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Interview with Richard Hulse of Radio New Zealand, on the decision to offer Ogg Vorbis
Sunday, August 24 2008 @ 03:27 PM EDT

When I read that Radio New Zealand had just decided to start adding Ogg Vorbis files to their online offerings, I was curious. How do folks make such decisions? I surely wish everyone would do what Radio New Zealand has just done.

So I asked Richard Hulse of Radio New Zealand, the station's media manager, to tell me how they came to decide to add Ogg Vorbis to their collection of interviews and broadcasts, already offered as MP3s and in Windows Media Audio. His answers are instructive, and you may find it helpful to note his suggestions on how to effectively request other sites to offer Ogg Vorbis files. And if any of you wish to respond to his requests for help with a how-to, please feel free to lend a hand to make this a success.


PJ: Please tell us about Radio NZ, and what you do there.

RH: Radio New Zealand is New Zealand's state-funded public radio broadcaster. We have two main domestic networks that broadcast on AM and FM throughout the country, and a shortwave service targeted at the South Pacific. A subsidiary company, Sound Archives / Ngā Taonga Kōrero is responsible for maintaining an audio archive of radio in New Zealand.

I am the New Media Manager, and my role is to guide the company's internet activities and keep the website running.

PJ: What formats do you use at the moment and why?

RH: Up until now we've used only Windows Media Audio, and MP3. The reasons are pragmatic, both technically and from a business perspective.

We've only had funding for an official internet presence since 2004, and the budget is quite small compared with other Public Broadcasters, so we've got to use that effectively as possible. We looked at the site traffic prior to re-launch, and chose the formats based on what systems our visitors used.

Potential users of our site fell into two distinct groups. The first group was Windows users, making up 94% of our visitors, so we made the primary format Windows Media Audio. This meant that for the vast majority of users all they had to do was click on a link, and the audio played. It also meant that this group was unlikely to need help - we don't have the resources to handle a huge amount of email.

The second group was Mac and GNU/Linux users. We added a feature to the site that allowed them to set a preference via a cookie, and clicking on the same link as a Windows user would serve them a pls (playlist) file with an MP3 link in it. This meant the on-demand content was seamless for most of our visitors.

The only problem was that we were unable to duplicate this for live streams, which were (and still are) Windows Media only. When we started planning the new site, it was too costly to install infrastructure that would scale for both formats. (We are looking at other options at the moment.)

Using a single format for all platforms meant that some assembly was required for non-Windows systems, but I figured that with most Windows users sorted, and on-demand content running for both groups, we could cope with helping any Mac and GNU/Linux users that got stuck.

This worked out fine until about two years ago, when a new breed of visitor arrived: the first time Mac and GNU/Linux user. These people don't necessarily have the technical skills to get the streaming going on their own, and we've had more people asking for help as a result. This change has really got me thinking about how to make the user-experience as seamless as possible for everyone.

PJ: What caused you to introduce Ogg files? Was it the result of audience requests?

RH: I have had a handful of emails every year asking if we would consider offering Ogg and a higher number telling us off for using 'nasty proprietary formats'.

But it's actually been on the planning table for a while - the StreamingNet content delivery network (CDN) we use was designed to support it from the day we launched - the main issue for us was storing audio in three formats.

Because of a tight budget we initially had to focus on just two most popular formats, but recent changes to the CDN have meant we've been able to increase storage in a cost-neutral way, and so now we can add Ogg.

As part of this change we are improving the way audio is displayed, with all three audio formats seen on the page, and I hope this will mean people can get audio that will play on their system without having to download anything or email us for help.

It also gives people a choice, and opens up the content to those who cannot or do not wish to install non-free codecs on their system.

As far the timing goes, a month or so back our Saturday Morning programme arranged to interview Richard Stallman during his NZ visit. He asked that we make the interview available in Ogg Vorbis format, which we were happy to do, and I thought it would be a good chance to see if there was wider support. So we opted to make the whole show available in Ogg, and a listener also contributed a transcript of Richard's interview which we agreed to release under a CC license, which is also a first for us.

We are in the process of rolling it out to other shows now, and in a few weeks I'll be setting up rss feeds with Vorbis files as enclosures in addition to the normal MP3 feeds.

It has also been influenced by the changing mix of platforms. In the last month our traffic was divided up thus:

Windows, 89.43%, Mac, 8.79%, and GNU/Linux 1.49%.

The others includes the iPhone and Play Station 3, which is very different to what it was 3 years ago. Who knows what'll be popular format-wise in a year or two? The long-term trend appears to be a very slow decline in Windows users browsing the site, and an increase in everything else. Technology can change very fast, so our infrastructure has been designed to make it easy for us to add formats as the need arises.

I should add that we aren't able to do Ogg for a small proportion of content where we don't have rights to allow downloads.

PJ: Do you provide any information for the audience on how to access and play Ogg files, or is it left to them?

RH: We have a basic page which explains about the different formats and links to the Free Software Foundation's how to page. I'd like to add our own page when I have time. Perhaps the community would like to help out ? :-)

PJ: What is the reaction so far?

RH: It has been a mixed bag, to be honest. We've had emails congratulating us for doing it, and saying it'd be great if we continue. At the other extreme were emails criticizing us for not immediately offering everything in free, open formats.

PJ: Is this a trial? If the numbers are not any greater than they currently are, might you drop Ogg Vorbis?

