Radio goes visual to fight threat from digital technology

SINGAPORE: Radio has been an audio medium for over 100 years, but the world is now moving towards digital technology and becoming increasingly visual. Consumers are being offered richer and more interactive media experiences, via digital television, broadband internet and mobile telephony.

Mobile television has become a reality with the launch of services in Korea, the UK and Germany and the mobile internet experience is becoming ever more sophisticated. A number of different developments should happen in order to diversify radio delivery without compromising its unique core values.

GCap Media digital content manager Nick Piggott dwelled on things that went into making radio a visual medium.

Said Piggot, "By which I mean, what radio as a visual medium means, how it might happen, and what evidence exists to make such a bold claim."

"With this, the unique attributes of radio; personal, portable, pervasive, are under more pressure than ever before. The addition of a visual component to radio adds a new dimension to radio listening, but it should be done sympathetically to avoid undermining radio's strength as a secondary consumption medium. A variety of ways exist to visualise of radio, and research exists to support the introduction of this new experience," he said.

The internet can provide limitless opportunities to enhance radio. While most radio stations streams their audio over the internet, and most now include the playing song information, very few use the rich media capabilities of a browser to enhance it, and commercialise it, with effective visualisation.

"The internet is increasingly going mobile; mobile phones have fantastic colour screens, connectivity and can pick radio up either via FM, DAB Digital Radio or streaming over 2.5 and 3G networks. The mobile phone displaced the portable radio as the most ubiquitous personal device a very long time ago, and we probably haven't been as active as we should have been to get back onto such a widely owned device. Mobile internet is predicted to grow hugely over the next year from 1.2 billion to 2.3 billion page impressions per month in the UK," he emphasised.

On the other hand, the arrival of DAB Digital Radio has provided another opportunity for visual accompaniment, and whilst DAB is capable of supporting some very sophisticated visualisation techniques, receivers only implement text information, which is known as DLS – Dynamic Label Segment.

"However, text is not the end of the journey for radio entering visualisation. It is just the beginning of a finely timed dance between us, our listeners and device manufacturers. Adding better displays to radios will be expensive, and we need to educate and inform our consumers on the value of visuals so that they can make an informed decision when buying a receiver, and make a choice to pay more for a receiver with a bigger screen knowing that it's going to give them more real value. Once we've moved listeners to better mono screens showing text only, we're on the way to colour screens showing graphics – but it's one step at a time," Piggott cautioned.

So how do we persuade a listener to pay more for their radio, or to choose a device that has got radio with visuals over one that doesn't? "Two things are true. No amount of great technology will make bad content better. And radio programmers need a lot of persuading to divert any attention or resource away from what comes out of the loudspeaker. Radio works on very short-term targets, with survey results every 4-12 weeks, so trying to get a programmer to think about something that might need two-three years to develop is a big ask," he said.

While the demand for visual radio is there, it needs to be commercialised too in order to generate additional revenue. "One starting point for understanding the value of this proposition is to identify the value in adjacent opportunities and extrapolate that out," he said.

In the UK, The Outdoor Advertising Association (OAA) and the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) have co-operated to study the effectiveness of a campaign that combines radio and outdoor images. Their conclusions are that the two media are entirely complimentary and that a combination of the two accelerates the learning of new brand messages.

"It also reconfirms that radio continues to have the lowest ad-avoidance rating of most mainstream media, with only 16 per cent of radio listeners categorised as "Ad avoiders," compared to 68 per cent for newspapers and 44 per cent for TV.

Piggott said that studies showed that people were more likely to look at a screen to know about something they are interested in. "So from an advertising point of view, it appears that visual radio can be positioned as extending the benefits of combining radio with on-line and outdoor, and benefit from the methodology used to measure the delivery on outdoor video screens. UK figures show that advertisers spent as much on on-line advertising in 2005 as they did on radio (£ 624 million); the outdoor digital screen market isn't reported separately yet, but is estimated to be worth about £ 34.5 million in 2006," he said.

"We don't have time on our side. We can't wait much longer. If the consumer demand for visual accompaniment continues to grow, and the traditional radio companies don't provide it, someone else will," he added.

In conclusion, he said, "Media is going through unprecedented change created by technological innovation. Radio has the opportunity to create a new visualised radio product that listeners want and like and use, but needs to create some technology to make it happen. We haven't been very good at that in the past, and there are no guarantees that new entrants won't be far better at it than incumbents. The lines of battle in the radio business are broadening and the smart will deploy some troops there now."

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