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What You Need to Know About Radio StationID

We asked Gracenote’s Brian Hamilton to tell us more about the company’s new offering

Gracenote makes products that are used by in-car entertainment systems to identify and display CD titles, relevant metadata and cover art. This winter the tech company — which is now part of Nielsen — unveiled a new offering available to carmakers called Radio StationID.

This software uses “music fingerprint” recognition and a database of stations to provide drivers with station/song information and high-resolution station images. The company says it also can help motorists stay tuned to preferred genres.

MusicID Radio uses audio fingerprinting technology to identify songs and deliver track and album info plus cover art to the car infotainment unit.

“This first-of-its-kind product eliminates the need for drivers to ‘scan the dial’ as they move outside of radio signal range, by automatically presenting the available stations most similar to their presets based on location and preferences,” said Brian Hamilton, Gracenote’s general manager of music and auto.

“As the driver goes in and out of radio signal range, the car’s infotainment system automatically tunes to local radio stations following preferred formats and genres. This enables a seamless and safe user experience in which the driver can always find the stations playing the music they’re in the mood to listen to, even in unfamiliar areas.”

I wanted to learn more so I emailed with Hamilton.

Radio World: This looks like an FM-only enhancement. Is AM not included?
Brian Hamilton: That’s actually not correct. Gracenote’s Radio StationID and MusicID Radio are comprehensive solutions covering global terrestrial broadcast for analog and digital AM, FM, HD and DAB sources. Using Gracenote Automatic Content Recognition technology, these solutions enable car infotainment systems to quickly and accurately identify what music is playing regardless of the broadcast source and deliver highly personalized experiences based on preferences, location and other parameters. Gracenote’s ACR technology uses audio fingerprinting to match music to our massive database so that relevant metadata such as artist and album name plus cover art for virtually any song can be displayed on the car infotainment screen.

Radio StationID enables drivers and passengers to navigate terrestrial radio by station name, logo and format.

RW: Is an FM subcarrier used to convey the Radio StationID data? Or is this an inaudible watermark technology similar to PPM encoding? Watermarks and fingerprints seem rather similar. … Will future PPM encoders include Radio StationID and the visual album art and logo features in one encoder?
Hamilton: We do not use a subcarrier to deliver metadata to the head unit. With Radio StationID and MusicID Radio, metadata is delivered via an internet connection. Customers can keep a local cache as well.

As mentioned, Gracenote ACR leverages audio fingerprinting technology to automatically recognize music tracks. While both watermarking and audio fingerprinting have useful applications, there is an important difference between them. Watermarking relies on a digital identifier to be applied to a file in order for that file to be “recognizable” by the technology. In contrast, audio fingerprinting does not require any special advanced preparation; it works in all instances where there’s a match between the source and the Gracenote Music database. Audio fingerprinting that we use in MusicID Radio is preferable in the automotive use case because it works across all broadcast types in all regions. And it does so without the need for any special cooperation with the broadcaster or application of the digital watermark.

Over Gracenote’s nearly 20-year history, we’ve developed music solutions that have met the unique needs of the automotive market. In the “early” days when people listened to CDs in their cars, our music database was embedded in the infotainment system providing local access to information including artist name, track name and even album art for display. Now, with the prevalence of connected cars, we’re making the same information immediately accessible through the internet. But we’re doing so in a way that minimizes data usage while also expanding recognition to include all music sources available in the car from radio to streaming services to locally stored files to CDs. And that places the utmost importance on driver safety. In terms of numbers, Gracenote data and technology are now in just under 100 million cars around the world.

RW: Will stations have to “register” with Gracenote to get on the database? We presume they will have to install an encoder to enable this technology on their stations. Does it work similar to the PPM encoder supplied by Nielsen and the encoder will be free? Or will there be other suppliers of the hardware?
Hamilton: We are actively aggregating global data on radio stations and formats ourselves. That said, we are open to receiving electronic information submission from stations and are setting up a method to facilitate that transfer. We’re looking to obtain everything from station names to website URL to logos and branding elements for display on car infotainment screen.

RW: RDS/RBDS offers a limited version of this technology (without pictures), but its functionality varies and is dependent on the radio design itself. It typically requires the user to initiate manual scanning to find similar and desired formats. Would you agree that the most important advantage of the Gracenote Radio StationID enhancement is that it is fully automatic?
Hamilton: The wide range of radio broadcast technologies — AM/FM/HD/DAB — as well as variations in broadcast implementations and the lack of consistent, reliable station metadata can make for a disjointed and sub-optimal radio experience in the car.

The value of Radio StationID lies in its ability to help car manufacturers deliver a vastly improved user experience, therefore increasing consumer satisfaction and loyalty. The solution enables radio listeners to find the content they want by navigating intuitive menus visually displaying standardized station names, formats and logos instead of lists of nondescript frequencies or inconsistent metadata from broadcasters. With Radio StationID, users can more easily find music, news or talk stations they’ll like, especially in unfamiliar areas. In addition, stations enjoy better branding on the infotainment screen.

We’re also working to develop enhanced radio station profiles and descriptors that enable consumers to choose stations not just by basic format but also by musical styles. For example, it’s difficult to differentiate between existing radio station formats like Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR), Hot Adult Contemporary (Hot AC) and Lite Adult Contemporary (Lite AC). We’re working to go past format information and apply common-language attributes to radio stations to make things more descriptive and useful to end users.

Next, we’ll expand further on Radio Station Profiles by applying advanced music analysis to stations’ playlists. This will enable an ever-deeper understanding of the styles of music each radio station plays leading to better recommendations and more accurate matching.

Personalization is absolutely key to a satisfying entertainment experience in the car, and the new Gracenote offerings enable an all-new level of it. By helping drivers as well as passengers easily enjoy the content that will best fit their tastes and moods, automakers can build loyalty for their products in a highly competitive marketplace.

RW: HD Radio includes the option of displaying album artwork and station logos. Could there be any conflicts with HD stations’ displays that employ that feature? And what happens when the HD hybrid reception falls back to analog FM during blending?
Hamilton: Radio StationID is not dependent on RDS or digital radio since it is accessed through an internet connection. Customers including auto manufacturers and infotainment suppliers ultimately decide how to implement HD displays so it is up to them how they integrate our offerings. That said, we offer radio station identification and song identification that enables a consistent user experience across all AM, FM, HD and DAB broadcast types.

One of the primary benefits of the Gracenote Radio StationID and MusicID Radio products is that they deliver radio station and song identification for both digital and analog broadcasts. This means that consumers can enjoy a consistent user experience when HD hybrid reception falls back to analog.

RW: Will receiver manufacturers have to add additional or modified circuitry in their designs to offer this enhancement? If so, that would preclude its use in existing radios, requiring a user to buy a new radio to get the Radio StationID feature. If not, and existing radios can offer the feature, explain how that will be accomplished.
Hamilton: It is possible to update Radio StationID and MusicID Radio on existing infotainment systems if the system architecture supports integration of the Gracenote GNSDK software and over-the-air updates.

At the spring NAB Show, Gracenote will conduct meetings in a hospitality suite at the Wynn.