Cridland: How technology can make radio more real and relevant

Wednesday 25 February, 2015

Geneva, Switzerland, is a pretty place to fly into. I was there for part of the EBU's Digital Radio Week.

The airport is in the valley, overlooked by snowcapped mountains; the view from the plane was spectacular on the clear Tuesday morning that I arrived.

The EBU, the European Broadcasting Union, is the member organisation for the large broadcasters in Europe. For radio, it concentrates mainly on standards setting, helps produce some shared programming, does some lobbying, and prides itself on information exchange.

It's the EBU that produces the Eurovision Song Contest, incidentally: a programme originally built to demonstrate technical advances in television, but now is a European talent show with such ridiculous rules it even includes Australia as a contesting country. Half of Europe takes it very seriously indeed; the other half of Europe watches it while poking fun at it: the UK television commentary mostly pokes fun at the funny costumes, silly dance routines and the odd coincidence that Eastern European countries mostly vote for neighbouring Eastern European countries.

The Digital Radio Week is a bright idea from the EBU, who play host to general meetings for various broadcasting associations throughout the week, and on the Wednesday host a full conference day.

Much of the discussion is technical, rather than from a sales or programming level, but occasionally you spot some fascinating ideas for programmers. It was mentioned in just one slide that the Italian public radio broadcaster, RAI, has an idea of merging FM and internet radio to produce an interesting idea - a national radio station with hyperlocal content.

In most of Europe, it's national radio rather than local radio that wins in the ratings. The radio output is the same whichever part of the country you're in. Yet, the lack of local information is becoming a weakness. A national radio station can't do decent traffic news; it can't talk about local events, either. While European countries are tiny compared to the US or Australia, there are still big differences between different parts of a country, after all.

RAI's idea is to put broadcast FM or DAB together with the internet to provide a more personalised radio service. Much of the output would be national radio, over broadcast radio. But your receiver would automatically download and play local material, opting out of the main national service.

So, conventional radio listeners would get an overall weather forecast covering everything from the Alps to Sicily, while listeners with a suitably equipped radio would get specifically detailed radio for Siena, or Palermo, or Rome. At the end of the weather forecast, your radio would simply opt back in to the national feed.

It doesn't take particularly long to work out that there are huge benefits for commercial radio here, too: and you wouldn't need to be a national station to benefit.

If you can do this for commercials and self-contained features, you could also do it for news or even normal links - to sound more real and relevant to parts of your community, not just your entire broadcast area.

If this sounds like a bit of a pipe dream, other discussions through the day make it obvious that it's closer than you think: the EBU is also part of the Universal Smartphone Radio Project (along with Clear Channel, iBiquity and Commercial Radio Australia among others) that could put this type of functionality inside all types of radio apps. Progress on enhanced FM capability inside phones (and DAB, and HD) is seemingly good.

I left the EBU dazzled by new technology, but also more aware than ever that "radio" needs redefining. We're not all about towers and the live broadcast: we're about being real and relevant. Radio is a human connection and a shared experience. Let's work out how best to use technology to make the most of the strengths we have.

 

 is a radio futurologist, and is Managing Director of  , a companion website to radioinfo and AsiaRadioToday.

He has served as a judge for a number of industry awards including the Australian   Local Radio Awards, the UK  , and the UK’s  , where he has also served on the committee. He was a founder of the hybrid radio technology association  .

James is one of the organisers of  , the radio ideas conference each September, and is also on the committee of  . He writes for publications including his own media.info, Radio World International and RAIN News.

James lives in North London with his partner and a two year-old radio-loving toddler. He very, very much likes beer.

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