Interview: Pure Digital on the future of radio

21st Jan 2009 | 13:10

Interview: Pure Digital on the future of radio

UK radio specialists on the 'connected' future and DAB's critics

Pure Digital is the company that kick-started digital audio broadcasting (DAB) in the UK. Its Evoke-1S may be the best selling digital radio in the world, but the company hasn't rested on that success and recently produced two 'connected' radios for its new 'Flow' range. These new models pack internet radio, DAB, FM and the ability to stream music from your computer into one device.

TechRadar caught up with Pure Digital's Marketing Director, Colin Crawford, this month to discuss the transition from DAB to internet radio, the continued criticisms of DAB (from both the tech community and audiophiles alike) and to find out a little more about what Pure Digital has in store for radio fans in 2009 and beyond.

TechRadar: We're keen to know more about how you feel the transition from DAB to internet radio is happening right now. How do you see this evolving in the future?

Colin Crawford: One of the reasons we waited so long before we brought what we call our 'connected radios' [the Evoke Flow and Avanti Flow] to market was because what we wanted to do was to really integrate broadcast radio and internet radio.

We aren't really particularly interested in 'internet only' radios – radios which are only there for streaming – because we see that as a relatively niche [use] (and relatively niche for the foreseeable future). We still believe that the majority of people will listen to pretty much the same stations they do now. This belief is borne out by statistics that we've obtained from other technology providers and manufacturers, which show that the most popular stations for streaming are still the good old-fashioned broadcast stations.

And, knowing that from a broadcast perspective it costs money to stream to individual users, our aim is to come up with a device that's a cracking broadcast radio (so, if I want to listen to Radio 2 or 3, Capital or Absolute I can do that on DAB or FM), but also one that lets me use internet connectivity in a number of ways on top of that.

Firstly, for niche content, so my children who are big basketball fans are able to find American basketball stations. Also, my daughter loves heavy metal, so if there are no broadcast heavy metal stations, she'll find those [online]. Those are relatively niche requirements, if you like.

We'll also use it for 'listen-again' content – so for me as a listener it's effectively a means of unchaining myself from the PC. I don't like to listen to radio on the PC: it's the wrong place, the wrong environment, the wrong time. I want to be able to listen to something I've missed on the BBC while I'm in the kitchen. I can now do that up to a week after broadcast on an Evoke Flow or an Avanti Flow. Perfect!

There's podcasts as well, of course – but again, that's niche content. That's 'long-tail' listening stuff and this is all making up a small minority of overall listening time. So, we still believe that the majority of listening will still be happening on DAB for the foreseeable future.

Why do you call it 'connected radio' and not 'internet radio'?

This is the other big issue for us. We call it 'connected radio' because it's not just a one-way channel (or stream) that's been opened. It is potentially a two-way flow of information. That's the stuff [we're] working on right now – making use of that back channel to allow the customer to talk back and have a dialogue with the radio station in new ways.

Pure's avanti flowThe possibilities for this are almost endless (scarily so, in fact!) and we have a development plan for at least the next five years – every time we talk about that we end up adding more ideas to the already huge list of possibilities of things you could do with a connected radio.

The first one that we're going to be coming through with early this year, which we've spoken about before, is giving listeners the ability to buy a track that they're listening to on the radio. If you like a track, a button will appear on the radio that says 'buy now'. To see this you'll [need to] already have a small value account set up on The Pure Lounge, which is our online portal – then you hit the 'buy now' button and you've bought the track. Job done!

You don't have to write the name of the track down and then go to iTunes or anything. It's instant. It's then stored on The Lounge, so you can play it on the radio whenever you like – and it will also be emailed to you as a high-quality MP3 file. The codec we use in The Lounge will probably not be MP3, simply because we will want to reduce bandwidth. But that will make very little difference – the gist of it is that you've got access to your music wherever you are: via The Lounge, your connected radio, or you have it on your PC as well.

Can you tell us a little more about the background to The Lounge concept? How does that compare with what your competitors such as Receiva, Frontier Silicon, Radiopaq are offering?

We looked at all those possibilities when we first started thinking about developing an internet radio device. It became clear to us that it wasn't acceptable for the portal to be owned by anybody other than us.

Effectively the portal, well, it is what it says – it's the portal for all your customers. So, we [currently] have well over two million DAB radio customers. By the end of 2009, we'll have well over 100,000 'connected' customers. And by the end of 2010, we expect to have many more than that, because we have a big development programme working on new connected products for this year and subsequent years.

The thought of having all those hundreds of thousands (and soon to be millions) of customers almost held to ransom by your portal provider… What happens if the portal provider goes bust? What happens if the portal provider gets bought by a competitor? It's just too risky.

