The author is the head of Digital Radio Development in the BBC World Service Group and chairman of Digital Radio Mondiale.
During IBC in September, I had the opportunity to take a boat ride on the serene Amsterdam canals while listening to the latest from the United States Open, which was broadcast via digital audio and beamed from a transmitter overlooking green English fields. This is a memory I treasure.
There is nothing like good-quality, live digital audio, even when broadcast from more than a thousand kilometers away. When the sound reaches the audience, accompanied by extra data and color pictures on a fair-sized receiver screen, this sums up what the new age of radio is all about.
Yet, despite the recent launch of the full-featured commercial DRM receiver at IBC, the number of DAB receivers sold in Western Europe and Australia and the HD radios installed in some automobiles in the U.S., the global number of digital receivers is only tens of millions rather than hundreds of millions — even with the years (decades) of sustained technical effort and some good, but not yet truly inspired promotion.
Nobody knows for sure, but there might be more than 1 billion FM receivers in the world. When are digital receivers going to catch up? Why is the take-up so slow? Some of the reasons are well rehearsed: the price is too high, the volume too low, people get attached to their old “kitchen” receivers and do not see the need for change, or the simple fact that the digital signal can’t cover an entire country.
The benefits of DRM as a stand-alone standard or as a complement to other standards (to offer full country coverage) are clear to technologists but are sometimes not fully understood by listeners, manufacturers or distributors.
And then there is the content — the real factor that sells radios. Radio broadcasters have not fully developed a seamless and comprehensive digital experience comparable to what is available on other digital platforms.
So what do we need to do to ensure the success of digital receivers?
First of all, we should not wait for the result of a standards’ beauty contest! Each country or market has different needs that can be met by one standard or a combination of different standards, so there is no clear winner.
Secondly, support, create and fund the multi-standard receiver (which will also include FM). The chipsets exist. Turn receivers into “objects of desire” and do not peddle the retro look, which only reinforces the idea of radio or audio as something old-fashioned, of the 20th century.
Thirdly, when digitizing think of all the four legs of the digital table — transmitters, content, receivers and a good communication strategy. Do not ask about cheap digital receivers before you have an infrastructure, exciting content and real and innovative communication targeted at distributors and listeners.
Without the above steps, receivers will be only empty statistics and just gather dust on the shelves. Digital products are never cheap to start with, so why should a radio receiver be? Inexpensive comes with the need for exciting content, real benefits not offered by analog, good marketing, volumes and vision.
At IBC we saw the concept of a downloadable DRM app. Radio is audio on tablets, dare I say, mobiles and in cars.
And, if you get hold of a digital standalone receiver, take it on a boat ride in Amsterdam on a hazy afternoon! I am pretty sure you’ll enjoy the ride.