Digital Radio Down Under

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Patrick Avenell writes for The Current out of Sydney, Australia. The Current is an online magazine devoted to the electrical appliance industry (including our beloved radio). Avenell scored an interview with Joan Warner, Chief Executive of Commercial Radio Australia, a trade association that represents 98% of the commercial broadcasters in the island nation.

Avenell asked whether Australians could trust the conversion dates being put forth by the media. It seems that Down Under, as here in the States, the digital conversion has not happened smoothly, and deadlines have been extended. According to Warner,

“By the end of May, all current commercial services will be broadcasting in digital, with our friends at ABC and SBS to gradually join us on air in June and July.”

Recent polls show that 40% of Australians know about digital radio and the conversion. Here in the U.S., awareness of digital radio is much smaller. Averell laments the relative lack of media coverage radio conversion has gotten compared to the television conversion:

Whereas digital television has been receiving widespread coverage in the media, and the retail benefits are heavily espoused, the opportunity for retailers to generate new sales by leveraging off digital radio has been largely ignored.

Electronics retailers could use a boost. By talking up the digital future of radio, broadcasters are not only securing their own survival, but also the survival of retailers and manufacturers who make it possible for our signal to be heard.

Photo courtesy of Subhash Chandra, used under its Creative Commons license

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5 Responses to “Digital Radio Down Under”

  1. Tom Says:

    I love to see new technology search for a market, but your conclusion confuses me.

    1. How does talking up the “digital future” help secure radio’s survival? Wouldn’t talking up “radio” be more useful? I did not come equipped with digital ears. Sure digital technologies wrap some cute gimmicks around the audio, but the value resides in the analog audio coming out from the speakers. If the value of radio content is decreasing, digitizing it won’t save the day.

    2. Yes, the sales channels for radios are important, but is there a more cost effective way to help them than making all radio stations replace their broadcast equipment and all listeners buy new radios?

    Would the oil companies reformulate gasoline so that it doesn’t work in existing cars in order to give a boost to the automobile industry?

    Radio should focus on its product and make sure people have a reason to listen, not get caught up in debates over digital, analog, new media, old media, etc. If radio needs to be “digital”, at least do something that smarter than just changing the analog local broadcast to digital local broadcast. That’s still the same old radio, but lots of $ have been spent for no reason other than the adding the digital label.

  2. Loki Says:

    Hey Tom, allow me address these point by point.

    1. You certainly did not come equipped with digital ears, by the same token you were not born with an implanted AM or FM Receiver. Tying value purely to an analog signal is a perspective that I must admit does puzzle me. would say that the value resides in the content itself rather than the signal. True content is an issue for many stations, but that is the way that it is with all media and has been since its inception. Since digital radio allows a station to provide multiple channels that actually increases the amount of content to choose from and in addition allows niche content that might have gone by the wayside to have a chance at being broadcast. More options are a good thing. (Note: I am assuming here that digital there is the same as it is here in the states. Please correct me, with documentation, if I am wrong.)

    2. That gasoline analogy is basically the same argument that was made when FM appeared on the scene as a superior broadcast alternative to the AM band. Also, as the level of adoption increases the price of entry will be driven down, we have seen this with our own HD Radio here in the USA.

    As to your final point, I agree that content is the key, always was and always will be. If it is not engaging people will not listen. New delivery mechanisms such as the Internet and digital radio attempt to reach people in the ways in which they wish to be reached. I now that I tend to listen to at east half of my personal radio intake via Internet streams for example.

    While I do not think that pushing new product is a good reason for making a transition of this level I do try in my posts to point out the positives in the radio stories I cover. If I gave that impression I apologize for my lack of clarity.

    2.

  3. Steve OKeefe Says:

    Tom,

    You make good points. It all comes down to an audio wave slapping your eardrum at some point, whether the source is analog or digital. But what, exactly, reaches your ear, and why, is much more sophisticated when you add digital delivery, social networking, and customization. It’s more like you’re programming your own audiofeed rather than accepting the random results of a twist of the dial.