When we started working on the Flow platform (and it is a platform, which starts from the very back, the portal itself, right through to the radio hardware and the firmware that runs in the product) – [we decided] the whole thing would be developed in-house.

When we started working on that, we decided (because we tend to be fairly arrogant about these things) that we believe we know what our customers want and for that reason we had to control it and do it all ourselves. We think we can come up with a better set of content for people to listen to.

All of this means we have a much more connected process. The Lounge can be used as an internet radio portal, you can go and find content on there, listen to it on your PC and you need never even buy one of our products if you don't want to. Or you can go and buy one of our connected products, use it and never go near a PC, because we very specifically designed the products to operate as stand-along consumer electronics devices. We don't want to force people to go online if they don't want to.

Pure's evoke flow features piano-black and black-chrome stylingBut if you do bring the two together, then you end up with a much more compelling 'concept', because favourites stored on the radio are automatically stored on The Lounge. Favourites stored and categorised on The Lounge are also available on the radios themselves. The content available in The Lounge is also available on the radios. If we add more content, something we are doing more and more, then that will all be available on the radios.

From our perspective, we don't want to be beholden to third parties such as Receiva or Frontier or anybody else. To have to say, for example: "Hey we have this great idea for content – can you go away and have a conversation with X, Y and Z and please make it available on your portal? Oh, and hey, at the same time as doing that can you make it available to all of our competitors as well?"

So, that's effectively why we have done our own job, and why we are working very hard on the content for that: to make it an even more compelling proposition.

For me, as a listener, I find I dabble with a few niche stations on internet radio, but return to my favourite BBC and regional stations by habit.

Yeah, and I think that's perfectly reasonable. I'm the same and I have three connected radios and no shortage of DAB radios in the house. But with a connected radio you will find more stuff that is 'niche' and 'long-tail' – more [content] that's "oh, I think I want to listen to this now", rather than the mainstream habits of listening to your breakfast show, or something in the evening that's 'your thing' on the BBC.

We are all the same. And this is why I think it is important not to talk about a transition from DAB to internet – it's more of a case of the internet side of things augmenting the overall radio experience. Not replacing it.

Talking more specifically about your latest connected radio devices that have become available recently – the Evoke Flow and the Avanti Flow – the piano-black design on these is slightly different from the look of past Pure radios.

We actually debated that long and hard, because internally there were two camps. One camp said that because these were internet radio devices then they had to look completely different to what had come before and thus had to look brand new, unique and not like a radio. The other camp (my camp!) was saying that it absolutely has to look like a radio, because what we are doing here is not coming up with a gadget – and gadgets are all well and good for short-term business – but we are a radio company and what we should aim to do is make connected radio mainstream. And to make it mainstream you have to come up with something that appeals to real radio listeners. Not purely to early adopters.

So what we decided to do was to take our original DAB radio, the Evoke 1S, and modernise it. We added the black chrome, the touch-sensitive controls… so the Evoke Flow is pretty much the 'Evoke 1S on steroids'!

And for the Avanti Flow, the gist of that was that we haven't had a tabletop system before and we knew we wanted something that was very classy, very nice… And we wanted to bring the 'Flowness' of the Evoke Flow into this new type of device. So those two radios have a very similar look and feel. Other Flow products won't necessarily have that same 'gloss black and black chrome' approach, but it seems to have been a nice way to start and they've gone down very well with press and consumers so far.

Pure's original evoke-1sWith the Avanti Flow it seems you are moving into a market previously owned by the likes of Bang and Olufsen or Bose.

Yes, Bose was in our minds. We sat an Avanti Flow next to a Bose Wave Radio then did plenty of listening tests and we believe, from our perspective, that we offer a better listening experience. There's also a move away from conventional micro systems to these types of tabletop systems. And if the power is there – which it is with the 75W in the Avanti Flow – people are happy to have something that looks a bit classier than that 'three bricks in a row' type system that they have been forced to buy up until now.

And you mentioned plans for future Flow branded products. Can you say anything more about that? What types of devices – for the home, for the car, or portable devices – are we likely to be seeing over the coming year and beyond from Pure?

I can't say too much right now to be honest. I can say that we have a very strong 'connected' roadmap for this year and stronger again next year. By very strong, I mean that we will have a significant number of connected products coming out this year. And not all of them are designed for use in the kitchen, or even in what you would consider to be targeting the traditional radio listening spaces.

I can say that we have no more plans for connected radios in-car at this point. It's an interesting area, and one we have considered, but not for this year. But in terms of kitchen, lounge-based, bed-side products and pretty much anywhere else that you can think of having a connected radio (and one place you probably couldn't think of) we are going to have a number of new connected radios this year.

