The author is chairman of Digital Radio Mondiale.
Analog AM/FM radio remains a mass reach medium while digital radio is still niche. At the end of another year digital radio or the new and enhanced audio and multimedia platform still seems to be a tortoise (a bit more energized in 2018) to the relatively strong analog hare.
In the United Kingdom the ratio between analog and digital is equal, which means that it depends how you look at the bottle — half full or half empty. Digital radio is still just about to take off, even if analog radio is seen now as a bit dated, a passive medium in an active world as media expert Scott Cohen stated at the recent International Radio Festival in Malta.
All the while the frenzy around Pandora, Spotify, podcasting and hybrid continues. However, from recent studies in top United States radio markets it seems that audio streamers are big fans of AM/FM who are still tuning to radio 1.5–2 hours daily. AM/FM’s reach across six top U.S. markets surveyed, Bob McCurdy) of 91 percent and daily reach of 63 percent compares very favorably to Pandora’s 25 percent weekly reach. Radio remains strong but, for some, in a sort of twilight zone between the past and the future.
The one thing that can propel radio forward is to become digital. This means it can offer the rich choice and tailored content in the right format, language and with the right coverage matching the interest groups or communities that already need and enjoy the medium. Technology is not a threat and can give a new and different lease of life to radio, “audio” or “sounds,” as some are trying to rebrand radio in order to distance it from its past.
All this is obvious; but some are losing patience with digital radio and mention that DAB and HD Radio are already middle aged and DRM has just finished high school, too, while the mythical 5G with all its digital solutions might be around the corner. A quick answer would be that digitization of radio using DRM is a relatively new project, considering the decades it took to have AM and FM on air (over 70 years old and getting real recognition and impact in the last forty years) and DAB or HD Radio.
To speed things up and accelerate digitization, many specialists and well-meaning people think there is one entity that can take things in hand and drive the process. Across the world this main driver is often seen as the national broadcaster, regulator, government, even the European Parliament. It is seldom the listeners and only partly the manufacturing industry.
For digitization to succeed, radio does not need to hide under the new clothes of “audio” or “sounds.” It must acknowledge and emphasize its clear attributes of being “live” but also on-demand, immediate, simple, mobile, friendly, universal and able to connect, give comfort and hope. These attributes are part of radio’s legacy and are known, or at least experienced daily, by listeners.
The big question is whether they understand what digital radio can offer on top of what they know already. We would hope they are aware of the added audio quality (especially in AM), the bigger choice of content, the specialized programs addressing specific needs and audiences, the multimedia features, the ease of use and the total digital experience in line with what other platforms offer currently.
At recent workshops held with very keen Asian specialists, I was struck by their own wonderment when listening to the excellent audio quality of AM digital transmissions, the ease with which a receiver can become an emergency warning gadget saving lives, and the possibilities of monetizing some of the DRM digital radio features in all the bands.
So, rather than ask who is driving digitization we should first ask what is driving it. And it seems that understanding the full potential of digital radio is something that all the entities mentioned (broadcasters, regulators, governments, industry, retailers and listeners) need to fully appreciate, experience and support.
If this sounds like going back to basics, so be it. There are pockets of great digital radio expertise all over the world. Some industries, like the car industry, have seen the potential of digital radio (at least in India where over the past 18 months the number of DRM receivers has increased exponentially, going way beyond the 1 million mark). No EU recommendation was needed. But pockets alone do not make a complete coat.
If we come to the main question of who drives digitization, then the answer is quite simple. It cannot be one entity alone. Generally, no government by itself can impose and introduce a digital radio standard if it does not take all the stakeholders into consideration and does not do it with understanding, care and support, sometimes even financial support. Digitization can only succeed where all the entities work together and there is a win-win solution for each one of them.
Easier said than done. In countries where there was such a joint project (U.K., Germany) we have seen success. In other countries (India) efforts are being made to link all the players together to create a huge digital radio market.
Until all stakeholders work together in the full knowledge of how digital radio can benefit listeners and all the parties involved, the process will be slow. So what then is the glue holding it all together? Passion and belief in the good future of radio, in the notion of equal access for all to information along with some good management and leadership underpinned by a genuine desire to succeed.