November 2005

Got the picture? Get the audio right!

Got the picture? Get the audio right!

Five years ago when the potential for multi-media was much less clear than now our comment looked at radio as an aural medium and asked it needed the extras that we on the way or already available. If anything we're now more certain that that the first requirement is to get the audio right.

Our feelings match the sentiments of a number of comedians as expressed about Genesis:

As Genesis has it:
"1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
1:3 And God said, "Let there be light: and there was light."

And as various comedians added, "There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better. "

That last just about sums up for us the value of much of the touted extras. We listen to the radio for many reasons but wanting to have a cut-down inferior version of TV doesn't really figure and we're too old to be persuaded by marketing, however slick. So why, we wonder, is so much attention being given to adding visual and how much will it benefit radio.

Faces made for radio.

The news that Rush Limbaugh is to add video to his podcasts brought to find the old saw about faces made for radio: it may be that the gift from God likes to look at himself in the mirror but we can't really see 60 seconds of video adding that much. That however is almost inconsequential in that his subscribers can presumably choose not to bother with the visual podcast.

More serious is the effect concentration on adding other extraneous elements may have on the core benefits of the medium and thus on the prosperity of commercial radio itself: We can only hope that there remains sufficient pressure to keep the better public broadcasters financed well enough to produce the range of radio they do and that is just not going to make air in the commercial sector.

In either case, the extras involve a cost in effort and resources and either they are self-sustaining in covering the costs of the latter and a good return on the former or they detract from the overall: As we don't find them worth bothering about nearly all the time - we occasionally succumb to a minor bout of curiosity - but others do, there is always the issue of whether, like a web site, they are becoming a must-have to which our response is "Up to a point, Lord Copper."

We certainly accept that fans being what they are - and radio benefiting from keeping them - it is almost essential to post some stills of on-air personalities on station web sites but are less enamoured of streaming video of them at work for the simple reason that the first doesn't affect the on-air performance but the latter may.

Downsides of adding video.

We see a number of potential drawbacks to adding video, the most important of which is the side effect the visual has on those potential stars of audio who just don't happen to look particularly attractive: Before MTV it seems to us, the balance of appearance and vocal and musical ability was different in much of the pop world - indeed in the classical world also as we'd ask whether knowing from a photo of Vanessa Mae in the water playing a violin that she had breasts particularly improved the music.

The point is not to do with Mae but the effect this particular sales pitch had on perceptions of the market on those making classical recordings and the same is true for many of the female groups now around whose vocal talent seems somewhat limited compared to that of those with more vocal talent less glamour.

The other point worth making repeatedly is the difference between something pitched perfectly for listening and that which is well made for TV: the first draws in the listener through a combination of description and scene-setting, audio - be it reality or effects, and the listener's imagination, whereas the last omits much of the description and scene setting since the visual gives this information.

Those elements have not changed since we first trained in radio or TV but the use of the same reporter's work for both media has certainly made well constructed items rather more scarce: Far too often the radio report lacks information that has been carried by the pictures and the TV report includes descriptions of the obvious that is in the pictures. In entertainment programmes where attempts have been made to syndicate the audio of a TV show, we can't think of a really successful transition, a sign to us that the audience, probably without analysing why, does find something significant missing: Equally where radio shows, especially comedy shows that have relied on anarchic and wacky humour or indeed anything that relies on a listener's imagination, have been moved over to TV they have often fallen flat because the "visions" that could be conjured up using words couldn't be matched by the "visuals" that TV could provide.

The positives of adding video.

Here we find ourselves having significant difficulty in coming up with any sensible suggestions in aesthetic terms since our view is that the combination of words and vision is film, cartoons and TV and if to be of high quality is better on TV anyway.

So what does that leave? Well, except for drivers - and the evidence there is that even pushing a button to change a channel can be a dangerous distraction so we would cautious with receivers in an automobile about adding any visual information that takes the eyes away from the road - we can see some commercial advantages in having the ability for provide text - which it should be possible to store for later retrieval - be it for giving song information linked with download sales or additional information to go with adverts: Why clog up the airwaves, for example, with details such as phone numbers or URLs when the advert can be made aurally more attractive without such clutter yet the details could be available later at the touch of a button.

But as for the rest, well that's not radio but might it be profitable for radio to use its delivery system to provide services in areas that others could move into. We can see benefits here from using radio spectrum, especially in countries that have adopted the Eureka 147 DAB system that uses separate spectrum, to deliver such services as news, weather and sports updates to cell phones and mobile devices, since these can be received without "interruption to normal service" using the radio spectrum and then be instantly available from built-in memory and the return path can be used for selection purposes, which make less demand.

The same system could also be used as a method of delivering songs since the information could easily be transmitted and stored but need a return signal to unlock it.

Not much is it? If you disagree please send your own comment to us. In the meantime we'd rather have radio that's used the medium properly, promotes its virtues as distinct from those of other media, and gives as wide a range as possible - not just narrow music formats plus sport and talk with a sprinkling of news headlines but also comedy, current affairs drama, documentaries, in-depth news reports. We already have it in the UK - thanks to the BBC - and elsewhere public broadcasters also deliver a reasonable range, although nothing had the depth and breadth of the BBC. And thanks to the Internet, most of that range is available round the world. Long may that continue!

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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