Google makes radio move, boosts broadcast tools

Google will boost its radio ad business with a new tool for broadcasters.

Google will unveil this week a new system to automate tasks for radio broadcasters, beefing up an important piece of its radio advertising product line.

Google Radio Automation, built from scratch, will be shown at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference, which began Friday in Las Vegas, with an exhibit floor opening on Monday.

The new system is the next generation of Google's existing Maestro and SS32 products, which broadcasters use to automate a variety of radio functions, such as slotting songs and ad spots and doing audio recording.

Google Radio Automation will combine the functions of Maestro and SS32 and offer a slate of enhancements, such as an open software platform and a three-tier computing architecture.

Radio automation is one of the three main pieces of Google's radio business. The other two pieces are Google Audio Ads, which lets marketers create and manage radio ad campaigns, and AdSense for Audio, for radio stations that want to carry the ads.

Google, eager to diversify beyond search engine ads, entered the radio advertising market almost two-and-a-half years ago when it bought dMarc. Google has 1,600 radio stations in its distribution network, and the program is open to U.S. advertisers via AdWords.

The radio efforts also have gotten some bad publicity, particularly when dMarc's co-founders -- former Chairman and CEO Chad Steelberg and his brother, Ryan Steelberg, dMarc's president -- left Google in early 2007 in a rather abrupt way and apparently not cordial terms.

Google doesn't disclose the revenue its radio business generates, but Jim Woods, director of product management for Google Audio, said the company is pushing ahead with its efforts, convinced it can improve the way radio advertising works. "The big idea is that by improving the targetability of radio ads and bringing a new level of accountability and measurability, we can bring new advertisers to the radio industry," Woods said.

Google's forays into non-Internet advertising, which also include TV and newspapers, are unlikely to yield meaningful revenue for probably at least two more years, said industry analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence. "Google is probably taking a very long-term view with these projects," he said.

Google has seemed particularly low-key, at least publicly, about its radio ad program, probably due to the bad press it got when the Steelberg brothers left. But there is no question the company is building up its program, Sterling said.

"I think Google, after some early setbacks, is moving under the radar with this a bit to build the distribution [network]," Sterling said.

At NAB, those stopping by Google's booth will get to see Google Radio Automation, with its three-tier architecture: SQL database, user interface and service layer, where the "brain" of the software lies. With an open API (application programming interface), Google Radio Automation can exchange data with other systems by letting them connect to the playlist engine, inventory engine and notification engine.

SS32 and Maestro don't have an open API and run only on Windows, while Google Radio Automation supports Windows, Mac OS and Linux, Woods said. The existing products will be phased out over the next few years.

Google Radio Automation has split the user interface up into mini-applications called widgets. The widgets can be added, moved or removed from the screen by end-users. Developers can also create custom widgets for their system.

Google Radio Automation also natively supports AdSense for Audio, the program for radio stations that want to become part of the Google radio ad distribution networks. The system also has features for automating the creation and delivery of podcasts, as well as for sharing content among radio stations.

Unlike most other Google software, Radio Automation isn't provided as hosted software. Instead, it ships in a server called MK-14, which has as many as three removable SATA hard drives, hot-swappable power supplies and an Intel chipset that supports Intel Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors.

Google plans to ship Radio Automation "later this year," a spokeswoman said via e-mail. While Radio Automation supports Google AdSense for Audio without any additional software, stations aren't required to join AdSense for Audio to purchase and use Google Radio Automation, she said.

For new customers, the price will vary on the configuration of the system, while all customers on a current support contract for Maestro and SS32 will have the option to upgrade their software to Radio Automation for free. There might be costs associated with necessary hardware updates or on site training or installation services, she said.

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