How to rescue radio

Doc Searls Weblog 2013-12-20

towerRadio used to be wireless audio on a broadcast band. That’s still the short version of every dictionary definition.

But now radio is streamed audio. That was already the case when webcasting* showed up in the ’90s, and even more so with the rise of Last.fm, SiriusXM, Pandora, rdio, Spotify and every other audio service delivered over the Net.

And now Apple delivers the crowning blow, with this:

This isn’t just the height of presumption on Apple’s part. It’s a body-snatch on all of radio, as well as a straight-up knock-off of Pandora.

But it’s actually worse for radio than it looks here.

What used to be called Radio (iTunes’ collection of webcasting radio stations), which had already been pushed down one directory level to “Music,” is now available only under a new button called “Internet.” (See the screenshot above.) Worse, it won’t appear unless you open preferences in iTunes and check a box to turn it on.

So Apple clearly hates radio as we’ve always known it, and could hardly be more passive-aggressive about subordinating it to their own closed, exclusive, silo’d and proprietary service. (Here’s some bonus evidence.)

So where does this leave plain old over-the-air radio — you know, the kind that fades away when you drive out of town?

Simply put, in a new context. That context is the Net. It’s the new broadcast band. Here on the Net (where you are right now), audio servers are the new transmitters and mobile devices are the new portable radios.

So, some advice.

For stations, networks and chains:

  1. Normalize to the Net. That doesn’t mean just “digital first.” It means recognizing that the Internet is your coverage area, and the new native land for all forms of radio, including Satellite. This is the lecture that @JeffJarvis has given for years, correctly, to his friend @HowardStern and to @SiriusXM, where Howard (also correctly) anchors the whole link-up.
  2. Recognize that the Net does not belong to the cable and phone companies but to nobody, which is why it covers the world. Think of it as a world of ends (where every audio source and every listener is a separate end), and NEA — nobody owns it, everybody can use it, and anybody can improve it. Including you.
  3. Choose a streaming URL (or a set of URLs) for your station(s) that will be as permanent as your over-the-air dial positions. Make sure you’re streaming in .mp3 or some other standard codec that all mobile apps can receive. (Right now the burden of finding a streaming URL in the first place is a pain in the ass.)
  4. Transmit over the air in HD. Yes, HD has problems, and the adoption rate is still low. But it’s an all-digital bridge between net-casting and over-the-air.
  5. Continue to use RDS (RDBS in the U.S.) with your analog signals. That way it will display your identity and content on radios equipped to do so, most of which, so far, are in cars.
  6. Support every possible app that moves toward re-creating the old dial-based radio experience. The closest I’ve seen so far is the BBC’s iPlayer app, which isn’t available in the U.S.
  7. Have truly unique programming. If you’re running what dozens or hundreds of other stations are running, you’re just a relay.
  8. Look toward making more money from subscriptions and voluntary donations than from advertising. More about that below.
  9. Think in terms of relationships, and not just listeners. This is essential because listeners have communication power now too. Don’t waste it by looking at them only as populations. This isn’t easy, because the grooves of one-way-one-to-many non-relating are nearly a century deep. But those who relate best will win biggest.
  10. Make podcasting a normal and easy part of your mix of offerings. More listeners will listen, more of the time (which they will make for themselves.) And, if you can’t easily podcast because you’re doing music, see the last section below.

For app developers:

  1. Keep up the pioneering work done by Tune InWunderradioPRX’s Public Radio PlayerStitcher and the rest. But note this…
  2.  No app yet (to my knowledge, at least) re-creates the simple experience we got from knobs, dials and uncomplicated read-outs on good old-fashioned radios. In effect we’re still stuck where mp3 players were before the iPad came along with its scroll wheel. Only now the shitty experience is on our mobile devices, including our Apple i-things.
  3. Ease the experience of listening, and recording (like with DAR.fm), across everything possible. I know this isn’t easy, because chains like Clear Channel (with its iHeartRadio) and the BBC like to limit listening within their app to their own stations. But this isn’t what most listeners want.
  4. Work toward a single easy non-proprietary way to support subscription services (such as SiriusXM) and volunteer-pay services, (such as public radio stations in the U.S). Everybody with that model will make more money, much more easily, if the process isn’t different for every station, every network, every service.
  5. Symbolize relationships (especially paid ones) with UI elements that are easy to read and universally used and accepted. I recommend the r-button, which the VRM development community came up with, and which is there for the taking. The ⊂ represents the person’s side of the relationship, while the ⊃ is the ‘caster’s. If you’re interested, talk to me about it.
  6. Think relationships, not just listeners.

For equipment makers:

  1. Quit making shitty radios. The receiving circuitry and antennas for most home and portable radios have been awful for awhile now, and I don’t expect them to get better. But I think there is room for some companies still making radios to put out a few actually good ones. And include HD.
  2. Ibiquity (developer and licensor of HD Radio technology): change your game. Adoption by equipment makers is clearly too slow and too hard. Hell, you’ve been around since 2001, and now you’re bragging on just the first car to feature it. This search on Amazon for “HD Radio” should bring up lots of results, rather than a few hens’ teeth.
  3. Make radios that hunt easily from over the air analog to HD Radio to streams on the Net.

For everybody:

  1. Lobby to get rid of the completely aversive royalty system for webcasting, and its inequities with over-the-air broadcasting. Replace it with something sane and respectful of the all-digital world in which we now live.
  2. In respect to the link above, note this language: Sections 112 and 114 require that rates for the statutory licenses for webcasting and for ephemeral recordings must be the rates that most clearly represent the rates that would have been negotiated in the marketplace between a willing buyer and a willing seller. That boldfaced language is a relic of the DMCA, which was passed in ’98 — just three years after the dawn of the graphical browser, before anybody could imagine that the Net could support willing buyers and sellers of streamed music. The effect of this has been to marginalize or kill music podcasting, to name just one victim. Nobody wants the rights-holders to get screwed, but everybody should recognize by now that its the music itself, and the relationships between artists, distributors (including radio service operators) and listeners that are getting screwed by the current system. And that we can do better. Hell, it’s almost 2014. Let’s get this done.

* “Webcasting” should have been called “netcasting” in the first place. As Wikipedia says at the moment (at that last link), “Essentially, webcasting is ‘broadcasting’ over the Internet.” The difference is important because the Web is something that runs on the Net, rather than a synonym for the Net.