Imagine a large lake on a beautiful sunny day. The water is perfectly still. All is quiet and calm.
Today it’s the annual wave-making contest and the first contestant is a giant of a man. He’s so strong that he can hurl massive boulders into the centre of the lake creating enormous waves that wash up all around the shore. He’s soon joined by other giants and, before long, it’s impossible to distinguish between all the waves.
Other contestants around the lake quickly become despondent. Not only are they struggling to lift the heavy boulders, but there's no way they're capable of throwing them far enough to reach the centre of the lake. So how can they compete? After much debate, they realise that if they settle for smaller rocks, and concentrate on throwing them into the calmer waters in their respective sections of the lake, they can make their own ‘local’ waves that are even bigger than the ones coming from the centre.
So everyone celebrates as prizes are awarded for the best wave makers – 'lake-wide' and local!
This is the same ‘proximity’ principle that gives local radio the edge over national stations. The ‘giants’ are the national brands with local stations ‘cutting through’ by offering enhanced relevance to their defined area.
Now, thanks to small-scale DAB, opportunities are opening up for a whole new range of even more localised digital services. Our strategy at Niocast Digital is to create and nurture a 'DAB ecosystem' comprising a diverse and eclectic mix of tightly-focused brands, each connecting and resonating with its own, clearly-defined, community of interest. This way we are growing the commercial digital audience by offering something entirely new and unique rather than cannibalising what’s already there.
It’s too early to look for evidence of our impact on listening in Rajar, but to carry the analogy forward, in the Niocast section of Manchester’s radio ‘lake’, we are now gently dropping lots of brightly coloured ‘pebbles’ into the choppy waters. Our waves may not be the biggest – but there are lots of them and they’re unquestionably the most colourful!
More Digital Radio Choice For Manchester
The BBC’s national multiplex merely simulcast existing services (with the notable exception of 6 Music and 4 Extra). In commercial radio, due to financial constraints, there was a move towards automated brand-based services. These were generally bland, ‘clunky’ and almost invisible in terms of marketing support. Does anyone remember Core, Life, Capital Disney, TheJazz, Oneword and Digital News Network?
The problem here is bandwidth. With traditional FM and AM, every station has its own transmitter and own dedicated frequency on the radio dial. The best way to think about DAB is as a single data stream – on a single frequency – carrying all available stations. That single data stream has a fixed data rate. This means that every time a station is added, something somewhere has to give. And therein lies the DAB paradox: It's supposed to offer better quality and more stations, but the more it does the latter, the less it can deliver the former. As a consequence, most of the national DAB stations are now broadcast in mono and, with sample rates as low as 64 kbit/s, they sound inferior to their FM counterparts.
Don’t get me wrong, the fundamental concept of DAB is completely sound, but the UK’s implementation of it was flawed. The critical decision was to adopt the Eureka 147 system back in 1999. This relied on MP2 encoding which has since been superseded by the more efficient AAC system. I suspect this was largely down to the BBC’s ability to throw license fee money at the project with impunity; it’s easy to take risks when you’re gambling with someone else’s money!
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but naivety abounded in high places back then. Many believed that digital switchover for TV and Radio would be so great for the consumer that people would quickly throw their old sets into the skip and invest in something that would deliver the ‘Digital Promise’ – ‘More Choice & Higher Quality’.
The Turning Point - Small-Scale DAB
At Niocast we saw this as a major step towards potentially overcoming DAB’s two key impediments to growth at a stroke:
Ofcom’s own agenda was more aligned to the technical aspects of the trial:
The focus of our application was on extending choice. The more variety DAB offers, the more likely it is that people will make the switch and, at least, sample the new stations. Our original six stations were all different and distinctive representing a 60/40 mix of existing operators and new entrants to the industry. Fundamentally, there was nothing on our multiplex resembling any existing DAB station in the market.
Niocast Manchester - Formats at Launch
We were delighted to launch with such a diverse range of services, demonstrably enriching the DAB listening choice for Manchester:
We continued to welcome new services and by February 2016 we had grown our ‘bouquet’ to eleven. MAX 80s, Unity Radio and London Greek Radio were swiftly followed by New Sunset Radio – a fondly-remembered station from the 90s and something brand new – NQR, a station targeting Manchester’s thriving northern quarter.