    Digitization allows me to take my collection of thousands of jazz LPs on an airplane or over to a friend’s house. I discover new music I’ve owned for years. Being able to give thumbs down to a track (and never hear it again) and thumbs up to another track (and hear it more often in the rotation) is one of those cool things that digital makes easy.

    I also think digital radio makes for better ads. People will tolerate ads to hear interesting audio streams served up free of charge. Digital makes it possible to tailor those ads more closely, and that’s better for both the listener and the advertiser. Hopefully, we’ll get improved advertising in the bargain.

    Thanks for sparking a thoughtful discussion.

    STEVE O’KEEFE
    Writer, Radio 2020 Blog

  4. Tom Says:

    Loki, Steve –
    Thanks for your replies. The analog/digital broadcast puzzle is complex – far too complex to reduce it to any one single dimension or simple yes/no answer.

    I do think that digital has a lot to offer, but in this case I look at it more as a problem of economics than of technology. My comment was targeted specifically at digital broadcast radio. I think Loki’s observation that she does 1/2 her listening via internet, and Steve’s reference to his personal collection (or stream) are both important to note — yes, they are both digital, but they are not broadcast via the airwaves.

    A conversion to HD/DAB/DAB+ is expensive for all involved, therefore the rationale for the introduction and switchover has to be unambiguously compelling. It requires radio broadcasters to develop new content (for initially tiny audiences), carry increased (doubled?) broadcast expenses until switchover, requires consumers to replace perfectly adequate and inexpensive radios with new, more complicated and more expensive radios, requires CE brands to invest, innovate and promote in a slowing growing new market (with many geographical differences), requires advertisers to support digital-only broadcast as audiences grow slowly, and requires governments to stick with their analog to digital conversion plans. And do all these things in the absence of any global standards. And with not as much money as we thought we had a few years ago. The UK is already saying that DAB isn’t really the right answer but that Australia has the chance to get it right with DAB+.

    My personal opinion is that a conversion to digital radio is too expensive with uncertain benefits, and the situation is even worse if digital radio does not involve the shutdown of FM and/or AM. I think that digital radio could be a worthy goal. I just can’t see the path that leads to ultimate success given where HD/DAB/DAB+ are today (and we should include Sirius/XM, WorldSpace and Digital Radio Mondiale).

    A few observations:
    – We’re talking about broadcast radio, not personalized audio (personal playlists or internet radio with targeted ads) – so every listener in range of the transmitter gets the same audio ads, right? That doesn’t really change the effectiveness or economics of advertising.

    – HD allows more channels, but not really more “stations” — each channel hangs off the frequency/call letters/brand of the core station, which pragmatically limits the variety and does not allow for new competitors to use the additional channel capacity. Not clear this will stimulate new entries and innovation. Note that in Australia the introduction of DAB+ comes with a promise not to allow any new entries into commercial broadcast radio for some number of years.

    – The only new HD channels I’ve heard listeners mention (I’m not a good sample set) is a) all news NPR or b) “niche” genre music, often a replay of content originally prepared for the main channel. I think DAB-only content has nearly disappeared from commercial radio in the UK, although the BBC does have a few DAB (and internet) only stations.

    I hope these thoughts contribute to a continuing thoughtful conversation. I have my views, but I certainly do not pretend to know the answers for the radio industry (in any country).

    • Steve OKeefe Says:

      Tom,

      I really appreciate the info, especially from Australia regarding DAB+, and your perspective. Our job here is to cover the news, but we can’t help but reflect some of our own preferences as well as those of our employers.

      I think I can safely say we are in favor of consumer-driven solutions and not legislated solutions to format issues. It is tricky to allow the public to decide unless you offer overlapping services, which can be expensive and inefficient. The mergers in satellite radio show it’s hard to guess how fast and how far listeners are willing to go.

      There are risks in any direction, but the risks of standing still for broadcast radio and becoming irrelevant, versus embracing new technology at the risk of guessing wrong, are overwhelming.

      Thanks for the Commentary,
      STEVE O’KEEFE
      Writer, Radio 2020 Blog

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