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Radio and the Future IMHO

All this talk about secret meetings and radio’s future at the NAB Radio show really bothers me.  The future of radio is divergent between programming and technology.  The big radio companies of today, and little ones, will have to decide are they in the programming business or the transmission, or delivery business.  Here is my take from the technical point of view.  (Drop government regulations for a moment and open your mind.)

We already see a divergence between programming and transmission of programming with this thing call HD Radio.  Many programmers find this a waste of time and money.  Even engineers find it a waste as I believe they see the potential of digital, all digital, in the future.  Radio needs to grow up.  My take is to get rid of this duality of HD and Analog transmission.  This is the 21st century, so why not push for all digital.  Drop this analog and transform.  Once a signal is all digital and the right minds build it well, it becomes a digital carrier capable of, say, 50 or 100 independent channels for an example.  This could be more or less depending on the brains behind it and can it be split based on required bandwidth.  The divergence is clear at this point, what radio station owner has the ability to program 50 channels, they cannot even program a single channel.

As the two diverge, I see the physical radio plant becoming a technical operation center for the distribution of content, not the origination, and I see programmers becoming content providers.  I see radio station owners eyeing the money at becoming content providers.  Great!  Concentrate on programming something well.  The technical side now splits off and companies that know how to distribute, technically, start looking at owning the actual signal.  The plant becomes a technical operating center (TOC) or a network operating center (NOC).  Now the programmer leases a channel or more from the distributor. Sound familiar?  Cable, satellite television, satellite radio, the Internet?

Who buys the technical side?  Who is already capable of wireless transmission?  The wireless companies are!  The licenses of the radio stations will be purchased by the likes of Verizon and AT&T.  The “big” signals become the focal point of pushing data to the wireless world.  The cellular system becomes the receiving end of the system and a fill for the areas that do not get covered by the broadcast signal.  You now have your bi-directional communications.  It is all about pushing data and this is a good medium for doing such.

At this point, yes, radio as we know it needs to change.  The FCC would have to treat the licenses of radio stations similar to cellular wireless.  The purpose of radio stations needs to be redefined.  Name a radio station that actually serves the public interest.  Do not give me music stations.  Public safety notifications or whatever propaganda the government wants to feed must be dealt with in a new way.  I foresee an allocation of a channel or two for such services based on the geographical area.  I also see them pushing a means, like EAS, that the TOC or NOC owners will need to be able to insert.  The burden moves from the programmer to these owners.  Programmers will not have a choice if an alert or emergency that meets a certain criteria occurs, it gets pushed on all channels.

At the same time the choices of programming become more.  Again, depending on how this digital carrier is built and how much can get squeezed in will determine the number of channels available.  The whole argument of an FM chip on a cell phone will go away as regulations would change and most likely these channels will be available on other data feeds, read Internet, that the point it moot.  If not, this could actually go the opposite way and cellular devices, smartphones, will get FM, or even AM, chips as this medium becomes the backbone to pushing data for wireless carriers.

All in all there will be a paradigm shift in the radio and broadcasting world.  It is a matter of when.  All this half-assed business with HD and iBiquity is just a start.  A learning experience.  Eventually someone will suggest an alternate future like this.  The picture will become clear.  The divergence of programming and distribution will occur.  How that is handled is up to us in the industry.  What side are you on?  I am an engineer.  I am on the distribution side.  You?


PS:  As my thoughts congeal, I may post more on this.  Please openly send comments and smack me down or add your thoughts!  I, for one, would like to know how you really feel about this subject.

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