IP Contributions on the Radio

This morning I Tweeted this, and it got more than a few likes:

(NB. I apologise for the misplaced apostrophe in end’s – it should have been ends’. And using both today and this morning was tautological.)

This came after I heard two interviews on Radio 4’s Today programme, and a third on Five Live, all of which had to be abandoned earlier than planned when the IP audio delivery with the remote contributor started to break down.

Now, I realise that in all of these cases, someone on the production will have probably given the contributors advice about how to sound good, ideally using wired internet connections, or at least being in a good WiFi area. They’ll have told the contributors to make sure that others weren’t using the internet at the same time, as well as ensuring that they’re they’re using the best microphone that they have to hand and so on.

And I know that when these kind of remote contributions work, they sound good. But in every case today, I heard the telltale sounds of the bitrate changes mid conversation. We’ve all used Skype or similar and heard the same thing. The audio suddenly changes from clear to closer to telephone call quality, before getting better again.

The problem is that to the listener, this detracts enormously from the message, because it’s very distracting. In every circumstance it would have been better if the interview had been conducted at a lower bandwidth all the way along. In many cases, a phone call would have sufficed if the line was clear.

I realise that these systems do usually work. I’ve been a contributor to podcasts and broadcasts myself, without any perceivable problems. Likewise, I know that phone interviews have to be abandoned when they line drops in quality, the presenter apologising and suggesting that they might try again (They rarely do though, because in the case of breakfast radio, the schedules are planned to within an inch of their lives).

But I would strongly argue that a consistent sound at a lower bitrate – i.e. phone quality – is better for listeners than a flaky connection at a higher quality.

Broadcast v Internet Listening

If there’s one thing that’s incredibly dangerous to do when you’re trying to work out what’s going on the world, it’s the “Sample Size of One.” What I mean is that just because you or your family is adopting a certain type of behaviour, that does not make it the norm.

That’s especially true in media circles, where smartphone penetration is close to 100% and Apple’s market share is probably in the high eighties. Yes, a lot of people own smartphones and tablets. But no, not everyone does. And just because everyone at your child’s school has a smartphone or tablet, that does not automatically make the same true on a national basis.

I mention this because I was listening to the very fine Media Podcast this weekend (especially fine since my blog on The New Day was referenced), and a few dubious facts were propagated when discussing the rumoured (and firmly denied) suggestion that Five Live might follow BBC Three as an online-only station.

One of the guests said that yes, it was a feasible plan in the long-term.

“I can’t remember the last time I listened to the radio when it was through an FM signal or even a DAB signal. The only people listening to radio are people who are of an older generation or people who are driving to work.”

Now to be completely fair, presenter Olly Mann noted that he was as big a digital advocate as you’d want to meet, but he didn’t think this was true and hypothesised that broadcast might have another 20 years.

Just because you personally don’t do something, you can’t simply extrapolate from that and say that the same is true for everyone.

To be clear, 90% of the population listen to the radio – for an average of 21 hours a week.

And what’s more, they’re mostly listening via broadcast – that is to say, large transmitters sited on hills, or even satellites in geo-stationary orbits.

If you exclude data for which no platform data is available (for simplicity – IP listening would be lower if I included it), just 7.5% of listening is via IP. The rest is mostly FM, AM and DAB, with a little via Freeview, satellite and cable.

Ah yes. But those people are all old aren’t they?

Well – no. That’s everyone. But if we look at the very youngest people that RAJAR fully measure – 15-19 year olds, the internet percentage goes up to 20%, but it’s still vastly outnumbered by broadcast.

Added to this, there is the recent research from Radioplayer showing that 82% of drivers would not consider buying a car without a radio, with 69% choosing radio ahead of CD, Bluetooth and streaming functionality.

And that’s before we get to the availability of strong 3G or 4G reception around the country, and the fact that data costs the consumers money while broadcast is for the most part free at the point of reception.

So be wary of your own personal habits. You can’t simply extrapolate from them.

Source: RAJAR Q4 2015, based on All Adults and Adults 15-19. Excluding “Platform Not Stated” and “Digital Platform Not Stated” listening.

Come on News TV – Use a Satellite!

A couple of years ago, I moaned on this blog about the growth of streaming video in place of satellite links in news programmes.

In short, as services like Skype have grown, news desks are getting their correspondents to utilise broadband or 4G and smartphones instead of sending camera crews and satellite trucks.

Now this is completely excusable in situations where a story is breaking unexpectedly, or somewhere so remote and hard to reach that satellite communications wouldn’t be useable.

I’d previously put this down to cheapness. Satellite communications cost money, whereas mobile IP is often effectively free. But I think there are two other things at work here:

1) We must have visuals! News channels are more and more using IP to conduct interviews with experts in their homes. Where once they might have sent a taxi to drive a guest to their nearest BBC local TV studio, or just use a phone, today we see an unending stream of interviewees sat in various home offices, mostly poorly lit, using the cameras in their phones or laptops pointing at them at unnatural and unattractive angles. The sound quality can be poor too, and of course nobody can be certain that their domestic router will hold onto enough bandwidth for the duration of the interview.

2) The programme is after a certain “edgier” look! They somehow believe that the poor quality of a mobile phone conveys a certain urgency. It would be like telling news camera crews to ditch the tripod and go for the Jason Bourne shaky-cam look! I’ve read the story that the Victoria Derbyshire Programme asked one guest to speak to them via Skype even though camera crews with satellite link-ups were on hand, because they preferred the fuzzy picture for somehow giving them immediacy. The same programme only today linked to its reporter at the Nobel Peace Prize (skip to 1:02), where he was holding up a smartphone seemingly on a selfie stick, and using a white ear-bud to hear studio questions to contribute to a two-way. This was a nonsense. The Nobel Peace Prize will have been in editorial diaries for months, and reporters allocated. There were agency feeds of the announcement in HD, and facilities for lots of broadcasters to “go live” from the event. If you’re sending a reporter anyway, then why not also send a camera person – or at least hire one locally? You could see the other “pro” crews in the background, while the B-roll was all HD agency footage. In the UK we heard digitally gurgling audio.

I understand that technology is marching on, and with increased bandwidth and better cameras in smartphones, at some point we perhaps won’t be able to tell the difference. But there’s a reason most of the cameras news crews use cost thousands, and they’re not just replaced with smartphones costing hundreds; it’s because there’s a very clear quality gap.

Radio is less of a problem, because audio is easier to send than HD video and audio. But you still need a decent microphone at the other end, and have to hope that your internet connection holds up.