digital

What Does “Digital” Mean?

The OED defines “digital” in five key ways, but the key definition that interests us here is as follows:

Digital technology; digital media, as digital television, digital audio, etc.

Basically, nearly everything these days is digital. Even if it ends up in analogue form like AM or FM radio, it almost certainly originates digitally.

Text is written on computers and stored digitally; audio is recorded into digital recorders and stored as a series of ones and zeroes; nearly all television and film is recorded using digital cameras.

So it’s curious that today the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has felt the need to rebrand itself as the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

We’re told:

“The department has taken on significant new responsibilities in recent years, so that half of its policy and delivery work now covers the digital sectors – telecommunications, data protection, internet safety, cyber skills and parts of media and the creative industries.”

So it has decided to add the word “Digital” to its logo. It has also decided that instead of becoming DDCMS, it will remain DCMS. So that makes life simpler then. Not that it saves on stationery reprinting costs as the logo is changing.

It’s clearly arrant nonsense that because things like telecommunications and data protection fall under its wing, that it needed to add the word “digital.”

Everything is already digital!

Other things that DCMS oversees include gambling, the National Lottery, architecture, tourism and charities. Are any of them reflected in the department’s name?

“Digital” is simply an adjective, and an often superfluous one, that describes how the world works. Using it as a noun is actually confusing, because depending on where you come from, digital means different things to different people.

  • Talk to radio people, and digital might mean DAB, or it might mean streaming.
  • Talk to TV people, and digital probably means streaming, but could mean a broadcast platform (all of which are digital), or perhaps it might be related to workflow.
  • Talk to advertising people, and it means advertising on websites and in apps. Unless you’re talking to outdoor advertising people in which case it means those big advertising screens, or cinema people who use it to describe their ad delivery mechanism, and so on.
  • Talk to publishing people and it probably means anything that is not printed on paper.
  • Talk to creative people and it’s largely meaningless because nearly everything they do is already digital.
  • Talk to telecommunications people and they’ll probably stare blankly at you and ask you to be a bit more specific.
  • Talk to architectural people and they’ll explain that they’ve been using CAD and 3D software amongst others for years now.
  • Talk to the public and they’ll want you to explain precisely what you mean.

What one organisation means by “digital” is very different to what another means by it.

Because nearly everything is digital, the word has become largely meaningless. And that means it can actually be more confusing to refer to it.

Think about how much of health or education is digital. When there’s a virulent virus or worm that can bring down hospitals’ computers, is that an issue for DCMS, or is it really a matter for the Home Office, Department of Health or the MoD? Or all of them?

Digital has morphed from being a word that made everyone think of the future and define broader changes in society, and become an almost meaningless word that requires some kind of qualifier to allow someone to understand the context of its use.

And all of this is before you get to the missing comma in their new logo…

Something Digital Advertising Could Fix To Make It Work Better

You’re flicking through a magazine, idly going through page after page. You’re perhaps looking for an article, but as you scan the pages before you reach the article, something catches your eye. An advertisement. You flick back and read the advertisement. Then you carry on looking for something else to read.

You’re watching your favourite TV series. You’re watching on your Sky+ and you’ve recorded the show. You fast forward through the ad break at 30x speed. But something catches your eye. You stop and rewind. You watch the ad. Then you get back to your show.

You’re walking past a bus-stop and glance at an ad for a new film. You pause briefly to double check the release date. You’re interested in the film. You carry on about your day.

Three entirely possible situations. All three have happened to me. Whatever advertisers might like to believe, but you’re not really buying a magazine for the ads or watching a TV show for the commercial break (some fashion magazines maybe excepted). But from time to time, you’re perhaps intrigued or interested by an ad. And you can often go back and check an ad.

But in the digital realm, this often isn’t possible. I go to a site and quickly navigate to the first story I want to read on the site – perhaps it’s from a news index page. As I click to the next page with a story I want to read, I glance at ad and am vaguely interested. I know, it seems unlikely, but advertising does sometimes work, and very occasionally I see an ad that I’m at least curious enough about to read.

But I’ve already clicked through to the next page. Never mind. I hit the back button in the browser to get back to it, and… I see a different ad.

