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Radio Festival 2011 Report: Part One – TechCon

This is the first part of three part summary of this year’s Radio Festival. Part two can be found here, and part three can be found here.
Each year the radio industry gets to meet in Salford at the Lowry in Salford Quays – just metres away from Media City where Five Live is currently moving to – to talk about radio. Yes – it’s Radio Festival 2011.
The following is what I saw, and thought about this year’s festival. In summary, I thought that it was excellent!
The first day is called TechCon, a day I’ve not previously attended. The sessions are – as the name perhaps suggests – of a more technical nature. Orion Media’s David Lloyd ably hosted proceedings.
The first session saw Dan McQuillan from Broadcast Bionics talk about stations’ lack of the true embedding of social media into the studio. He was very impassioned about it practically berating us at some points. One his major issues is not putting proper social media tools in studios. So that means a decently specced PC in the studio with more than just Tweetdeck. He noted that Chris Evans ends up using his own iPhone to engage listeners.
Next up was Rupert Brun who talked about the BBC’s experiments with HD sound – 320kbit AAC LC – and the experiment they carried out at the Proms in 2010 which was later launched fulltime on Radio 3 in 2011.
Brun referred to age-related hearing loss, and noted the controversy that surrounded the audio edit of Prof. Brian Cox’s recent Wonders of the Universe. Brun noted that Cox doesn’t have age-related hearing loss, and has also read the script… What’s clear is that one mix isn’t necessarily suitable for all. The BBC could provide different mixes to different people, but that’s inefficient and confusing. They instead turned to spatial audio encoding to attempt to let the listener “unmix” the audio themselves. In partnership with Fraunhofer IIS they performed an experiment at Wimbledon this year.
Essentially they take a mono commentary feed and stereo court feed and mix them together is a particular manner. The audience can then adjust the mix using a special player. Cleverly the stream is backwards compatible, and those using older versions of the codec could play the default mix as supplied.
This solution means that the BBC didn’t need to transmit twice as much data with about a 10% overhead in total to allow the control data to be sent.
What was really interesting was that there was no overall conclusion as to what people preferred. The results showed a double peak – with some preferring slightly less court sound and more commentary, while others preferred slightly less commentary sounds and more court audio. In other words, there isn’t a single preferred commentary/audio sound mix.
The only question I have over this is whether people who went to the effort of playing with the BBC’s mixer (and I include myself) are much more likely to find an “alternative” to the default mix. It would seem to be going to a lot of trouble to seek an alternative stream, download a special player, tweak the settings, but in the end decide the standard mix was fine…
Next up was the BBC’s Lindsay Cornell who detailed a recent DRM+ experiment that the BBC had carried out in Edinburgh. DRM+ is an alternative digital radio broadcasting system to the more common DAB and DAB+. This session was more about the technical findings of the format rather than pushing for any possible future adoption of the technology.
He took us through the findings in quite some detail, and while not everything was perfect they were reasonably positive.
That all said, with so many DAB radios in the market, I’m not sure that anyone is currently looking for a new digital radio format. At some point in the future? Well perhaps, but that’s some time in advance.
Across the day, we saw presentations from the three shortlisted candidates who were shortlisted for the Technical Innovation Award. The shortlisted candidates were RadioTAG, Hackney Hear and Absolute Radio’s Live Scores data.
RadioTAG – which went on to win the prize – was a joint submission from the BBC, Global Radio and Frontier Silicon. The idea is that a physical button placed on radios with IP-connected feedback could allow listeners to “note” things they hear on the radio for later consumption or follow-up. An online experiment was carried out as proof of concept. It’ll be fascinating to see if any of this is actually taken up.
Hackney Hear is a very smart use of audio and mobile phones. Developed by Francesca Panetta – of the award winning Hackney Podcast fame – and Amblr, it allows listeners to walk around Hackney and hear audio relevant to their location. That could be stories, music, poetry or anything else. It’s a fascinating idea, and something that could lend itself to many more related ideas.
Absolute Radio licences Premier League data which it then repurposes and reuses in lots of different ways, from a matchday centre that you can use during games, through to minute by minute text commentary in mobile applications. As an Absolute Radio employee, I of course use the app myself – but would anyway. The goal flash updates which are pushed out with a “goaaaallll” sound are reason enough. And it was great to see a visualisation of all the app’s users during the previous weekend’s Manchester derby – with users across Manchester closely following the historic result.
