More to digital radio

June 1, 2006

When it comes to digital radio, the debate about various transmission systems rages on, but the real future of digital radio lies not in the transmission scheme, but in the basic definition of digital radio.

Is digital radio HD Radio? Yes, but it's also DRM, DRE, Cam-D and other digital transmission systems. Digital radio doesn't end with these terrestrial transmission systems either. Terrestrial broadcasters don't like to admit it, but satellite radio is digital radio, too. It is just based on a different business model. Is this the limit of the digital radio universe? No, there's still more. Internet streaming can be considered digital radio; so can podcasting.

We need to define the meaning of digital radio so that we can better understand what it covers, and better plan for its future.

The digital part is easy to define: an encoded bitstream. Digital also carries an inference to a future technology. Analog was yesterday. Digital is tomorrow. We see this everywhere with the consumer focus that digital anything must be better simply because it's digital.

What is radio? For our use we mean radio broadcasting, and that means delivering an audio program of entertainment or information to an audience. Classically, this has been done via a wireless transmission (the definition of the noun radio), but if we ignore the transmission medium for a moment, we can still consider many different types of audio streams as radio.

With this in mind, it's safe to say that digital radio is the digital delivery of an audio stream. This is not a difficult concept. However, terrestrial radio stations are having difficulty separating the content creation for a mass audience from the delivery mechanism.

Look around and you'll see that the media convergence is really happening. You can now watch TV programs on an Ipod or a cell phone. You can watch movies on a portable game device or a PDA. You can download a radio program and listen to it during the day when you want on an Ipod, cell phone, PDA, PC and countless other devices. So why do so many broadcasters seem to think that digital radio ends with IBOC?

IBOC — and specifically HD Radio — is but one piece. To continue the quest to provide digital radio to the masses, stations must keep looking. Traditional terrestrial delivery — analog or digital — is not the only future. Successful stations will be content providers with many delivery vehicles. Digital radio is just one part of the multimedia experience.

Broadcasters should continue investigating alternate forms of delivery. While many stations already stream their own signals, they must look farther afield. The giants of the online industry also provide streaming audio. These services tend to be super jukeboxes, so why not leverage their reach with the popularity of a radio personality? At the end of last year, Clear Channel was exploring this idea with Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft.

Everyone carries a cell phone today, and some companies are looking to use this installed base to sell more services, including radio. One example is the Motorola Iradio. Just like partnering with the online firms, similar deals can be made with the dominant cell providers.

These ideas require some deals to be made, but terrestrial stations can take the first step on their own. If you're not streaming already, begin doing so. Display the program service data that you prepared for RBDS or HD Radio and put it online. Taking this one step further, we can promote HD Radio through a variety of player skins for Windows Media, Winamp and the others. Perhaps the HD Digital Radio Alliance can provide these for stations, and include presets for the stations to link to their multicast streams.

Stations can also begin offering podcasts of their programs. Many automation system manufacturers offer this capability, as do most of the logging systems.

This is all based on existing technology. The successful content provider will be ready to take advantage of them by embracing the systems that are available today.

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