All Forms of Digital in Focus for Radio

Consumers can listen to free FM radio by downloading NextRadio, an Android app that combines local FM reception via a device's built-in tuner with enhanced content via the internet.

It’s a dynamic time to be a member of the radio community. NAB Show’s overall theme this year — “Ready, Set, Unleash” with its mantra “this changes everything” — describes the mindset of radio professionals as much as anyone.

At a time of huge and ongoing convulsions in media, leaders emphasize radio’s enduring power as an advertising vehicle. As the Radio Advertising Bureau has put it, “Radio boasts the broadest mass reach among all media while simultaneously affording narrow targeting capabilities through numerous program formats and networks.”

The organization recently reported that U.S. commercial radio last year “held its own in attracting ad dollars within the highly competitive media environment,” and it highlighted growth in the digital sector, where revenue from website banner ads, streaming advertising, search engine marketing and other digital offerings surpassed $1 billion for the first time.

Attendees will see the newest innovations in another form of digital; DTS Inc. will make its first appearance at an NAB Show since the company acquired iBiquity Digital Corp. and its HD Radio offerings last fall.

DTS is seeking to expand the technology more deeply into the mid-priced segment, Chairman/CEO Jon Kirchner told a recent investors’ conference call. Since the acquisition, he said, DTS has “made significant progress realizing operational and financial synergies,” and DTS expects to work on more-effective cost implementations on ICs that will hit the market in coming years.

Kirchner also said HD Radio penetration reached about 37 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. last year.

ON THE CHIP

Meanwhile radio’s FM chip push continues, and the leader of the NextRadio initiative is upbeat about recent advances.

“We are excited that the number of Android phones with FM radio continues to accelerate rapidly,” said Paul Brenner, president of NextRadio, a subsidiary of Tag- Station and Emmis Communications Corp., in a March announcement. Consumers can now download the Next- Radio app from Google Play to listen to free FM radio on new Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge smartphones that reached market.

The company said these first releases are “just the beginning of the large increase in FM chip-enabled mobile phones becoming available in 2016.”

In-car consumption, too, will no doubt be on the minds of attendees. According to a report by Statista Digital Market Outlook, the connected car market is expected to see revenue growth of 30 percent in 2016 via growth of technologies that allow users to plug in their phones and access audio content.

ON THE BAND

AM radio broadcasters certainly are looking to unleash; they’ve been jumping in with hundreds of applications for FM translators after the Federal Communications Commission began a two-year, four-part application process as part of its AM revitalization initiative.

The FCC also put forth more AM technical proposals and some are contentious, including changes in interference protections that some broadcasters worry will bring changes to the way Americans listen to the band.

A newly formed group of many of the nation’s biggest owners, the AM Radio Preservation Alliance, urged the commission to consider carefully how it handles revitalization. They believe the FCC has not devoted sufficient study or solicited enough comments; they said it must take “only those steps that truly would revitalize the AM band,” and raised concerns over proposals to reduce or eliminate interference protections for Class A AMs and to decrease daytime protections for Class B, C and D AMs.

In its own filed comments, NAB encouraged the FCC to revise standards for locating FM cross-service translators.

“The commission’s authorization of cross-service translators in 2009 has been a resounding success, enabling more than 700 AM radio stations to retransmit their programming with a clearer, more reliable FM signal,” NAB wrote. “The commission’s decision … allowing AM stations to acquire and move an FM translator up to 250 miles will extend this opportunity to hundreds of additional broadcasters and their listeners.”

But NAB said a plan to place a 40-mile limit on locating such translators may hinder their use by some AMs. “Given the nationwide trend of expanding population centers within suburbs and exurbs, and ever-increasing commutes, the ‘core market area’ for many AM stations continues to grow and shift,” the association wrote. “It is critical that AM stations have the flexibility to follow and serve these listeners.”

NAB also asked the commission to carefully consider the impact of changing daytime AM protections; and it argued that relaxing the main studio requirements would allow stations to redirect resources toward programming and public service.

IN THE CODING

The reliability of radio ratings technology has been much on the minds of radio executives. In March, Nielsen Audio said enhancements to its critical band encoding technology, or CBET, in the portable people metering system are “positive steps forward for the audio industry.”

Nielsen Chief Engineer Arun Ramaswamy and Nielsen Audio Managing Director Brad Kelly wrote that, since February a year ago, average quarter-hour audience for audio grew 13 percent in portable people meter markets among persons six and older. “This year-over-year growth in audience reflects a significant improvement in our PPM measurement system,” they argue.

PPM has been at the heart of controversy involving embedded audio “watermarks.” Its accuracy came under heightened scrutiny when 25-Seven Systems introduced its Voltair monitor/processor at NAB Show to much hullabaloo last year and was met with a statement of “non-support” from Nielsen. Nielsen subsequently announced plans for a “significant enhancement” to CBET, introduced in the fourth quarter. Some 3,000 U.S. stations now have enhanced CBET — about three-quarters of subscribers, Nielsen said, and about 80 percent of minutes measured by PPM.

It seems likely this debate will carry over into aisles and sessions of NAB Show. A few days before Nielsen’s announcement, the makers of Voltair put out a statement saying their box “still provides broadcasters with a significant ratings advantage, even on enhanced CBET.”

Also expect to hear radio managers talking about the recent headlines that CBS Corp. may spin off its radio division; the cost of streaming as radio stations expand into new distribution platforms; the possibility of all-digital AM at some point down the road; and a new AES70 control-protocol architecture for audio over IP. Technology session themes include digital strategies for radio, cybersecurity, ad revenues in a multiplatform environment and continuity of broadcast operations during disasters.

NAB Show has evolved to reflect and accommodate the industry’s changing focus and demographics, said Chris Brown, executive vice president of NAB Conventions and Business Operations. “We’re constantly focused forward on the companies and trends that are driving the newest and most important innovations in the business.”