Time after time, and on site after site, when I go back a page, the ad has changed. Whichever network has dynamically served me something else. And the ad I was actually interested in has gone!

I’ve actually been known to hit refresh a few times to see if I get served the initial ad again. I usually don’t.

The system is broken.

The same ad should feature on the same page in the same session. If it doesn’t, then the site/ad network is missing a trick. Digital advertising has enough problems in trying to keep people engaged and having to come up with ever trashier techniques to get people to respond. So make it easier for me to actually see an ad I want to see!

Why DAB Radio in the UK Isn’t Broken and Doesn’t Need Fixing

A bold title, I think. But read on for the reason.

There’s a Techradar piece – Why DAB in the the UK is broken, and how to fix it – that recently got a certain amount of traction and lots of retweeting amongst radio types. But it really needs some robust countering. I half expected James Cridland to have a go, but maybe he’s fed up repeatedly doing the same thing over and over.

OK.

I’ll bite.

From Techradar:

Firstly, let’s be clear about one thing – the real challenge isn’t coverage, even if that does need improving. That’s a well understood issue and the solution is obvious enough.

Nope, the main problem is bandwidth.

Unfortunately, that’s just not true.

The main thesis of the piece is that it’s a technological failing that has held back DAB radio. And in particular the low quality bit-rate of stations.

But that’s really not the case, and feels to be something of a naive engineer’s viewpoint of what does and doesn’t work.

The first and most important thing to know about how people listen to the radio is that they don’t care about the underlying technology.

They really don’t.

I’m fairly tech savvy. If you’re reading this blog, then you probably are too. We do care. But you know what? The average listener doesn’t care a jot.

They want to hear something good on the radio, and they want it to work easily and in all the places that they expect to be able to hear radio – which is everywhere. And that’s really all they want.

Digital has brought them more choice, and the likes of 6 Music and Absolute 80s prove that listeners rather like that choice. Analogue is full. There’s no more space. It’s this way or the [internet] highway. And of course we don’t have the bandwidth or the coverage for that. Techradar is right about that.

Are there technological issues with radio? Certainly.

Does it feel backwards that the vast majority of national DAB services are in mono rather than stereo? Definitely.

Is it a shame that at a time when audio is progressing in exciting new directions with multi-channel and object-oriented technologies that we in radio haven’t really adopted them? Indubitably.

But you know what? Most FM broadcasters crucify the life out of their analogue broadcasts by compressing the sound and making their station “louder.” Do we hear constant complaints about that? From those who know about these things perhaps, but average listeners, I’m afraid to say, don’t really care. Or if they do, they’re not voting with their dials.

(I should state at this point, I’d love a world in which all audio was delivered uncompressed in multi-channel goodness for me to listen to in a style of my choosing. But then I’d like people to switch off their mobile phones in cinemas too.)

Most radios? Mono speakers I’m afraid.

I think the main problem that DAB has in some quarters is actually perception. That DAB is somehow failing.

Reach is up to 51% – in other words 27 million people are listening via DAB every week (Source: RAJAR Q3 2013).

Is that a failing technology?

The biggest problems I believe that DAB has is perception.

– Radios have been expensive – especially for those who only want to spend less than a tenner on a radio.
– Coverage has been poor in the past. If you can’t get your preferred station in your location, then DAB doesn’t work for you.
– And then there’s the lack of DAB in the car.

But as I say, I think many of these “failings” are now perceptions rather than actuality.

These things are improving. Devices are getting cheaper. Devices have reached about £20, but £10 is on the horizon. There is increased coverage – not least with the BBC building out vast numbers of transmitters over the next couple of years. Commercial radio is doing a similar job, extending coverage of local multiplexes through a recently agreed funding mechanism. And we’re close to a majority of new cars coming equipped with DAB – although there is certainly a long way to go with cars. Not least educating drivers that despite the appearance of built in radios in their dashboards, they are replaceable or upgradeable (I truly believe that this is the single biggest issue that we face with in-car upgrades).

OK. So I’m painting a rosier picture. But why do national services choose to broadcast in low bit-rate?

Well, it’s essentially financial. They broadcast at the rate they can afford. And there is a single national multiplex with room for about 10 or so services which is owned by a single operator. Economics dictates how that space is filled.

