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Ross on: Digital Radio — Where’s the Glass?

Half-full? Half-empty? Still in the cupboard? On the floor, broken?

T. Carter Ross is editor in chief of the international edition of Radio World and of Radio World édition francophone.

The July 14th issue of Radio World’s U.S. edition includes a report on the current state of digital radio worldwide. I wrote one of the cover stories and faced the unenviable task of synopsizing digital radio developments over the past year in countries big and small. The piece is not an exhaustive report on the global state of digital radio, but hopefully it does justice to the state of digital radio in its myriad standards in less than 1,200 words.

As the issue was being finalized to be sent to the printer, Paul McLane and I went over the hedline and dek on the story and wondered how the assessment “Signs of Traction for Global Digital Radio” might be taken by readers.

I’ve been at least tangentially involved with digital radio since May 1991 when I attended the Public Radio Conference in New Orleans where Strother Communications Inc. (SCI) was highlighting its plan for digital radio tests on UHF, L- and S-band frequencies. Looking at the burst of excitement for digital radio then — at that point in time the NAB had endorsed using Eureka-147 DAB in the L band despite the spectrum concerns of then Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney — and how little it achieved, one could understandably argue that the intervening two decades (three decades, if you start counting at the initial development of Eureka-147 DAB in 1981) have been a failure for the development of digital radio.

(Full disclosure: I was a soon-to-graduate college senior and general manager of my university’s radio station in May 1991; SCI’s founder, Ron Strother, is a family friend and I attended PRC as his guest. I also drove a van full of radio press — including then Radio World Editor Judith Gross — and public radio engineers from New Orleans to Hammond, La., and back for a party at Strother’s home during the conference.)

That said, progress is rarely linear. SCI and a lot of other early players in the U.S. digital radio scene have come and gone. New standards have arisen and old ones have evolved. Some digital radio projects have launched and shuttered, others have coasted along, many were planned and never moved beyond trials. I have covered a lot of these digital radio launches, stumbles, milestones and advances since joining Radio World in 1993.

There are 195 countries in the world (give or take a few, depending upon who is doing the recognizing). Digital radio is part of the mediascape in only a handful of them. Currently, no country has in place a hard switchoff plan for analog radio in favor of digital radio.

Given this, why do I feel that it is defensible to cite 2009–2010 as a time of “gaining traction” for digital radio? Because at this moment in time, the winds seem to be blowing in favor of digital radio.

Digital radio listenership continues to increase in the U.K.; DAB+ has launched successfully in the major metro areas of Australia and has breathed new life into digital radio efforts in much of Europe; All India Radio has issued tenders for the equipment it needs to digitize its AM and shortwave operations using DRM30; HD Radio is getting an FM power boost in the U.S.

Is every broadcaster on board with these developments? No. The network topology required for Eurkea-147 DAB/DAB+/T-DMB better suits the operations of larger broadcasters than small. community-focused ones and thus some local stations would like to digitize using DRM+ or HD Radio. Similarly, for stations in the AM wavebands, DRM30 or a satellite-based system offers a more comparable coverage area than HD Radio or Eureka-147 DAB. Many feel it is time to abandon the æther entirely in favor of the Internet, and plenty of others feel analog AM/FM radio is fine as it is.

Still, digital radio has survived two decades of reports of its death, and it’s still here.

Five years hence, do I think radio will be aired only in streams of 1s and 0s? Not unless concerted governmental efforts to force a changeover are forthcoming. It has taken governmental mandates for digital television to replace analog television; it will likely take the same for digital radio to supplant analog radio completely. (And a strong case can be made that the future isn’t about one transmission medium supplanting another, but instead broadcasters can and should make use of any and all platforms that suit them, because listeners are already using a wide range of devices to consume audio entertainment. Radio futurologist James Cridland has made this point repeatedly, and Matt Deegan has also made good points about the course of DAB update, too.)

But I do think it is safe to say what there will be more stations broadcasting digitally to more listeners in more countries in 2015 than there are today. And at some point the growth curve is going to lead to industry and governments talking about the need for a push to get nearly everyone to digital.

The big question for me is will the consumer electronics industry decide that the digital future requires fragmented receiver markets — analog and HD Radio for the U.S.; analog and DAB/DAB+ for Europe; analog/DRM30 for India and Russia — or if at some point it becomes cheaper for multistandard tuners to become the norm? Back in the ’80s, my Electro Brand 10-band boombox used to pick up everything from shortwave to CB to VHF TV in addition to standard AM and FM; it would be nice to have an affordable option for tuning the various flavors of Eureka, HD Radio and DRM, as well as analog bands and Internet streams, in a single box.