Quentin Howard loves his DAB. Not surprisingly, he was chosen to make the medium’s case provocatively in the engaging opening presentation at this year’s Radio TechCon conference.
The session, moderated by Muki Kulhan, sought to tease out the relative benefits and challenges of 5G, IP, and DAB+ by staging a fantasy fight in which it was assumed that only a single technology could exist. The premise was truly make-believe, given it also presumed a fully functioning Government to implement said decision. Each panellist warmed to their theme, just as a lawyer fighting the case for a guilty but likeable accused.
Quentin seized the opportunity to remind us of his fond DAB story, from the IRT research in '81, to the Eureka 147 standard agreement in '87 and the secret meetings in '92 where rival engineers got together in a huddle and decided they’d plough ahead whatever anyone else thought. A lovely bit of vintage Tomorrow’s World from 27 years ago reminded us of the robustness of the signal in cities, but didn’t dwell on the fact that the key attribute of DAB would be spectrum efficiency and choice.
Onto DAB+, and we were reminded that we get 2.5 x as many services on a multiplex compared to ordinary-flavoured DAB (about 60-80 national services) with the resultant carriage cost savings. He did rough sums on rolling out DAB to the remaining awkward corners of the UK, and accepted that some folk would need to throw away their old black-and-white DAB radios (probably about 4m of them, he suggested) and buy a DAB+ set. Mischievously, he pointed out that the cost would be about the same as a month’s 5G. Tee hee.
Adam Bowie (now BBC) was charged with making the case for IP. He stoically accepted the fact that you can’t get broadband on the move, and that some folk don’t have it anyway, not least in rural areas. And let's not forget the UK’s thatched infrastructure of copper wires. Ah well.
He reminded us of the calculation at the ‘Radio at the Edge’ conference in 2009 that suggested that if everyone listened to radio online at 8 in the morning, the internet would collapse. He assumed that if we had fibre networks direct to our homes, however, life would be different. Adam’s fag packet notes concluded that carrying 20 hours a week of everybody’s different radio stations would take 134 petabytes of data a month, compared with the 2021 estimated capacity of 10.6 exabytes (Cisco VNI). Radio listening would take 1.3% of that available capacity. Netflix accounts for 12.6% of all Global internet traffic at present.
Andrew Murphy (BBC) and Simon Mason (Arqiva), presenting the 5G case as best they could for the purposes of lively debate, explained that there was stand-alone 5G and non stand-alone. We saw some home video of Andrew climbing up ladders in the wind in the Orkneys where they’d had the 5G mock-ups and trials, seeing how life would be were that level of access afforded to all. The pair focused too on the level of data used by a few miles of vehicles, with video use by kids in the backs of cars really killing things.
Overall, in cost to the broadcaster, DAB+ worked out cheapest. Cost per hour £0.000308 for FM; 0.000152 for DAB and 0.000409 for 5G. But it's all rough, you understand.
DAB+ is highly, highly efficient and I can see the commercial operators gravitating quickly from DAB to DAB+, followed by an understandably more cautious BBC. I muse on the economics of local multiplexes when the BBC reduces the capacity it needs for its local stations, as it surely will in time - and when Small Scale DAB arrives too. There is no doubt that DAB+ will be around long enough to play an absolutely key role in delivering huge volume of UK radio.
Predictably, however, despite the enviable simplicity of the hypotheses, most agreed that the future will continue to be hybrid and expensive, with listeners needing us on all platforms. The BBC reminded us too that radio will simply need to be available robustly on phones, whatever else happens. People just expect it there, not least younger listeners: “We need to get content in those devices”.
It was great to witness the Brexitcast story - the story of a podcast which enjoys millions of downloads which went on to be aired on linear network radio and TV.
Editor Dino Sofos was joined by Robin Pembrooke to explain just how this phenomenon began. We saw the doodlings of how the model of this virtual radio programme was devised and heard how the usual production protocols and software were discarded in favour of a Whatsapp group. He talked of the challenges of TV carriage and how, when it risked compromising the content’s distinctive style and tone, he had to gently 'kick back' on some demands from the inferior medium.
Overall, this is a great story, and I suspect that had this scale of project been envisaged and planned conventionally it would not have been as good, would have taken longer and have cost more. Full marks to the BBC for facilitating and encouraging the venture, and it is maybe a great example of how allowing smaller trusted teams to incubate an idea within a large organisation is exactly how to generate the creativity and the agility needed in today’s world.
Talk to the users. Watch them at work. That’s the advice of studio designers. But don’t ask the users what they want, as they don’t always know. Ask them what gets in the way of good work. Have some goals expressed prosaically: ‘when I do X, I want Y’.
The session on studio design with the BBC's Bekki Leaver told of the importance of trying multiple approaches. Then, mocking up the best designs in a physical way, first with fuzzy felt, and then life-size with cardboard boxes and MDF. She talked of making user interfaces (UI) simple, using good visual hierarchy, acknowledging that 20% of the user controls are responsible for 80% of the use.
Other studio design sessions helped understanding of the acoustics, particularly of studios where content is mixed or monitored through hefty loudspeakers. Bruno Fazenda, Director of Postgraduate Research at the Acoustics Research Centre at Uni of Salford explained the fixes: absorption (stuff on the walls to soak up sound); diffusion (complex surfaces dissipating sound); and redirection (directing sound away from listener). He talked of the obstinacy of low frequencies and played some audio illustrations. His hearing is clearly better than mine.