More Choice and Higher Quality? Bring on DAB
Early in 2016 we set out to explore the feasibility of DAB+ as a means of enhancing the trial whilst providing us with additional options for clients. Unlike DAB where the audio signal is encoded in MP2, a DAB+ audio signal uses AAC (Advanced Audio Coding). This deploys a number of clever techniques to make it more efficient, achieving better audio quality at lower bitrates. Typically, 48 kbp/s DAB+ sounds the same as a 128 kbp/s DAB signal. Most radio sets produced since 2007 are compatible with both DAB and DAB+ although up until 2013 some manufacturers chose to disable the facility because there were no DAB+ services to receive. (If in doubt contact the manufacturer). What was really interesting to us, though, is that DAB and DAB+ services can live side-by-side on the same multiplex.
Offering existing clients a DAB+ upgrade has enabled us to dramatically increase the range of services on the multiplex whilst, at the same time, allowing them to broadcast in higher quality.
Niocast Manchester – Formats One Year-In
On the anniversary of our launch we’re proud to offer more services than any other UK multiplex:
Niocast Manchester – Multiplex Timeline
We’ve retained all of our original services which is a real testament to their belief in the platform. Encouragingly, we continue to receive enquiries on a regular basis from prospective new services suggesting that, in Manchester at least, the demand is there to sustain a smaller tier of DAB.
It’s been a great year for Niocast Digital and, for me, especially rewarding to come back to the city where I began my broadcasting career and help shape the future radio ecology. When I started out there was just one commercial station – Piccadilly – and half the population listened to it! Now we have one of the most developed and sophisticated radio markets in Britain with 71 DAB services available across the city – 27% of them from the Niocast multiplex. Manchester is a great place to be just now and we relish the prospect of developing things further in our second year.
DAB and DAB+ Services Available in Manchester
As Loyd Ford observed recently - Radio has always been a social medium. Radio personalities have always been great at working their audiences with real engagement and getting listeners to to do almost anything.
So all this talk about social media being new is, well, not so new. Not to radio. The challenge for broadcasters is that today’s engagement is no longer confined to the airwaves. Most listeners are to be found on social networks, it is imperative that radio stations engage with their listeners on on a range of social media platforms and bridge the ‘digital divide’.
1. If you went to a networking event, you would quickly see the difference between someone who was really engaged, interested in others, able to connect and share interesting stories, or be helpful to other attendees, and someone who was just passing out business cards and talking about themselves. Your listeners can tell the difference in social media, too. Social media done right requires that you “put yourself out there” and that you try to be interested in others. This is just like being at a party where those who really get into the spirit become more connected, popular and of interest to everyone. It isn’t about promotion but about subtly creating influence.
2. So you’re at a party. If you stood in the corner, not many people would know a lot about you. The party would come and go and everyone would leave. What would the benefit be for you or for them in your being at the party? None. Instead, what if you were entertaining? If you lifted every conversation, showing pictures from your smart phone, telling a few funny stories, listening to others and helped others “come out of themselves” by being genuinely interested in the story of what is happening in their life right now? Well, you would be a hit. Memorable. Connective. In exactly the same way, you should think about social media as a place for brief stories that are sometimes told with entertaining pictures or video. Bringing the “fun” of radio into social media environments can be engaging for listeners; listening to them and validating them can help them warm to you in social media and follow you back to your platform – radio. That should be a goal of your social media.
3. When you drop into a party, you may notice that some people have a more service-oriented heart. That means that they are the ones who ask if you would like a drink. Perhaps they greet you and start the conversation and you notice they do this a lot. In social media, that could be you. In other words, you can be the person who offers assistance and you can engage people by being helpful to them. Start the conversation. Bring some fun into someone’s life. In our disconnected society of reality TV, longer work hours, more stress, and often living in neighbourhoods where we don’t know the guy three houses down from us, social media is a way people reach out and try to feel connected, important, engaged. If you know this and work to help validate local listeners by focusing on helping them, you will be the hit at this party. Every time.
Social media does not have to be complicated. It is about connecting with people by showing them who you are and making it clear that you are there for them if they need it, you help others and you open yourself up so you can be seen as a real person. People react fastest to authenticity. Don’t kid yourself. Listeners can feel it when you are being real. This is especially true in an environment like social media when so many businesses (and individuals) can sometimes try to fake it to manipulate you. Be real, be helpful, be entertaining, and bring some fun to the party and see if you are not the hit on the social media platform of your choice. More than this, you will be able to engage and bring these listeners back to your radio station to continue the party!