A second national multiplex will be advertised within the next few months. Upon launch that will instantly double the capacity, meaning that the price to broadcast will hopefully be driven down allowing either more choice or allowing some services to improve their broadcast quality.

But what about the technology Adam? Isn’t DAB+ the way forward?

Well in time, it probably will be. But a significant proportion of the many millions of DAB sets currently in use are not upgradeable. Technology writers are always keen to upgrade. The lifecycle of mobile phones or operating systems is in low single digit years. A two-year old phone or OS? Ancient.

TV manufacturers would love us to upgrade our televisions more frequently that the five or so years that we currently do, with 4K and curves are their latest reasons we should rush out to Currys.

But consumers sort of expect their radios to work for a long time. And with no moving parts beyond on/off switches, they do work for many years. You don’t replace your fridge every two or three years because there’s a new “2014” feature packed model on the market. You probably just replace it when the old one packs in. And that’s how consumers have treated radios. Just announcing that they’re all going to have to buy new DAB+ radios tomorrow isn’t going to work.

When we see the “Digital Tick” launched, it’ll only appear on DAB+ equipped devices. In due course, we’ll all hopefully own DAB+ radios. But this will take years not months. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the odd DAB+ station launch – perhaps on the new second national commercial multiplex.

I’d look to Freeview and Freeview HD for an analogy.

Because you know what? Freeview also works on the same “old” mp2 technology that DAB works on. When we old went to 100% digital TV a couple of years ago – we all went mp2. It’s not the latest and greatest. But since OnDigital launched their first DTT boxes in 1998 (around the time of the first DAB multiplexes) they’ve been essentially using the same technology.

If you’ve bought a new TV or DTT set-top box in the last couple of years, it may well have come with Freeview HD. That’s works using far more up to date codecs. The TV in my living room picks up these services, while the cheaper older one in my bedroom isn’t Freeview HD compatible. I suspect in the fullness of time, that’s how we’ll upgrade to DAB+ in radio terms.

Like DAB, Freeview/Freeview HD is a space constricted platform with a limited number of multiplexes. Freeview will never be able to offer the range of HD channels that satellite or cable can. But do we consider Freeview a technological failure? I don’t think so.

The average viewer really doesn’t care about the underlying TV technologies that we get our favourite shows in. They just want to watch Eastenders or The X-Factor. As we get faster and better broadband, more and more TV will be IP delivered. But at the moment? How fast can you download an HD film at 8pm in the evening, even on fibre?

And by the way, while a viewer might be getting their picture in glorious 1080p, they’re just as likely to be hearing the sound from their TV in awful tinny speakers that are all the manufacturers are capable of squeezing into their razor thin sets. But that’s another subject.

Right now, what radio needs to do to grow digital listening is get more devices with radio built in. Wander into a high street branch of Currys or Argos and see all those iPhone docks or Bluetooth speakers. How many of them have DAB built-in? Look at the mobile phone in your pocket, or the tablet on your sofa? How many of those have DAB built-in?

The single biggest driver of digital listening is making sets available and affordable, and in 2014, bundled into hardware that consumers want to buy.

While I love the beautiful range of retro-styled radios the average John Lewis has for sale, it’s more about putting radio into rather more contemporary devices that consumers aged under 45 want to buy as far as I’m concerned.

It’s about perception, availability and devices. It’s not about the technical standards.

A Digital Radio Future

This morning, I was in the BBC Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House along with several hundred colleagues who work for broadcasters, regulators, hardware manufacturers, car manufacturers and assorted others to hear Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, stand up and talk about the future of digital radio in this country. The event was DRUK’s Go Digital conference – their third annual get together.

It’s a subject spoken about with a lot of passion by a lot of people. And it’s undoubtedly true that there are some profound disagreements from different operators across the spectrum.

