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NPR Labs Seeks Receiver Makers’ Input for Personalized Radio

It has completed prototype HD Radio receivers with software refinements for PAIS capability

Editor’s note: This version of the article clarifies the number of stations using WireReady while airing radio reading services.

NPR Labs has completed prototype HD Radio receivers that include the latest software refinements for its Personalized Audio Information Services capability.

Anindya ‘Bapin’ Bhattacharyya of the Helen Keller National Center discusses evaluating and testing prototypes of new accessible products during the NPR Labs ‘Radio With Vision Showcase’ at CES. Photo by Leslie Stimson The Labs, with advice from the International Association of Audio Information Services, has been working to create a practical way to identify radio reading service programs by category, as well as topics across categories, and to transmit that information as Program Service Data in an HD Radio channel. The goal is to develop a working HD Radio receiver that enables blind and low-vision listeners to select desired programs for capture and later listening — including traditional rewind/fast forward/scan transport functionality. (See “PAIS: Personalized Radio Explained” in the Dec. 15, 2010 issue.)

Some of the prototype receiver software and hardware has been refined based on feedback from test participants. At the NPR Labs accessible radio meeting at the recent CES convention, Dr. Ellyn Sheffield, NPR Labs researcher and co-chair of the International Center for Accessible Radio Technology at Towson University, said that in recent in-house trials, most of the 30-some test participants said they feel PAIS is an upgrade to analog reading services delivered on FM subcarriers. The fact that PAIS would offer a text display on a future mobile device is enticing to those with low vision, she said.

WireReady provides automation/playout and other services to an installed base of some 2,000 stations, of which 60 or so air radio reading services. NPR Labs asked the company if it would support PAIS. Reading services are especially popular with older listeners, said WireReady founder and President David Gerstmann, because many older adults lose the ability to read well before they’re considered legally blind.

To save money, many reading services are only staffed in the mornings and their volunteers record items for later playback using computer digital storage and playout automation technology, Gerstmann said. With these systems, any embedded text that has been stored is transmitted along with the audio, he said, adding that iBiquity Digital has a software developer kit that helps incorporate PAIS within the HD Radio metadata, a kit any automation vendor can use.

WireReady’s system can now support PAIS tagging. “Since NPR is offering PAIS as an open standard, all manufacturers should be able to implement this,” Gerstmann said, adding that stations transmitting in HD wouldn’t need to make any software modifications to add PAIS capabilities.

“An automation system is cuing a lot of things in the background” to make the on-air radio product work, he said, adding that program directors can program their automation systems to send the right PAIS tag at the correct time so the on-air staff wouldn’t necessarily need to do anything more.

Artist Experience, the new HD Radio data feature in which images are paired with audio, usually consists of images such as station call letters or logos, but that data can also be displayed as text, enabling someone who has a hearing impairment to benefit from the AE display, said iBiquity Digital Senior Vice President for Broadcast Programs and Advanced Services Joe D’Angelo.

Speaking generally on universal design, Livio Radio Founder/CEO Jake Sigal said that keeping products easy to use is important as boomers age.

The company, which just released an updated version of its in-car Internet radio app, is now focused on the human-machine interface. “Automotive has previously been about which buttons to press” but now, with attention being paid to preventing driver distraction, “displays and panels” are the focus, Sigal said.

Dice Electronics, which made the first tabletop HD Radio with conditional access, is now focused on making a unit “similar to a car radio” that’s not distracting and easier to use, especially for seniors, said Chris Cook, executive vice president of sales and marketing. Dice is developing a radio that features a hands-free user interface and hopes to have such a product on the market by the end of next year.

While it won’t have conditional access right away, the company is prepared to add that feature in the future, said Cook.

And what about the end users of accessible radios? In his job as supervisor of the Technology Center for the Helen Keller National Center, part of Anindya “Bapin” Bhattacharyya’s job is evaluating and testing prototypes of new accessible products before they are manufactured and marketed.

He is both deaf and blind and uses American Sign Language to communicate. Through an interpreter, Bhattacharyya said the overarching goal of the accessible radio discussion is for people who have vision and hearing impairments to have quick access to vital information. Some deaf-blind individuals perished during Hurricane Katrina because they didn’t know the storm was coming, he said.