A Move for the Wireless Group
How did the Wireless Group get on with the move of their stations from Hatfields to the impressive News UK tower at London Bridge? Nick Prater and Chris Thame showed us porn pics of gleaming studios and militarily organised racks rooms. They talked of lessons learned from the U105 move a few years ago, the importance of good supplier relationships - and the challenges of running two sets of premises in the transition.
They told us too how Virgin plans were adapted abruptly on the appointment of Chris Evans. I may be wrong, but I can think of only Everett and Evans who’ve actually had studios built around their needs. (See 'talk to the users' above.)
They related the drama of the big switch and the moment when content was broadcast from the new studios for the first time. Those are the times that make it all worthwhile.
Seeing the photos of all the equipment in boxes in a half-built corridor - then seeing the resultant thing of beauty take its first breath is why I hold techies in such high regard, wherever they work. Your efforts move me. I envy your gift.
A Sultry Sound Bar
The very likeable Marcos Simon Galvez from Audioscenic, out of the Uni of Southampton, showed us an impressive gadget which will likely earn someone a lot of cash. A sound bar which gives you a personal immersive listening experience akin to a pair of headphones. Head-tracking delivers sound processing on the fly according to the listener ́s position. It can convert object-based audio or 7.1 to two channels. Very impressive for TV, radio and particularly gaming, this is surely big news. I want one.
As host of the day, I did quick straw poll of delegates. Almost half had experienced some degree of organisational change in the last year or so, from restructure to redundancy. Two sessions addressed this challenge.
In one, EJ James from EJHR consulting reminded us that it is the worry of change which makes us human - and invited us to witness how the body behaves when we become uncertain. She illustrated the fear beautifully when she intimated that ‘someone from HR (she) was going to make (us) do stupid shit’. She wasn’t but we feared she would – and we responded with telling body language. Even your poise and breathing can help de-escalate that response.
In another session, Leslie Gaston-Bird related how many places she’d worked and the skills she’d acquired along the way. Her story reminded us how many transferable skills we acquire in our mad radio world. She also pointed out how she drove for 31 hours for a new opportunity in Colorado. It reminded me that although the chances of a job down the road in your town are likely less than they used to be, the number of great opportunities generally in our business is growing. It might mean that, like Leslie, you end up travelling a long way and sleeping on someone’s floor. A job in radio is a privilege – and no-one said it was going to be easy.
A new Maida Vale
Maida Vale is closing; long live Olympic Village. Paul Morgan, Head of Tech for BBC Radio, reminded us that the famous recording home of Beatles, Adele and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop has a leaky roof, asbestos and dead squirrels. The new incarnation - the East Bank Project - boasts active acoustic systems allowing for live or dead studio ambience (not squirrels) using 8-36 mics and 36-100 speakers. Its design will be finalised in 2021. Expect three large (72 fader) mixing consoles – but there's still a big debate over analogue vs digital...
In Other News
In other sessions, Sandy Claes, Lead User Researcher at VRT in Belgium showed off the “ultimate piece of studio software”, their version of a single studio screen which neatly incorporates all a presenter needs to see. And the BBC R&D’s Andrew Bonney told us succinctly about NMOS - Networked Media Open Specifications. Whilst it sounds dull, it means that things work together when taken out their boxes, which is fairly critical. Like pensions, it’s great that someone takes a pride in this detailed spec work.
What on Earth is Jeremy Vine Talking About?
If you click on today’s Jeremy Vine Radio 2 show on BBC Sounds, you’ll see a written summary line about the jolly content included within. That’s as much as ‘the system’ knows. It’s just a big juicy blob of Vine audio. So - how do we know more about the topics featured so that they might be ‘feasted on’ by a BBC ever keener to make sure their on-demand buffet always tempts?
Luke Eldridge and Chris Roberts described their product called Fenchurch which: segments the show into its essential parts (music, chat, news, trails); machine transcribes the content so it can understand it; and then it tags it. Tags are the key elements, attributing tone, topic and likely audience to each speech break, before adding a tier of further specific metadata. It’s clever stuff, and I imagine will mean that when the BBC algorithm detects that, having listened to a Radio 4 interview on Chihuahuas, I might then want to hear a piece on BBC Radio Gloucestershire about them, without having to suffer details of last week’s traffic jams in Stroud first.
Small Scale DAB
Small scale DAB is on the way, with Ofcom unveiling licensing plans. Lawrie Hallett from Future Digital Norfolk outlined that some models will be commercial, others non-profit making or a hybrid. He cautioned over presuming your multiplex will be as full as the lucky trials have been.
Lawrie reminded delegates that the SSDAB areas are deliberately small and low budget, and finance will dictate the number of transmitters and their sites, but nevertheless, resilience is good, not least with decent telemetry to wake you up if the ADSL line to the transmitter is suddenly killed by its innocent supplier, as happened to him a few times. Whilst much info is available freely via Open DAB, most enthusiasts will likely benefit from a bit of support.
The most exciting time in audio since the 1920s
It's fitting that the TechCon conference - this annual championing of all things technical and encouragement for tomorrow’s diverse brains - is held at Savoy Hill. As the BBC’s first official home from 1923, it was here that great creative brains gathered to deliver so many of radio’s firsts. Now, a hundred years on, we embark on an era of audio which, I believe, is just as exciting.
Well done, as ever to the TechCon committee, not least Aradhna Tayal and Ann Charles for this brilliant day – and thanks to all the sponsors (lead sponsor, Broadcast Bionics), contributors, helpers, bursary supporters and the IET. You do radio proud.
And - a footnote – I am not a techie – so if I have misquoted or misunderstood any of the above, let me know and I’ll correct. (Soundbar and Quentin pics from Radio TechCon-Vincent Lo)
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