Pit Schultz on Wed, 18 Jul 2001 04:32:40 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Adam Curry: Formats - What Napster Really Needs

[hey mr dj. napster is going down, you might have expected it,
but now what to do with the terabytes of mp3 collections out
there? maybe its not just about the data but your playlists...? /p]

Formats - What Napster Really Needs

Posted by Adam Curry, 9/5/00 at 8:52:25 AM.


This article has taken me a combined 20 years of 
broadcast and computer experience to compile and I couldn't be 
more excited about the possibilities the Internet can bring now 
that we have witnessed the cultural change from the traditional 
broadcast models to the Peer to Peer networking model 
technologies such as Napster and Gnutella have shown us.

Ever since I was fifteen years old, I have found myself tinkering 
with communications technology and subsequently using it to 
communicate. Mostly in the form of Broadcasting.

Although many know me from my seven and a half years on air at 
MTV, I have always been and always will be a radio guy. The fun 
of radio is that you (usually) are in total control of your 
creative process. 

As a disk jockey you are constantly working the technology; 
cueing records, jingles, commercials etc, which can be put under 
the header "Content Management".

Part of this process is also determining what I would say 
(station id's, promotions, song/artist info as well as 
maintaining the interactive feedback loop; live phone calls with 

On top of all this the diskjockey is expected to create smooth 
transitions between all elements by controlling the mixing board, 
firing the right elements at the right time and logging each 
event in the station log, to ensure sales has a record of the 
spots played and ASCAP/BMI type organizations know who's song was 
played in order to transfer appropriate funds (but that's for 
another article!)

When I first started working at pirate radio stations in 
Amsterdam in the late 70's - early 80's, this process was pretty 
much manual; we played vinyl records, that needed cueing up on 
quickstart record players, jingles were stored on "endless loop" 
8-track cartridges (known as "Carts"). Logs were paper based and 
patching a phonecall through often consisted of contortionist 
tricks even Nixon's secretary couldn't perform.

Over the years radio has become significantly more sophisticated, 
with CD players that allow instant cue and "chained" cart 
machines that automatically fire the next "element" in the spot 
list to complete digital disk based systems such as Dalet that 
enable you to "script" a playlist of elements including songs, 
commercials, jingles/station ID's and in some cases of very lazy 
jocks I know, even the disk-jockey banter in-between.

The value of the diskjockey mostly appeals to users in a local 
community setting, since local time/weather/traffic are the most 
important known elements for all radio stations as well as news 
and events.

The mp3 compression scheme enabled easy transfer of formerly 
large data files across even the narrowband Internet. Napster 
gave us a platform for propagating the music in such a manner 
that I am completely convinced literally every song know to 
modern man is available in mp3 form somewhere out there on a hard 
drive in the "MP3-Space". Peer to Peer technologies like Napster, 
Gnutella, Freenet, Kazaa, Konspire etc etc. have forever ensured 
that the music is findable and retrievable. All you really need 
to do is perform one search query across all P2P file storage 
systems and you are presented with multiple options for 
downloading the desired song.

Ever since CD-ROM drives could play audio CD's, players have 
included "Playlists". Basic single-tree outlines that played 
music in sequence as defined by the user, or if desired, at 
random with features such as repeat (once).

Unfortunately even the hottest P2P file (mp3) sharing 
technologies haven't brought us much further than the personal 
playlist functionality for our modern "Play Out Systems" like 
WinAmp and other media players.

Unbeknownst to most listeners, radio DJ's almost NEVER compile 
their own playlists. Logistically this is important, because one 
DJ could choose to end his set or show with Madonna's "Holiday" 
while the next DJ had scheduled that as the first song in his 
playlist. Separation is an issue at the playout system level. 

There is however another layer in the (broadcasting) chain: 

Formats . 

Formats are the magical element in virtually every 
product or service, it is what mankind uses to differentiate them 
selves. McDonalds has a great fast food format, closely 
replicated by Burger King, but never quite the same, and judging 
from their burgers, they both provide similar content, but 
perhaps from different suppliers and in turn their burgers 
contain scriptable formats, differing in order, elements and 

Back to our radio station example; The highest paid executives at 
radio stations (after some notorious airtalent) are the program 
director and music director. These two functions work closely 
together to determine the exact format of the station and what 
content they will fill the format with.

Some example formats are Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) which many 
equate to "Top 40" Album Oriented Rock (AOR) is another popular 
format as is the now increasingly popular MIX format (60's 70's 
and 80'). These are just a few and new formats such as 
Alternative Rock and EDGE are appearing all the time. 

In essence all radio formats are based over time, typically in 60 
minute increments in turn subdivided into quarter hours.

If one looks at these Clock based Formats as a sequence, you 
immediately notice the playlist like structure. Each hour starts 
off with a station ID, followed by a Top3 hit -->Station ID --
>Recurrent hit (usually 3-5 years old) --> Jock Banter/Contest 
tease or promo -->commercials -->Station ID --> Time/Temp --> New 
Release etc etc etc.

I view these elements as boxes, to be filled in from the known 
content pool, which resides in the stations' library (digitally 
as with the Dalet system). This "filling of the boxes" occurs 
based on a certain rule-set, usually created and maintained by 
the format creator. In our radio station example the main box 
categories are defined across all known content (Top 40 hit, New 
Release, Golden Oldie etc) along with meta tags very similar to 
the ID3 specification: think of tags like Genre, Artists, 
Uptempo, Ballad, Group, Solo etc.

