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Switching off FM in Norway and, Soon, Switzerland

The impact of these "FM switch-offs" on domestic commercial radio was examined at the WorldDAB Summit

In 2017, Norway switched off its FM radio services, compelling Norwegians to tune to DAB+. In 2024, Switzerland is set to switch off its own FM services, forcing the Swiss to use DAB+ for over-the-air radio too.

The impact of these “FM switch-offs” on domestic commercial radio was examined during the WorldDAB Summit 2022. It was held by WorldDAB, the global industry forum for DAB digital radio, at London’s King Place and online on Nov. 17.

In a session entitled, “Norway 5 years on and Switzerland 2024,” Digital Radio Norway CEO Ole Jørgen Torvmark asked Norway’s Kenneth Andresen (VP/Head of Radio at Viaplay Group aka P4 Group) and Switzerland’s Nicola Bomio (Head of Radio with CH Media Entertainment) for commercial radio’s take on replacing FM/analog radio with DAB+/digital radio.

From L to R: Digital Radio Norway CEO Ole Jørgen Torvmark, Norway’s Kenneth Andresen, VP/Head of Radio at Viaplay Group (P4 Group), and Switzerland’s Nicola Bomio, Head of Radio with CH Media Entertainment

A Timely Move for Norway

P4 Group welcomed the move to DAB+ five years ago due to the expense of broadcasting in FM across Norway’s rugged topography as DAB+ uses less power and is thus cheaper. The 2017 switch to DAB+ was particularly timely because “we were at a place in time where we would need to have put heavy investment into the FM network to keep it going,” said Andresen.

At the same time, moving to DAB+ gave P4 Group the opportunity to open new stations while improving their overall reach into rural areas underserved by FM — all moves that enhanced this broadcaster’s attractiveness to Norwegian listeners. “From our perspective [moving from FM at DAB+] was a strategic decision to safeguard our business and to safeguard the position of radio in Norway for many years to come,” Andresen said. “Being commercial we needed to have [more stations] … in the rural areas, [and] more offering for the younger demos.”

A Similar Case for Switzerland

The case for Switzerland’s planned 2024 FM switch-off is supported for many reasons, some similar to those that drove Norway to make this move. For instance, the country’s radio broadcast licenses are set to expire by the end of 2024, said Bomio, so moving from FM to DAB+ by this date is “common sense.” It is also cheaper to only broadcast in DAB+ than to do so on FM and DAB+ simultaneously. “So that’s the first reason why we want to do it,” he said.

Boosting content choices and reach is another reason for Swiss broadcasters to replace FM with DAB+. A case in point: One of CH’s DAB+ stations that plays Schlager pop music and oldies recently expanded its reach from eastern Switzerland to nationwide, with a corresponding boost in its audience. This kind of expansion is possible on DAB+ due to the availability of station slots it provides, Bomio said. “There was no chance as a regional player in Switzerland to have a new license on FM because there weren’t any left.”

Not An Easy Path for Norway

Norway’s decision to replace FM with DAB+ in 2017 was not a pain-free experience. It was difficult for many Norwegians to upgrade their car radios on time. “That was a huge challenge,” said Andresen. “The burden we had to put on the listeners was way too high, probably.”

“We also probably underestimated the pushback from the public,” he added. It was “really, really strong … You couldn’t read a newspaper in Norway [that was] saying anything about radio for a couple of years where it all was negative. So it was a really tough process.”

The FM switch-off also cost Norwegian broadcasters some audience, but they soon returned over time, he noted. “So it wasn’t the numbers as such, but it was the PR side of it that really hit us,” said Andresen.

Risks for Switzerland

Nicola Bomio has some concerns about the 2024 FM switch-off’s impact on Swiss radio, even though just “13 percent of people listening to radio in Switzerland are doing it on FM devices only,” he said. This is because “those are the people who just will switch [radio] when the switch-off is done.”

There are also concerns about Swiss listeners living on the border with France tuning into that country’s FM stations when the 2024 FM shutdown occurs in Switzerland. “It’s a bit better situation in the German-speaking part [of Switzerland] because we are not speaking the proper German there,” said Bomio. “We have our own Swiss dialect, which is a bit different.”

Don’t Promote DAB+, Promote Radio

Having weathered an FM switch-off, Norway’s Andresen has a word of advice for Switzerland and other countries after they make this move: Stop talking about DAB+, and start talking about radio – period. “It is counterintuitive on my part to say ‘listen to P4 on DAB,’” he explained. The right promotional message, after FM is gone, is to say, “‘listen to P4 on your radio or a device.’”

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