radio-model-blog-series_sm.jpgIn the new media environment, “convergence” refers to the conjoining of broadcast and online services, as you’re probably well aware. And if you’re like me, you’re probably tired of hearing the “C” word thrown around so often over the past decade or more, with little to show for it in terms of effective implementation, or any real benefit to broadcasters. This is especially galling since it’s been rarely applied to radio, given that broadcast radio receivers and computing platforms don’t often coexist on the same device.

That seems to be changing now, as radio receivers are starting to appear in greater numbers on personal digital devices. While this may seem something of a retro move, it makes sense because radio has long been first and foremost a portable medium. The baseline infrastructure built into devices people carry with them today allows an FM radio receiver to be added with negligible burden to a device’s cost, size or battery life, but it can provide considerable new, desirable functionality. Considering recent handheld product introductions with radio tuners from Apple, Microsoft and others, plus the ongoing movement to add FM receivers to cell phones, we may see an explosion of such “converged radio devices” in the next few years.

Beyond the simple extension of radio listening to these products’ users, the real benefit may come from new, convergent applications that arise. Think about how a handheld device that simultaneously offers both broadcast radio reception and wireless Internet access could be used. The addition of synchronized visual “enhancements” from a station’s website to its regular audio broadcast content will increase the appeal of a station’s programming to listeners and to advertisers. In such an application, audio still arrives at a handheld’s headphone jack via the very efficient and robust FM broadcast channel, while a relatively small amount of additional enhancement data (such as album cover art, advertiser logos and location info, playlists and program guides, sports scores and weather graphics, etc.) flows via WiFi or 3G links to the device’s display screen.

Unlike Internet radio, occasional loss of Internet connectivity for such enhancement services is not a big problem, since audio continues uninterrupted as long as the FM signal is receivable. Screen refreshes are only occasional, and can be restored when connectivity returns – perhaps without the user even knowing there was an interruption. Moreover, the displayed data can be customized or filtered to the personal preferences of the user, adding value that the user attributes to the station currently tuned.

This could become the true nature of “digital radio” in the New Radio Model. (Importantly, this scenario applies equally to either analog or HD Radio receivers with Internet capability). Anticipating this, a group of U.K. based broadcasters has developed a mechanism called RadioDNS that provides an easy way for a converged radio to automatically bring up a station’s website as soon as a station is tuned on the device’s radio. The first radios to implement this functionality, and the first stations to serve content with this process in mind, are already in place in the U.K. For more on an exciting development that may significantly affect the radio industry’s future, see http://radiodns.org/ and http://www.rwonline.com/article/87102.

Skip Pizzi
Media Technology Consultant
Contributing Editor, Radio World
Co-Author, Audio Over IP: Building Pro AoIP Systems with Livewire
Member, The Radio Workout Team