August 2002
Radio Data Services - Extras or delusions?

Radio Data Services - Extras or delusions?

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times concerning Radio Data Services (RDS) combined with the advertising of the advertisement last month (Licence News July 28) of the RDS sub-carrier of the UK INR1 licence spurred us to think of what have been widely touted as major "improvements" to radio but which we prefer to think off as add-ons to the audio and also the issue of which ones are really desirable extras and which marketing executives' delusions.

The ouster at the weekend of Thomas Middelhoff, chief executive of Germany's Bertelsmann AG, which had been preceded by the downfall of Robert W. Pittman as chief operating officer of AOL Time Warner Inc. and Jean-Marie Messier, the chief executive of France's Vivendi Universal SA -- the world's second-largest media firm, seemed to us further evidence that the great minds of the top media companies were nowhere near as smart as they seemed in assessing the public desire for technological advances, however good they may have been on selling "bright" ideas of the future to their companies for a while.

Middlehoff was associated with Bertelsmann's purchase of Napster; Pittman was thought of as a guru of convergence and synergy; and Messier's bright ideas included the idea that teenagers would be overwhelmed with desire to movies on their cell phones.
All of them either ignored or under-valued the core qualities that had made their original constituent companies successful or failed to allow sufficiently for the differences between the disparate elements -what we would term the "modes of transport idea.

Under this notion the bright MBA can put together these various elements without zing that the bicycle is transport as is the space shuttle but the qualities needed to be successful making bicycles are not necessarily the same as those needed for building the space shuttle.

In other words, the differences between various forms of media are often as great as the similarities and additional elements may or may not be perceived as worthwhile depending very largely on how an audience takes in its media.

What about the automobile?

The first question that hits our minds when it comes to most developments in radio is the obvious one. What about in-auto listening?

We use that phrase to cover any kind of listening situation, where the listener is doing or may have to do something else at the same time as having the radio available. It immediately puts a lot of bright ideas into perspective, and often into a small listening ghetto.

Thus for example, many of the fancy additional services that an Internet station can provide are close to useless for a driver for whom even having to concentrate on a radio display for a few seconds significantly increases the risk of accident.

If driving whilst talking on a mobile phone is dangerous because it breaks concentration, what use is a clever cartoon to go with the audio?

In other words any kind of complicated visual display immediately imposes limitations on the use of a "radio" receiver and in many cases point the sensible to a conclusion that in general use the facility is either of very limited value or best thought off as a different kind of media, not radio at all; for automobile use, there could be a strong safety reason for prohibition.

This thought affects the way we perceive the value of RDS, radio data services, which are already widespread in Europe.

Valuable extras.

None of the above is to doubt the value of some of the services provided. For example, the use of RDS to identify in a few characters and in a glance the station to which one is listening is of benefit and has very little downside for a driver.

The same is true of automatic TA (Traffic alert) facilities that automatically override the station to which one is tuned, or the tape or CD that is being played, when there is a weather or traffic alert and then return to the original programming.

The value would be significantly diminished if using it were complicated as opposed to being a matter of pressing a button that brings up the relevant TA indication when the system is on and remove it at another button press when no such interruption is desired. Extras, in other words, might well be negatives unless very simple to operate.

Negative extras.

What we class as negative extras are those that distract a driver or are complicated in operation to the point that they do not make sense to a large portion of the potential audience.

In this light, we reproduce some paragraphs from the Los Angeles Times report we have already mentioned concerning RDS services: "But now a Newport Beach company, dMarc Networks, has partnered with radio giant Clear Channel Communications to start offering song information, traffic reports, stock quotes, news headlines, sports scores and, of course, advertisements, on the company's five L.A.-area FM stations…"

Let's think about that for a moment. You are driving and a small screen with a limited LCD display starts offering the above plethora of information.

Are you likely to be distracted? We would suggest the likelihood is so great that a ban should be considered for all but the simplest displays or alternatively, taking a more libertarian route, that a jury ought to be automatically considering large damages against Clear Channel and the system suppliers in any case where a factor in a road accident has been such a service.

If a fatality were the result, we'd go further on the basis that to increase chances of this through trying to sell a song, is indeed criminal and comprises corporate manslaughter. We doubt that the top executives of any radio companies, advertisers or suppliers, would perceive the benefits of a few extra dollars in the same light if they were facing jail as a result.

As the LA Times report noted, " A study by the Center for Transportation Research at Virginia Tech University showed that in-car devices requiring more than 15 seconds of attention or more than four glances greatly increase the risk a driver will veer from his lane or deviate at least 10 mph from his intended speed."

Needless to say the system's developers play down that element, with DMarc president Ryan Steelberg saying, "This is an in-dash billboard. We don't feel it's any more distracting than the bells and whistles that are in your car now. In terms of safety, the main problem children out there are the interactive devices," such as cellular phones and navigation systems."
"Our product is no more distracting than your oil gauge light going on. It's not like we're pumping motion video into the system."

We'd agree with him as far as cell phones and navigation systems go -and suggest that the logical response is to make it an offence for the cell phone user to operate a handheld phone whilst driving since the suppliers cannot reasonably prohibit such use of a phone; as far as the navigational systems are concerned, we have serious concerns about permitting their use whilst in motion and would we'd go the same heavy damages and jail sentences route and allow those who wish to make money from such systems put their liberty and money where their mouths are.

And we'd comment that its pure BS to link such an idea with an oil or other warning light, whose purpose is to alert a driver to a problem and cause him or her to take appropriate action to increase safety, not make a few more bucks for the supplier of an inessential service or commodity.

Irrespective of the responsibility of using such a service, there is also the question of negative public perception as an example from the same LA Times report showed.

It notes that the use of RDS by a Santa Monica public radio station to try and raise funds through scrolling "See your name here" attracted more complaints from listeners than it did from potential underwriters. The idea was dumped speedily.

Making the negative positive.

Although we are adamantly opposed to receivers that drivers can see using text for more than the simplest information that can be assimilated at a glance, we do not oppose them in different circumstances; A service on a home receiver can safely display much more information and can do so in circumstances where the message can be assimilated safely if the listener/viewer so chooses.

We also see some benefits for in-auto facilities over and above the simple traffic and weather alert facilities already noted. We don't think, however, that automobile receivers should be allowed to use visual displays to get over the information or indeed do so in any way that detracts from a driver's concentration.

Most of the suggestions cited above would be better converted into an aural service anyway as far as a driver is concerned. With modern digital storage technology, we can't really see that this would be an insuperable problem for the services of benefit to the listener - if you want traffic, weather, news, sports or stock market headlines, an audio service would be a better one and we can see no reason why building in some data storage into an auto receiver couldn't make this something available -repeatedly if wanted- at the touch of a button.

We doubt a "repeat advertisements" button would get that much use but have no objection to it and more than we have any objection to a button that either gives verbal details about a song being played or stores those details for later m and safer, replay.

Any views? Please comment on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside, we'd like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate more feedback and dialogue.

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