These past two years have been turbulent with a pandemic, natural disasters, geopolitical threats and a raging war. Though radio has been at many crossroads during its one-hundred-year existence, the recent and profound changes in our lives and behavior have affected the course of broadcasting in a way we could not have envisaged a few years ago.
On the positive side, listeners validated radio during the scary and often lonely years of COVID-19. Its ubiquity, intimacy and simplicity continue to shine through. Recent Rajar figures show that 89% of adults in the United Kingdom tune in to live radio every week for an average of 20 hours. Most listen on a digitally enabled platform of some type. Smartphone listening continues to grow, though not astronomically. The popularity of radio is borne by figures elsewhere, too. For example, a reported 150 million Americans listen to at least some radio daily, much of that on AM, especially commuters seeking news, weather, and talk radio.
The increasing popularity of talk radio is also evident in the U.K. Spotify, Pandora and other streaming services have stolen some of the advantage FM had for pop music. But now radio has proven yet again to be that “friend in your ear,” with the recognizable voice and the warmth needed perhaps more than before the pandemic.
New focus on shortwave’s long reach
Also on the positive side, the long reach of shortwave transmissions is showing a bounce back. This is partly due to the tragic events in Ukraine, where bombardments and blackouts have made FM and the internet powerless. No wonder the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Vatican, and others with enough cash have upped the shortwave output to the war area, for now. The EBU recognized this in its May recommendation, stating, “Robustness and resilience come at some cost, but the likelihood and cost of unexpected events and their consequences are frequently underestimated. It often takes a crisis to show us how vulnerable we are… If there’s one lesson the recent past holds, then it is that to avoid the worst, it pays to prepare for it.”
Although analog radio remains strong, digital radio continues its progress through the three primary standards. Digital radio offers a better audio experience, and its extra benefits are now coming into focus. Digital Radio Mondiale certainly delivers marked better audio in AM, as analog AM is widely known to suffer from electromagnetic interference. DRM is more spectrally efficient than both analog AM and FM, allowing more stations, at higher quality, into the existing analog bandwidths with the difference that stations can broadcast up to three programs and one data channel on one frequency.
In the past 12 months, inquiries about adding DRM capabilities to new or existing AM, FM, shortwave transmitters (only newer AM transmitters can upgrade to DRM) have increased by up to 50%, according to Ampegon, a shortwave transmitter manufacturer based in Switzerland.
Simon Keens, sales and business development manager at Ampegon, believes this “tech from the past” image associated with analog shortwave may have obscured the great advantages of modern shortwave, which is now clear and power-efficient. “Gone are the crackling sound and fading,” says Keens. “Broadcasters can broadcast crystal-clear FM quality stereo sound on shortwave, providing enormous benefits to displaced people or populations under censorship or other emergencies.”
Therefore, every time the DRM consortium hears that shortwave is “old hat” and that “even the Ukrainians and Russians need 21st technology such as VPN or Tor, not shortwave,” we stress that DRM digital radio is a 21st-century platform. It fits in a diverse media landscape with more players and more interests than ever before.
Terrestrial broadcasting under stress?
Radio is under pressure — other platforms are encroaching into its vast and revered territory. Economic woes and thinner wallets are also triggering quick and dramatic changes in the broadcasting industry. Acquisitions seem to come faster; witness Thomson’s acquiring venerable US transmitter manufacturer GatesAir.
The squeeze is also on public broadcasters, despite the high praise received during the pandemic. Following a freeze on the annual BBC license fee and its eventual abolition, the BBC recently announced yearly cuts of 200 million pounds (250 million dollars), accompanied by 1,000 job losses. Other changes include the disappearance of longwave broadcasts and certain programs and the amalgamation of TV channels. The BBC said the changes aim to create “a modern, digital-led and streamlined organization…a fresh new, global digital media organization which has never been seen before.”
The fight over the dashboard
Radio is at the crossroads because of the many pressures to simultaneously deliver audiences and ad revenue, remain relevant, be ubiquitous, yet local, and fit well into the wider and more competitive digital landscape. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fight over the dashboard. Cars are the big ‘audience catch-all.’ This has not escaped other mega digital providers of audio and video.
But the ever more popular electric cars are a new challenge for digital radio. The strong interference of the electric engines on the radio broadcasts, especially in analog AM, is a tough nut to crack. Vehicle and audio unit manufacturers are already working on the issue.
On the bright side, another advantage for digital broadcasting is DRM in electric vehicles. For now, electric cars still take time to charge, and the necessary break becomes very useful to digital radio listening. So, digital radio will be a good, simple companion even in the vehicle of the future. As Tom King of Kintronic Labs (a DRM member) said recently, “Frankly, I think the dash is getting too complicated for people to drive and be able to function safely. It’s still got to be simple, guys! People don’t want to get in their car and spend 10 minutes trying to figure out what to do.”
“Digital,” “electric,” “green,” “talk,” and “change” remain the buzzwords. I would add two more. One is “difference”: What works in London and Geneva is different from what is needed in other parts of the world where digital FM and AM radio is vital; and not just for better audio. This includes other benefits DRM, as an open standard, can certainly offer, such as emergency warning, training and education at a distance.
The other keyword is “simplicity,” which digital radio has in abundance, doubled by its flexibility to adapt to a new world where progress is accelerating. If we can source the chipsets, of course…
The author is Chairman for Digital Radio Mondiale.