Monday, November 05, 2007

T-Radio is Silenced

"A failure of mission" is the phrase that comes to mind with the (at least temporary) demise of "T-Radio" in Boston.

The idea itself seems reasonable on the face of it: pipe in a custom audio feed into various MBTA stations; brand it as "T Radio". It could help pass the time...and Lord knows waiting for a T often requires plenty of time, no matter what Joe Pesaturo likes to say their "on time" ratings are.

Obviously there's a lot of potential for abuse here, and it seems that the MBTA exploited several of them: it was too loud, too inane, too commercial. Plus it was drowning out the local street musicians that routinely perform in various T stations...some of whom are terrible, but many of which are quite good.

What bugs me about it, though, is that this seems like a clear case of the MBTA forgetting what their core mission is: service. In other words, they exist to serve those people wishing to get from point A to point B by means of non-privately-owned-vehicles. Instead, this was viewed purely as a revenue-generation opportunity. Read the articles about it, you'll see exactly what I mean. If you start with that goal in mind, then suddenly all the aforementioned "abuses" make perfect sense. If you start with a goal of better serving the customers, then T Radio never made any sense at all.

The irony here is that yours truly proposed an alternate solution to "T Radio" that would serve the customer better...and proposed it way back in 1998! Admittedly I was younger and dumber back then (note that does not automatically mean I am wiser today!) :-) so perhaps that's why it was ignored...

Here's the gist: campus radio stations have, for decades, used technology called "carrier-current transmitters" to inject a roughly 20 watt AM broadcast signal into a dorm's (or other building's) power grid...turning all the electrical wiring in a building into a low-grade transmitting antenna. In other words, the current "carries" the AM signal. They're not terribly expensive, typically under $2000 each. Very reliable and mature technology, too.

This technology will work just peachy with third-rail (or overhead wire) power technology for trolleys and subways. In fact, it might work better thanks to the more consistent power draw and higher voltages. The only question is whether or not there's too many cutoffs and/or transformers along the lines; CCAM signals cannot penetrate it might take a lot of these little transmitters, but we're talking a million-dollar budget here anyways.

Once installed, this will blanket an area for about 50-100ft around each third-rail with a perfectly good AM signal that any $5 walkman can receive. Publicize this frequency all over the station stops and the trolleys/subways themselves. Put the T Radio feed on that!

Now, a little radio station like this needs a marketing hook to get people to listen...Phil Collins alone does not an incentive make (actually quite the opposite). What's the obvious answer? That's right: real-time status updates. Have a different feed for each line, and every five minutes, for one solid minute, an automated voice reads off where each trolley/subway train is currently located. That's not quite as good as a minute-by-minute countdown, but it's a reasonably good way to estimate how far away the next trolley/subway is.

Now you've got your hook, which means you've got listeners, which means you've got advertising. And all without annoying patrons or musicians. Probably for the same price, too.

No comments: