Thursday, February 7, 2019

How to Innovate

There are two kinds of rules in business. One set includes the moral, ethical, and legal. These should be kept. The other set includes the unwritten rules of market and business operations expectations. These are where innovation opportunities lie, often hidden. It is in testing, probing, questioning, and sometimes outright breaking these unwritten rules that the most potential can be uncovered.

Take, for instance, radio. One of the most important rules in radio is not allowing a broadcast to go silent. This wasn’t the case originally, but as the business model has been optimized since the early days of radio, the most important way to retain listeners and maximize revenue is to ensure there is always something to which people can listen.

What if this rule were to be broken? What if silence in broadcasting could be turned into a competitive advantage?

NASA once had a product that did exactly this. It was an online audio stream called NASA Mission Audio. It was a live continuous broadcast of ground-to-orbit communications with the International Space Station. Most of the time, the astronauts in space are busy doing their thing in space. That meant most of the time it was silent—no broadcast audio at all. It was very similar to having a radio scanner running that is silent until someone has something to say. Occasionally they had daytime communication, sometimes as mundane as an IT support call about printer issues.

The audio stream got really interesting twice a day. The ISS has two daily conferences, morning and evening, with about eight different space centers all around the globe. If you had ever wondered how international the space station partnerships were, this clarified that question. It was fascinating to hear them check in with Houston, Huntsville, Russia, Japan, and others.

For some reason the stream sadly started including a hum or buzz, and instead of being pleasantly silent until there was communication to hear, it instead became an annoying irritant. If that was someone’s idea of verifying the stream was active, that was not a helpful idea. With no posted schedule of the daily conferences, it became difficult to enjoy listening to the stream. This writer stopped streaming largely due to this problem.

At an event in Loudoun County, Virginia, in November 2017, NASA personnel confirmed the stream was dropped due to low listenership (defined as no more than ~ 4 or 5 listeners at any give time). It does not appear NASA made attempts to find out why listeners had dropped off. Nonetheless, an opportunity was demonstrated.

Sports is another possible example of how silence could tap an unreached market. Currently live sports information is generally only broadcast in a play-by-play announcing format. For those not committed to that level of live detail, they either get the highlights afterwards or turn to electronic devices for live push notifications from various apps. There’s an untapped market of people who would enjoy a non-continuous audio format for live sports information.

For instance, what if instead of just a text display, a push notification from an electronic device could be read live by the app or mobile operating system as it arrives? Perhaps this could be considered an accessibility feature such as for the blind. There are some folks who would appreciate snippets of information announced periodically about a game currently happening in an otherwise silent format. They do not want live continuous audio and advertisements playing.

This is unlikely to happen with analog terrestrial radio. Broadcast costs are too high, and this idea is too experimental and unproven to justify its potential costs. Nonetheless, there are still other methods by which non-continuous sports announcing could potentially be produced. Three come to mind: HD Radio, satellite radio, and electronic device apps.

The disadvantage for app developers is this kind of functionality may be limited and not available due to operating system constraints. It may take system feature or capability additions from iOS or Android developers to make this possible.

HD Radio devices do not seem widespread enough for a station with terrestrial broadcast expenses to justify this kind of product either, though if any HD Radio station could justify it, a local sports station would be the most likely if it had an HD channel to spare.

Satellite radio may be the most likely candidate for developing this kind of product. They already deal in special custom technology, so they would not be constrained to the capabilities of mobile operating systems. They have their own kind of expenses with launching satellites in the sky, but the format seemed to imply an abundance of bandwidth from the outset. Satellite radio seems most poised to create a STATS information station, one per sports league perhaps. Some people may want to be able to keep up with what’s happening with all professional games at any given time. Automated score reporting every five minutes could also be useful. Whether this would be done with one station per team or per league is open to experimentation.

A largely silent format could lure additional subscribers or generate revenue, perhaps with 5-15 second ads that would accompany an automated time announcement or station identification at the top of the hour.

Legislative policymaking is another opportunity for making use of silence in broadcasting. Legislating is not a 24/7 activity and includes many periods of silence. They start mid-morning, recess for various periods, and adjourn for the day. Votes are particularly fascinating when it comes to audio. When they first get started, they’re typically very quiet. In person, they become one of the most lively periods of any on the floor either legislative in Congress. The vote tallies on both sides of the House chamber feel very much like a scoreboard at a sporting event. Being able to hear the audio from the floor would be sufficiently interesting broadcast or streaming audio independent of any other content.

As a rule, C-SPAN follows the no-silence rule on both its TV and radio platforms. This means all of the times when legislating is not happening, C-SPAN is still filling the airwaves. This makes for a very commercial feel to its broadcasts even though they’re self-promotional. If one wants a sense of when legislating is and is not happening, they will not get it from how much audio is coming from C-SPAN. C-SPAN makes votes, one of the most exciting times in person, feel like one of the most secondary parts of legislating; C-SPAN typically fills that time with clips from its daily morning program, and only at the end of a vote does it sound like a vote happening.

FedNet, another broadcaster of Congressional activity does not have these limitations. Billing itself as a “provider of multimedia content of the United States Congress,” FedNet only broadcasts when something legislative is happening, and does not fill the silence when something is not. It makes listening to Congress more like NASA Mission Audio than cable news. The limitation with FedNet is its only available online in video format. There is room in the satellite radio market for channels from Congress that do not panic when nothing is happening.

Some might mock the idea of a largely silent broadcast. They can scoff, but if someone is willing to make use of available resources for to gain additional subscribers or profit on the balance sheet, there are opportunities for non-continuous broadcasts to prove useful.

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