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Radar signals new radio channels for 2009

Australia's new national digital radio station, Radar Radio, plays music from undiscovered artists, with an emphasis on local talent. