iTunes Tagging seemed like the ultimate in awkward technology to me when it was announced in September 2007 by Apple and iBiquity, the firm responsible for HD Radio, the only legal standard for digital AM and FM transmission in the United States. (Satellite radio is controlled by Sirius.)
I finally used the technology yesterday, and I was surprisingly impressed by it. You need the background first to understand why my mind was changed, and what the future symbiosis for broadcast radio and Internet radio might be.
Tag, You’re Buying It — The idea behind iTunes Tagging was to add tag button to radios with iPod and iPhone docks that would let you later decide to buy a song you heard. If you were listening to a radio station that was broadcasting a special tag number that uniquely identified the song, and you pressed the tag button while your device was docked, the radio would send that information over the dock. Some radios could store tags and load them on a device when it was docked subsequently, too.
Later, when you synced your iPod or iPhone with iTunes, the tagging information would be transferred into iTunes, where it shows up under a special entry in the Store section of the sidebar.
Awkward, huh? You need a radio with a dock, you have to listen to a station broadcasting tags, you must move the iPhone or iPod back and forth, and then you have to use iTunes to buy the tagged songs.
The first tabletop and portable radios came out with this feature in early 2008, and while I would occasionally see it written up, it seemed merely like a marketing idea with little impact. The list of capable devices (missing at least a few) is quite slim at hdradio.com, a site run by radio stations promoting the technology.
HD Radio, meanwhile, has been floundering. There are about 12,000 radio stations in the United States and only about 15 percent – largely public radio stations and parts of radio empires – have turned on digital broadcasts. That number hasn’t grown much over the last two years, after an initial flurry of interest by stations in what is a relatively cheap upgrade, but which also requires recurring royalty fees to iBiquity. Only some percentage of those 1,500 stations use iTunes Tagging, too.
HD Radio has a lot of compromises, but when it works well and you’re within the coverage area, the sound quality of AM improves from hideous to very nice, and for FM it offers a sound similar to a well-compressed MP3 or AAC file. FM also gains multiple sub-stations which have unique programming.
I won’t go into the many reasons that this form of digital radio – as distinct from satellite radio in the United States and from incompatible standards used or proposed in Europe for regular and short-wave radios – hasn’t taken hold. That might take a book to document fully.
But the foundation for iTunes Tagging is the combination of digital broadcasts, participation by stations, and Apple baking the technology into iPods, iPhones, and iTunes.
Playing Tag in Traffic — When our Honda’s horrible Aiwa radio started to give up the ghost, I decided it was time to add a receiver with HD Radio reception, given that I’ve been writing about the technology for years but own only a cheap Radio Shack receiver at my office. I even wrote several of the earliest articles and reviews for The New York Times of HD Radio gear. (What’s more, I started and have partially abandoned a blog about HD Radio, called Digital AM/FM.)
While HD Radio isn’t thriving everywhere, and reception can be poor if you’re too far from transmitters, I live and work in the heart of Seattle, which has more than a dozen stations broadcasting digital signals. This includes KUOW-FM, where I contribute a regular segment on technology. FM stations are currently required to mirror their analog broadcast on the first HD channel – which are numbered HD1, HD2, and so on – and KUOW puts alternate public radio programs on its second, and BBC news on its third.
I went over to Crutchfield to find a new receiver that was HD capable. Crutchfield has a terrific winnowing assistant, so I was able to look at radios that were compatible with my Honda, and that had both HD Radio support and a front-panel iPod jack. I wound up buying a JVC model KD-AHD59 for about $170. (If you order from Crutchfield and are a new customer, you can use a referral code – purdt-etsqh-s1hiz – for $20 off orders of $200 or more of merchandise. I get $20 for referring you – up to some unknown amount – but I’m interested in getting readers a better price, too.)
Crutchfield provides full installation instructions for the brave or foolhardy, and being both, I chose to install the radio myself. It wasn’t that hard, and I was left neither bleeding nor bruised. The radio worked, too.
After reassembling the interior panels, I plugged in my iPhone and started playing with options. Like all receivers that support iPods and iPhones, the head unit of the receiver offers an iPod-like scrolling list of items like playlists, albums, and podcasts.
JVC chose to put its Tag button prominently on the left – a bit too much so. It’s possible that there’s a subsidy for doing so, because it’s not the kind of thing a user would ask for, nor do you need it often unless you’re an inveterate listener.
I tuned through some commercial stations, saw the Tag button light up after a digital broadcast had locked in – it can take 5 to 8 seconds for locking, although analog plays on an AM or HD1 on FM while you wait. I tapped Tag, saw that tagging information was being synced to my iPhone, and that was that.
Later, I brought the iPhone inside, popped it in its dock to charge, and the Tagging item showed up in the sidebar in iTunes. In one case, the item was an iTunes streaming audio link, which I thought was awfully useful and non-commercial. Imagine hearing an unfamiliar radio station, and having that station tagged along with or instead of a song.
The limitation in all this is that tagging requires that stations both broadcast HD Radio and have preset playlists that have the tag data associated. That limits this service to commercial stations at present.
But there could be an ultimate synthesis that would be far better, and perhaps isn’t far off, based on the streaming link that tagging gave me.
Linking Over the Air and Over the Internet — The initial announcement of tagging came three months after the original iPhone shipped. No one knew if it would be a success, and it wasn’t clear if cellular networks could support streaming audio and large downloads.
In the end, of course, Apple has sold over 40 million units of the iPhone and iPod touch, and Apple enabled 10 MB or smaller iTunes Store downloads over cellular networks. There’s no download limit over Wi-Fi (although hotspots may have their own limits).
Thus it will be interesting to see if tagging were to morph a little, to become a way that terrestrial radio stations could push out options for listeners to swap easily between listening to a broadcast and listening to a podcast, as well as simply buying songs heard on the station. (The station, by the way, gets some undisclosed piece of the song purchase.)
For instance, you’re tooling down the road at 12:34 PM listening to a particularly fascinating discussion on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” What if the Tag button linked to the future podcast download of what you’re hearing?
You get out of your car 15 minutes later and walk into your office, missing the last part of the program, and when the Wi-Fi network kicks in after 1:00 PM, the program starts to download. Perhaps you’re even alerted that it’s available – and perhaps the podcast is set to the point at which you stopped listening on the radio? All of this would be technically possible, even if a bit of cleverness were required.
What if a station could announce something particular – a free song download, a future bit of programming later in the day, or reference a program that was already broadcast on a topic? A Tag button could capture all that and give you can option later, with context, on the iPhone or an iPod touch about what’s available.
Heck, the Tag button could even be used with advertising, creating a link in iTunes that would open in your Web browser and give you more information about the product or service in question.
In the best case, with a 3G-capable iPhone, you could conduct all the operations live over the cell network. The podcast or other data would just start downloading wherever you were, or a song preview could be preloaded for you to listen to.
The future of AM and FM is much in doubt because of Internet radio. Tagging should be able to go far beyond the tap-and-maybe-buy scenario for which iTunes Tagging was created.