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Making Digital Radio Part of the New Multimedia Landscape

Streaming and podcasting are booming, what does that mean for digital radio?

Ruxandra Obreja, Digital Radio Mondiale, DRMThe author of this commentary is chair of the Digital Radio Mondiale consortium.

Though not out of the COVID-19 woods yet, there is an increasing feeling of great separation between the sad times of the 2020 and the possibly more positive, life-affirming “after the pandemic” feeling of 2021.

Things have changed in our radio, or audio, media universe. There has been a clear increase in use of technology and gadgets. Streaming and podcasting have ballooned. Even the older generation has caught up technologically with the savvier youngsters. Boomers and Millennials Zoom weekly together (at least a third over 65 years old in the U.S. do so, according to OnePoll) and use “hearables” (earbuds, headphones etc.).

Radio usage has remained high all this time, as radio has proven a great utility staple, valued for its immediacy, simplicity, companionship and, lately, mood enhancement and escape.

Crossing Digital Currents

This has not remained unnoticed by the tech giants appropriating and using radio formats or even setting up what could only be described as “radio stations.” Thus Amazon  is reported to be building out a live audio platform meant to disrupt traditional radio and rival the likes of Clubhouse or Spotify’s new live audio platform, in Axios at the end of August (“Scoop: Amazon Quietly Building Live Audio Business”). The idea is for Amazon to be paying podcast suppliers, celebrities, musicians to stimulate live conversations and events (old-style chat and live radio shows), all to be accessed through Amazon and possibly on gadgets like Alexa. In other words, a sort of curated radio content but on subscription. Attractive radio on payment, a sort of Netflix for the ears. Is this then the way to integrate radio into the new media reality?

Not oblivious to these developments, radio stations themselves have invested in streaming and developing a stable of attractive podcasts. Different research studies show that listeners are engaging more actively with broadcasters if they also enjoy streaming or podcasting. They seem to be (at least in the U.S.) younger, more mobile, the kind of listeners which advertisers are interested in.

[Read: EBU Puts Radio Finger in the Air?]

So, radio stations linking to the social media or OTT space are doing it for various reasons: it is the trend (they can become “digital,” though not truly digital in the broadcast sense), there is a need to attract or keep audiences for public stations and maximise advertising profits for the private stations. In the specific case of commercial stations, this blend of broadcast and podcast, or IP type of presence, is a very useful way of increasing revenue in an industry enjoying increased popularity but lower ad dollars during the pandemic.

Even in a place like India, where radio has only a fraction of the advertising pie (2–3%) and where ad revenue has been greatly affected by the pandemic, this blend is important. Getting advertising on radio “extensions,” like podcasts, has become a necessity as radio still commands a key place for Indian advertisers. “Radio is a preferred partner for brands owing to its mass, local reach and high engagement,” says Megha Ahuja, VP – digital media planning, Carat India.(“Changing the Frequency”)

We seem to be witnessing crossing currents with social media and big tech veering towards radio, but increasingly on subscription, and radio trying to maximise use by using platforms while trying to maintain its universality. Are these currents then intersecting or merging?

Where Is Digital Radio in This?

Digital radio is definitely of the new digital age, as the audio quality of broadcasts and the extra features make it an almost new digital platform accessible primarily in the car (where analog AM and FM suffer interference) and then on mobiles and in the homes. In DRM, available on all broadcast bands, the FM sound quality in AM is evidently superior to any old-style analog sounds your grandparents might have enjoyed. Internet content, images, multilanguage content, not to mention disaster warnings, education bites or fully illustrated lessons with sound and pictures and traffic info are all possible and available. Particularly the potential to deliver education through audio and visual material, even from the internet, but without requiring internet, has come to the fore in pandemic times, especially in places still learning about podcasting.

And if only digital radio is available, you can create your own podcast by recording favorite programming and playing it later, while the program schedule is available at a touch of a button. All this can be done using terrestrial waves and not glass fibers and valuable bandwidth, another commodity in short supply. Regulators feel the bandwidth pinch already with all the podcasts and other frilly bits in demand. And so do policy makers who hope that flying the unfinished 5G banner for broadcasting or waiting for another miraculous technology will get them off the hook. They seem to be hoping that the big investment and change needed to roll out digital radio will be thus unnecessary. This probably also drives the big buzz around social media among broadcasters. But in absolute terms, this is still minute compared with radio listening. If radio could offer more using digital standards, while keeping its core values and heart, the media landscape would be richer.

Son of Broadcasting

The miraculous blend technology is already here. It is called digital radio and needs to be supported and deployed seriously, so that informative, local, exciting and engaging or educational radio, and not music by subscription, remains available to all. The switchover to digital radio has been slow, with varying degrees of success in the U.K., U.S., Europe, where the switch-off dates are being kicked into the long grass (see recent decision in Switzerland). Other countries, like India, have had a great head start. The hope is that complicated evaluations and analysis will not detract now from sticking with the complete open, not company-owned DRM standard (in FM, too). This decision would give confidence to the receiver industry (who will not engage in producing them unless there is a clear official commitment and announcement), to the listeners.

Digital radio (e.g., DRM and other recognized open standards) is a neat solution, more robust, doing away with the blight of interference experienced in analog. DRM offers more channels, more choice and many digital extra benefits. There needs to be a communication step change so that decisionmakers take the right decision, while there is increased acceptance of a mixed media landscape in which broadcast and podcast can co-exist and enhance each other.

So, you might want to accept an “invitation” to Clubhouse (its clever trick) or subscribe to many podcasts (and probably listen to just a few) but you are still very likely to still switch on your (digital) car radio and enjoy so much more, while stuck in traffic.

The technology has to work but  the digital content, well linked to social media, must be attractive to start with. Podcasting remains the son of broadcasting, but sons often want to emulate and surpass their fathers.