Friday, March 3, 2017

My Thoughts from the Future of Radio Symposium and Metadata Summit

I recently attended the 2017 NABA Future of Radio Symposium and the NPR Metadata Summit and listened to a number of really good presentations on a wide range of topics. In my role as a software architect with the Public Radio Satellite System (PRSS) distributing content to public radio stations, I tend to focus on distributor-to-station-to-listener data flows and less on the content production flows but these two events highlighted the complexity and opportunities that exist on both ends of the content lifecycle and how they are intricately linked.

I’ve been reflecting on a number of common themes that I heard throughout the various presentations and how they can apply to what I do in content distribution and what our member stations can do as the conduits to listeners. Our listeners, their habits, and their technology aren’t standing still, and neither should we.

Radio (or more generally broadcast audio) still has a lot of life in it, but it needs to continue to evolve

This isn’t a surprising conclusion from a meeting of a bunch of radio people but it was good to see some hard numbers and listener feedback. Radio is still incredibly popular even with a huge range of other media options. We’re now seeing an interesting blend of podcasts, streaming audio, and radio combining to give listeners a customized experience on various platforms. While data prices remain high (at least in the US) and network coverage isn’t great (at least in the US), broadcast audio is still an extremely reliable and cheap distribution method. When cell towers get overloaded or power goes out, broadcast radio is still a go-to critical emergency service.

However, with more streaming options, connected devices, and autonomous vehicles making progress, radio needs to continue to evolve to provide a richer experience that, with quality audio content at the core, leverages connectivity to provide metrics, two-way communication, interactivity, and accompanying visuals.

Listeners want an easy to use and enjoyable user experience when accessing content

As anyone with a car knows, the in-dash device experience is anything but great. The auto industry has been plagued by low resolution screens, complex interfaces, poor responsiveness, and slowly evolving feature sets. There are plenty of reasons for this including long development cycles, lack of prioritization, lack of competition, cost, product lifespan, etc. but it seems like the industry is finally starting to turn things around.

With big tech companies getting into the mix with Andriod Auto and CarPlay and competition from mobile devices, auto makers seem to be finally putting some effort and money behind more advanced in-dash systems. However, this means traditional radio needs to start providing content for these systems. Traditionally a 200x200 pixel cover art image might have worked just fine in a car but now it just looks silly in a world with 1280x1024 dashboards. Similarly, an 8 character RDS string is embarrassingly non-informative to a listener who was just using a streaming service on their computer with artist, title, biographies, and related content available at the click of a button.

The combination of better interfaces, integrated controls, and content is what is going to win over (or at least maintain) listeners and if that content can arrive at the device for free (or near free), all the better.

There are many ways that listeners are accessing content on many different devices with many different interfaces

While cars may be one of the largest listening groups for pure audio content, there are a lot of different devices out there from mobile phones to computers to home assistants (think Amazon Echo and Google Home). This means the content produced and distributed has to work on many different platforms, some of which might not even exist right now. Trying to build and maintain a custom solution for each platform is going to be challenging even for the biggest producer or station.

At the same time, listeners want a consistent experience across all these devices regardless of the interface. For example, a listener wants to be able to say “play WAMU” to their device, be it a car radio, phone, home assistant or whatever and have it just work. They want to know that they can continue to listen to a story that started in the car on their mobile device as they walk into the house. They want to find related and recommended content when possible.

If content is distributed in such a way that it is available on all these platforms and described in a consistent way, these concepts are possible. A consistent interface and experience doesn’t mean “the same app on all platforms” because the user interfaces vary so wildly that this approach may not be possible or cost effective. Instead, we have to think about how we can package the content so the listener can be given an expected and enjoyable experience regardless of the interface or application driving the interaction.

Metrics rule the day

Content producers love metrics (duh!). Not only do the metrics help sell advertising/underwriting, but it helps inform the content production process. NPR had some interesting demonstrations of how metrics from their NPR One application showed where listeners dropped out allowing the content production teams to make decisions about show structure, transitions, and the placement of “spoiler alerts”.

