NY Times looks at digital radio in Europe


The NY Times reports During World War II, when Nazi propaganda ruled the airwaves in the Third Reich, a 215-meter radio tower near Beromünster in Switzerland was a beacon of independent information to German speakers in Switzerland and beyond. Radio Beromünster, the AM signal broadcast from the transmitter, may have defied the Nazis, but it was unable to resist the march of technology. Last month, the Swiss public broadcasting organization shut down the station and moved its last remaining program, a Swiss folk music show, to a new channel on digital radio.

Excerpts from the story:

“We think it’s an old technology,” said Ernst Werder, digital project manager at the Swiss broadcaster, SRG SSR idée suisse, referring to AM radio. “It is time for radio to be digital.”

Radio has lagged behind television and even newspapers in making the jump from analog to digital distribution. Now, in small steps like the one in Switzerland, the transition is gaining momentum. But it has not always gone smoothly, and some analysts are questioning whether it is even necessary.

Backers of digital radio point to a number of benefits. The sound quality is often clearer, without the crackle and hiss of analog transmission. Digital broadcasts take up less of the airwaves, allowing more channels to be broadcast.

Some digital radios can pause and rewind programs, and broadcasters are working on adding still images like weather maps.

Features like these could make radio cool again, said Anthony Sethill, chief executive of Frontier Silicon, a London-based designer of chips for digital radios. Young people, he said, “want a multimedia experience,” so they often prefer their iPods, which Apple has refused to equip with radio receivers.

Digital broadcasts are already available across many parts of Europe, the United States and Japan. Australia plans a big rollout in May, and Germany is expected to announce plans soon.

But so far only one country — Britain, where about eight million people have bought the new receivers — has had widespread consumer adoption. And even there, while the publicly financed BBC network has championed the new technology, some commercial broadcasters have recently backed away from it.

Complicating matters is a battle over competing standards, with the United States, Britain, Japan, France and Australia adopting separate digital radio technologies.

To try to restore the sheen in Britain, where digital radio has been broadcast alongside FM and AM since 1995, a panel of experts recommended last month that the country begin switching off the analog radio airwaves around 2017. If the government were to endorse such a target, radio executives say, broadcasters and consumers alike would convert — as they have done with digital television since the days of analog have become numbered.

“There’s no question digital radio is a transition that is going to happen,” Hossein Yassaie, chief executive of Imagination Technologies in Kings Langley, England, which makes digital radios and broadcast equipment. “With the 2017 date suggested, it highlights that everyone needs to be thinking about this.”

While the shutdown of Beromünster leaves only one AM transmitter in Switzerland, serving French-speaking parts of the country, several other European countries have gone further, ending AM broadcasting entirely. Ireland did so last March; Austria followed suit at the end of the year. But cutting off FM broadcasts would not be an option anywhere, because too few consumers and advertisers have made the switch.

Even in Britain, digital broadcasts account for only about 12 percent of radio listening, according to Rajar, an audience measurement bureau.

Digital radio networks are also expanding. Australia, which has invested more than 400 million Australian dollars, or about $285 million, in the development of digital radio, plans to start broadcasting digitally to more than 60 percent of the country’s population May 1, using a new technology called DAB-Plus, an upgraded version of the British system.

“This will be the biggest radio event, not just in Australia, but in the whole world, since the introduction of analog radio,” said Graeme Redman, managing director in Australia for PURE, the name under which Imagination Technologies’ radios are sold.

RBR/TVBR observation: It’s pretty much true—a government-mandated switch to digital radio is likely the only way to move the public over. While the AM switch in Europe is looking easier than the FM, we all know about the problems and lack of acceptance for the Eureka-147 system over there. It should be very interesting here in the states to see how our government-mandated switch to digital TV will go. Remember, most of the TV audience already has essentially digital, just by having cable TV or satellite. Radio is a completely different story, where a government-mandated switch would mean many more households and receivers. Heck, isn’t there only ONE battery-powered HD Radio on the market right now, by Coby? We’re still not there with the technology yet in this country, either.