Selling the Music Industry on Visual Radio
By Carlo Longino, Wed Jan 21 20:45:00 GMT 2004

Broadcasting television to mobiles has gotten plenty of attention lately, but Nokia is headed to the world's biggest music conference next week to sell another technolgy included in its forthcoming media phones -- visual radio.

Nokia made a big splash when they announced the 7700 media phone, grabbing a lot of attention with its streaming media attachment, the first to support the DVB-H standard for digital video broadcasts to handheld devices. Broadcasting live TV or video to a mobile, even though we've been skeptical, is pretty sexy to a lot of people. A lot sexier, admittedly, than broadcasting radio to a mobile. After all, plenty of currently available handsets feature FM radios.

But the streaming attachment for the 7700 also supports "visual radio" -- an idea that may not sound initially appealing, but could prove itself a useful and valuable addition. Visual radio is like the current Radio Data System that broadcasts a station's name and perhaps the artist and title of a song onto a stereo's display, but turned up to 11. Along with the audio stream, broadcasters can send out visual content relevant to the program, such as information about the artist, a link to buy the song or album, pictures, concert footage, and so on. Visual radio can also enable a wide swath of interactive content, like simple song requests or polls.

Finland's Kiss FM is the first station to test the new technology, and expects to have visual radio running 24 hours a day by the time the 7700 launches. Listening to radio on the device's FM tuner will of course be free, but pricing of the visual radio service isn't yet clear. But like TV on a mobile, will people be willing to pay for something they're used to getting for free?

Visual radio looks set to shake up the world of radio, which really hasn't changed much over its lifetime. One major change is that it could see radio broadcasters become distributors as well as marketers. "And this in turn would mean that radio is no longer simply the 'promoter' of recorded music, but also part of the distribution process itself. What happens when the radio stations turn around and say to the recording companies: 'Look here, we've shipped X thousand copies of your product in the last month. Where's our commission?'" says Reidar Wasenius, the Nokia product manager who's headed to the MIDEM music conference in Cannes next week to show visual radio off to the music industry and sound out some of these issues.

I'm more receptive to the visual radio concept than TV-on-your-mobile, although I feel like some of the same questions and criticisms can be levelled at both. I've been using XM Satellite Radio for several months now, and one of the things I like most about it is having the artist and title displayed on the radio for each song that's played. But RDS can already do this -- is visual radio getting a little too far ahead of consumers?