The stations will start broadcasting on DAB+ on Oct. 1
Lately radio has not been short of celebrations and praise. The UNESCO World Radio Day, the EBU Digital Radio Summit, the ITU programs and podcasts have all reaffirmed the great services that radio brings to humanity.
In the new, post-pandemic world, we are talking about new radio, though its attributes like immediacy, localism and ubiquity, remain unchanged. The COVID reality has just enhanced the role of radio by making it a strong tool in the provision of public health information and the struggle against fake news and disinformation. The possibilities of delivering health and natural disaster warnings or distance learning, to which the Digital Radio Mondiale consortium has devoted a whole new ebook, have come to the fore.
Your Trusted Guide
Radio — with its 6 billion radios sets worldwide — is a force. Listenership remains strong. At least this is the perception. The ad agencies (for example some of the big ones in the United States) had a less rosy image of radio at the beginning of the crisis and saw the platform on the downhill side. It’s true that at the beginning of last year there was a decline in listening. Later this turned into an increased time devoted by U.S. adults to digital audio (from a 1% decline to 8.3% growth at the end of 2020).
Digital audio is not exclusively digital radio and often refers to the audio consumption on apps, the growing appetite for longer format radio like podcasts, preferred by those stuck indoors. The perception is then of serious digital audio use.
The reality is also that about half the world population (some 3.5 billion people) have no internet access and for them radio, mostly analog, remains the universal, trusted, and omnipresent, often only, information platform. Even in Germany, a recent study revealed that 52% of adults think radio is indispensable to their daily lives. Radio ranks a close second to TV for trustworthiness.
The key word is, as always, trust. In radio, as the trusted and discerning guide to information, education, and a bit less to entertainment, is part of its image now.
Digital Is the Way
Some observers predict that 2021 will mark a big milestone between traditional radio and digital radio consumption, at least in developed countries like the U.S., where the audio time spent listening via digital services is poised to slightly surpass traditional radio.
This tells us two things: traditional radio broadcasts continue to be in demand, as they remain the bedrock of all “digital” spin-offs, and radio digitization needs to happen so that radio is fully integrated in the digitally complex, post-COVID-19 landscape.
“The reality is also that about half the world population (some 3.5 billion people) have no internet access and for them radio, mostly analog, remains the universal, trusted, and omnipresent, often only, information platform.”
The paradox is that many stations, public or commercial, think that digital advertising, online streaming, availability on speakers or mobiles, social media presence and increased interaction makes them fully digital. This is just another digital label creating a perception and not the reality.
Digital terrestrial broadcasting is more complex and costly, as broadcasters need a completely new infrastructure (like in DAB+) for it or just an upgrade of the existing analog one to digital (a possibility in DRM under certain conditions). Then the listeners need to buy new digital radio receivers. These many conditions have made radio digitization as both perception and reality quite sluggish and long.
Who Decides the Digital Radio Transition?
The answers are as diverse as the countries of this world. Some think that consortia, like the DRM or the DAB/DAB+ one, can roll out digital radio and put receivers on shelves though, as they are non-profit, their role is to promote and support the digital radio introduction.
The digital rollout models are varied and dependent on each country’s radio legacy, economic and political situation, social imperatives etc. In some countries the digitization decision is taken at governmental level with or without input from the regulator (India, Russia, China, Indonesia).
In others, it is a decision of the regulator (like the FCC in the U.S.), which can be semi-independent or just another government department. Sometimes, it is the broadcasters themselves that go for digital, but this applies mainly to international broadcasters, such as the BBC broadcasting in DRM.
The idea that small commercial broadcasters will be allowed to choose among the three main digital standards (DRM, DAB/DAB+ and HD) is a bit fanciful. Anyway, these broadcasters have clear profit priorities, often dependent on preserving their slice of the existing advertising pie the digital option needs to be attractive on all levels.
Digital radio means more diverse and attractive content, better use of spectrum and energy, and more advertising, ultimately a way of increasing revenue and listenership. To reap all these extra benefits, the broadcasters, regulators, and governments need vision, energy, and cash, too.
How about the listeners? They are listening to “regular radio” and are increasingly using apps, smart speakers, and other devices, IP permitting. Availability and simplicity seem to be paramount for them.
And the industry? Broadcasters are faced with two digital challenges: digitize AM, FM, but also invest in digital “windows” or apps where the content can be displayed to be picked when convenient. As to the manufacturers of digital radio and receiver equipment, they need to see the commitment, the demand and revenue possibilities Otherwise, they will never embrace radio digitization.
To the question: where are the receivers? I ask: Where is the commitment to digital radio? Where is the good audio and multimedia content? Where are the digital broadcasts? And where is the cash and leadership to achieve it all?
The digital media environment and the new information, education, entertainment demands of the radio listeners require a more determined response. If we can spend billions on vaccines, jobs, and basic services, then radio stakeholders need to make a more decided effort to unlock energy and cash for digital broadcasting.
This will then be an investment in the key functions of radio (besides music), to do with information, education, emergency warnings, basic communication, and companionship. Let us put aside the radio anniversaries and celebrations and provide for its digital future.