UK Analogue Radio Gets A Bashing

UK Analogue Radio Gets A BashingDAB in the UK has had a good week with prices dropping to an all time low, with High Street retailers are now making available a DAB radio with CD player for under £50.

To add the icing to the digital radio cake, Dixons the domestic electronics giant that made its name in radio more than 50 years ago, has announced its decision to drop conventional analogue ‘steam radio’ from its portfolio (But they appear to make a habit of grabbing press about this type of thing, having done it with VCRs already).

Although a date has been set for UK analogue TV to closedown, no such decision has been made for radio, and with radios outnumbering TVs at something like 4 to 1 any planned switchover is bound to be some way into the future.

DAB radio coverage in the UK is approaching 85% but the rollout in the rest of the world is patchy, with markets like the USA favouring a pay-model satellite-delivered radio service with brands like Sirius. Competition from the drm (Digital Radio Mondiale) standard and commercial operators like Worldspace are also creating uncertainty in territories that are characterised by dispersed populations across large land masses.

There are now over 270 UK analogue radio transmitting licences issued and they’re still leaving OFCOM’s shelves as fast as they become available, but with a promise of a further national DAB multiplexes and a likely radio presence from Channel 4, the future of radio is looking increasingly digital.

UK Analogue Radio Gets A BashingSky’s satellite hybrid gnome receiver has so far failed to dazzle and, like the semi-portable internet radios, it’s perceived as overly complex for the average punter who prefer the Freeview-like DAB proposition.

Not all retailers of radio see the disappearance of analogue radio as inevitable in the near future. There are important extra features to tempt people, like EPG, pause live and track identification, which make digital services far ‘sexier’ than conventional wireless,

What will show DAB has arrived? We reckon that once the DAB pirates hoist their Digital aerials, the technology will have well and truly arrived.

HD Radio – More Channels or Music Sales to Bring Income?

The US radio industry is looking to make additional income from music downloads, we’re told by Reuters – while listening to the radio, they’ll be able to select the playing track for paid download.

The piece announces the catch-all snappy name of HD Radio, that’s iBiquity Digital’s offering, which digitised the FM and AM bands. European readers will be well aware of equivalent FM services under the banner of DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) which has been available for a considerable period of time, and the currently lesser known drm (Digital Radio Mondial, not Digital Rights Management) which offers FM-quality listening on the AM frequencies.

The benefits brought by HD Radio/DAB/drm are digital compression of the audio, enabling more radio stations to be broadcast on the same amount of frequency. As the broadcast is digital, additional information can be distributed with it, such as the name of the artist and track playing.

As with all things compressed for digital distribution, there is a balacing act between number of stations and the audio quality of those stations. Digital doesn’t have to equal quality. The quality of the audio isn’t assured – the amount of the compression directly controls the quality.

US “terrestrial radio”, as it is being called by some to differentiate it from its satellite-delivered competitor, is under pressure from numerous sources; satellite radio (XM AND Sirius); Nokia’s Visual Radio; Internet-based radio stations; digital music player; podcasting, and don’t appear to have acted that quickly to respond.

The current cost of radios to receive HD radio are in the range of $500-$1,000 (~€382-€764, ~£270-£540), but as we’ve seen in the UK with DAB, it’s just a matter of time before these drop to the £49 (~€70, ~$91) levels, as more efficient chip sets become developed and a mass market is formed.

We found the comments by Jeff Littlejohn, executive vice president of distribution development at the dominant US radio station company, Clear Channel, the most illuminating, “We don’t think the business model associated with downloads is nearly as attractive as adding additional audio channels.”

In Clear Channels view there’s still more money to be made from advertising revenue than from music downloads, not least because they don’t have to share the revenue raised with the record companies – who are not known for their willingness to take small proportion of sales.

Radio Broadcasters Mull Digital Music Stores: Reuters

AudioFeast: 100+ Radio Channels on your Music Player

AudioFeast, the first to market with a portable Internet radio service for MP3 players, mobile devices and PCs, has made another major announcement that should greatly entice consumers to embrace online music.

The company’s new portable music service lets you listen to Internet and terrestrial programming on your portable digital audio player, including over 100 channels of commercial-free, digital quality music. The company also announced a strategic collaboration with iRiver America, manufacturer of portable digital audio devices, to deliver AudioFeast compatibility with iRiver’s iFP-700 series and iFP-800 series Flash-based MP3 players.

The service differs from online music stores, such as Napster and iTunes, by allowing customers to subscribe to a wide range of programming that is automatically refreshed on a portable device. They gain easy access to a library of music without incurring the effort and expense of having to find, purchase and download each and every song. To encourage consumers to try out its new experience, AudioFeast has created a free Basic Service, which comes with 60-minute channels of music, news, sports and entertainment programming.