Not a connected radio for the bathroom?!

Couldn't possibly say [laughs].

A number of people have been fairly critical of the government's recent work with the radio industry Digital Radio Working Group – the general gist of these criticisms being that the DRWG is 'ploughing a lonely furrow' in pushing DAB in the UK, in comparison with the rest of the world.

The UK is by far the biggest digital radio market in the world. (Well, if you go by population and you compare with Denmark, then it's even stevens…). And they're both DAB nations. The only other nation that has a digital radio market in the world is the US. And their digital radio market is entirely funded by venture capitalists, so you currently have billions of dollars being invested in satellite radio over there. Is it a viable business model? No one absolutely knows, because they haven't made a single penny from digital radio in the US yet. The other standard in the US, HD Radio, has sold less than a million units to a nation of over two hundred and fifty million people. That's laughable. It is not even remotely a market.

The only standard where you might argue that the UK has fallen behind is with DAB+, which is one of the DAB standards. The UK is perfectly positioned to take advantage of DAB+ when it makes sense for the UK market. But it absolutely doesn't make sense now and the broadcasters and everybody else have agreed with that. So for now, what we need is to be doing what makes sense to make the DAB market more successful. It's predominantly in media outlets such as The Register or the MediaGuardian where doubts are raised about DAB. But ultimately, if you talk to consumers – and there are well more than nine million DAB owners now in the UK – they are very, very pleased with DAB. They like it a lot, it does what they want, so why would they want anything else?

Pure's 'the lounge' - the company's online portal, developed in-houseAnd from a broadcast perspective – the costs are a little bit high and they need to be addressed. But that has all been spoken about and taken care of in the recent DRWG report. I believe the majority of what needs to be done has been addressed by the DRWG – providing the actions they discuss do take place. From my perspective I would have liked them to have a few more short-term measures to really encourage DAB sales – particularly as the whole consumer electronics market is in a bit of a slump at the moment… that would have been nice to see. But ultimately, that's just me being selfish! Our sales at Christmas were good, though a little bit down on last year. Though given the scale at which everything was down on last year, DAB still had a good Christmas.

So, you don't think internet radio (or IP-delivered radio) is going to become the main platform for radio delivery in the long term?

The majority of listening will still be broadcast. How do you monetise streaming to, for example, eight million Terry Wogan listeners… or seven million Chris Moyles listeners, every morning? There is no business model that I am aware of – or that anybody I've spoken to is aware of – that would allow you to convert those eight million Terry Wogan fans to IP-delivered radio. Nobody could handle the streaming that would be necessary to deliver it to them. It is just a nonsense!

Where do you think this anti-BBC and anti-DAB sentiment comes from that we read about on various media-focused and technology media outlets?

A lot of the bad feeling about DAB is around the bit-rate issue. It certainly started there, at least. And this is fair enough, because in the very early days when the BBC started talking about and promoting DAB – they talked about it as a replacement with the main benefit of improving the audio quality of radio listening. And that held for a while and then they realised that that was wrong. They realised that there were other, more important, benefits. One of them was 'potentially' better audio quality, for sure, but that was actually seen to be the least important benefit, from the consumer perspective.

For consumers, more content is easily the number one benefit of DAB. Ease of use, boring though that may be, is number two. Extra functionality (boring as it may sound from our perspective, but that scrolling text is really, really appreciated by people) is number three. And number four is sound quality. And it was on realising this was the case that the BBC made the extra effort to get the extra digital channels out there –that's when DAB took off. And they [the BBC] were absolutely right to do it. And they absolutely pissed off a small number of people.

But the fact of the matter is that if you ask DAB listeners 'are you unhappy, happy, or very happy with the audio quality of your DAB radio?' then the vast majority are either happy or very happy. The tiny minority that isn't just happens to be very vocal.

What are the differences between DAB and DAB+?

Technically, with DAB+, it is predominantly a new codec – AAC version 2HE – which is more modern and provides you with about three times the compression. That allows you to do one or two things, or a combination. As the audio-unhappy ones would like, it would allow you to massively increase the audio quality for the same bitrate. Or, which is much more likely from the broadcaster's perspective – as they understand that it's content that drives digital radio – you could have three times as many stations.

Or you could have a combination of the two. You could improve the audio quality of all or some stations slightly and drop in more stations. Ultimately, it's going to be some sort of sensible mix along those lines. So, that's what DAB+ gives you. But, of course, you need a DAB+ radio to receive and decode it, because it is a more complex codec and it requires a chip that's a bit more powerful than the one in the majority of radios currently out there.

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