James Cridland’s International Radio Trends: The curious case of the radio station that broke peoples’ cars

James Cridland, radio futurologist, is a conference speaker, writer and consultant. He runs the media information website media.info and helps organise the yearly Next Radio conference. He also publishes podnews.net, a daily briefing on podcasting and on-demand, and writes a weekly international radio trends newsletter, at james.crid.land.

Sometimes, radio’s simplicity is to its benefit.

KUOW, a radio station in Seattle, broadcasts an HD Radio signal with some images, as many do. There are two sets of images broadcast with HD Radio as I understand it – a station logo, and something called Artist Experience® for now-playing information.

Above: my sound-proofed studio for an appearance last week on ABC Radio Brisbane to talk World Radio Day. Escaping a house with two excited nine year-olds running about and shouting, this nearby underground carpark is quiet, out of the sun, and has five bars of 5G signal, and is thus almost ideal. Sadly, you can’t leave the air conditioning running in this car, it’s too loud.

The station logo image is trickle-broadcast every fifteen minutes or so, and is cached on the radio receiver in the car. Images ought to be 200×200 pixels, be under 24 Kbytes, and “may be of JPEG or PNG formats”.

Image files can be called anything. This image has a file extension of .jpeg, and my Mac happily tells me it’s a JPEG file, but actually, it’s a PNG image. The file extension doesn’t matter; it’s what’s inside the file that matters.

As Ars Technica reports, on Jan 30, the station broadcast an image without a file extension (.jpg or .png).

This confused the badly-coded radio receiver inside some Mazda cars, which promptly crashed, and reboots. On rebooting, the radio tunes into the last station it was tuned to, fetches the station logo from memory, tries to display it, gets confused, and crashes again. And so on, and so on.

The only way to fix this, apparently, is to replace the radio receiver itself, which is $1,500. Mazda are apparently giving affected customers a replacement for free, except you can’t get any replacements at the moment.

It would be easy to lay the problem at the door of KUOW for broadcasting an image that was out of spec (though I can’t see the spec, and it might be that the spec doesn’t stipulate a file extension).

But: Mazda has previous experience in dodgy software, as this episode of Reply All highlights. Trying to listen to a podcast called 99% Invisible, the radio broke. It turns out that it didn’t like displaying the percentage sign (I think in the Bluetooth stack) – a percentage sign can be used for character encoding, so %20 in a URL is the same as a “ ” – a space.

All this highlights a few things: first, following a specification is important (both for broadcasters and for receiver manufacturers). But, secondly, this may make auto manufacturers more wary of adding new technology to their car radios. And that would be a shame.

  • Absolute Radio came up with a clever idea – to give someone a radio station of her own. Not quite sure how this commercially works, but it’s a lovely idea to get closer to the audience.
  • Meanwhile, Virgin Radio UK hasn’t been airing commercials in its breakfast show for the last three years; and has just started doing so. Matt Deegan suggests it’s good news for the station (and its stablemate Times Radio is also to start running commercial breaks, too). Matt also posts the start of Evans’s show, which sounds, sorry Chris, like the lazy awful self-indulgent show he was doing towards the end of his previous tenure on Virgin Radio.
  • Still, at least Evans didn’t make the same mistake Bloomberg made on Feb 4.
  • I was on 3RRR recently – about 24 minutes in, talking about Joe Rogan and podcasting in general. I’ve also recently been on ABC Radio, discussing radio in the car, and the worrying trend for European radio manufacturers to remove AM. Probably fine in Europe, but not so fine when the same equipment gets sold in Australia: much of regional Australia relies on AM. I made the same point on ABC Radio Brisbane with Steve Austin. And I was also on Fourth Estate on 2SER in Sydney and other community radio stations, once more about Joe Rogan and podcasting.
  • Launched last week, the World Radio Alliance, a global group of radio trade bodies. Good to see includes Australia’s CRA and the UK’s RadioCentre. An excellent idea: radio needs to be pulling its global weight, in the face of significant lobbying from Spotify and YouTube.
  • An interesting look at radio in South Africa. The number of community radio stations in the country is quite something; and it must be terribly frustrating for the commercial radio companies there to be so restricted by the regulator in terms of ownership.
  • Finally, radio is in everything. Even a valve radio in the door of a… fridge, made by the dutch company Philips in 1957. I like the tagline on the top: “Even America doesn’t have this yet!”


James Cridland