"Persona Radio": FASTROAD to Nowhere

This is rich: the latest “feature” under development for the HD Radio protocol. Called “Persona Radio,” the scheme utilizes radical changes to the broadcast and reception infrastructure to allow for the conceptual distribution of “personalized” radio content. In theory, a listener “registers” with a station, inputting information like age, gender, location, and “mood,” and then the HD station offers them a menu of “personalized” content, including time-shifted audio, still images, text information, and (oh boy!) personalized coupons.
Some important qualifications have to be made about the “Persona Radio” project and its documentation so far:
1. This is a theoretical project – a prototype. Much like auto manufacturers display “concept cars” at conventions and shows. The notion is to give other industry members and the public at a sneak-peek of what such a car may look like – but they’re just a shell, not even drivable. Such is the case here.
Although iBiquity and the NAB Flexible Advanced Services for Television & Radio On All Devices (FASTROAD) program has produced a 60-page document on the concept, there are no significant indicators of just how this “feature” would be implemented. For example: does it work on both AM and FM? (My guess is FM-only, for reasons listed below.) How will stations conduct the “interactive” component of personalizing an individual listener’s radio experience? (The document hints that it can be done actively – by listeners registering on their favorite stations’ web sites or by listening to an HD-enabled station for at least one continuous hour.) What, exactly, are the benefits listeners will get, and how will stations accommodate each listener?
2. “Persona Radio” may be just a way to integrate the function of conditional access into all HD-enabled devices. Conditional access is at the heart of the (theoretically) functional process to personalize the listener experience. In the past, broadcasters have sold conditional access as a way to “protect” specialized radio services (like reading services for the blind) or as a way to offer “pay-per-listen” streaming (of things like live concerts, or, in the case of public broadcasters, pledge-free programming). Thus, the operative concept behind “Persona Radio” is centered around an older feature which has yet to find any meaningful traction in the HD Radio space.
3. The bandwidth capacity of “Persona Radio” puts it in the same boat as all of the rest, such as datacasting and multicasting. According to the iBiquity/NAB study, personalized audio content will max out at a fidelity of 48 kilobits per second (the default assumed by “Persona Radio” is actually half that), plus 8 kilobits reserved for the transmission of images and a paltry 1 kbps for text. Including “encapsulation” overhead, this results in a “payload” per HD station of between 30-69 kbps to operate the function. Users can expect a whopping 12 minutes a day of time-shifted, push-driven audio programming.
Given that this eats up more than half of an FM-HD station’s digital carrying capacity, “Persona Radio” will restrict stations’ ability to do things like multicasting. How far are stations willing to degrade digital audio fidelity in order to offer this? Are they willing to sacrifice multicast streams to accommodate it? Theoretically, even with “Persona Radio,” an FM-HD station could still broadcast two audio streams, but at what cost?
4. Key to making this feature work is the complicity of receiver manufacturers. “Persona Radio” is not backward-compatible with any HD receiver on the market today. Given the sorry sales record of existing receivers, how willing are manufacturers to invest in an “upgraded” receiver with this functionality? And what will be its initial cost?
So many things are working against HD Radio at this time that it’s difficult to see “Persona Radio” changing the game, except symbolically. It represents an effort by broadcasters to engage in interactivity, and while the prose is substantive the substance is missing. Like all concepts, “Persona Radio” is just an idea – the question is whether broadcasters or listeners even care enough now to adopt something that seems complicated, antithetical to the notion of “broadcasting” as it has been known…and, oh, can already be done much more easily through other content distribution mechanisms and digital devices (like the internet and smartphones, respectively).