Music Business

#1 reason radio is falling behind

As technology advances, radio seems to become less and less necessary. Can it survive?

A guest post by Bobby Owsinski of Music 3.0.

It doesn’t matter your age or where you on the globe you live these days, with few exceptions our world revolves around technology, especially when it comes to entertaining ourselves. Although there are lots of studies that show that radio is still widely used, it’s hardly the first thing that anyone with other electronic options would reach for. We inherently know that, but there’s a serious technical incident that recently happened that is the best example of why radio is losing the entertainment game.

Brick, Anyone?

The problem began on January 30th when Mazda owners in the Seattle area began complaining that when their car radios were tuned to the local NPR station KUOW 94.9, the radio would crash and the displays went blank. After the radio rebooted it was stuck on KUOW and couldn’t be tuned to any other station.

At first, fingers were pointed at the radio station saying that there was a plan to intentionally have all radios tuned to KUOW and stay that way. The whole debacle turned out to be partially the station’s fault but there was nothing sinister about how it happened.

The Stupidly Simple Cause

KUOW broadcasts an HD signal where there are two sets of images also included in the data stream – a station logo, and something called Artist Experience, which provides the information about what’s currently playing. The station logo spec says that the image should be a 200 x 200 jpeg or png file that’s less than 24kb in size, and that’s what KUOW broadcast.

The problem came when the its logo in the signal didn’t have a .jpeg or .png file extension connected to it. In other words, the image was titled “KUOW” instead of “KUOW.jpeg.” This is never mentioned as something that’s necessary in the spec, by the way.

When the Mazda radio received the image, it “loaded this image into its cache and tried to decode it, hit the software bug, locked up and watchdog rebooted. The first thing it does when it reboots is tries to decode the image, and locks up and reboots, forever,” as commenter ZubulonPi wrote.

So the radio is essentially dead and can’t be fixed in the field. Mazda said it would replace the radios for free except that there are no replacements right now because of supply chain shortages.

Why We Don’t Think Highly Of Radio Anymore

So let’s get this straight. HD radio (which is supposedly the most advanced radio broadcast method at the moment) is only capable of sending out the most rudimentary data stream, which personal computers flew by in 1980s and phones in the 90s.

The receivers in some cars are so tech-stupid that even the tiniest of errors in this data stream can not only crash the radio, but brick it as well.

Like I said before, radio still has a huge audience but it’s generally one of convenience. People with older vehicles might not have another option available, or it might be background fill during work or a short drive. It peaked in the 70s and 80s and has less influence now than ever, especially when it comes to music and music discovery.

We all have way too many options in the entertainment game today, and I’d venture to say that most of them are better than what radio provides. The least it can do is work well all the time.

Bobby Owsinski is a producer/engineer, author and coach. He has authored 24 books on recording, music, the music business and social media.

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