Imagine being a radio broadcaster in a world with no common transmission and receiver standards. To reach the majority of your potential audience with a single program feed, you would have to simulcast on multiple transmitters using different modulation formats and on a range of frequencies.
Worse yet, your listeners could never be sure that the receivers they purchased would actually receive your station, until they got them out of their boxes and turned them on. That’s because the manufacturers would be able to impose their own proprietary reception formats on this radios — formats that you, as broadcaster, would have to pay them to use.
IFA visitors check out Internet radio receivers. Photos by Frank Nürnberger Sound insane? Well, this is the reality of Internet radio today. There are a number of incompatible, proprietary streaming formats currently in use; AAC, MP3, RealAudio and WMA being the most prevalent.
Meanwhile, the Internet radio receivers that are available to consumers do not necessarily handle all of these formats. Hence, to ensure that they can reach the vast majority of listeners, broadcasters are spending a fortune duplicating their program streams online.
“Every single one of Clear Channel’s program streams are encoded in 12 formats, to give them the best shot at being heard,” said Mark Hopgood, director of marketing for the Internet radio chipset manufacturer Frontier Silicon. “This adds a lot of unnecessary cost to Clear Channel’s streaming costs; and indeed to the expenses of any broadcaster trying to have a serious presence on the Web.”
But it is not just broadcasters who pay the price: Manufacturers have to use chipsets that are capable of supporting many codecs, which pushes up the price of the parts, which increases receiver costs to consumers.
“All because there are no Internet radio transmission and receiver standards,” Hopgood said.
In an effort to end the madness, radio manufacturers and broadcasters have banded together to form the Internet Media Device Alliance (IMDA).
The IMDA’s mission is a simple one: to come up with a widely accepted minimum set of Internet radio codecs, so that broadcasters and manufacturers alike can use them to reach most listeners at the least cost.
To this end, companies such as Reciva, Frontier Silicon and Pure Devices have joined with broadcasters such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Global Radio to form the committees now hammering out such proposed standards.
Scope of the problem
To say that current Internet radio standards are out of hand is an understatement.
“Right now, an Internet radio manufacturer can choose from 20 different codecs, plus different bit rates,” said Arthur Taylor, Reciva head of software and a member of the IMDA technical committee. “Worse yet, more codecs are being developed and released; many of which are incompatible with existing Internet radios.”
The result of this undisciplined approach is that Internet radios as a commodity are confusing and amorphous, making them unappealing to the mass market.
Mark Hopgood “Thanks to the multiplicity of codecs, we as manufacturers have failed to create a common ‘Internet radio’ that sales people and consumers can understand and desire,” said Taylor. “In contrast, people known what an HDTV is, or an MP3 player, or an AM/FM radio. That is why the mass of consumers, who are not technophiles, have embraced these technologies. That is why we need Internet radio standards.”
The IMDA’s call for Internet radio sanity is playing well with the industry.
“Support for a common standard? It does make sense,” said Earl Veale, director of Interactive at Corus Interactive & Integrated Solutions (CIIS). Operator of 52 Canadian radio stations, CIIS parent company Corus Entertainment streams in AAC, MP3 and PLS formats via a third-party provider called StreamTheWorld.
“If there was a common standard, and our streaming provider were able to support it — I don’t know why they wouldn’t, if it were indeed ‘the standard’ — we would make our streams available in that manner,” Veale said.
That’s not all: After learning about the Internet media Device Alliance and its mission, Veale added, “I’d be willing to work on the IMDA committee.”
However, Jake Sigal — founder and principal of the Internet radio manufacturer Myine — wants to see more than just common codecs.”I think having one station listing database … so station URLs are always correct would be a huge help to the industry,” he said.
“Specifically, stations change their streams frequently and consumers are left with hardware (or software) that says ‘Stream Not Found’. The customer calls us, then we call the aggregator, then the aggregator calls the station to update the stream. This would also make it easier for stations as they could go to one site, knowing that any changes would be receivable on all Internet radio receivers.”
Progress to date
The IMDA took the first step to ending Internet radio chaos on 7 September 2009, when it unveiled its first proposed set of standards at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin.
“Internet radios built to ‘IMDA Profile 1’ will be able to decode both WMA and MP3 codecs; use HTTP streaming with 301 and 302 redirection; accept play list formats M3U, ASX, PLS with new-line separation for URLs in plain text; and receive stereo streams via two channels or by downloading a mix of both,” said Hopgood.
“Practically speaking, IMDA Profile 1-certified receivers will be able to access around 90 percent of the radio webcasts available online.”
Of course, devising a standard is one thing; getting Internet radio manufacturers to build to this standard is another. The good news is that there is a real appetite for standards among manufacturers and broadcasters alike.
With any luck, IMDA Profile 1 may indeed mark the beginning of the end of Internet radio chaos, and the start of a truly accessible, easily understandable digital media.
For information about IMDA, visitwww.imdalliance.org.