RH: We've already done the technical trials, so this is the real thing. We've started by adding Ogg Vorbis to our two most popular (for web audio) programmes - Saturday Morning with Kim Hill and Nine to Noon with Kathryn Ryan. Next week I'll be adding our news flagship, Morning Report, and The Darwin Lectures will be the first feature programme to use the format.

One of the great things about Public Radio is that you can take a longer view of things. You can put something in place for the future, looking to changes that you see on the horizon. So at this stage I am not concerned about the number of downloads - new services are not always popular when you first introduce them. For example, we had only 300 subscribers to our podcast feeds in the second month of offering the service. Two years on there are over 20,000 people who download about 250,000 items every month. If you played all that audio end-to-end 24/7 it would run for nearly 18 months.

I do hope that people use the Ogg files because apart from the freedom aspect, the quality is better than MP3 for the same data rate. I'll be happy if we get up to a couple of percent by the end of the year.

PJ: Do you do video also ever? If so, will you be doing Theora?

RH: We have done video in the past for special events - the most notable being a music event we sponsored at a Wellington Bar. This was simulcast on radio, the web in video and audio, and it was also picked up by a couple of regional TV channels. But these are very rare as we are a radio broadcaster.

We did once install a studio cam over our summer for Matinee Idle (that is how it is spelt), which is a very popular show featuring strange and often previously unheard music. The host described the cam as "as interesting as watching paint dry", but we still had a few thousand unique viewers over the show's 4 week season.

The main problem with video is that often we are unable to get rights to allow downloads, although I am always open on the question of formats.

PJ: Does RNZ use much free software?

RH: All our web servers (4) are GNU/Linux, and our Content Management System (MySource Matrix) is also GNU GPL, although we purchase commercial support for it. The podcast servers on our CDN are GNU/Linux, and the same goes for some tools we run internally built in PHP and Ruby on Rails.

The software that interfaces between our internal proprietary enterprise broadcast systems (audio and text) and the CMS is also built using free software (Perl). In this case, the main reason is that we have complete control (i.e. freedom) to modify and improve the software, and this is one of the keys to constantly improving the site - we can make small incremental changes as often as they are needed.

PJ: You mention getting two kinds of emails asking for Ogg Vorbis. If my readers wanted their radio station to add Ogg Vorbis, what kind of email works the best?

RH: A polite one where the writer has thought about the issues from my perspective. I'll explain a bit more.

A Public Broadcaster may have legislative imperatives (e.g. Radio NZ has a charter, so does the BBC). A commercial broadcaster will have financial drivers (so do the public ones), and shareholder expectations to meet. A Broadcaster will have legal people who (no offense intended) are risk averse, in whatever they perceive is risky. Organisations that are run in a business-like way have to make pragmatic choices about how resources are used. Much of the information they use to make decisions may not be available to the public, so you cannot always assume that how things appear is how they actually are.

As a home user of GNU/Linux, you can make the choice to avoid all non-free software. You will be willing to work around some of the problems this creates. Businesses are complex systems, and making changes are much more difficult. Replacing a single desktop application may be relatively trivial. Replacing a key broadcast application around which the company has developed a great deal of knowledge capital, while retaining that capital, is another thing entirely.

I'll give a practical example. Because of budgetary constraints, I made the choice to initially only offer Radio NZ programmes for up to 4 weeks on our website, after which they were removed. So even though we were cutting off The Long Tail of content use, it enabled us to offer a greater variety and number of programmes. I should note that the CDN changes mentioned above mean that we are slowing removing this time limitation.

Money might be a real problem.

Having said that, there is also a chance that no explicit decision on a particular subject (like file formats) has been made. Maybe no-one has thought about it all. Often, a company will follow the path of least resistance because that is the cheapest and simplest option.

With all that in mind, here is a list.

0. Try to find out who the best person is to send your email or letter to. Make a phone call to find out.

Sending an email to webmaster@company might work (it will at RNZ), but many companies have gate-keepers and hierarchy that make it hard to get direct access to decision-makers.

1. Ask questions, rather than make demands, and be clear about what you'd like.

For example, "I was wondering if you would consider offering some of the your audio in Ogg Vorbis format.", instead of "You should be offering all your audio in a free format."

2. Don't assume that the person will understand terms you use.

Not everyone knows what 'free' means in the context of audio formats. They might think you want free access to their content, or the right to give it away for free.

3. Explain why this is important to you personally.

E.g. "The computer I use does not support the formats you currently have on offer, and I would really like to listen to your programmes." instead of "Your stupid proprietary formats are evil, and I don't allow anything evil on my computer."

4. Give examples of similar companies that already do what you are asking for.

E.g. "While this isn't a mainstream format, I know of at least two public broadcaster that support it on an on-going basis (CBC and Radio NZ)."

5. I think it is important when making a request to sign off with your full name, and I would also check you signature line - I know some people who won't reply to anyone who looks like an "extremist". Apart from that, the email does not have to be written in formal business style.

6. Don't use emotive or abusive language, and I would avoid saying that it is immoral to not offer free formats.

The word 'immoral' can carry many different meanings to a reader, and it might be taken personally.

7. If you get a reply, try to understand the problems the other party has, and thank them for taking the time to respond.

If you get a positive response, you may be offer links to useful resources. If you blog about your experience, especially if it is positive, I'd send an email with the link as a courtesy.

8. If a broadcaster does make a change, please write and thank them explaining how the change helped you.

If a decision-maker has to write a report on the uptake of a new format on the website, a supply of anecdotes can be helpful.

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