It's Time For A Better Radio
July 14, 2015
I read an awful lot of blogs about radio. I enjoyed a recent blog by Dick Taylor, who talked about the need for radio to standardize:
Once upon a time, cars were steered by a stick. The throttle was located on the steering wheel. The high beams switch was located on the floor. And it was different in every car.
[They're not any more. They standardized.]
It's time for radio to standardize.
AM, FM, DAB, DAB+, HD Radio, HD2, HD3, HD4, Streaming….it's insane. It's confusing.
He's right to see that there's something that needs to be done about the confusion. But standardization of the platform isn't really the answer.
Different platforms do different jobs for radio broadcasters, in different markets. HD Radio is the right technology for a market without national radio, and without a strong history of radio companies working together. DAB+ is the right technology for a market with strong national radio and a collaborative spirit. There's nothing wrong with analog FM/AM. Streaming, too, works just great in many cases.
You can also criticize all of the above platforms for their potential failings. AM sounds like rubbish. FM suffers badly from interference. DAB+ is too expensive. HD Radio isn't robust enough. Streaming is expensive. It's easy to pick holes.
So, neither of the platforms are 'right,' neither 'wrong.' They all have a job to do. And it's wrong to attempt to 'standardize.'
Indeed, there's no standard for AM/FM around the world. An FM radio bought in the US will sound like rubbish in Europe due to a different pre-emphasis thingamibob, and won't be able to pick up half the channels broadcast in Europe, because we don't just use frequencies that end with odd numbers. AM, too, lacks a real standard in frequency use.
Instead, I'd like you to imagine a conversation in the US with someone who doesn't know what a radio is.
"So, how do I get music on this thing?"
"Well, you have to tune up and down like this."
"Uh-huh. How do I know what I've tuned in to?"
"Oh, well, you don't. You have to wait 'till the legal ID at the top of the hour."
"The garbled one? Right. And what if I want some news and speech?"
"Well, they're on the left-hand of the dial. Mostly."
"Just because. Hey - my favorite radio station is WPLJ. Tune to that."
"Tune into 95.5."
"That's where WPLJ is."
"How do you know?"
It's baffling, if you step back. In Dick's words - "insane. Confusing."
What we need isn't standardization. It's a better radio.
We need to hide all the complication from the listener. Frequencies are hardly 2015 - so just tune in by station name or logo. You know, like everything else in the world works. Want to listen to a station on FM? Cool. Drive to a part of town where it isn't on FM? No worries, just switch to streaming. Or to DAB+. Or to an HD3 channel. Let's hide all the frequencies, the wavebands, all that stuff. Let's just let people tune in to great radio.
Sounds ridiculous. But it actually already exists. The UK collaborative company Radioplayer is readying a hybrid car adapter as we speak. You can read the press release, and see a video explaining it all, on their website.
After all: the TV companies have spent millions on making their user interface as good as possible: on cable, or Netflix, or the EPG. When will it be radio's turn to take user interface seriously?