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The Single-Platform Era Is Ending

Over-the-Air Delivery Is Becoming Just One of Many Paths to Listeners' Ears

Over-the-Air Delivery Is Becoming Just One of Many Paths to Listeners’ Ears

It doesn’t seem so long ago when radio stations each had a single output that reached their respective audiences in real time via an AM or FM transmitter. While that still remains the case for most listeners, a shift to a far more diverse delivery environment is occurring rapidly, as broadcasters worldwide awaken to the new day of multi-platform delivery.

This should not be perceived as an overly threatening circumstance, as broadcasters are beginning from a position of strength, legitimately licensed heirs to one or more channels in the scarce radio spectrum. Yet as other, less rigidly controlled delivery formats grow in importance, station operators should be migrating existing and new services to these other platforms, just as most AM broadcasters ultimately did with FM decades before.

Most broadcasters have dabbled in this with the Internet; but that experience likely has been just the tip of the digital iceberg, with far more serious alternate service-delivery options lying ahead.

Content vs. service

Broadcasters traditionally have been purveyors of both content and service. (If not creators of the content, stations are at least the market-exclusive, pass-through agents of content created by others, such as the networks with whom they are affiliated.) This dual role is atypical in today’s digital media world, where content- and service-provision often are wholly distinct business functions pursued by independent organizations.

This separation of content-church and service-state applies both to the technical architectures and business philosophies involved in today’s media enterprises. Radio broadcasters therefore are advised to consider their core operations as two different functions, one creating content and the other delivering it, so they can better compete in the new media environment. With this approach, broadcasters can best leverage their enviable position of having one foot in each camp.

To wit, broadcasters may act as pure content providers, such that others (i.e., pure service providers) deliver their content via means other than over-the-air (OTA) broadcast channels. This also implies that each stream of a broadcaster’s content may flow over multiple delivery services, one of which the broadcaster operates, while others are operated by different parties.

Although the same generalized content may flow over several services, however, note that such different platforms may each expose varying functionalities to the end-user.

For example, OTA analog FM service generally includes stereo audio plus limited text (via RBDS, still on relatively few receivers), while Internet radio can include multi-channel audio of up to 7.1 channels today, plus rich graphics, streaming video and more, all of which is available on practically all “receivers” – particularly with the growth of broadband service. Similarly, IBOC will offer different capabilities than analog radio, while delivering the same core content.

This implies that broadcasters soon will need to manage their essence (i.e., audio) and metadata (i.e., supportive material) assets sensibly, in a way that allows them to be centrally stored and optimally rendered over multiple delivery services with differing capabilities (more about this next time).

On the other hand, the radio station can also act as a pure service provider, delivering content provided by others. In the analog FM world, this has been exemplified by the subcarrier business, with clients like background music services or foreign-language operations leasing bandwidth and hitching a ride to their customers on a broadcaster’s RF transmission. In the IBOC era, there may be more flexible and versatile opportunities for this. To wit, while today’s subcarrier business only makes sense for clients that have a more or less full-time need for a delivery channel, IBOC datacasting may make a more “à la carte” datacasting business viable for broadcasters.

Doing the time warp

Another key distinction is the delivery of real-time vs. on-demand service. Broadcasters have always been in the real-time business, but for radio, at least, that was not so much by choice as by necessity. There simply has been no viable on-demand delivery platform for audio until quite recently – even in the age of the VCR, there was no radio-only equivalent – but now there are several options emerging, and the beginnings of a real buzz in the marketplace for them. There’s no reason broadcasters can’t join this party.

Apple’s iPod has received most of the attention in this space recently, and for good reason, given its meteoric sales history. (The iPod seems to have so captured the attention of today’s youth that I’ve started sending my e-mails and instant messages to my kids under the alias of “iDad,” in the hopes of getting a bit more of their attention. So far, it hasn’t worked.)

Of course, there are plenty of other devices involved beside the iPod, which are now generically referred to as “digital media devices” (although the earlier and now outdated moniker of “MP3 players” still persists in some circles). Like the iPod, most of these support the MP3 format along with others such as WMA, WAV, Red Book CD or other proprietary audio coding. While these units have been largely considered as all about commercial music, they can be used to for other radio content as well, primarily for time-shifting (i.e., store, play once shortly thereafter, and delete) purposes. This is what the recent “podcasting” phenomenon is all about, although again, it extends beyond the iPod.

What all of these players also share at present is a need to be connected to a PC or Mac computer as their gateway to content. In the future, downloads direct to handheld devices may become an interesting business for broadcasters’ datacasting (and/or wireless service providers’) offerings. At least for now, however, the Web (typically via a broadband connection) remains the primary path for on-demand content delivery.

Note also that for general podcasting use today, security is not a concern. The blogger community is happy to spread audio content freely via podcasting. But most of this amateur or hobbyist content is not sustainable, and will likely go the way of the “‘Zines” phenomenon of the late 1990s.

The likely long-term impact of podcasting will be broadcasters and other bona-fide media content providers offering subscription-based services via RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds to consumers, and driving them to the on-demand services via cross-promotional messages on their traditional (real-time) media products. Thus unlike the bulk of early podcasting, future content providers may very well want to offer their on-demand material with some form of content protection applied.

Moving broadcasters into this space no doubt will occupy much of the conversation in this publication and elsewhere in the industry in the near future. Meanwhile, though, even the set of real-time platforms that broadcasters can address is expanding. More about these in the next issue.