The trick is to subsequently fill in the boxes while abiding to 
the rules, such as separation, but also "clash-rules" so we don't 
play too many ballads back to back or to female performers in the 
same situation. (According to our format example at least!)

Ever since DOS based Personal Computer systems, almost every 
serious commercial radio station worldwide uses a form of 
scheduling program. The most famous in the radio industry being 
Selector from RCS Systems. They deliver all the tools and the 
content database (including tags) for every radio station to 
create and maintain their own format.

Hopefully this isn't confusing you too much, but if it is, think 
of Shanaia Twain, she is what we in the industry call a "cross-
over artist". The content that is a Shanaia Twain song, happens 
to fit into many different formats. Those include Top 40, 
Country, MIX, and even Dance formats. So you probably know ST if 
you listen to a TOP40 format, but have no clue who Kenny Chesney 
is, but probably know Garth Brooks. This is what formatting is 
all about: Presenting a variety of content in an appealing order 
and "flow".

I know that the use of the word "flow" is somewhat ambiguous, but 
then again, I view the creation and maintenance (tweaking) of 
formats as a creative talent, one that must be backed up by 
experience, knowledge, research and close interaction with the 

This holds true for other formats, such as your local deli or 
supermarket. There is an absolute reasoning behind the placement 
of products and flow of shoppers. Try walking into any department 
chain and take pictures of the store. Guaranteed security will 
kick you out in a nanosecond. They don't want anyone copying 
their format!!

Ofcourse the beauty of a format is that it isn't copyable, 
replicable to a certain extent perhaps, but a format can change 
slightly with just a little tweaking and ofocourse there's always 
the content supply. That's why McDonalds serves Coke and Burger 
King Pepsi (granted, there’re are many forces at work there, but 
you get the point.)

So how does all this apply to Napster and the general problems 
with the music "industry"?

Well, I firmly believe that consumer enjoyment of broadband will 
really take off when we have influence on our favorite formats, 
both from the format side as well as the content side.

This is what TiVo saw and is taking advantage of. Your personal 
Digital video recorder creates a content pool that you like and 
enables you to format it as you wish. The obvious drawbacks are 
that there are no pre-defined formats to work with other than 
those offered by the available broadcasters, which is also the 
limitation to the content pool.

So take Napster, with most all music in the world (soon to be) 
digitized in mp3 files ubiquitously available thanks to P2P 
technologies. Taking a known format that you feel comfortable 
with (Let's use Top 40) and allowing the format to act as a 
framework for your playlist. This way you have a built in 
surprise factor. If the format calls for a female Top 40 artist, 
you may hear Madonna one time and Jennifer Lopez the next, since 
they both "fit the box".

The real sweet stuff comes in when you as a user are able to 
tweak the format, perhaps I just don't want any news at all, then 
I could simply eliminate that box from my format. Likewise I 
could set a rule stating that I never want to hear Madonna. It 
truly will become "My Radio Station".

What I like about the box model as well is that it is a perfect 
vehicle to introduce commerce based on fair value at the 
individual level. I may wish to receive news once every two hours 
according to my format. I can open the box and make it available 
for new providers to drop content into it (interesting 
subscription model there!) in exchange for information from me, 
or perhaps they will in turn track my use of their news format to 
enhance my experience with their content. If I don't like what 
they are delivering to me or am unhappy with the relationship for 
any other reason, I simply close access to my news box for that 
content party.

To me this is Personal Profiling the way it should be; where the 
power lies with the consumer, and is based on fair exchange 
relationships with content and format providers.

I'm no programmer, but I know enough about XML to have a feeling 
that this language is probably the right way to go for creating 
Formats. I have followed Dave Winer's development of Userland for 
several years now, and really got excited by his latest offering 
Radio Userland, which enables creation, publishing and 
aggregating of playlists through his outlining software and XML.

Ofcourse Radio is only one example of a functioning Format--
Playlist--Playout system. It works for any service or product. 

MP3s are a good place to start because we already have an 
addressable content pool with a reasonable naming space (Napster, 
Gnutella etc)

ID3 tags already provide meta information that XML based apps can 
then format and send to a playout system.

What is missing is an open content meta-tag database that stores 
everyone's information when they drop any content item into the 
"Ocean" Ofcourse the incentive will be there, since proper 
tagging and naming will enable successful searches when boxes 
need to be filled. Once the box is filled, a copy has been 
locally stored on that users' machine and therefore has 
propagated by factor one, making two instances available in the 
content ocean. (if that user is a part of a P2P network)

Currently one of the companies I am involved with United 
Resources of Jamby is working on solving exactly these issues. 
Ann open content/tags database however is something that needs to 
be opensource and available to all format creators and content 
producers as well as those who make PlayOut systems such as Radio 
Userland, WinAmp and RealMedia.

I think some excellent work was done on RSS by both Userland and 
Netscape and hope that someone will pick up where they left off 
in their content syndication effort, since this is the key to 
successful growth of personalized content consumption.

Adam Curry adam@curry.com

[these links might help to push the context a bit further:

more about formats:

open music license:

open music meta data standard:

open meta archive:


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