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RadioDNS moves ahead with new services and technologies

This September is a significant month for hybrid radio. The technology was highlighted at both IBC in Amsterdam and IFA in Berlin. Nick Piggott of RadioDNS talks about the background to the project, how broadcasters can tailor it to their needs and why combining FM with digital and the internet could revitalise radio.

New interactive services linking digital and analogue radio broadcasts to the internet have been launched this month on both BBC services and German public network ARD.

RadioDNS is an attempt to combine the practicality and familiarity of FM with the additional data and connectivity promised by digital radio when it was introduced in the 1990s. Standing for Domain Name System, DNS is a computer naming protocol that associates specific information with domain names and generates IP addresses for the main services and additional data.

The idea is to bring interactivity to good old analogue radio while at the same time enhancing and expanding the capabilities of digital formats like DAB, as well as media streaming services. RadioDNS is hailed as an open, hybrid technology and was originally conceived in 2008 under a joint project between UK commercial group Global Radio and the BBC.

The EBU launched its own research into hybrid radio at IBC 2010 and at this year’s show RadioDNS announced that “for the first time there has been a consensus to adopt common standard hybrid radio across Europe and the US”. During the IFA consumer electronics exhibition in Berlin, German public broadcaster ARD introduced two of the component technologies of hybrid radio – RadioVIS and RadioEPG – for its DAB network. The BBC is also using these for images and text on Radio 1 and 1Xtra, as well as more straightforward RadioDNS on all other national FM and digital networks.

Nick Piggott (pictured at IBC holding a RadioDNS equipped smartphone), head of creative technology at Global Radio and chair of RadioDNS, says the format grew out of the “maturing of a lot of technological ideas” that have been brought into “one quite simple concept”. This, he explains, focuses not just “all the strengths of broadcast radio and the internet” but also the respective advantages of analogue FM and digital radio.

RadioDNS offers radio over DAB/DAB+, DRM/DRM+, FM, the US HD Radio standard and IP, all with access to information about the programmes through internet connections. Because the core technology only enables the link between broadcast radio and the web, RadioDNS includes several sub-projects to further extend capabilities. Right now these are: RadioVIS (an abbreviation of visualisation) to add test and graphics, which is available on receivers including the Pure Sensia and Revo Axis, plus some mobile phone apps; RadioEPG (electronic programme guide), offering not just schedules but also the capability to switch between streaming and broadcast radio, in addition to logos and a “universal preset” to find stations anywhere; and RadioTAG, allowing the listener to push a button during a song or programme, creating a link to the broadcaster, which can send more information on the subject later.

Piggott describes RadioDNS as a “framework”, with the decision on how to use it and develop an interactive strategy left up to the broadcasters. “There is a lot that is open to a broadcaster,” he explains. “They can have something very simple, with just a logo and basic programme data, or all that that along with entertainment and travel news.”

Back in the early days of DAB the EPG was a major selling point of the technology but implementing it has taken longer than expected. Now EPGs are more viable and can be implemented on FM through the internet. FM has had interactivity for some time through RDS (Radio Data System), which is used predominantly for linking to traffic reports, but Piggott says the technology behind RadioDNS is more straightforward. “People can use existing IT techniques and don’t need to know about complicated RDS groups,” he says.

Internet radios and streaming music players already offer a wide range of stations and supporting information, as well as access to individual music file libraries on personal computers. Piggott acknowledges this but argues that navigating round these systems to find everything is often cumbersome. “There’s also more scope with RadioDNS because if you can’t find a station on one platform you can find it on another because there is digital, streaming and FM to choose from,” he adds.

RadioDNS receivers of all forms – recognisable “kitchen radios” and apps for tablets and phones – are now on the market and car manufacturers are also beginning to look seriously at the technology, something that is happening quicker than it did with DAB.

While universal technologies are still rare today, Nick Piggott says RadioDNS is coming close to being that, with both European and US broadcasters implementing it. “America has slightly different versions of FM, RDS and digital radio,” he concludes, “but they are agreeing to go the same way as Europe on DNS. Which is unusually bold for a radio project.”