Digital Radio Is Not Just for Digital Dummies

by Graeme Hinckley. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 3 (May 2013)

Last year radio stations of all creeds, commercial, non-commercial and government, ceremonially joined together to celebrate ten years of digital radio in Australia. The champagne was out again but there was definitely less fizz and fuss as this corner of the industry is still unsure of its future with many believing the celebrations were a precursor to a wake.

Digital Radio had quite an arduous task getting started in this country. It had to wait what seemed an eternity to even be considered and then decisions about the right format kept many people awake late at night. Despite the wait and the fact that the first receivers cost the equivalent of a hefty speeding fine in Melbourne, the trial period seemed to go quite well. The sales and listeners for digital radio have also grown steadily to the point that even the retail giants have now settled on a range of relatively cheap receivers, affordable for traditional users of radio and even the people working in the industry. It does however remain a city vs. country argument where the only winners are the cities that can receive the signal with still no noises from the Government as to rolling it out in the regional areas. You would never guess that this is an election year but I suppose it's not over yet!

However, safely tucked in this inner sanctum of digitally irradiated big city bliss you would be completely aware that digital TV has taken over the analogue TV signal and more promotional dollars spent than on the millennium bug is telling us so. This is not just so that you can watch multiple versions of the same program on different channels and lots of new infomercials. Although apart from a few networks like the ABC there seems a definite lack of new content unless you have somehow missed an episode from the Mash phenomenon of the 1970s.

What is it that digital TV has to offer that digital radio doesn’t?

Spectrum: the frequencies used to transmit the signals. Spectrum is another word for money in communication-speak. Once the analogue TV service is closed the whole thing will go up on eBay and the Government is hoping for auction frenzy amongst the Telco giants. Unfortunately there are no such government financial incentives for digital radio and so it has been left to limp on in sandbox mode indefinitely. To many bean counters a move to a new digital service around the country is just a black hole. There are loads and loads of extra content driving interest but no real financial return for the effort.

Ultimately will it matter to radio listeners? Probably not, as most stations are currently able to stream online. If the fabled NBN permits access to the regional areas and streaming remains possible for radio content, whether someone is listening to your content via radio or via online access should not make any difference. However there are some concerns that radio will be asked for a yet larger financial contribution to stream content simultaneously. It is hard to see why someone would listen to both radio and online simultaneously and therefore be seen by the industry as a bit of financial double dipping.

Through the auspices of competition, digital radio also lost a lot of friends in the local music scene when it tried to opt out of its commitment to Australian music - leaving many artists and organisations questioning why licences should be granted to anyone who cannot contribute to the promotion of Australia's music culture and recognising that the early days of Australia's music industry had developed thanks largely to the support of radio.

Meanwhile in the world of the audience people don’t care what delivery system they have or how they listen. They just want seamless access on every platform. Whether it is on their phone, transmitted via radio waves, microwaves or beamed electronically into the throbbing neurons inside their head doesn’t matter a jot. It needs to be small. It needs to be portable. They need to take it with them on the bus, in the car and on the tram. If it can survive a good flush in the toilet you're on a real winner. Real connectivity is about not having to think about changing devices or coaxing machines to talk to each other.

All in all, it is an exciting but scary time in the media industry. Radio as a concept seems fine, in fact quite healthy for now and digital radio is the logical evolution - but then so is streaming. It's the advertising business model that is having a hernia. If you need to interrupt your audience's entertainment in order to sell a fridge or comment about the leading brands of motor oil and your online competition's advertising is more peripheral, there is an easy choice to make. How to change that business model is the Holy Grail. If not the online streamers will be LOL.

We are well into the age of engagement. Gone are the tiresome newspaper readers on the train with their elbows in your ribs. You are now surrounded by people being poked and prodded, and liking it. Some are listening to radio or streamed music whilst killing zombies or buying shoes. Gone is passive consumption of media and just like the Borg in Star Trek, once you have been part of the collective it is hard to go back to being merely an individual. Digital radio provides a little more associated information but radio knows it has to remain relevant by at least providing more visual or interactive content and most likely pleading to be one of your best friends on fb. So the digital debate is just another thing in a growing list of imperatives.

Add to this that we are now seeing a fully computer literate workforce getting ready to retire in the next few years. Despite the struggles and challenges they may have had to endure earlier in their careers they are now fully versed in technology and expect complete mobile access. They may have listened to radio all their lives and have purchased the latest digital radio for old time's sake but are throwing away the home phones and even their home computers including the laptop in favour of tablets. They have done the numbers and are opting for mobility and I don’t mean a motorised scooter or walking frame. Whilst there is always attention given to the younger trends this is the audience that will lead us into the last turn before the sprint down the straight in the digital race.

Mum is probably tweeting that she is now, as of this afternoon, the grand master of Angry Birds. Dad may rate last ranking in C.O.D but he is downloading (hopefully after paying) the entire Powderfinger collection into this phone in between trading shares and watching Q&A in the bath. They are the ones who after many years cancelled the newspaper subscription, bringing down the media barons. They are the ones who have stopped buying books and take two tablets for reading at bedtime. They are the swinging digital voters in an election year.

Digital radio is just a small part of this picture and it's not the only answer to whether the medium of radio will survive. It needs smart thinking by media players and a new business model as to what radio will become. It also needs a supportive Government with an actual plan for the future to help make that transformation relevant to the audience. It needs all this to ‘move forward’ if you want to coin a phrase. A lot of people paid for a brand spanking new digital radio expecting and wanting a new future for the medium and will be a little peeved if there isn’t one.