Radio's Royal Family Redux

You've no doubt heard the familiar refrain “Content is king,” which has become a touchstone of ultimate truth in the digital media world.
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You've no doubt heard the familiar refrain “Content is king,” which has become a touchstone of ultimate truth in the digital media world. A related and increasingly cited reference holds that “If content is truly king, then Metadata is its queen.” All gender-based aspersions aside, it's time for everyone in radio to accept the fact that broadcasting now includes two important content types: audio (most important) and program-associated metadata (almost as important).

This has always been true for radio, but the latter used to be simply presented via spoken word of the host/presenter/DJ. What's new is the need to provide this data continuously and synchronously via an auxiliary, typically text-based display. This is essential for terrestrial radio given that it has become a typical feature of competing services, such as satellite radio and MP3 players.

When applied to the typical music radio service, this metadata includes song title, artist and (sometimes) album or other data, all of which adds considerable value to a listener using radio for music discovery. The addition of this metadata may even make the difference between such a listener tuning in to a station or not, so its importance cannot be discounted, and it will likely become increasingly critical.

Quick returns

Interestingly, this value is not necessarily dependent on the success of digital terrestrial broadcasting. As IBOC is deployed, analog FM broadcasting is concurrently experiencing its own subtle renaissance through the maturing of RBDS as a useful and increasingly available metadata service. While always envisioned as useful, the current value and full importance of music metadata via RBDS to terrestrial radio services in today's competitive context could never have been imagined.

So rather than being a highly prospective investment, with dubious and possibly quite long-term ROI (like IBOC), the implementation of music metadata transmission over analog FM services can provide quick returns. Meanwhile, the timing and current availability of funding for a station's digital transition can be leveraged to do the work necessary to provide an elegant, automated method of metadata provision, to be applied to both IBOC and analog FM services by terrestrial broadcasters (more on this below).

Note also that today's radio receivers are changing the way in which this content is displayed — even over analog FM. Beyond the traditional eight-character LED text displays to which we've become accustomed, RBDS data is now being presented on graphical screens with simultaneous display of multiple data fields in attractive fonts. Such displays are or will soon be available in home, automotive and handheld form factors.

And thinking expansively, remember that the metadata carried by broadcasters need not forever be limited to text display. Next-gen metadata services could easily include graphics such as album cover art, thumbnail photos, animations and more. Just as broadcast audio has evolved over time, we may be experiencing only the first wave of a metadata transmission process that will itself mature and develop.

Get interactive

The receivers addressed by these twin content streams are not just “sinks” anymore (i.e., they are no longer pure receive-only devices). Increasingly, these radio receivers will be but a single component of a larger, “connected” digital media ecosystem. This implies that the system will have additional connectivity, which in some cases will allow the user to immediately (or later) download to local memory a high-quality copy of the content discovered via radio listening.

This feature is enhanced by making the metadata display “active” (i.e., hyperlinking it to sources of the content), such that the receiver can, via a single keystroke or button-press, direct the user to a download site, or even take the user deep within a site, right to the specific song-download confirmation page.

If the download involves a cash transaction, the radio service may be compensated for the reference, since the discovery process the radio service provided led directly to the purchase. Further, in this scenario, the discovery process led the user not just to the song, but to that particular download site, which is presumably one of many alternate and competing sources for such a purchase. Thus the establishment of these links is a new form of commerce that could become a regular part of the radio sales portfolio and the competitive marketplace.

Such a process is already possible and in use on the Web, where stations' on-air and/or Webcast playlists are directly linked to music download sites. In some cases, these download sites are branded under a station's name at its own Web site — even though the process might actually be accomplished via redirects to a third-party's site. An example of this is the WMMR Digital Music Store at

In other cases, a station may provide links to clearly stated third-party vendors of downloads or packaged media. This approach is used by the on-line playlists and “Now Playing” browser windows of KCRW's Music service at, for example, where song titles are linked to search windows at Apple's iTunes store, and album titles are linked to the appropriate CD-purchase page at

Next steps here will likely involve the addition of similar metadata-driven interactivity to services other than Web streams, and on devices besides PC-based browsers (such as RBDS- or IBOC PAD-equipped handheld radios with wireless data connectivity).

A multi-platform world

Something else to think about here is how radio services are now multipurposed and fed to several different platforms simultaneously, each of which may have its own encoding scheme for audio, as well as separate encoding for metadata.

For example, today a broadcaster may transmit the same original audio stream via analog FM plus RBDS metadata, along with HDC encoding plus IBOC PAD metadata for HD Radio, and one or more streaming media formats (perhaps at multiple bit rates, as well) plus HTML metadata for the Web. And that's just for today; the future will likely expand upon these options.

Broadcasters have entered a world where a single content stream of audio and metadata may flow over many different portals. Just as a book is translated into numerous different languages for distribution to various physical regions of the world, so too can a radio program be transcoded into numerous formats for separate virtual sectors of the audience. Thus is the potential audience maximized, and the greatest distribution efficiency is extracted from a single production process. When doing so, however, it will be important to consider both the content and the metadata formats of the target platform.

As the digital media transition continues, the various formats of program-associated metadata for radio broadcasts will continue to grow in their importance to listeners, and in their value to broadcasters. Long live the queen.


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