When comparing media offerings today, one place in which radio falls comparatively short is how well it answers the question of "What's on?" (or "What's going to be on?").
Recent developments in RBDS and IBOC PSD have added "now playing" data to radio transmissions, which is a great step forward, of course. But there could be — and some might add, must be — more.
Conceptual diagram of program data flows for a radio EPG system. The centralized 'EPG Manager' function that collects and distributes data can be provided by a single station in a market, by a station group's headquarters or local flagship, or by one or more third-party service bureau(s). Courtesy Unique Interactive and NAB FASTROAD Among the latter proponents is NAB FASTROAD, the technology advocacy program of NAB, which is funding the development of a proposed Electronic Program Guide (EPG) ecosystem for U.S. radio broadcasting.
The development team assembled by NAB FASTROAD for this purpose includes two well-known U.S. radio-industry firms, BIA Advisory Services and Broadcast Signal Lab, along with Unique Interactive, a U.K.-based company that has been highly instrumental in developing the EPG system used by Eureka DAB, which is already in operation in a number of European radio markets. (Full disclosure: I am a consultant to this project.)
The two-phase development project is now in its second phase, which will culminate in an on-air/online trial of radio EPG services in the Boston and Providence, R.I., area later this year.
Meanwhile, a guidance document developed in Phase 1 of the project is available for free download at www.nabfastroad.org/NAB_FASTROAD_EPG_Final.pdf.
Providing an EPG would help put local radio at parity with other digital media services, which today inherently provide substantial metadata for their audiences.
This data enables users to make intelligent choices in personalizing their content consumption from such services. An EPG could also make the radio medium "stickier," in that it could maintain or increase audience by telling listeners what was coming up — a kind of always-on, graphical form of forward promotion.
Further, a fully populated EPG could make terrestrial radio appear like a "coordinated service" in any given market, increasing its competitiveness with other multichannel media services, while also enhancing the visibility of its broad range of content.
The latter could be particularly helpful as a method of displaying stations' localism, which is often lost or invisible to the typical listener. Browsing a well-stocked guide would almost certainly provide opportunity for fresh discovery of content that had long been aired regularly on a local market's stations but that had gone unnoticed even by the most frequent radio listeners there.
And of course, any future that envisions a radio with recording capability would be difficult to contemplate without the empowerment of such functionality (e.g., time-shifting) that an EPG provides.
Harder than it looks
All that said, the provision of a viable EPG for radio isn't an easy task.
But why, you might ask, given that it's an already well established process in the U.S. television industry? Like other radio/TV comparisons, shouldn't it be even easier for radio? Well, actually, no — and here's why:
First, consider that there is no tradition of comprehensive collection of U.S. radio programming data like there has been for television.
In the TV world, several companies have being doing this for decades, initially for publication in the printed guides found in newspapers and magazines. These providers have also built a business model around the aggregation and distribution of this data.
When TiVo and others developed consumer electronics devices that needed TV program schedule data, they simply licensed the data from one of these aggregators, and presented it electronically on the TV screen rather than on paper.
Although recently a few new companies (like RadioTime) have begun a similar collection of radio program data, the process and the business model supporting it are far less mature than those of the TV industry. Moreover, the challenge is much larger given that the number of radio stations in the U.S. is more than an order of magnitude greater than the number of TV stations here.
One view of actual EPG data from a DAB receiver (PURE Evoke-3, a tabletop model) receiving signal off-air in London. Photo by Nick Banks A closer look shows that there are also more radio "markets" than TV markets, and in many markets (particularly larger ones) the coverage of the market's geographic area by its radio stations is less uniform than that of the market's TV stations.
In other words, from a statistical perspective, it is likely that audiences in many markets may find themselves in locations where they can receive all of the market's TV stations, but not all of its radio stations. (This is, of course, due to the different allocation procedures used for licensing TV vs. radio stations.)
Thus any attempt to define a consistent market-based set of content schedule data for radio is elusive. This issue is further complicated by the fact that radio usage is a far more mobile phenomenon than TV viewing — at least today — meaning that the list of radio stations currently available to a mobile receiver traveling in or between market(s) is changing constantly.
Next, also unlike TV, there are no "channel aggregators" in the local radio environment (i.e., no equivalent to cable or satellite TV service providers), whereby a single source of program schedule data can be inserted into a full-market, multichannel service package. This implies that radio EPG data would have to be delivered over the air in a distributed fashion by individual stations.
Finally, the capability of a radio to display any program schedule data visually also is quite variable — from zero to rich. Here again the situation differs greatly from television, where the options for resolution and aspect ratio of a full-screen EPG display are well known and finite.
Getting the EPG data to listeners is also a challenge. The amount of data required renders the delivery possible only via the digital platforms used by radio broadcasters today, meaning IBOC and the Internet.
(The NAB FASTROAD initiative has specifically targeted the development of an HD Radio EPG, but in the course of its work, the development team has worked toward a delivery-platform-neutral core system that can be applied to any and all appropriate delivery channels or services. Thus the upcoming trials are planned to include display of EPGs on one or more prototype HD Radio receivers, as well as on PCs and mobile wireless devices.)
The speed of this metadata delivery will be a key factor in determining the quality of user experience, but this is generally proportional to the delivery-channel bandwidth dedicated to EPG datacasting. So any clever methods of conserving bandwidth and improving EPG throughput are desirable.
Other tradeoffs occur in the area of receiver design, where screen size, memory requirements and power consumption are critical cost drivers for consumer electronics devices. Keeping all of these in check while still providing solid EPG performance for the user will be another challenging design exercise.
Next time we'll look at some of the specific ideas that have been developed to date to provide optimal balance among all the issues raised here and offer a workable EPG system for the U.S. radio industry in the near future.
Skip Pizzi is contributing editor of Radio World.