Matthias Coinchon and Stanislas Roehrich from the EBU’s Technology & Development department came on to demonstrate their “radio in a box” DAB solution.
Before our very eyes, employing a “blackbox” that costs around $700 – the Universal Software Radio Peripheral – a decently specced laptop, and a few other relatively inexpensive pieces of hardware, they were able to set up a DAB multiplex right there in the room!
Today’s powerful PCs are able to do the work, in software, of what previously had to be incorporated into expensive hardware. The advantages of this are manifold. Hardware prices are high due to low volumes manufactured, and there’s an in-built lack of future proofing.
What’s really exciting is that for a fairly low cost, the kit allows stations or groups to test different ideas and developments in the digital world. The kit on display cost just 3500 Euros.
And we were told it allows – subject to having the correct broadcast licences – users to play with radio and FM, DAB, WiFi, radar and even GSM!
Adrian Cross from Unique Interactive was next to present, talking about data and particularly metadata. In five years’ time, it’s actually going to be very hard to buy – say a TV – that isn’t connected. Everyone from Google to Amazon and Apple are using that data.
He spoke of the importance of meta data and how it’s going to be imperative in the future and we need to get it right now. Given that so many “storefronts” are based on metadata are machine driven and not human derived shows the importance of it. They all work around the importance of good quality metadata. And this enables important social integration and platform integration as well.
Next up is Quentin Howard, previously of Digital One, and now of SSVC looking at the cost of radio transmission platforms. In a blur of numbers he walked through what he thought the electricity costs were of a variety of competing radio platforms – and thus what their carbon footprints are.
I don’t have the presentation, and because the numbers flew past so fast, I couldn’t write them all down, but there are some takings to be had.
Old transmission technologies like AM (and LW – as it has been in the news recently) are very expensive. They use large amounts of electricity in their transmission, and are inefficient in that regard.
He concluded that of the main broadcast transmission technologies, that DAB was the most efficient, with digital television in particular being inefficient.
However I did have one or two issues with his calculations. In large part, DAB wins because it’s still not the majority way of listening to the radio. While the transmission costs are fixed, and are efficient compared with other broadcast methods, once there are more DAB sets
It is absolutely true that DAB sets are much more power efficient that they used to be, but I wonder if he was over-generous in using more recent models to base his calculations on? Lots of original Pure Evokes that are relatively power hungry – are still being used.
I think a cost per listener hour by platform would be fairer.
However, it is scary that digital television is so inefficient. And it’s clear that broadcast radio is a very “green” way of reaching people compared with the alternatives. In particular, adding a WiFi chip to a radio drives its power efficiency right down, and wondrous thought the RadioPlayer is, the power used by our computers doesn’t help make it an efficient technology (if we’re only using it for the radio of course).
Certainly a session to make you think.
Having seen how “easy” was to set up a DAB mulitplex in the room, Ofcom’s Jim McNally came on to talk about pirate radio and illegal broadcasting. In London there are more FM frequencies used by illegal broadcasters than there are legitimate stations. He spoke about career criminals using radio stations to improve their street cred.
Some pirate stations are very well run and make significant money, but there are links to crime. He spoke about Ofcom’s proactive response – seizing transmitters and raiding studios. That also means investigating promoters, stopping events linked to by the stations taking place, and chasing advertisers and installers too.
“Old style” pirates used line of sight radio links via microwave from studio to rooftop. These days they use the internet to send audio. So Ofcom has to go after the transmitters more than the studios, with all the attendant health and safety issues – he showed us pictures of perilous rooftops in London where the transmitters are placed.
And the methods of fastening the transmitters to the roofs are getting “better”. No longer just D-locks, but placing kit in shafts and employing car-jacks to make them hard to remove. They’ve even had kit encased in concrete!
One claim – that London City Airport came within 20 minutes of closure due to pirate radio broadcasters – was discussed on Twitter a bit. An Ofcom report does indeed make the claim, but there was a certain amount of scepticism from some.
Another relatively technical talk came from Tim Donaldson who spoke about how they were using PI codes to do clever sensible switching between related services on the Heart network. That means that listeners with RDS radios have better listening experiences.
