EPG format currently under development) in an appropriately aggregated form. The Bureau can also provide EPG data back to stations or others who wanted to include it in their web content.

Further, the Bureau could manage, host and appropriately filter the collective EPG data for online presentation to any Web browser anywhere, or — even more interestingly — to the “connected radios” (i.e., broadcast radio + wireless Web browser on the same device) we discussed in the last issue.

This cooperative (or “co-opetitive”) approach would provide something new to the broadcast sphere, allowing a many-to-many model to emerge in a world that previously has existed as an archetypal, one-to-many environment.

Finally, as the Service Bureau modality proliferates, any given station could engage with multiple Bureaus to provide a rich and diverse set of new capabilities, all with low incremental burden to station operations.

Doing business with properly designed Service Bureaus could amplify the value of radio stations’ content creation and audience-delivery assets. These concepts exemplify the next steps and new connections that radio broadcasters will need to implement if they are to flourish in a new-media world.

Skip Pizzi is contributing editor of Radio World. Follow him on Twitter