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TechCon – a look back

Posted on Thursday, November 3rd, 2011 at 1:36 pm. #

Media UK on the radio

Monday was TechCon, the annual event that is a curtain-raiser for the Radio Festival. TechCon is for the engineers and techies in radio, rather than the content people: and is unashamedly techie in places.

For the third year running, I was asked to do my customary round-up of the day at the end. I try to keep this light-hearted and humorous: something normally rather required at that time of day. The brief is to remind those present of the day’s content, as well as – for those that arrived in the afternoon – let them know what they missed.

First, we heard: Dan McQuillin from Broadcast Bionics. He is an excellent speaker: and was almost angry in his criticism of how radio stations are using social media. After decrying the £5m Müller advert that’s recently been on television (which had a call to action of simply Müller’s Facebook page), he drew comparisons with how radio stations were using social media, as well. He criticised some radio stations’ lack of innovation on the Radioplayer; and pointedly argued that radio studios are not being built with decent social media tools. His company does make one; but the wider point was interesting and a welcome breath of fresh air. Heartily recommended for your radio conference, if you’re planning one. No? Oh.

Then, Rupert Brun – talking about HD Quality Sound online, and his rather clever NetMix system. What I learnt from this was actually the benefit of talking to your PR team and working on a new and different way of promoting your technology. Calling an online audio mixer a “grunt controller” is very clever. Tim Davie is, of course, a great marketer, and marketed Pepsi – but it seems that Rupert’s turning into a great marketer too. It really surprises me that many radio companies do some brilliant things but don’t talk about them: Global and Bauer being very much cases in point. To a degree, it’s almost disappointing when you see yet another new idea from Absolute Radio – the brand’s still such a small part of UK radio, you know that while they have brilliant ideas, they’re unlikely to change the industry: ideas from Global, Bauer and the BBC really can, however.

Then Lindsay Cornell, talking about a very impressive DRM+ trial on FM frequencies in Edinburgh. DRM+ – a verson of DRM that uses FM and DAB frequencies – is an interesting technology, with a large benefit that it uses the same RF tuner stage in a radio receiver as traditional FM and DAB, and borrows heavily from the DAB+ standard (albeit without multiplexes). The two technologies would have made excellent bedfellows, were DRM and DAB both run by organisations that appear to vehemently compete with each other. Too late for that now, in the UK at least: though it would be interesting to speculate whether, if the UK ever adopts DAB+, it might make sense to built-in DRM+ as well.

Then we heard from Andy Buckingham from Global Radio, Sean O’Halpin from the BBC, and an absent Frontier Silicon, about RadioTAG. I’ve written about this before, but given that it works on any platform – FM, DAB, internet, HD Radio, DRM, even AM – and it works on any content: music, speech, commercials, news, drama, it’s a very interesting technology. It’s open, has been worked on since 2007, and has been wonderfully collaborative with BBC, commercial radio and a chipset manufacturer working on it. It richly deserved its win for Technical Innovation later in the day. (I was a judge for this award, but declined to vote for RadioTAG since I was so conflicted; to my surprise and pleasure, all the other judges were so positive about it, my vote was unnecessary).

Next, “DAB in a box” – not a coffin, but a few different low-cost boxes, shown off by Mathias Coinchon and Stanislas Roehrich from the EBU. The issue with DAB is lots of broadcasters think it’s really expensive to broadcast: but it needn’t be. Using open software from the CRC in Canada and some low-cost transmission kit, a DAB multiplex was magically set up in front of us – including one channel called “James’s cat purr”, a channel that just had the (royalty-free) sound of a purring cat. A very impressive demonstration, and one that should perhaps give Ofcom pause for thought: what would happen if two DAB frequencies were simply given to community radio services up and down the country, to run low-power DAB multiplexes themselves? What amazing additional choice we’d have then!

Then some really interesting “technobites” on metadata and energy consumption (I didn’t take notes for these), and after that, the man who is in charge of closing pirate radio stations down, Jim McNally from Ofcom. McNally – who sounded like an ex-policeman – spent all his time telling us why pirate radio was all linked with drugs and crime, and why they were all very nasty people. As far as I was concerned, he completely misread the audience; many of whom saw much of pirate radio as simply a nuisance who transmitted over their own properly licenced stations, and wanted to know when Ofcom might take action against them. Yet, we heard nothing about Ofcom’s attempts to close these stations down: indeed, he didn’t mention one single successful closure or any statistics there at all. Instead, we heard a story about London City Airport being “20 minutes from closure” because of a pirate radio service. The story dates from 2005, and – while apparently on the CAA’s behalf – only appears online in connection with Ofcom’s attempt to brand all pirate radio stations as uninterested in music, involved with drugs and crime, and affecting public safety. There is no independent reporting of this incident, far less anything to back up the “20 minutes” claim. If it was so shocking, why on earth wasn’t it covered by any news outlet? I’m afraid I saw this entire session as a spin exercise, light on facts and covering up Ofcom’s clear incompetence in actually closing any of these services down. I’d be delighted to be corrected by Ofcom, and actually hear some evidence of the authority protecting its licensees.

