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Object lessons in personalised audio

Radio has always appeared a more personal media experience than television, talking directly to the listener. It could become even more personalised as new technologies develop to target audio to match people's interests and where they live, which may have some lessons for TV.

The English comedy writer and broadcaster Frank Muir wrote in his autobiography, A Kentish Lad, that in radio writers can speak straight into the ear of the listener. What Muir didn’t say is that this is applies to all those using the medium: DJs, presenters, comedians, actors and even advertisers.

Radio broadcasters naturally want the biggest audience possible but by using a style that appears to address only one individual at a time it has over the years created a more personal relationship with its listeners.

Local radio has always been able to do this more effectively, mentioning places, businesses and people in the area that listeners would recognise if not know well. The continuing shift towards centralised, networked broadcasting, particularly in commercial radio, has made this more difficult. There are still local news bulletins and advertising slotted into the network programmes but these often come across as being tacked on and paying lip service to addressing a specific geographical audience.

UK commercial station Absolute is aiming to create a more targeted, personalised service with InStream. This is an IP-based application developed in conjunction with advertising technology services company AdsWizz, which has offices in mainland Europe and the US.

By collating data about its listeners based on age, gender and their location, Absolute is able to target them with adverts that appeal to specific tastes and interests. InStream works by arranging Absolute’s output in a series of blocks. These comprise a music track, a “buffer” (usually a jingle), the inserted advert corresponding to personal information about a specific listener, another buffer and then the next music track. Absolute’s lead applications specialist Ben Matthew has explained that the material involved must have “hard starts and hard ends”, with the buffers finishing on a micro-silence. Absolute acknowledges there have been problems with the system, particularly for mobiles, with delays between the different pieces of media.

Personalised commercials are as much, if not more, a benefit to the advertisers as for the listeners. A less financially driven approach to targeted radio is being taken by BBC R&D with its Perceptive Media project. Research into this is split between the department’s facilities in London and Salford and involves an object-based approach to putting together sound.

This was started out for BBC R&D’s experiments into different forms of surround sound to achieve a truly three-dimensional spatial effect. During the Radio Academy’s TechCon event BBC technologist Anthony Churnside (pictured) outlined that this technology worked by breaking audio down into a series of “events”, with the background, foreground and elements that exist within them. “This has the flexibility to go above and beyond channel-based systems,” he said.

This has moved on to a greater form of personalisation, although one that is, as Churnside pointed out, different to Absolute’s approach because it is for public radio. The centrepiece experiment into this so far was last year’s drama production Breaking Out. The main elements of the play, including the central action, effects and Foley, were processed as objects with supporting metadata, which were carried by the mix. This was sent to the listener who, by using a client app, assembled the piece. This could include specific information for local audiences, with the script changing to incorporate news bulletins and weather reports pertinent to a particular area.

This was produced by feeding text into a speech generator but this inhuman technique was incorporated into the story. The play centres on an agoraphobic woman who summons up the courage to leave her flat but gets stuck in the lift. She strikes up a conversation with the lift’s computer, which feeds her information on what is happening in the outside world.

Another possible use for object-based audio is enabling listeners to choose where they want to be in the audience while listening to orchestral performances. Churnside commented that this could be a tool for “the next generation of music teachers and conductors”.

The BBC sees Perceptive Media as having potential beyond audio and bringing a more intuitive and personalised touch to television as well. Wired UK magazine clearly agrees, naming the technology among its Top Tech for 2013.

All listeners have to do now is get over the thought that their radio knows everything about them and all should be fine.