The data dilemma


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A new year has begun, and with the calendar change comes the promise of new methods and new technologies. The year's first technology event, the 2004 International Consumer Electronics Show will feature plenty of consumer technology introductions. Among these will be the commercial launch of IBOC digital radio products using Ibiquity's HD Radio.

We have seen several official launches of IBOC technology at past conventions. This launch touts the availability of consumer receivers that will be available after the show. The road to IBOC has been a long one that appears to now have a real goal in sight.

One of the top promises of IBOC is the delivery of data. This data can be program-associated data (PAD), such as song titles and artist information, or non-program-associated data, such as weather, traffic and stock information. Regardless of the source, this added information presents a new element that radio has not yet experienced. Or have we?

FM stations have had the capability to transmit data for many years via subcarriers and RBDS. In 1993, the NRSC approved the RBDS standard, which is undergoing a review process now. In 1995 the EIA launched a project to put RBDS encoders in radio stations to end the chicken-and-the-egg stalemate that was already occurring.

Despite the efforts, RBDS never really took off in the U.S. Many stations that turned RBDS encoders on in the mid-90s turned them off a few years later. We have all heard the stories of the single listener that had an RBDS receiver who would always call the station when the clock was off or when the decoder was shut down.

Slowly, more RBDS radios appeared, but RBDS remained a novelty. Now it seems that the novelty has found a new champion with Clear Channel, which is installing RBDS encoders in its stations nationwide.

This new pursuit may spur interest among broadcasters and consumers for broadcast data services. Indeed another broadcast data system is also giving it a try, this time from Microsoft with its SPOT watch system.

In the case of Clear Channel, the move to RBDS seems to have awkward timing with the continued promise of IBOC in sight. On the contrary, I believe that the timing will help raise awareness of the data potential. Likewise, Clear Channel will have already worked out its data-stream scheme, which can be ported to the digital transmission.

The program data naysayers oppose in-car data displays already. I too object to irresponsible drivers who try to multitask while driving a car, but it's not up to us to design the car's interior. It's up to us to decide what information is of interest to the listener and how we as broadcasters can benefit from it.

I'm seeing more and more data available with audio streams in other forms. Satellite radio has provided PAD from the start. My cable TV carrier provides a music service from Music Choice that shows the song title, artist name, album name and an artist factoid. This is limited information but useful nonetheless. Online radio offerings, such as Shoutcast or Radio@Netscape offer similar information as well as an opportunity to buy music or select similar listening choices. Some multichannel online offerings even provide a preview of what is playing on other channels without actually going there.

Listeners — and media consumers overall — are embracing data services, which continue to grow. Terrestrial radio needs to be aware of this and not let the opportunity slip away. We're already behind the mark in providing digital audio services, but that too is changing. It's time to start thinking ahead for the data future.

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