With around 70 media partners, AudioFeast has licensed a selection of news, sports, drama, comedy, business and entertainment channels, along with a variety of hobby and niche programming options. A sample includes: A&E, Bloomberg Radio, BBC Radio, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, NPR, SportsNews Radio and The Wall Street Journal Radio Network. As the service expands in the coming weeks, another 100 channels of music will be added, including pop, jazz, electronica, trance, R&B, rock, alternative, classical genres and more, according to the company.

“Our goal is to re-ignite the passion consumers once felt for radio. By expanding and improving consumer entertainment options, we can continue to fuel consumer adoption of the MP3 player,” said Tom Carhart, chief executive officer at AudioFeast. “Our research shows that Internet listeners have an especially deep passion for specific and established programming, and an equally strong desire to make that content portable. Now for the first time they can enjoy their favourite shows anytime, anywhere for one low price.”

However, the service will face competition from companies like Audible, who have been selling downloadable audio books for a long time; the fast growing band of individual and small companies who are offering audio content for download (sometimes called podcasting); and the growing number of audio players that have built-in FM tuners, allowing users to listen to popular radio stations for free.

:SP:We have seen, and continue to see downloadable audio, for playback on portable music players as a significant distribution path for audio content. We feel people will eventually tire of listen to every album that has ever been recorded, and look to using their commute time into the work to catch up on their chosen work subject or hobby.


Gadget review of IBC04

IBC was good this year. There was real stuff to see. Ideas that were whispered two or three years ago are now products you can play with rather than vapourware. But you had to be cheeky to find some of them. Marching up to the stands with a request for a 90 second product demonstration certainly helped to cut through the sales bitch, sorry, pitch. Camera man Dave Allen and I spent a couple of days preparing our "gadget safari", looking for products, including software, of interest to the independent producer.

The Long Slow Fade
I am currently making a documentary on DV-CAM about the (slow) death of analogue radio. The question is whether digital radio will replace it in the form we were all expecting five years ago. In the UK, DAB is working. Elsewhere on the continent, it is a mixed bag. In Holland, for instance, the Dutch public broadcasters have stuck 6 of their channels on the air. But there is no added value for listening on DAB – the data is just the RDS feed and, with so few mountains, people are not writing to their favourite FM stations complaining about reception. Commercial broadcasters, still smarting from a crazy Dutch government auction of FM frequencies, refuse to play the DAB ball until they see a way of getting a return on investment.

With hindsight, the radio dial is the worst human interface ever invented. Millions of pounds of valuable content is hidden behind a number – or in the old days the name of the transmitter site! Do you know anyone who sorts their address book by their friends phone number? If you do, probably best to avoid them for intellectual conversation! It is unlikely that they floss very often too.

Pure Bug with DAB EPGWith all the competition from the "red button" and "iPod favourites" radio needs an electronic programme guide – an EPG. At IBC, Unique Interactive together with two receiver manufacturers – Morphy Richards and Pure Digital demoed the first attempts. Yes, the programme schedule is in there. But the intelligent radio that knows your preferences, anticipates and pre-records shows you might like is some way off. We’ll probably see the "personalised" software on Wi-Fi enabled MP3 players before the radios are out there.

In South Korea, the national broadcaster, KBS, is working with Samsung to make a multimedia enabled radio. On the WorldDab stand they showed how they’re putting video over the DAB network and calling it Digital Multimedia Broadcasting [Watch a QT video of DMB]. Korean Digital Multimedia BroadcastingThey know the broadcast network is ideally suited to mass distribution of media rich content. The economics of sending 3 minutes of video to 100,000 people make 3G a very expensive way of getting content broadcast, especially in a crisis. Nokia know that, but have chosen partners such as NTL and HP to work on a competing method of content distribution, DVB-H. Both are really in the physics experiment stage – no-one has developed stimulating content for these platforms yet – and it is not going to be ringtones that save the day [Watch QT video of NTL].

DAB, the other DRM, Wi-Fi
Two other technologies seem to be moving along. DAB has a complementary technology designed to make AM (long wave, medium wave and short wave) sound like FM. By turning the transmitter into a giant modem, and using 1/3rd of the power, the results are impressive. The RTL group plans to revive the "great 208" and see DRM (in this case, Digital Radio Mondial) as a cheap way of covering audiences spread over large distances. Three radios were on the DRM stand. I was particularly interested in a ?199 (~$245, ~£135) "cigarette box size" radio from Coding Technologies. It plugs into the USB port of a laptop and is also powered from the USB port. You need a bit wire as an antenna (keeping it away from the laptop processor), but the concept is a true plug and play [Watch a QT video of DRM].

As Wi-Fi takes off, a Wi-Fi enabled radio would be handy. There is a huge choice of radio programming streamed on the web. But you can’t carry it around the house. Philips StreamiumPhilips has a system called Streamium, which is more of a Wi-Fi enabled hi-fi/boombox. A clever piece of kit, but Philips haven’t a clue on how to promote it to the public. A Cambridge based research company called Reciva, on the other hand, had a much better concept to show at IBC – a kitchen radio format with a familiar tuning knob to change channels [Watch a QT video of Reciva].