Traditional radio and even modern podcasting have a poor track record around metrics. Listener diaries and listener sampling are still primary methods for metric gathering. Streaming content can do much better because of the one-to-one connection of a listener and the backend service with the obvious trade-off of data usage and scalability.

There are some solutions coming to the broadcast space for better metrics including mobile applications that behave like streaming services but use prerecorded or broadcast content as well as open standards that dictate how players and receivers can report metrics in a common format.

As with all metrics, the key is balancing user privacy concerns while collecting the data producers and advertisers want. Questions like who owns the data, how is the data anonymized, who is the data sold to, do users opt out or opt in are going to be very important going forward. As we recently saw with Vizio TVs, collecting too much data without informing users can lead to a lot of bad publicity, lawsuits, and financial damages. It is critical to understand the responsibilities around metric collection in order to gain the long-term benefits.

Stations need to see the benefit

While it is great to talk about how the user experience can be and needs to be improved, stations are also asking how they can benefit from advancements in listening technology. The most obvious answer is better metrics (see above), but richer interfaces with more listener friendly experiences means more consumption of the media which means more opportunities for underwriting, linking, and community involvement.

People don’t want TV for the commercials (with the possible exception of the “big game”) but rather for the content. However, once they are there for the content, you can intermix underwriting and local announcements. The same holds true for the non-core content experience. If listeners get accustomed to looking at the screen for the program and story title or the related visuals, they will be more likely to look at the screen when an underwriter’s logo is displayed or the station is advertising a local event or a membership campaign.

As it is now, listeners may ignore their in-dash display because it is too complicated, only displays an FM frequency, displays 8 sad characters, or has outdated static content. The first step is getting compelling content in-front of the listeners so the display becomes a valuable part of the experience which then opens up another medium that can be leveraged to benefit the station, producer, and ideally the listener.

But that’s not all! Stations can also benefit by reducing their workload by automating the flow of information through all these various systems. Many public radio stations have limited staffing resources so trying to develop or even populate applications on so many different devices and interfaces is near impossible. Centralized streaming and cataloging services (think TuneIn, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, iTunes Radio, etc) have popped up to try to fill the gap but just keeping these services up to date can be challenging. Ideally a station publishing this additional information to end listener devices could use the same information to keep all of these centralized streaming services up-to-date. Stations get a reduced workload through a common production workflow while listeners get a more consistent and enjoyable experience even though they are using multiple devices, interfaces, and applications.

Metadata glues it all together

So how does this all come together? Through metadata of course! There has always been a strong focus on the quality production and distribution of the core content but as broadcast radio evolves, metadata is becoming a key component in supporting all of the scenarios discussed so far. For example, a single application isn’t needed to provide a consistent user experience if various devices from cars to phones to home assistants can access the same metadata about the content.

The listener can expect that “play WAMU” will work the same everywhere if all the devices know about the same “WAMU” via the metadata. Similarly, the display on the head-unit should show the same program and story title as might be read by my home assistant when I say “what’s playing now”. Not only does good quality metadata and open, standard distribution enable this functionality, but it also enables functionality that hasn’t been broadly seen before.

How great would it be if my car stereo could tell me the next story that is coming up without having to wait for the announcer to read it to me? What if I could get a station list with genres and logos without having to use the “scan” button and listen to each station for 10 seconds? What if I could skip a broadcast radio piece by seamlessly switching from the radio to a stream and back again? What if I could share a radio story right from my home assistant? What if my “driveway moment” could seamlessly hand off to my phone so I can continue listening in the house? What if I could quickly determine the next time this story is going to play or where to get it online or do a deeper dive?

These topics are huge (as the two days of events discussion them barely scratched the service) and there are a number of associated topics like archive management, rights issues, privacy issues, funding, autonomous vehicles, etc. which makes this a very interesting space to be in right now. As the caretakers of public radio, we want to continue to provide a great product to listeners which not only means great content, but great distribution, great presentation, great user experience, and so on. While AM/FM broadcasting may not be the hot new technology on the block, there is a lot of innovation happening and a lot more to come.

Note that these statements are my personal opinion based on my attendance at the mentioned meetings and do not represent the opinions or strategy of NPR or PRSS.