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When Digital Is More than Just Radio

The emergency warning functionality of digital radio can save lives but to do so it needs to be implemented

The author is chairman of Digital Radio Mondiale.

LONDON — Digital radio can be a friend indeed. People often consider an emergency to be something such as leaving one’s mobile at home, forgetting to put the cat out, or to lock the door. But these are just annoyances.

In reality, an emergency is a frightening thing, whether natural or man-made. It is the story one finds in a “breaking news” column, and can be a cyclone, tsunami, earthquake, flood, extreme weather, ebola, drought or terrorist attack. An emergency happens every day, somewhere in the world and over the last three to four decades, up to 2 million people have lost their lives in disasters, while the economy in the developing world has probably lost some 2 billion dollars.

Emergency warning is on the agenda of the UN and ITU and has been the subject of serious debates, declarations, frameworks and plans. World Radio Day 2016 was dedicated to this topic and the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union held an important conference (3rd ABU Media Summit on Climate Change and DRR) on disaster risk reduction this month in Bangladesh.

It all seems worthy but somehow remote, until you are involved in a real disaster and can see how emergencies weaken infrastructures, frighten people and break social links. Most of us may expect to be informed of a disaster by mobile phone or TV. But, during a disaster, the first dominos to fall are often mobile and TV towers.

During the cyclone that affected Haiti in October last year, for example, there were areas that remained cut off for two days, as the country’s already fragile infrastructure collapsed. The one true friend that remains active and close to the people affected by a disaster is radio. In Las Vegas at the NAB Show last month, NAB President, Gordon Smith reminded us all that one of the key obligations for broadcasters is “to provide a lifeline during emergencies and keep our communities safe.”

Radio can provide real, verified information, as opposed to frightening rumors and can thus alleviate concerns for the people affected. It can also help reunite loved ones and the return to “normality.”

The role of radio in emergencies is well documented and, in some countries, the medium is already part of a national disaster plan. The role of radio as a life saver has gained strength over the years as the medium’s popularity has also increased.

According to Nielsen, more than 90 percent of United States residents listen to AM or FM radio each week. This means a greater percentage of people listen to the radio than watch television or use a computer or smartphone. And this is before any emergency has been declared.

Industry monitor Rajar reports that in the United Kingdom, 48 million adults listen to more than 1 billion hours of radio programs each week. Radio is booming and truly ubiquitous, and while many merely look at its ad revenue potential, the emergency warning capability of radio is more significant. Taking this one step further, digital radio, with its enhanced emergency warning functionality, can be a game changer.

The recently announced closure of Australian public broadcaster ABC’s shortwave services has brought emergency warning to the country’s agenda, as some are complaining that Western and inland sparsely populated areas of this “continent” could be deprived of the emergency functionality of radio.

Shortwave is seen as obsolete and replaceable by satellite and other options. Shortwave in analog might be viewed as old-fashioned but through the use of DRM, it becomes loud, clear, greener — a powerful regional and national tool in the emergency warning toolkit. Digital shortwave allows uniquely wide coverage and enables the dessimination of information in several languages, transmitting texts, maps and information that analog cannot offer. It can be a lifeline to people in life-threatening situations or with disabilities.

Digital shortwave and medium wave services are also capable of broadcasting from outside the affected areas and target just the region and the people suffering from a disaster. This is a huge advantage as it gets over the “all masts are down” issue and limits information to those areas that need covering rather than create blanket coverage that could result in mass panic.

By adopting digital radio, a country has an in-built emergency warning system, as long as the government, the industry and all the involved agencies know about it and are happy to explore this great asset. In the case of a disaster, the emergency warning functionality, which is common to DRM and DAB/DAB+ digital radio standards, turns on the radio, selects the appropriate frequency and channel, and broadcasts loud, audible informaton, supported by text and graphics, including maps.

Moreover, because of the digital receiver’s “intelligence,” a listener traveling in an area covered by DRM, DAB+ or FM for local coverage will automatically receive the best signal available. Once the local frequency options are exhausted the digital receiver may then switch to DRM in medium wave or shortwave. Digital radio thus extends the emergency warning functionality to larger areas and provides more services than analog.

It is still a sort of secret however that this, very useful, emergency warning functionality is embedded in DRM, and the industry has unfortunately not been asked to make receivers that can also double as emergency warning devices. Digital radio still needs to assert its crucial role during emergencies so that this extraordinary functionality is fully understood and put to good use. Then digital radio, like a faithful guard dog, can really be a person’s best friend.

Radio World welcomes other points of view. Please send comments to [email protected].