The Electronic Program Guide

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What's on the radio? As more stations not only go digital but also offer multicast services, this question gets harder and harder for listeners to answer. As of March 2009, according to BIA Advisory Services, there were 1,887 HD Radio stations on the air. Many of these digital stations also offer one or more multicast services. Digital subscription services such as cable and satellite TV, and radio all offer guide services. Most homes subscribe to a cable or satellite service and get the benefit of the service's program guide for broadcast television stations carried on these services. In addition, broadcast digital television signals carry over-the-air guide information the stations transmit themselves. In stark contrast, radio sends its signal right to the listeners' receivers with no intermediary to produce a master program guide. Radio broadcasters must provide their own guide information. Among the electronic media, broadcast radio may be the hardest for the audience to answer the simple question, “What's on?”

Without a guide, the three most common tools radio listeners use to figure out what's available are their self-programmed tuning buttons (which narrows the listener's options to a half dozen or so pre-programmed channels), and the seek and scan buttons. To make the most of these tools, listeners must practice enough patience to listen through the undesirable content before they pick the station with the desirable content. Even then, a listener may be immediately satisfied by the current offering on a new-found channel, but must spend time with the channel to get a sense of its programming format and style. And unlike television, radio receivers and their displays are more limited in how they convey information. Finally, unlike all but the most cutting-edge TV services, radio is a mobile medium — what exactly is receivable at any given location varies, placing a new design constraint on a digital radio program guide. Listeners will not want to be burdened with a list of all stations in the market, half of which are out of the receiver's range. Television viewers enjoy the benefits of on-screen electronic program guides featuring the usual day/time program grids as well as search, bookmarking, digital recording and even sorting by content type among other features. Television as a medium offers its viewers far more transparency and control in finding content than radio can provide its listeners.

Getting started

To jump start an industry solution, the NAB Fastroad technology initiative, funded by the National Association of Broadcasters, decided that the problem of letting listeners know what's on HD Radio was significant enough to merit further research and development. BIA Advisory Services and Broadcast Signal Lab jointly submitted the winning proposal for developing an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) for HD Radio. BIA and BSL teamed with the British software firm, Unique Interactive, which has extensive experience in developing a commercially deployed electronic program guide for DAB in Europe. Ibiquity Digital has also provided critical technical support for this project.

NAB Fastroad divided work on the EPG into two phases to design, develop and test an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) solution for HD Radio broadcasting. Phase 1 was completed fall 2008. The goals for Phase 1 were to (1) develop and document a set of comprehensive business requirements; (2) develop preliminary and then a final EPG architecture, and (3) recommend a market for field trials. The project team has completed Phase 1 work in researching business and functional requirements and developing specifications. The business requirements document is publicly available at the Fastroad website, and the project team invites industry review and input. The field trial will be conducted with the cooperation of radio stations supporting this effort in the Boston radio market, including Worcester, MA, and Providence, RI.

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