In general, I think I came out quite enthused by what the minister and many of the other speakers said:

– near commercial FM equivalency by 2016 for local DAB digital radio, bringing many local services to more people, and improving the in-car listening experience, and funded by the DCMS, BBC and commercial radio.
– a second national commercial digital multiplex, potentially allowing ten or so new national services to launch.
– improved D1 coverage to Classic FM equivalency by 2016, so more people can hear services like Absolute Radio on DAB.
– consultations on relaxed music formats.
– consultations on community radio funding opportunities.
– further investigation into hyper-local DAB potential following the Ofcom test in Brighton.
– the launch of a digital tick for consumers to be satisfied that what they buy today will still receive all their services tomorrow.
– the Department of Transport using the DVLA to alert motorists to digital radio in car (I assume while there’s still actual paperwork coming from the DVLA!)
– a new 4th generation Frontier Silicon chipset that includes every global digital and analogue radio form factor in a single chip that now costs 10% what the 1st generation did, using the same power as today’s FM, and crucially, that will work in mobile phones.
– the prospect of £10 DAB radios.
– new services coming to DAB in 2014 including Kisstory.
– the entire Halfords radio range being digital by 2015.
– Kwik Fit entering the digital radio fitting marketplace in 2014 – get a DAB radio while you have your MOT done.
– a demonstration of RadioPlayer working on a mobile phone hooked into Ford’s Sync Applink.

All really quite positive announcements.

Is it all plain sailing from here? No. Of course not. But then it hasn’t been plain sailing getting to this point as Matt pointed out in an excellent post yesterday.

There are plenty of hurdles to overcome. Some radio stations still don’t have an obvious route to a digital broadcast platform. There are 30m or so cars in the UK that need an affordable digital solution. And there are still lots of people who have yet to be sold on the real benefits digital radio brings.

But this movement is all in the right direction, and I think most people in the industry appreciate those challenges.

Because the reality is that if the industry doesn’t evolve, then consumers will evolve without us.

Off the top of my head, here are just a few of challenges, the radio industry faces in the coming months and years regardless of what we do:

– Getting anyone under 25 to actually listen to the radio at all (And those under 25s very quickly become under 35s and so on).
– Avoid having radio appear on a sub-menu in car. That real estate between the driver and passenger in the front of a car is being fought over an awful lot, and there are plenty of non-broadcast radio “solutions” being offered to manufacturers who’s primary focus is still engineering metal boxes to move us around.
– Bringing our radio services to devices that people want to buy. A common anti-digital issue that gets raised is the stagnation of DAB set sales (against an economic collapse no less). But the problem is less that they don’t want DAB, as much as ignoring radio in general. Is radio a “sexy” device? I suspect that most teens or twenty-somethings are less after a DAB radio than a Bluetooth connected speaker of some sort. And yes, I know you can get DAB radios with Bluetooth connectivity. Oh and let’s not get into all those supposed analogue radio sales – they’re in the most part analogue radios built into devices that do other things. Many smart- and non-smartphones for starters. The one key exception here is the sub-£10 clock radio, which needs a cheap digital solution.
– Bringing to market in-car solutions that don’t represent a sizeable percentage of the car’s overall value (a £200 radio isn’t much use in a £500 car).
– Competing with new services, and not either pretending they don’t exist, or that our listeners aren’t using them. Can your radio station offer things that Spotify or iTunes Radio can’t? Certainly. Are you sure you’re doing it? If all you’re doing is playing the same tracks back to back with minimal presenter interaction, and somehow wanting to get 15 minutes of ads out an hour, then you’re probably on borrowed time. Did Radio 1, Kiss or Capital have the exclusive on the new Beyoncé album at the weekend? No. It was iTunes. This is what we’re up against. And pretending these interlopers haven’t parked their tanks on our lawns is a certain way to bring about the beginning of the end. But we also need to sell our services to listeners. Explain to them why we offer what they can’t get from a streaming service. And then we have to deliver on that promise. We need to up our games. Bad radio won’t cut it anymore.

Overall, this will be a consumer-led revolution. But you know what? It’s already happening. It’s not a question of radio going digital, it’s a question of whether or not we as an industry are providing the right services to consumers in the places that they’re already going.

They already are going digital. All of them. Like your local newspaper wasn’t, your station is not going to be a special case.

Here’s a Media Guardian report from this morning, and here’s a DCMS press release and the full speech from Ed Vaizey. And here’s a link to a video explaining how Ford Sync works with Radioplayer.