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Should Australia’s radio stations, currently investing millions of dollars to embark on their own DAB mission from 1 January 2009, be worried?

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Australia was supposed to get digital radio years ago. When communications minister Richard Alston released the policy about digital TV in March 1998, a plan for digital radio was announced as well. The two were treated like urgent, overdue twins as the Dot Com boom approached its zenith. All media were going digital. TV and radio would have to be part of it.

Existing broadcasters would get extra spectrum to introduce new digital services alongside their continuing analogue services. They also got a guarantee of no more commercial competitors for several years. At some point in the future, the analogue services would be shut down. The spectrum would be handed back and reallocated for new kinds of service, although that expectation was much more clearly stated for TV than for radio.

Free-to-air digital TV services started on time in the major Australian cities in 2001. Digital radio dropped off the agenda. Commercial stations couldn’t see where the extra revenue was going to come from to pay for the transmission infrastructure. The ABC couldn’t imagine a hostile government giving it more money for anything. Non-profit community radio stations were flat out paying for the technology they already had.

 

Since the early 1990s, around 100 new commercial stations, 200 community stations and over 250 special interest “narrowcasting” services have been licensed across the country to use frequencies mainly on the FM band. Hundreds of new transmitters have enabled the ABC and SBS to establish new networks and expand existing ones. These new or expanding operators all had an eye on the prospect of digital transmission, but they were more worried about making their new analogue stations successful.

Doing without digital radio didn’t mean Australian audiences had to do without new digital listening choices. The internet increasingly delivered streamed and podcast audio files from anywhere in the world to personal computers and portable MP3 players. This was a boon for the creators of music and talk as well as the listeners, although it presented profound challenges to incumbents in the recorded music and radio broadcasting businesses.

The radio industry was terrified of an audio future where radio is much less central, and where someone other than incumbent radio broadcasters might be allocated the spectrum they want to keep available for digital transmission.

In 2005, the government gave the industry most of what it wanted, and from 1 January 2009, listeners in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart should be able to tune in to digital radio services. They’ll start asking themselves the same question radio broadcasters have been asking for a decade-and-a-half: why would you want it?

 

Publicity material in the UK highlights five reasons: No Hiss and Crackle, Spoilt for Choice, Tuning Without Numbers, Stay Tuned and Read All About It. That means better quality sound; new digital-only stations; the ability to identify stations on the radio dial by name instead of frequency; single frequency networks for national stations so you can stay listening to the same station on a long drive without having to locate different frequencies in different areas; and extra textual information, like song titles and artists, displayed on a screen.

Since services began in 1995, this has been enough to sell 6.5 million digital radio receivers, roughly one for every ten people in the UK. Half a million were sold last December alone. Those who listen to digital radio are big radio consumers, listening on average to five hours more radio each week than analogue listeners. About 9-10 per cent of all radio listening is now digital radio, although less than half of that is digital only stations.

Channel 4 Radio will produce three of the ten stations itself, Sky News will provide a news service and Disney a station for 8-12 year olds. There’ll be a station focusing on Asian music and Asian artists, a station for 30-44 year old women based on the celebrity magazine Closer and a podcast service with downloadable content from the gay and lesbian community, youth new music and issues from The Prince’s Trust, social action from the Media Trust, audio books from Penguin, sport from IMG, business from the Financial Times and other sources.

4 Digital Group insists the future of radio is still digital, but concedes digital radio so far has not achieved its potential. “Listening hours are falling, particularly among young people – they are not “turning off”, but radio does not play the same role in their lives as it has for previous generations”. When young people seek knowledge, entertainment and communication, they are more likely to turn to the internet and mobile phones.

 

If radio is done differently, and the capacity of digital radio is harnessed to provide new services, interactivity, electronic program guides, colour screens, music downloads and enhanced advertising, the group thinks it can “give our listeners a voice in how content is created, presented and consumed”, and so transform UK digital radio’s impact, profile and take-up.

Australia has gone to school on these overseas experiences. Introducing legislation to implement the scheme last year, the minister said digital radio “may never be a complete replacement” for analogue radio. The European transmission standard was adopted and Australian broadcasters will use VHF frequencies – the sliver between TV channels 9 and 10 known as 9A. The version of the standard chosen will actually be an upgraded one, DAB+, which uses better compression, allowing 2-3 times the number of stations to be transmitted and more sophisticated multimedia content.

In Australia, all the existing commercial stations and some city wide community stations are being given capacity of 128 kbits/sec to introduce a digital service (one ninth of the capacity of a “multiplex” transmitter). Some might get more, depending on the numbers of stations in different cities. The ABC and SBS will share a total capacity of around 1.15 Mbits/sec – a full multiplex – in each city.

There is no requirement for them to simulcast their existing service. On the contrary, the previous government emphasised the need for new services and enhancements not already available on analogue AM or FM to encourage listeners to buy digital receivers. The commercial sector says individual stations will decide how they will use the power of the new technology, stressing the potential to offer “everything from “rewind radio” to real time traffic images and downloadable songs.”

 

The idea is that the most listened-to parts of the existing radio industry will all be using digital radio transmission technology to offer a range of compelling new audio content in the new year.
Launching the services only in the six state capitals means drivers will have to switch back to AM or FM as soon as they leave the city limits, say, on a drive to the Gold Coast from Brisbane or to Canberra, Newcastle or Wollongong from Sydney. There’s to be an inquiry about digital radio in non-metropolitan areas by 2011, and there’s a strong hint that a different technology might be required outside the cities. That complicates the choices that need to be made by the manufacturers of receivers and cars, where so much radio listening occurs.

There’ll be No Hiss and Crackle, but for many Australians, there’ll be no signal at all. Even in the areas scheduled to get services in the initial launch, there are big questions about the consistency of signal coverage.

There’ll be no satellite digital radio service, at least initially, although WorldSpace, which already runs a global satellite radio business with around 180,000 subscribers and uplinks to its Asian satellites from Melbourne, is “in active discussion with local partners”, according to the Vice President – Regulatory and Operations at its AsiaSpace subsidiary, Les Davey. The six-year moratorium on new commercial competitors applies only to terrestrially-delivered services, so would not prevent a satellite service. Davey hopes it may be possible to use software upgrades to adapt receivers to handle different radio broadcasting technologies, although this will not be possible if the receivers do not already have suitable tuners designed for the frequency bands used by additional services, or are designed for a single technology only.

 

The ABC has its three “dig” stations – dig Radio, dig Jazz and dig Country – already available online and via digital TV, ready to be flicked on for terrestrial digital radio audiences. A lot of material created for Radio Australia only gets to Australian audiences via the internet. But other new services from the national, commercial and community sectors are going to cost money.

The cash for this content will need to be found on top of the tens of millions of dollars already being found for the infrastructure to get digital radio just to the six state capital cities. And the capacity available from Channel 9A won’t even accommodate all the existing city-wide community stations, much less the 100+ channels that satellite subscribers in North America have signed up to at loss-leading prices.

Radio’s question is not whether the future will be digital. The present already is. Nor is it, apocalyptically, whether radio will survive. It will probably thrive, though as always, it will change. The question is a pretty mundane one: how much will a particular kind of digital radio future cost and will listeners who already inhabit a digital audio world think the benefits are worth it?

Jock Given is the author of Turning off the Television and the above was an abbreviated version of his thesis: Broadcasting’s Uncertain Future and works at Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research.

See http://www.creative.org.au/webboard/results.chtml?filename_num=197093 for further information.

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