More than 100 delegates have attended two key Eurovision meetings about the future of radio. Multimedia Meets Radio took place in Turin, in September, and was followed by the Digital Radio Conference in October.
The former is a showcase for excellence in interactive and multimedia content, while the latter event focuses much more on the big strategic questions about the future of the medium.
Here are five core lessons gleaned from both conferences.
1. Digital Radio has passed the tipping point
The BBC’s outgoing Director of Audio and Music, Tim Davie, told the Digital Radio Conference that, “Now is the time to focus on the 'certainty' of a hybrid digital future for radio, because the European digital radio project has passed the tipping point.”
There is a lot of positive news from individual markets, including the Danish parliament’s recent decision to close the FM band by the end of 2019, if by that time half of all radio listening has migrated to digital platforms. What is new is that for the first time the industry is communicating a common vision of radio’s future.
In Brussels, Tim Davie and the Director-General of Deutschlandradio, Willi Steul, aligned their organizations behind an initiative to accelerate the production of multi-standard radio chips. The Euro-Chip will benefit broadcasters, manufacturers and above all, consumers across Europe.
When installed into mobile phones the Euro-Chip ensures that consumers, who are often struggling under the cost of expensive online plans, could receive zero-cost radio broadcast services anywhere.
Consumers also benefit by purchasing future-proofed receivers that will work wherever they are in Europe. Manufacturers will achieve economies of scale.
2. New formats are being created for new platforms
Content producers are placing a greater emphasis on the specific needs of different platforms. Gone are the days when POPE stood for Produce Once and Publish Everywhere.
A good example comes from Swedish Radio’s trailblazing partnership with Spotify. The music streaming service is very popular with youth listeners, many of whom are no longer tuning into traditional radio.
Swedish Radio is trying to recapture that by making comedy and other speech content available on Spotify. Since most songs last about 4 minutes, they concluded that this would be the ideal length of the comedy clips.
Initial feedback has been very encouraging.
Another good example comes from Bulgaria. Binar is an online station that targets young Bulgarians with personalised music channels and six hours of live video.
3. Binaural will soon deliver a personalized 5.1 experience.
Radio is embracing multimedia content, but it remains a medium of sound. Indeed, new technologies are offering broadcasters fresh opportunities for developing audio services.
Work underway at the EBU and elsewhere on binaural listening. Radio France presented their project in Turin.
Binaural audio files mimic the directional frequency filters created by the shape of the human ear to offer an immersive, surround-sound effect using only stereo's two audio channels.The effect is like having an orchestra inside your head, but there are are still a number of hurdles to overcome before broadcasters are able to offer it to mass audiences.
The current technological limitations mean that since we all have different shape heads and ears, each individual listener requires bespoke headphones.
When the service is fully developed audiences will have access to a wealth of content as broadcasters like Radio France host large archive of 5.1 audio files, which are seldom used. The aim of their binaural project is to convert these recordings for the benefit of music lovers.
4. We are not re-inventing radio, just future-proofing it
One of radio’s traditional strengths is mobility - you can pretty much listen to it wherever you are and whatever you are doing. Radio even had a back channel before the Internet popularized the term and phone-in programmes are still one of the most genuinely interactive formats.
What speakers showed us in Turin and Brussels is radio’s digital hybrid future is not about re-inventing radio, but building on those traditional strengths. Multimedia content is “glanceable” – it complements the audio – and digital radio solves problems like multipath distortion, which makes it better for cars than FM.
RTS En Ligne Directe uses social media and a neat smartphone app to make phone-in shows even more interactive. DIY.FM from Switzerland allows listeners to create their own personalized radio channel.
5. Programmes about social issues can be popular with youth audiences.
One of the highlights of the conference in Turin was a presentation from Armenia about Lyunse, a current affairs programme aimed at young adults. The BBC’s Brett Spencer tweeted, “This presentation about radio in Armenia is the most fascinating thing I have seen across the two days.”
Lyunse combines audio and video content with 'happenings' to engage with young people on social and environmental issues. It is not only innovative, but also it takes risks as much of the reporting is about environmental and other activism.
Gohar Adamyan, one of the journalists responsible for Lyunse, is now working with the EBU to create a European portal for public service, multimedia content that targets youth audiences.