If that wasn’t irritating enough, after lunch we heard from a man called Ron Stanley, also from Ofcom. He outlined Ofcom’s legal obligation to quickly shut down any interference caused to the London Olympics next year from unlicensed broadcasters, and showed off all manner of clever kit that his 32 engineers, and a similar number from many European countries, will be using to ensure that (for example) TV coverage or radio microphones are flaw-free at the Olympic venues. He gave an amazing live demonstration of using Ofcom’s broadcast sensors which are dotted around London to hone in on a broadcast: one that transpired to be a legal broadcast from Crystal Palace in this case. The technology was brilliant: but the comparison of Ofcom’s eagerness to ensure a hassle-free Olympics was glaringly different from the smears of his colleague. I wondered out loud what might happen to Mr Stanley’s equipment once the Olympics are over. Perhaps Mr McNally might use them.

In the middle of that, our only female speaker of the day (there’ll be more on the male/female split in a blog shortly), Fran Panetta with a very clever location audio tool from Hackney Hear. Put simply: wander around Hackney, and your location-aware iPhone will play you audio relevant to where you’re standing: very clever looking, and I’d like to play with that one day. (I was invited to a while ago, but felt, give it was one of the Innovation Award entrants, I shouldn’t).

Next a clever man from Soundmouse, a company that claims to automate music reporting. He played some choice (but staged) bits of audio, and then showed that his system was capable of working out exactly what music track it was (irrespective of people shouting all over the top of it). Very nicely done. He was then keen to work out how this might work for jingles. I joked that he was turning into Nicky Schiller (and played a few of his splendid jingles for fun).

Jon Holmes then spoke; and then Clive Dickens spoke about their crafty and clever football app.

Mike Hill from the Radioplayer announced a new downloadable desktop app is coming very soon for the Radioplayer – very cool – and a new embedded media player offering more functionality and more accessibility will come later in the year. Richard from More or Less discussed statistics, and the folks from BFBS Radio spoke about their engineering prowess in the middle of deserts.

A really impressive day. TechCon is a good, if techy, start to the Festival: and I look forward to next year.

5 comments

martin steers
commenting at November 3rd, 2011 at 4:53 pm

James I missed the DAB in a box, and gutted that I did.. I think the concept of mini DAB areas (surely there must be some interleaved space or what ever its called.. like for local DTT) that community radio could use.. I know we would consider it.. but depending on the cost.

Ideally enable the broadcaster (or group as assuming you could run a few stations on the channel) to deal with their own tech and carriage would be a very interesting idea.

Martin

Phil Edmonds
commenting at November 3rd, 2011 at 5:43 pm

Just listened to the audio of your presentation on audioboo. You mentioned a you tube link on pirate radio. Do you have this you can share?

stefanT
commenting at November 3rd, 2011 at 9:17 pm

about “DAB in a box” or “software defined radio” watch this presentation: http://www.opendigitalradio.org/files/unikom_presentation_pub.pdf and for USRP http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Software_Radio_Peripheral

Calculation:

Equipment for DAB transmission:
– PC: ~800€
– Linux, gnuradio, CRC-mmbTools: 0€
– USRP + RF frontend: 1150$ (~820€)
– Amplifier 35 Watts CW, 6W OFDM: ~ 150€
– VHF Mask Filter, 6 cavities: 1300 €
– VHF 5dB 3 elements Antenna: 300€
– Small equipment: 100€
– TOTAL: ~ 3500 €

Kev
commenting at November 6th, 2011 at 4:49 pm

The DAB in a box sounds interesting – at those costs a group of broadcasters in a city area could get together and be on air for around the same cost as an RSL application fee.

Here in Nottingham for instance there are three community radio stations on air (Kemet, Dawn, Faza), another two operating online (Trent Sound, Radio Trent), three student stations (SNCR, URN, Fly FM) of which two operate on MW – That’s eight potentially interested stations – €3,500/8 = £375. They’d probably all get better coverage too and certainly be easier to find on the dial! There would also be room left over for RSL operators too (e.g. the Jehovah Witnesses and Schools which operate for around 1 week a year)

This would also seam to be a way of letting the smaller broadcasters on air – e.g. Commercial station 106.5 The Bee could team up with Preston FM, Chorley FM, Frequency 1350 to cover the central Lancs new town.

Go on Ofcom, you know you want to try it…

Verity
commenting at November 7th, 2011 at 1:28 am

Hi James,
Wish our radio conferences in Australia were as interesting as yours.

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