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The Value of a Clean Windshield

Negotiating the Road Ahead Requires A Long, Clear View

Negotiating the Road Ahead Requires A Long, Clear View

In a fit of spring cleaning recently, I came across several items that I had considered miscellaneous. But when I saw them all piled together, I realized they shared a common and important thread.

So like being able to buy a pizza with the coins you find in your couch, the exercise collected a surprising booty. Here’s what I found:

The other PPM

Back in the day, PPM meant Peak Program Meter – a peak-reading alternative to the VU meter used to measure audio levels – but today it refers also to Arbitron’s Personal People Meter, the latest advance in radio audience measurement. Actually, it’s about the only advance in audience measurement since the invention of the pencil.

It’s always fascinated me how a station’s fortunes can rise and fall on statistical variations that are well below the margin of error for the research, but even more amazing is how this data is still collected. As others have observed, the diary system isn’t a measure of audience listening, but of the audience’s memory of what they listened to. So fraught with error is this process that it has survived only because it was critically necessary and there was no practical alternative.

In the digital age, measuring audiences via paper diary reminds me of the old Saturday Night Live routine “Amish in Space.” The PPM is a welcome change, and long overdue.

What we will all watch with interest soon is how much the data changes when actual listening is more accurately reported, how business practice adapts to these shifts, and whether the industry is ultimately helped or hurt in the process. (Overall, I think the PPM will reward stations that are working hard to serve their audiences well, and hurt those that are coasting on momentum from their glory days – but that’s just a guess.)


International digital radio format wars are also heating up. DAB (formerly known as “Eureka-147”) has languished in most of the countries that have introduced it, except for the U.K., where it has taken off strongly in the last two years or so. Meanwhile, IBOC has begun its launch in the United States.

Both formats are potentially viable worldwide (HD Radio has been approved as an ITU standard), and there are many countries that have not yet decided on a digital radio format. There are even some who had made a choice that are now reconsidering.

Witness Canada, one of the earliest and staunchest supporters of Eureka 147. After broadcasters’ investment of much time and effort in DAB deployment and evangelism, the format has had no popular uptake – primarily due to lack of receivers, but also because no new content was offered. (Canadian DAB was always envisioned as replacement, not enhancement, to AM and FM broadcasting there.)

Now Canada has announced the start of official government and industry testing of IBOC digital radio, as a likely prelude to rulemaking procedures. Expect to see other countries follow the Canadian example.

But DAB is not dead yet. The format is undergoing its own revisions, with numerous enhancements under development by the WorldDAB Forum, its caretaker body. Meanwhile, its success in the U.K continues to grow, with new spectrum allocations for more stations and high receiver sales volume indicating ongoing consumer demand.

The next few years will be interesting to watch on the international terrestrial digital radio battlefield.

Copyright’s crazy quilt

We’ve spent a lot of ink lately on copyright issues as they apply to radio and the music industry, and how law is constantly chasing technology there. At the fringe of this debate is perhaps the most telling issue on the depth of change underway.

For lack of a better term, call this area “reuse” (or “republishing”). It involves the incorporation of one person’s published work into the published work of another. While this is in itself not new, past instances have generally involved some sort of “adaptation” of the original work, usually with credit given to the original’s creator, and almost always with the permission of – and perhaps even a negotiated arrangement with – the originator.

On the other hand, today’s technology allows everyone to do this, by making exact copies of such extracts, reusing and republishing them on a massive scale, and without necessarily obtaining permission of the originator. While the most egregious cases of this would be likely found illegal, there is a growing gray area that affects many legitimate artists who sample the works of others frequently in their product. In music, this occurs most notably in the hip-hop environment, but it also appears in the work of visual artists and writers.

One recent example has been dubbed “reblogging,” where a weblogger takes content from another blog to include in his/her blog. This is generally not done with a purely plagiaristic motivation, but in a creative sample-and-remix fashion, much like one might make a mix tape. But rather than keeping that tape for personal use, the reblog is itself a published work.

Taken to its extreme, the level of impact that this new activity has on copyright is staggering. It also blurs the line between so-called “user-generated content” and “regular” (professional?) content.

This examination shows how copyright itself has almost become an anachronism. It was developed at a time where all content was centrally controlled and distributed, and today we live in an increasingly disintermediated world. Copyright laws obviously need to change with the times, but in fundamental ways, not with the Band-Aids and highly granular prop-ups that a lot of current legal actions propose.

To this end there are a number of projects in play, such as the licenses developed by Creative Commons, and the efforts of the Future of Music Coalition to standardize sampling rights for musicians. But in general, this area remains unsettled.

Temporary ingravity

That’s when it hit me. These are just a few examples of many important issues affecting radio broadcasting that are all in flux right now. It’s as if the digital era somehow shorted out radio’s gravity generator, and things started floating away. We’re all waiting for the gravity to come back on, but when it does, all these things could land in different places and with changed orientation.

At that point, the radio industry will likely have a new landscape under its wheels – one that may require some retooling to successfully navigate, along with an up-to-date map, and a keen view of the road.