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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Is Technology Leaving Radio Behind?

I would like to begin this essay with a personal comment. I loathe the blather being slung across the public airwaves. The catalyst of this discontent is outlets like ClearChannel, which has driven down the quality of broadcast radio for quite some time, and the aggressiveness of the FCC in policing content has certainly not been helpful. Many audiophiles feel the same way as I do, and have begun a mass exodus away from traditional radio in favor of alternative, more flexible content.

Regarding broadcast radio, the only time I find myself listening is when I need a traffic report, and the technology is there to allow more robust, real-time reports via PDA, satellite, or mobile phone. If satellite radios use XML to display sports scores, song titles, etc, why can’t they display real-time traffic reports? Further, why can’t they incorporate GPS into the unit and display completely localized reports? They can, but the local stations fight this sort of innovation. Recall the quarrel last year with local stations and XM Radio about traffic updates, a dispute that is ongoing. The bottom line is that the marketplace demands innovation, and traditional outlets tend to lag behind. Thus, they fight the innovation, and seek intervention to allow them to keep their market share.

The RIAA had a similar view regarding Peer-to-Peer software. P2P computing was the beginning of the download revolution, and the media conglomerates fought the technology tooth and nail. Regardless of whether you are for or against the transmission of digitally copied music from one client to another, it cannot be argued that the most sensible tactic would have been for the industry to have embraced the technology from day one. As a result of their stonewalling, file sharing became a behemoth that they will surely never overcome, especially if they continue to charge a king’s ransom for songs that are crippled by proprietary DRM schemes, and if they continue to provide a limited catalog from which to choose.

Podcasting, a recent trend in content delivery, takes the issue of content delivery a step further. Now, anyone with a microphone and a PC can produce content, and distribute it to the masses. Admittedly, most content is lacking right now, but Podcasting is in its infancy, and, as often is the case, the market will dictate which podcasts will survive, and which ones will not.

Now that digital audio devices have become so ubiquitous, the public has a demand for content for those devices. As such, people want robust content, on demand, and portable. In fact, some broadcasters have joined the technological bandwagon, such as Virgin Radio, Wall Street Journal This Morning, and Air America.

Other media corporations need to realize the limitations of their product. Traditional radio can only reach an audience within a specific geographic scope. Syndicated shows appeal to a mass audience, yet are periodically under assault by the right (read: indecent content) and the left (remember the Fairness Doctrine?) In these conditions, disenchanted listeners will flock to alternative media, yet the traditional broadcast media simply do not see this.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Here is what I would propose to breathe new life into the radio industry.

  • Realize that many radio listeners simply do not like formulaic music. Cast this notion aside in favor of more niche-oriented stations. Like it or not, this is why podcasts and satellite radio have been so successful.
  • Podcast audio streams so that people can listen to them on the go. If cost is an issue, sell the podcast as an opportunity to deliver more advertisements to more listeners.
  • Provide licensed content for download, such as MLB or NFL broadcasts. Incorporate a reasonable DRM scheme into the content so that users cannot use the material for longer than a set number of days. Allow the user to pay a fee if they want to keep the material for their own use. Further, allow the user to choose the device to which the content is delivered.
  • Standardize DRM. Apple should work with iRiver, and Real should work with Apple, etc.
  • Provide RSS feeds of your content so that users can easily sync their digital audio devices with the feeds. This is the most efficient medium of delivery, and you would be wise to embrace it.
  • As mentioned earlier, deliver XML content to satellite radio units that is useful, and can be localized (i.e., traffic reports).
  • Keep the FCC out of the satellite industry. Allow the market to self-regulate. If people don’t like the vulgarity, they can either block the channel, or they can vote with their pocketbook and drive the vendor out of business.

  • Finally, a more broad word of advice to “old media.” Do not fight the advance of technology. Embrace it. Incorporate it into your business. Listen to the consumer. Be innovative. Think outside of the box. And don’t let your product become stagnant. The consequences of inaction will likely leave the industry on the outside looking in.

    UPDATE: Dave Winer echoes similar thoughts regarding podcasts on behalf of NPR.


    .: posted by Dave 3:27 PM

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