Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Apple iTunes Radio vs Traditional Broadcast and Streaming Radio

As you'll no doubt have heard, Apple has announced iTunes Radio.

I am a lifelong radio fan.  I prefer radio over TV as I can listen to music whilst doing something else, whereas TV requires me to pay attention to it, which means I can't look at, or concentrate on other things.

When I was a kid in the UK, I used to have many hobbies to keep me busy, and some of these revolved around radio.  
* Sunday evenings I would record the top 40 to a cassette to play for the rest of the week on my walkman as I walked to and from school, for instance.  
* I used to try and find alternative frequencies for the stations I liked so that on car trips when we went out of range of one transmitter and the music died, I already had the next transmitter frequency ready to retune the radio.
* I used to do DXing - which is long distance radio listening.  I would then write to the radio stations and send them a SINPO report.  This invariably got me free swag like tshirts and stickers from the likes of Radio Sweden, Luxembourg Radio, etc.

Then I grew up.

By my early 20s, one job I had involved streaming data to floating fish factories off the Falkland Islands.  This required knowledge of atmospheric skip, baud rates, YAGI antennae, and YAPP Packet Radios.  Basically, I'd aim from Kent in the UK south and a bit to the west, so I beamed over the western edge of Africa, sliced the Eastern edge of South America, and hit the ship's area to within a few hundred miles.  And then waited as we beamed data at "snail on valium" speeds of almost 300 bits per second (note we're not talking kbps, but bps!).

As an adult, my early memories of radio haven't left me. I've watched radio grow up too.  Seeing DAB and streaming radio is great in my mind.  RDS EON and such are wonderful additions to radio - if only stations would use it properly.

I still listen to radio on a regular basis.
* Every morning I listen to Capital FM out of London, UK.
* Every weekend I listen to Fresh FM out of Adelaide, Australia.

Later when the iPhone came out, I jumped on to this platform as I was getting bored of Windows Mobile.  It wasn't long till I inherited an extremely well known streaming radio app to look after, fix and expand.  I won't say who the customer is, but the app wasn't in a good state.  It didn't work very well, and only had 2 stars in the app store, despite being used by almost 8 million people.  

Now, I know a thing or two about Radio - and I definitely know more than any exec who judges his radio by looking at spreadsheets of listener numbers, earnings, and advertising pipelines.  First up, I actually spent a lot of time trying to use the product.

In the two years I spent working on that product, I did the things the execs wanted, like branding, pixel pushing, metrics, gloss and visual stuff, whilst simultaneously slipping in "freebie" items that I wanted and assumed other radio listeners wanted - like stabilizing the app so it doesn't crash every 30 minutes. I also added the ability to switch apps without the app crashing.  I added headphone support so you could pause the station when crossing the road.  I added the ability to fade out the station and resume when answering and hanging up phone calls (previously it just crashed).  I improved battery life.  I added support for docking on external base station speakers.  

Meanwhile, the execs were still flip-flopping over whether to lighten up the background, or darken it.

As you can see, I had a different outlook on what was important in a radio player.  By the time my stint at looking after this app was done, I'd stabilized the thing to run till your battery died, had 22 million users, and 4 stars in the App Store, 

This outlook is also what sets me on a constant collision course with most North American radio stations.  Radio here is generally in decline as its cookie-cuttered rubbish. The "Adult Contemporary" stations are the worst as you can be in any city in North America and pretty much hear the same 20 songs played over and over.  

Streaming radio to these broadcasters is generally a way to send this same rubbish to a mobile device.  Therefore, streaming radio to them is treated like a survival mechanism for the status quo.

Services like Pandora and Spotify have identified this radio as rubbish, so are trying to build an empire based on eating the broadcast guys lunch.  Thus, digital streaming to them is a tool to build their empires on.

Apple has an empire already.  Whilst it has no wish to get into radio broadcast, streaming is another tool to add to its arsenal. If people buy a song from their service, that's 30% commission that they don't have to give to Clear Channel or Pandora or Spotify.  

When you understand this fit for Apple compared to existing radio stations, you'll laugh at some of the comments coming from these other players.

In order to survive, radio stations need to provide a quality service.  This is why with streaming radio I listen to quality stations - but a new simpler radio player from Apple is also good, as it should sort the wheat from the chaff and make any cookie-cuttered stations that put out rubbish step up their game. 

Those that don't will disappear fast.