Dr. Graham Thomas of the BBC’s Research & Development division, explained how the BBC was getting involved with academia to examine acoustic issues. There was talk about experiments with binaural sound – which I personally am looking forward to hearing more about. There should be an experiment in sound this Christmas I hear…
Ron Stanley from Ofcom talked about what they were going to be doing with the Olympics next year. There’s a massive demand for wireless spectrum when the tens of thousands of international broadcasters all descend on London and want their wireless kit to work. Ofcom has to manage the use of spectrum, and ensure that they resolve any issues of interference.
He gave us a live demo of tracking an “illicit” FM signal in London. Except that it was one coming from Croydon and was very much legitimate. Nonetheless, Ofcom now has an excellent system to triangulate rogue signals. One can only hope that it’s also used for illegal broadcasters.
Mark Vermaat from Soundmouse came on to demonstrate his product. It works along the same lines as Shazaam, except that it’s a lot better. While Shazaam can struggle if there’s additional audio in the background (for example, someone talking over the top), Soundmouse seems to be able to accurately pull out underlying audio, even if it’s been mixed with other pieces of music. One demo video included some practically inaudible music.
Mind you, since the key aim of the software is to help in the collation of data to pass back to organisations like PRS, I’d hope that inaudible music wouldn’t actually be chargeable! The company has 15-20 million pieces of music, and that equates to billions of audio fingerprints. They currently monitor 120 stations – some via IP. That actually means that your station might well get a call from them if your stream goes down!
Jon Holmes came on to talk to us about audience measurement. In particular he took apart the ways that even with the most dismal possible RAJAR, stations still manage to put together upbeat press releases. All very funny, and frighteningly close to the bone.
Michael Hill from RadioPlayer talked about the success of RadioPlayer so far, pointing out when it peaks and troughs during the week, and noting things like football commentaries working particularly well. Stations like LBC, Five Live, BRMB and BBC Local stations experienced significant spikes during the recent riots. And a recent One Direction tour saw notable jumps as they visited local stations as they went.
A new – version 2 – of RadioPlayer for Facebook, is coming soon, as well as an Adobe Air installable version (which I’ve just had a bit of a play with and looks lovely).
He said that scrubbing the audio was going to be improved (to be fair, it’s currently not as good as the previous BBC player of listen again audio for example), and search will be improved.
A mobile prototype is in production for delivery around Christmas. He claimed that it will be measurably the best mobile radio player in the market with social integration and geo-location data used to deliver local programming. Music mapping will be used to recommend radio to the user.
He also spoke a little about getting the application on connected TVs like YouView and Samsung, and an HTML5 version for iPads and tablets.
Finally he talked about RadioPlayer… on a radio! They’re talking to equipment manufacturers to make better use of the feeds they have.
There should be a spring marketing campaign to better explain the benefits of the radio player and perhaps encourage more listeners start investigating “sideways hops” to other services.
Richard Vadon, the editor of one of my favourite radio series, More or Less, was next up to talk us through the use and misuse of numbers. He pointed out some of the seriously misleading reports that catch many media outlets including the BBC, that he and his programme work so hard to right.
“Zombie statistics” for example, are those “numbers” that are so out in the wild, that no matter how much you attempt to correct them, they continue to live on forever.
More worryingly he highlighted the fact that certain special interest groups – including charities – are too willing to use wildly misleading statistics to further their own goals.
(I actually wanted – but failed – to catch Vadon afterwards to talk about the recent “4.7bn” watching Premier League football story. But this site gets into that pretty well, and as usual, it’s a cumulative number of viewers and not in fact 4.7bn of the 7bn population).
The final session of the day saw BFBS explain how they go about their business of “extreme engineering”. Getting a feed of BFBS radio into a locality is one of the first things that the army wants when they’ve set up a new camp. So BFBS have to put up with all sorts of difficulties to provide the troops with some kind of link back home.
My favourite story from this session related the time some kit had to be helicopted into somewhere to help set up a relay of BFBS. The kit was loaded into a land rover which was slung under the helicopter. Unfortunately, during the flight, the door of the land rover opened and all their FM kit as well as some other MOD material was dropped to the ground. The location was remote with no civilians. But the problem was that there was concern about what the other MOD material actually was. To make certain it didn’t fall into enemy hands, they called in an airstrike to destroy everything!
That just left James Cridland to sum up the day. He’s written up his summary here!
Disclaimer: I attended Radio Festival because I’m employed by Absolute Radio. However, these are my views, and don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer. Not that I’ve said anything too contentious…