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An Early Experience With ‘Artist Experience’

How Greater Media Boston synched visuals with on-air audio on FM HD Radio stations

Greater Media’s typical installation overview. Note the Jump2Go box is the center of communications for AE and analog RDS.

(Click to Enlarge)

As HD Radio continues to improve, more and more features are added to the data set that is broadcast. In addition to HD1, HD2, Program Associated Data (artist, title and genre) and traffic services, a service called Artist Experience has been added by iBiquity Digital. It allows broadcasters to embed album art, station logos and other graphic content into the digital bit stream in real time for the purpose of being displayed on compatible receivers.

There are now several receiver manufacturers that sell AE-capable units, including JVC and Insignia, with more to come this year. This article describes some of my efforts to implement AE in Boston at Greater Media’s cluster of five FM stations.

The road to implement AE was long, and for us started in December of 2011, but once we learned how to do one station, the others were fairly easy. One of our stations is fully automated. We decided to implement AE on WBOS because this presented the most stable testing platform, with no concern of the event queue being disturbed by DJs moving elements around.

Eventually we implemented AE on our live stations, and finally on two of our stations that are Broadcast Traffic Consortium stations. BTS has specific guidelines that need to be respected when running AE concurrently; these are not difficult to implement.

Today there are two paths to take. Allen Hartle’s company Jump2Go offers a solution, as does Emmis Interactive’s TagStation product. They both work well; I would hesitate to recommend one over the other. The biggest difference in my opinion is that Jump2Go relies on external hardware, consisting of small interface boxes called jump gates, to communicate with outside servers, while TagStation relies on and requires Broadcast Electronics’ “The Radio Experience” software to interface to their servers.

For the time being, Greater Media in Boston is using the Jump Gate approach, so I will concentrate on discussing that. Greater Media was already doing business with Allen Hartle for iTunes Tagging, so implementing AE was a natural extension using common hardware already in place.

The Artist Experience begins with the digital play-out system, and in our case that is the BE AudioVault. Additionally I am aware that ENCO Systems, Wide Orbit and RCS Master Control are supported for non-delayed art, meaning the image shows up on the receiver immediately when the event starts. As of this writing, there are some other systems that are supported with delayed art, and they include iMediaTouch, Maestro, Dalet, Dial Global and Jelli. These automation systems will work with AE, but cannot pre-buffer the image, so the picture shows up a few seconds after the song starts.

JVC car radio displays station logo during a commercial airing on WMJX. The illustration shows a typical configuration using the Jump2Go approach.

The automation system sends information to the interface box, which is the Jump Gate in our case. The Jump Gate reaches out to a few different servers for information about the music, and the actual album art image. This information is retrieved and sent to the importer, which accepts image data for HD1 and HD2, as well as Program-Associated Data for HD2. Pad data for HD1 is sent to the exporter. The interface also sends radio text to the RDS encoder in real time, and can feed a Web client for a more complete online experience.

This description is a highly simplified explanation of what happens with the JumpGateHD, which services analog RDS as well as HD.

There is actually quite a bit of behind-the-scenes data transfer going on to buffer and retrieve the images, as well as to send special lot IDs to the receiver at the correct time to actually display the album art on the receiver in sync with the start of the audio. This is done by way of the iBiquity Java Multiport Synchronous/Asynchronous Client. The JMSAC acts as a transaction server and manages the queue structure. It also is responsible for broadcasting an identifier call Lot ID that is associated with each event to cause the receiver to display the correct image at the correct time. The Lot ID is a marker that is sent with each image to match up with that image; the marker allows the image to be displayed on the receiver in sync with the audio.

The systems from Jump2Go and Emmis Interactive both provide nice Web interfaces to allow you to configure, monitor and troubleshoot the data flow. IBiquity also has some specific hardware and software tools that were made available to us for initial debugging. Obviously one of the best tools you can have is a receiver capable of displaying the album art. In our case we used a variety of receivers; our best unit was the JVC car radio model KW-NT3HDT.

As a side note, the radio’s firmware needed to be updated to the latest version to allow AE images to be displayed. However this can be easily done in the field using an SD card.

Before implementation

There are important prerequisites to implementing AE. First of all, be prepared to upgrade your importers and exporters. The importers must be using Ibiquity software version v4.3.1P1 or later, and the exciters/exporters need to be running ver. 4.3.2 or later.

With regard to the importer, this upgrade requires a clean installation. However this is made easier by the fact that the version 3 database can be restored into the new system.

Following the restoration, the bandwidth allocation is specified, and this is where you have the opportunity to choose between mode P1 and P3 of the iBiquity system. If you choose to use the extended hybrid mode (P3) you will have a total of 151 kilobits-per-second throughput available, as opposed to mode P1 that is limited to 100 kbps. However the extended hybrid mode requires about 0.8 dB more transmitter power headroom and also is not compatible with higher order (96 kHz) analog subcarriers. Of course running in the extended hybrid mode does allow more bandwidth for audio services, and this can be important if you are running an HD2 or HD3 program channel.

Typical P1 bandwidth allocation chart
The chart shows a typical bandwidth allocation scheme for a radio station running in MP1 mode with HD1, HD2 programs, as well as AE. As you can see there is not a lot of extra room for other services, with in this case the SPS1 Audio service already limited to 32 kbps. The images that are broadcast need to conform to fairly specific specifications. They need to be 24 bit JPG files with a maximum of 200×200 pixels. The maximum file size should be limited to 12 kilobytes.

During commercials, it is possible to broadcast images from sponsors, for example show the Coke logo during a Coke spot, and sell this as a value-added service. Additionally between songs or during public service shows, the radio station logo can be shown. There is a way to transmit this logo to the radio asynchronously to be held in non-volatile ram for immediate and frequent display when needed.

Custom messaging is also possible to do though the use of the PSDGENTX, a software developer kit published by iBiquity. Using this I have successfully broadcast images of our FM talk personalities during the times they were on the air since there is no album art to broadcast on a talk station. Other information such as weather and financial data can be sent as well.

Lessons learned

Some of the biggest problems we ran into were image lookup failures. Either the images provided were too large, or not the most appropriate one, such as the best of the 1960s compilation as opposed to the original artist. In some cases even profane or indecent images that were not appropriate for broadcast were returned. These obviously needed to be weeded out and handled on a case-by-case basis.

Also, getting the timing correct was a bit touchy. Some of our stations run profanity delays in addition to the inherent HD Radio transmission delay, so those delays need to be compensated for to make the images appear on the radio in concert with the song.

HD Radio offers a whole range of new options for broadcasters, and some of those options have not even been thought of yet. As we strive to compete more effectively with other digital media, AE is just another tool we have available to us to provide a more rich experience to our listeners.

In hindsight

It took us about six weeks to implement Artist Experience on WBOS. That’s because we were one of the first stations to do so, and we had challenges getting Jump2Go to learn how to communicate with our AudioVault. We were also trying to bring iBiquity, Hartle and BE on the same page with respect to AE implementation. Coordination and cooperation with all three proved to be time-consuming.

We eventually solved all those problems and now there is a clear path. We benefited from this process when implementing AE on our other stations in Boston and other Greater Media Markets.

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