If COVID-19 has reset many parameters and changed our lives, some of the old assumptions have stayed strong.
One of these is that, despite the challenge from new platforms like internet streaming, expensive satellite and nebulous but undeniable 5G promises, terrestrial broadcasting still offers mobile reception that is both cost effective and reliable.
A recent study “Share of Ear” from Edison Research shows that listening in cars seems to be recovering after taking a hit during bleak pandemic summer months. And, at least in the United States, at home listening is now higher than pre-COVID 19. This reflects the work from home shift favored now by many companies.
For radio, there is more than this, however. At a recent ITU event for Africa the obvious but undeniable fact that radio reaches those parts that other newer technologies cannot was very evident.
Radio remains the most effective ways to deliver information and education in rural and remote areas, where information can educate and even save lives in emergency situations. Together with the growth of community radio, information and culture become more accessible to all.
A new and vital component of radio services is increasingly becoming education or rather distance learning, with about 463 million students worldwide cut off from education. It was noted that in Africa, where AM, and particularly FM radio, remain extremely popular, the demand for new frequencies is increasing.
ITU and African Telecommunication Union (ATU) had already planned to optimize the GE84 Plan (the ITU frequency plan) for African countries in 2018. The optimization GE84 Plan was intended not only to respond to the increasing demand in analog sound broadcasting, but also to enable and facilitate the introduction of digital radio in Band II (DRM).
Looking ahead to 2021, three frequency coordination meetings are slated to take place in order to get all 54 African administrations to adopt common technical criteria and conditions for mutual agreements. During these meetings they will also submit their frequency requirements, run compatibility analyses and mutually coordinate their stations.
Clearly, there is quite a bit of planning going on for analog — as well as for digital radio. It’s now accepted that analog radio needs to make a transition to digital broadcasting to allow radio to add new programming and features. This move will permit radio to stay competitive in the new digital entertainment and information age.
More generally, as we know, some countries and broadcasters have strongly supported the transition; others are taking a more cautious approach. And some have expressed little or no interest.
We have quite a few good examples of planning on the arduous road to digital. Pakistan has put in place a three-stage costed plan to go DRM on all frequencies. Indonesia is following suit by starting with the Band II and digital FM (DRM) and showing how the DRM can be used for the vital emergency warnings the population needs.
Germany is planning a pre-Christmas marketing campaign on all platforms to promote the already rolled out DAB+. This effort also comprises the training of employees in over 1500 stores, presumably in order to increase the sale of DAB+ receivers.
For digital radio beginners (administrations and broadcasters, manufacturers, retailers etc.) going from evaluating and potentially increasing the number of frequencies or available programs to infrastructure upgrades (in the case of DRM) is not so simple.
The planning also includes, or at least should include, a content schedule for broadcasters to include on these new channels. All India Radio is currently increasing its time of pure DRM transmissions and is comprising popular music, news, and generally attractive and different content from its analog offering.
The broadcaster is also considering the allocation of the third of three programs that DRM makes possible on one current frequency, for education. And then all this activity must run in parallel with planning for receiver availability and campaigns coordination, similar to the above-mentioned one mentioned in Germany.
DRM maps out this intricate process in its latest DRM video “DRM from Broadcaster to Listener.”
If some secretly hope to stay put until the pandemic is over, and only begin rethinking what to do with radio afterwards, it may be too late. Boring as it may sound, taking steps now to plan for the digital transition, which comprises the task of aligning all activities to this end, is the best course of action.
Strangely, the COVID-19 health crisis might make or break digital radio, radio ad revenues and share of ears. Radio has been with us for a century and has the strength to outlive any pandemic. But without a little effort on our part, it may not be able to beat inertia.
The author is chairman of Digital Radio Mondiale.