Radio - Entering the Digital Age
With webcasting, iPods and P2P file sharing, it is
difficult not to notice that the ways people are using audio are rapidly
changing. Where a few years ago teenagers might swop 'mix tapes' it is
likely now that they will instead swop a few gigbytes of their favourite
artists. With social networking tools it is ever easier to share social
preferences - in essence, to generate an understanding of what is 'cool'
in a particular social group. Tools like Last.fm allow us to see what
'similar' people are listening to.
All of this has caused considerable consternation amongst various groups.
The recording industry is understandably concerned that rampant music
sharing could destroy their business model. Legislators and regulators
worry about how to control this changing landscape. Professional journalists
wonder whether amateurs will displace them.
The changes are also posing a challenge for radio stations. The BBC, for
instance, have a research team looking at how 'social software' can be
integrated into broadcasting. We're already all familiar with one impact
on radio - the use of SMS messages to provide a 'return channel' for listeners.
Those of you who, like me, can remember when dedicated call-in lines were
rare on Irish radio will understand the changes that regular live phone
calls and SMS messages have wrought on radio style and content. The BBC
have experimented with bringing that one step further, allowing music
content to be automatically set based on the text messages received, and
looking at the possibility of further developments that are a blur of
jargon and emerging technologies:
The potential of Flickr/del.icio.us-style
tagging for radio; the possibilities of combining buddy lists with media
players; new applications for SMS; and concepts like "100 Composers"--DABJava
applications on PDAs that can have data trickled to them over broadcast
And there's more. David Park, a professor at Lake Forest
College in Illinois, has been examining the impact of various technologies
on college radio in the United States. He's excited by the impact that
webcasting, text messages and even Paypal have been having on these stations,
and believes that the combination may help such stations resist the impact
to 'dumb down' and adopt a more mainstream sound. The argument is that
former students continue to listen, now over the web, and contribute towards
the station's costs but only as long as the station continues to offer
a unique sound. Not only that, but with webcasting what were previously
the undesirable low-listenership slots- how many people listen to college
radio between 4 and 6am? -can now have cult followings, albeit several
thousand miles away.
The flip side, of course, is that former students and others, if they
constitute a large enough portion of the station's funding base, could
stifle cultural change in the station. One of the unique things about
college radio is that it faces such rapid change in community membership.
Most students are on campus for three to four years at most, and as youth
culture changes so too does the content they produce. While those who
have been involved with a station previously - on air or as listeners
- can be useful defenders of the need for an authentic student voice (or
at least what they identify as an authentic student voice), they can also
stridently oppose changes that reflect genuine changes in student culture,
or changes in the balance of cultural power within the student body.
Nonetheless, webcasting and the return channels provided by SMS and other
messaging technologies do provide exciting new opportunities for college
stations and other small outlets. That's just as well because some of
the other forthcoming developments in Irish radio are, if not necessarily
negative, decidedly undetermined as of yet. Digital audio broadcasting,
or DAB, is something that has been on the horizon for about a decade now
- as long as Irish college radio has been around - and it may actually
succeed in being adopted shortly.
In DAB instead of each station having its own frequency and transmitters
there is a central operator who sends out a single signal called a multiplex.
This multiplex contains within it a number of channels - probably between
5 and 8 - with some station identification information and possibly some
text or other data. From a listener's point of view this will require
buying new DAB radio sets.
For a small radio station, instead of (as at present) buying a transmitter
and leaving it in the corner, transmission will involve streaming their
audio to the multiplex operator, probably over a dedicated leased line
since we all know how reliable webstreams are. These stations have two
new set of ongoing costs - the costs of the studio to multiplex link,
and the cost of channel space on the multiplex. Because there will be
few multiplexes community and college stations will be competing for space
with commercial stations, and the cost of space might be substantial.
Unfortunately no one yet knows for sure, because the question of whether
or how to adopt DAB is still being discussed by the various national and
international regulatory agencies. The government department in charge,
the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (is it
just me or are department names getting annoyingly long?) has to its credit
suggested that community stations might be guaranteed a certain amount
of space on multiplexes, or that subsidies might be provided to them to
rent channel space.
