James Cridland

Standards are boring — but they are there for a reason

Tune into many FM stations with RDS signals in France, Italy or the USA, and you’ll notice that some stations try putting some now-playing information over the 8-character radio station name. Watch, and it slowly scrolls through a song name, or — worse — some advertising. It’ll normally scroll once every two seconds, due to the way RDS works, so it scrolls really very slowly; and errors on transmission can mean you lose chunks of the data (and thus chunks of the name).

Worse, if you try saving a preset on your car radio, quite often it will store the name currently being transmitted; so there are vast amounts of cars on the road who think they’re listening to “PIZZA” or “RWAY TO HE”.

This doesn’t sound as if it’s a great user experience, because it isn’t. The broadcast regulator in some countries bans this — the UK is one of them. But, more to the point, it is explicitly not allowed under the RDS specification. “PS [‘Programme Service’] must only be used for identifying the programme service and it must not be used for other messages giving sequential information”, the RDS specification warns.

The advent of digital hasn’t fixed this, either.

In Denmark, if you turn on your DAB radio and try tuning around, you’ll notice something odd happening. Bauer have named all their stations starting with a “_” character, so “_Radio Soft”, “_myROCK” or “_Radio 100” are all together (at the bottom of the list), below every other station.

The thought, presumably, is to keep Bauer stations together. The reality is that listeners will only see “myROCK” appear below competitor “Rockkanalen”, and that means that this decision breaks everyone’s ability to tune in alphabetical order — making digital radio much more confusing for everyone. Being fair, the DAB specification only says that this name “shall identify the service”. But even so, where would we be if everyone did this? And why should a listener care — or know — who the overall owner is?

DAB+ in Australia is similarly broken. Travel to Brisbane in Australia (pop in for a coffee while you’re here) and you’ll notice one station on DAB called “1116 4BC” and another called “4BC1116 NewsTalk”. Both these stations are identical, but the owner of this station appears to be spamming every DAB radio set by getting two listings for the one station.

Once more, the DAB specification allows this — you can have more than one service listing pointing to the same subchannel. But this isn’t really very good behaviour. If everyone put two different names for the same station on the multiplex, where would we be then?

The internet, too, is a world of specifications that are barely followed. When submitting a podcast to iTunes, you’re asked for the name and author of a podcast. Of course, some people started adding all kinds of nonsense into the “author” field, to help them appear higher in searches. The nonsense has irritated Apple so much, they’re now kicking podcasts out of their listings who are just spamming keywords into podcasts. Apple cares about the user experience; and it seems some podcast providers just don’t. Good on Apple for saying enough’s enough.

So, I know it’s really very dull — but just occasionally it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves that standards and etiquette are there for a reason.

Will what you’re doing delight your audience? If you’re just wanting to irritate the audience, perhaps you’re in the wrong industry.