November 2004

What we'd like from radio in the future.

What we'd like from radio in the future.

This month as manufacturers push their wares for what to them is the prime buying season of the year our thoughts turned to what we'd like from radio is we could choose any gift this year.

The thought of course relate to three prime areas - the content, how we can receive it, and how we pay for it.


First of all is content since if this is poor the rest is irrelevant. So what would we like to be available on our radio receivers?

Well we'd like a good range of real choice, not just repackaging of the same limited options as is so often the case with many music formats - and not just chart that is limited by its very format - and news stations where so much of the choice is just which of two news agencies' copies is regurgitated.

In the past spectrum availability severely curbed the maximum number of channels that could be made available but technology has lifted the ceiling so there is no practical limit if a combination of terrestrial analogue, terrestrial digital, satellite digital and Internet-streamed material is available.

In the UK we are very well served by the BBC which of itself has a good range of real choice even on just the analogue stations and which of course also has now added digital channels and also streams its stations, including local ones on the Internet. Add to this the commercial analogue and digital channels available and even without the Internet the choice is pretty wide. Add the Internet and the world, to use a cliché is your Oyster.

So if we set an artificial limit of a couple of hundred channels we should be able to have a manageable (with some kind of programming device to keep track) we should be able to have a good range of comedy, drama, documentaries, music, news, science, sport and talk channels covering a range not just in the type of content but also the thoroughness with which a topic is explored - for example the five minute NPR feature and the one hour longer documentary that is produced by some other public broadcasters or the excepts of popular classical music to full renditions of works.

Receiving equipment.

If we exclude digital transmissions and go for reasonable quality and portability it is currently possible to buy a reasonable quality world band receiver covering FM and medium, long and short-wave analogue frequencies for around USD 50 and if a good quality pair of headphones is added travel the world with the ability to receive stations that are on the air wherever we are.

To get digital, however, requires addition of not just one portable and fairly cheap device but a significant range of different devices working to different standards and pretty well all costing at least twice as much.

In the USA for terrestrial digital audio the system is iBiquity's HB in-band-on-channel system but go north of the border into Canada and the system is the incompatible Eureka 147 DAB that uses additional spectrum rather than putting the signal into the spectrum of the existing terrestrial signal.

The of course, there's satellite - and different receivers for Sirius and XM in the US and for other platforms such as WorldDAB and various satellite TV platforms elsewhere.

You want the Internet? That needs yet another incompatible device.

So, as the world is never going to march in step, there is a problem when traveling, the prime reason we continue to argue that analogue should not be closed down even in countries where digital systems are well advanced.

So given a wish, we'd like some genius to come up with a simple system that in much the same package and at the same price as our existing "trannie" can handle all that the current device can and also handle all the digital terrestrial and satellite signals that are likely to be available.

Ideally one device would handle all but in practicable terms it may be that for satellite signals there would also have to be a connectable or dockable dish device in some areas and we'd also like it to have the same facility for connecting to mobile phone devices so that Internet streams can also be received - the mobile device would thus have to have some form of URL display to log in to streams.

Finally the system should also have some form of audio storage and playback system - maybe a built in memory card with say 512Mb of storage and the capability of turning the incoming audio into MP3s and a suitable standard line-out enabling it to easily be connected to an existing hi-fi system - and all car audio systems should also have an input allowing use of the device with existing audio systems.

How to pay for it all.

Apart from the fact that the above is for the moment a pipe dream in terms of keeping the price down to that of our trannies, all that content will not come for free.

At the moment there are three prime forms of payment for content assuming we exclude per-song download fees from the Internet: For the public broadcasters there is state subvention, licence fees or various forms of donation and sponsorship and for commercial broadcasters advertising or subscription with a limited degree of side income from sales of goods, such as CDs associated with programming.

All the models in our view have something going for them and we consider that ideally we'd like to see all three co-exist.

The public service model may be stodgy at times but it does provide programming that is worthwhile as well as worthy - the BBC licence fee for a year covering both radio (for which a licence is no longer required) and TV costs GBP 9.67 a month (USD 18 dollars at the current low dollar exchange rate) - puts some pressure on commercial rivals in terms of variety of output.

The advertising model likewise, much as the adverts may interrupt at times, forces an attention to audience numbers that is in its way salutary for the public broadcaster.

The subscription model as seen in the satellite services in a sense competes with and offers some of the best of both the above and the Internet model has a geographic and programming choice that no single organization can ever match.

Long may they all continue…And now can we have our 50 dollar do it all device?

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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