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Facing change

Facing change

Dec 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Chriss Scherer

Radio tends to favor a conservative approach. Once the innovator in RF technology and audio, radio now follows the lead of other industries. On the eve of a new millennium (yes, 2001 is the real start), radio is preparing to be an innovator again.

The most recent change for radio was the introduction of digital audio sources and control. The advantages of adopting a digital standard were easy to recognize at first. Eliminating tape hiss and vinyl-record surface rumble were the early prizes in digital audio. Removing noise and distortion from the medium carried over to STLs and phone lines as well.

Our acceptance of digital audio was facilitated by the limited choices available. Nearly everything was PCM. Sources with other encoding formats were not a problem because they were converted to analog; something we were already well prepared to handle. The small variations in available formats were not cumbersome to understand or implement.

We have since grown beyond AES-3, S/PDIF and SEDAT. Now we routinely encounter WAV, BWF, MP3, MP2, ATRAC and other formats with ease. As these new formats were introduced, we accepted them, and in most cases, continued to convert the signal to analog. Now we have advanced beyond the continuous conversion process and maintain a digital signal throughout the system.

When new technology is introduced, there are some people that jump in head first. Sometimes they get burned. Other times they strike gold. It’s a fine line between leading-edge and bleeding-edge. As a whole, radio accepts change slowly. The transition from vinyl to CD, from carts to hard-disk storage and from reel-to-reel editing to DAWs was slow and careful. These technologies were gradually introduced and accepted. Today they are mainstays. Not many people would be happy to return to tape splicing and multiple track bounces to produce a spot.

Yet, as far as we have come from the early Marconi tests to the first broadcasts of stations like KDKA, we continue to evolve. The Internet, a dominant influence in every industry, has already turned its hand to radio. Listening habits have been changed with the introduction of Internet radio, music download sites and portable audio file players. More changes are on the way.

It is interesting that while broadcasters carefully investigate new technology, consumers typically dive right in. Granted, the bottom line plays a major part in this scenario. The marketers have already exploited the word digital to the masses. Anything digital must be better than anything analog (or not digital). We know that this is not always the case, especially with initial product introductions.

Several major radio changes are due to be implemented in 2001. Satellite radio (S-DARS) will take its place alongside terrestrial radio and Internet radio. This should be the biggest change to affect radio in some time. In addition, Internet audio appliances will begin shipping, IBOC will continue its development course, and wireless Internet capabilities will increase. All of these changes will require radio to change as well. The basic role of radio – providing spontaneous and interesting content – will continue, but it will grow and evolve even more than it already has.

The new millennium is here – for real this time. 2000 was just a trial run. 2001 will deliver some significant advances. I’m looking forward to what the coming year may offer. Some of it has been previewed; much of it will be a surprise.