It is no longer cool to be just a supplier to the "radio" journalist. Most of the people making recorders or editing systems are coupling the audio editing to some form of video editor. Handheld Digital audio recorders look pricey (?1000 +) when put alongside the new Sony HDR-FX1 HD-CAM cameraSony HD-CAM, the HDR-FX1, which will offer entry-level hi-definition video for the prosumer market for around €3,500 (~$4,314, ~£2,390). It also seems crazy that many of the best video editors can be downloaded for a couple of hundred bucks for personal use and yet some audio editors have made it impossible for the freelance community to buy cheap personal copies of the software. They forget what power of persuasion these people have in getting technology adopted within many broadcasting stations.

Our shortest visit was to Canford audio who have nothing on their stand – except one of the world’s biggest catalogues of audio equipment. In the back we spotted a pair of headphones, the DM H250 with a USB connector and a built in DA/AD converter – ideal for newsrooms with audio workstations that don’t want the expense of a separate analogue sound network. The headphones retail for around £110 (~$136, ~€75).

And finally on the audio side we picked up an iPod with a difference. It is actually a company within Harris called Neural Audio that was showing what their codec technology can do with a very limited number of bits. You got what sounded like perfect mono at 24 kb/s, and 5:1 surround sound at 96 kb/sec [Watch a QT video of Neural Audio].

Then onto stuff for the video/journalist in the field?and we found something that really is for someone like me. You are out on location with a complicated story?how do you remember your lines? Telescript has a small Teleprompter that works with a lap-top and is bright enough to be useful in the field. It will set you back £1,500 (~$2,700, €2,200). The batteries last for a day’s shooting. [Watch a QT video of the Telescript]

It doesn’t take long for videographers to realize that steadycam isn’t steady enough for the bigger screens we see today. But the tripod and dolly manufacturers guess correctly that we don’t want to spend our old age in a home for the bewildered with back pain. IBC had a lot of useful equipment for the documentary maker. The Italian company Manfrotto had a carbon-fibre tripod with gimbles, just the thing to keep the camera level on uneven terrain. They also had useful remote controls for handycams allowing for much smoother zooms using buttons on the tripod. LED backlights and even dim-able LED spotlights were on show – and much closer to daylight that I expected [Watch a QT video of the lights]. Perhaps one of the fastest demos was from Microdolly Hollywood who have a portable dolly-track which folds up in 5 seconds -flat! [Watch a QT video of Microdolly] I also bumped into an Israeli company called DVTEC. They have some useful devices to take the weight off your shoulders with a heavy camera, plus a compact car mount which, although light, won’t come off as you drive [Watch a QT video on DVTEC’s product].

My vote for originality goes to Puddlecam from the Norwich based EV Group. They’re in the sports TV business, trying to offer way in which to make unique action shots without ruining the camera. The indestructible Puddlecam is ideal for getting those action shots from the side of the road – in fact from anywhere where ordinary cameras fear to tread [Watch a QT video of Puddlecam].

I think software concepts also deserve a prize. If you want a complete set of test and measuring equipment while doing important DV recordings in the field, look no further than DVRack from the US company of Serious Magic. It is like taking a broadcast truck on location – except the software runs on a laptop. Download the demo to try before you think about purchasing [Watch a QT video of DVRack]. Personally, I was impressed, especially since you can start using this software to save DV to hard-drive and only use DV tapes as back-up. US$495 (~?403, ~£274) is the download price. If you need maps on location, then the Norwegian company of MAPcube offer a special deal to independent journalists who need to draw accurate maps, perhaps for a TV documentary or a website. They take publicly available data from NASA, but then adjust the presentation to make it usable for the broadcast industry [Watch a QT video of MAPcube]. Finally, the satellite company of SWE-DISH caught our eye with a satellite dish, FA150T, that can be folded and carried as a back-pack – at 38 kg (84 pounds) a bit heavy for the overhead locker, but ideal for expeditions to some of the remote areas of the world. Why are these devices still so heavy? Because they need a power amplifier to make contact with the satellites. This one from Sweden uses GPS to find the location of pre-programmed satellites. It is controlled from a laptop. A perfect case of shoot the video, then automatically point to dish to transmit [Watch a QT video of SWE-DISH].

That’s all we can squeeze into this space. This survey was done independently of the stand holders – no money changed hands nor was any equipment donated. Colleagues from other IBC sessions in the series also found other gadgets. Perhaps we can persuade them to share their discoveries for a follow-up column. If you want to see the stuff in action, watch the videos!

About Jonathan Marks
Jonathan Marks has worked in public broadcasting in the Netherlands for just over 24 years, but started his own consulting company in the middle of last year called Critical Distance. He produced a popular communications show on Radio Netherlands called "Media Network". He now plays devils advocate to a number of companies, questioning their strategies, but at the same time preparing alternative scenarios for what technology is making possible.