Other groups, specifically the Commission for Communications Regulation
(ComReg) have been less sympathetic, suggesting that allocation of channel
space should solely a matter for the multiplex owner, based on business
(read commercial) considerations, and that in any event the FM band is
good enough for community stations and that's where they should remain.
While many community stations are quite happy with FM at present, the
problem is that it's expected that the FM band will be allocated to different
uses a few years after DAB finally starts. Even if the FM band were to
remain allocated to broadcasting it could quickly become a ghetto for
community stations, as RTE and commercial stations migrate to DAB and
newer radio sets wouldn't have access to the FM band - think about how
the short, medium and long wave bands have become less accessible to listeners
There may be solutions that could be more attractive to community radio
in the long run than gaining access to the DAB band. Work has already
begun on what are known as software-defined radio sets. At present most
radios perform a number of tasks: they pick up radio signals from the
air; they tune into a particular signal and decode it into an audio signal;
they pass the audio signal to speakers or headphones. Which signals can
be 'tuned in' and decoded depends on the radio hardware, and the abilities
are, literally, hardwired and cannot be (easily) changed. With software-defined
radios the tuning and decoding is, as you might expect, completed by a
piece of software and extra capabilities can be added by adding new software
- think of it as plug-ins - to your radio receiver.
If extendible software-based radios became the norm we could imagine that
community radio could survive without access to DAB, though we would need
to ensure that the appropriate plug-ins were readily and freely available.
But if we head further along this road - and I will provide some speculative
examples in a moment - some interesting issues arise concerning both the
role and concept of broadcasting. When broadcasting first developed in
Europe there were few choices as to the channel you could hear - for many
years there was only a single licensed station in Ireland - and this allowed
broadcasting to serve as a unifying force, bringing citizens together
in a single aural space. As the number of stations increased - first with
pirate and then with licensed non-state broadcasters - different social
and cultural groups could split up and find their own space on the dial.
But it was still - moves between AM and FM notwithstanding - the same
dial, and stations could be seen as generally similar outlets aimed at
different audiences, just as we might understand The Irish Times, The
Irish Independent, and even The Sun, to be generally similar.
Travel very far down the software-defined road, however, and we might
find that 'listening to the radio' can come to mean quite different things
to different people. We have already seen some signs of this with the
development of what some are calling podcasting, a process whereby audio
pieces can be distributed online and, making use of a technology known
as RSS syndication, listeners can have pieces from their chosen sources
automatically downloaded to their computer and from their to their portable
mp3 player, to be listened to at their leisure. The general idea is familiar,
of course, from programmable video recorders, and even has a jargon name
- 'time-shifting' - but podcasting brings it to a new level, where the
new content you listen to is fully personalized and can originate anywhere.
We can easily see some of where these developments might lead, as people
download programmes from their favourite sources as they become available,
and listen to them at their own pace. The idea of having shared experiences
of listening to the radio would fracture even more. Of course in many
respects this is merely an intensification of the impact of the walkman,
but an intensification in volume (not a tape or two, but dozens of GB)
and speed (no need to go to a record store to buy content, the newest
content gets sent to you automatically each day or hour). If software-based
radio and podcasting were to integrate with other developments, such as
Bittorrent-style file sharing and the tagging tools so enamoured of the
BBC's researchers, we can imagine yet more possibilities.
These possibilities create great opportunities for college and community
broadcasters, as they can allow them to overcome budget constraints in
terms of distribution and accessibility. They also open up opportunities
for individuals and much more modest groups to get involved in audio production.
This is something that most community radio activists would welcome -
greater accessibility is a key goal of community media - but it generates
fresh challenges for community outlets. If individuals can 'do it for
themselves' why do we need community media outlets?
If the access to equipment that community groups can offer is less of
an incentive to some - though not all - people greater stress must be
laid on other aspects. Aggregation may offer one key. Individuals may
not be competing for limited time on a radio station's schedule, or space
in a newsletter, but reaching an audience is perhaps even more difficult
as a result, and promotion by being included in aggregated RSS feeds,
or signposting on a community website becomes invaluable in a world of
many small producers. In a media world built on social networking tools,
the local face-to-face networks of community radio groups may truly come
into their own.
20th February 2005