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‘The idea is to bring people in and allow them to play with radio technology’: Radio gets hacked at the EBU

Innovation does not always flourish in isolation. As a result of this, the EBU provides and promotes a collaborative environment to develop new ideas through its annual Radiohack workshop. Kevin Hilton finds out about this year's event

Professional audio was built in part by people tinkering around with soldering irons, screwdrivers, and bits of components and wires. This is particularly true for radio technology: think ham operators creating their own broadcast stations from kits, and early BBC engineers building mixing desks for specific programmes. This spirit is kept alive in the radio hack, one of the most well established taking place this month in Geneva, under the aegis of the EBU.

The hackathon has become an important arena for innovation and developing ideas and emerging technologies. Big corporations are using such events to supplement their R&D departments, while the more free-spirited have taken a rock festival approach, as with Electro Magnetic Field. The EBU’s Radiohack workshop has been running since 2011 and now forms part of the organisation’s Digital Radio Week.

This year’s workshop kicks off the week on February 11-12 and will be followed by a day devoted to updating progress on RadioDNS, the open format for hybrid radio (February 12); the Digital Radio Summit (February 13); and the Radio Archives workshop (February 14). The 2019 Radiohack is the second to be organised by EBU project manager Ben Poor, who previously worked for UK commercial station Heart (part of the Global group).

“I’ve been attending the Radiohack workshop since the early days,” he states, “first as a punter and now as an organiser. The idea is to bring people in and allow them to play with radio technology. The aim is to innovate. We provide the pizza, beer, technology and physical location and then let people come together to do what they want.”

Poor says that the Radiohacks draw together a diverse range of people from all aspects of the broadcast radio, technology and associated fields. “We’ve been developing a core group that includes device manufacturers, car companies and broadcasters,” he comments. “It is a truly public event, and we also have radio nerds and ham radio operators here because it is open to anyone to come along, as long as they feel they’re going to get something out of it. Numbers are limited, however – no more than 30 to 40 – so we talk to the people who sign up first to figure out what to expect from them.”

At the time of writing, registration for Radiohack 2019 had only just started, so there was no indication of what might be concentrating people’s minds this year. Poor agrees it is likely that two of the main areas of innovation from the 2018 event – voice control and smart speakers – would provide much of the focus once again. “It’s still in its experimental phase,” he recalls. “There is an EBU group looking into voice control for hybrid radio and a lot of manufacturers are experimenting with it. Nobody has defined a de facto standard for voice control to interact with radio and audio through smart speakers.”

Poor adds that he would be surprised if there were not any new projects for voice control radio this year. He knew representatives from car manufacturers, including Audi, would be present. This indicates that the automotive sector recognises the potential for voice control, allowing drivers to select radio stations and audio tracks without taking their hands off the wheel to fiddle with buttons or touch-screens. “It’s usually one of the big draws and people are looking at developing multimedia headends.”

Other areas of continuing general research that could feature at the Radiohack are hybrid radio and the development of new uses for object-based audio (OBA). Hybrid has been around for ten years and is now being pushed forward by three different groupings – the BBC in conjunction with Xperi, IRT/Konsole Labs and the EBU – although each is based on RadioDNS.

“We maintained last year that hybrid was not waiting to happen, but is happening,” Poor says. “We’re looking beyond audio by taking broadcast, and adding internet connectivity. IP visuals have been around for six to seven years and in-car platforms are now adding hybrid kit.” In terms of OBA, Poor sees this as a way to move radio beyond two-channel audio, with interactivity in order to select different points in a programme or change languages.

Another potential use for OBA is Atomised News, a concept that is currently being explored by a number of broadcasters and news organisations, including Swedish Radio and the BBC. This gives the option to move from a headline or short news story to a longer-form version with more detail.

“This requires an understanding of metadata,” comments Poor, “and is also where voice control holds the key for both linear and non-linear listening. It could be where smart speakers will grow, working with voice for interactivity rather than creating a new button. Overall, I’d love for some crazy ideas to come out of this year’s Radiohack.”