What We Can Learn From Beats 1
July 7, 2015
So, Beats 1 has launched - the new, global, Internet radio station from Apple. Now that we've had a week to think about it, it's probably time to consider what it means for those of us who work in radio.
It's not polished.
It's been interesting watching the US radio pundits respond to Zane Lowe's broadcasting style. That's the sound of specialist, edgy BBC Radio 1 programming, brought to a global stage. I'm surprised how similar Zane's show is: the same gimmicks, the same style, the same features. It's not the polished, forward-progression that has invaded much of US (and UK) radio: there's no PD hovering in the background with a stopwatch timing the links. And that's probably for the better. Will listeners notice the difference, and demand a less polished sound?
Beats 1's style is not new.
If you want more of that kind of style, you might listen to BBC Radio 1 itself after 7.00pm UK time; to BBC Radio 6 music; to Australia's triplej; or even MPR's "The Current," which I found on an HD2 channel in the LA market. All those are commercial-free, which probably says something about the appetite for commercial broadcasters to attempt this kind of programming. They're all in TuneIn if you want to listen.
12 hours on repeat.
That's clever, and mostly works. For Beats 1, it makes no sense putting the money into a great breakfast show: partly because online radio actually doesn't work too well at breakfast, but also because the timezones mean it's always breakfast somewhere. There aren't many stations who do a 12-hour repeat to my knowledge: but it does seem ludicrous that we broadcast something just once, to a small minority of our audience, and then throw it away.
The streaming technology.
I'm going to get all techie for a second, but trust me, it's useful to understand: Apple's streaming "just works."
Most online stations stream using a technology that needs a constant trickle of data. A typical 48kbps AAC stream - which most stations use to deliver to mobile - needs a constant 48 thousand bits of data every second to be delivered to the phone. Typically you have much more than 48kbps of data available. But if the cell network isn't up to that - even for a second or two - it'll stop, wait till it has more data again, and carry on. That's why streaming radio sometimes doesn't work too well in cars.
Beats 1 is streamed using a different streaming technology - one that Apple actually invented. It sends pieces of audio in twenty-second individual audio files, and your phone simply plays those back, one after another. So instead of needing a constant 48 thousands bits of data every second, you just need 'enough' data in the next twenty seconds to download the next twenty second audio file. If you download it in just three seconds, then that's great. If you have ten seconds of no service at all, that's also fine, as long as there's still the data speed to download the next chunk. It'll still work.
The system - HLS, it's called - also lets your phone say "Yeah, my data connection's not very good at the moment, could I have a smaller file next time?", and the next 20-second chunk will be lower quality and a smaller file: anything to keep the music going. It's no wonder that the BBC is shifting over to this for its radio services too. You might also consider it: it's a considerably better way to stream.
And it also allows something else that Apple rather likes:
The only place you can listen to Beats 1 is on an Apple device - a phone, iPad or Mac. Apple's special streams are encrypted, and only those devices have the keys.
The jury's out as to whether you're better restricting the apps that can listen to your radio station. The reality, though, is that if you're streaming using normal MP3 or AAC streams, anyone can listen through any device as long as they know where to look. And those services could strip your ads and insert others; they could even strip portions of your programming; and they could certainly present your brand in a way you don't want them to.
Apple is fiercely protective of everything they do. So we'll not see Beats 1 in TuneIn, or other services, any time soon: unless Apple wants that to happen. Whether you think that's a bad idea or not, Apple gives us something to think about. Are our stations important enough to force people to install the official app?
I think much of Beats 1 is over-hyped nonsense; and I don't much care for the programming, to be honest. I'm not sure it'll set the world on fire. But I think there's plenty we can learn from Cupertino's vanity project. What else have you learned?