A local media expert cast doubt last week on whether Australia will make a successful transition to digital radio next year. Digital radio will officially launch in January 2009 in the six capital cities. But in an article in Creative Economy, Swinburne University of Technology researcher Jock Given says the digital experience overseas doesn’t give the local market any confidence. Given says the Internet has increasingly delivered audio files to personal computers, ipods and MP3 players. "Listeners will start asking themselves the same question radio broadcasters have been asking for a decade and a half: why would you want it?" he says.
Given’s call comes after UK's biggest commercial operator GCap Media sold its stake in digital radio, deciding it was not an economically viable platform. After spending £80 million in the industry, new CEO Fru Hazlitt persuaded her board to pull out of the technology because she saw it as a colossal financial haemorrhage, one not to be tolerated when the company is facing a possible hostile takeover bid. Opponents of the technology cite low penetration, the failure of car manufacturers to install radios, weak advertising and the lack of a switchover date as reasons to reject it.
At Britain’s Channel 4, executives are also split over the broadcaster's digital radio venture. At the station’s latest board meeting chief executive, Andy Duncan and the director of new business and corporate development, Nathalie Schwarz – both supporters of the technology - were asked to prepare a revised business plan. Channel 4’s program commissioning team believe digital will cost the station upwards of £100m, which others want for its program budget at a point when the channel is launching a campaign for public assistance.
Britain was the first nation to adopt digital radio and use the DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) platform. DAB started 13 years ago when the BBC first turned on their transmitters in 1995. Four years later came the start of commercial digital radio, which was the first time new radio services were available on digital. Then in 2003 the technology got a boost when receivers became widely available at lower prices. Britain now has one in four household penetration of the technology.
But analog radio remains the country’s most popular medium with 100 million sets in use compared to 6.5 million DAB receivers. Yesterday, The Register described DAB as a “very British failure” and a technology that is “unloved, unviable and often unlistenable”. It said the specification for DAB was over 20 years old and it was flawed by bureaucracy and regulatory greed which left listeners far short of CD quality sound.
Nevertheless, experiments in DAB continue over in this part of the world. Last week, the New Zealand Radio Broadcasters Association, which represents local commercial stations, agreed to join a digital radio trial in Auckland of DAB+. This is the same option being pushed by the Australian government. If New Zealand opts for the same standard, economies of scale should mean cheaper receivers there. While not backward compatible with DAB transmitters, DAB+ is approximately three times more efficient than DAB due to the adoption of the AAC+ audio codec data compression scheme.
AAC+ audio codec overcomes the two major problems of the current DAB system. Firstly, transmission costs are extremely expensive. Secondly, there is insufficient spectrum available to carry everything that DAB needs. AAC+ is a combination of audio profiles used for broadcasting that is far more efficient than the MP2 codec used on current DAB systems. It can also carry more stations on a multiplex, thus bring down transmission costs.
In July 2007, Australian radio launched the world's first DAB+ digital tests. Sydney radio broadcasters switched on the first test transmission of digital radio using the new DAB+ technology. The test was the first fully compliant high power broadcast of DAB+ technology and tested sound quality, coverage area and system performance in preparation for commercial rollout.
According to Joan Warner, chief executive officer of peak industry body Commercial Radio Australia, the test showed radio receiver manufacturers Australia needed a broad range of DAB+ digital radios in the market prior to the launch of digital radio. The test was being coordinated by Commercial Radio Australia on behalf of commercial radio stations and public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS. But Jock Given says the success of digital radio will depend on its cost and whether listeners will think the benefits are worthwhile. "The danger for radio now is that audiences will judge the digital services to be launched next year not excitedly - against the standards of the supposedly old AM and FM services they are meant to enhance - but quizzically, against the standards already established by online and portable digital audio,” he said.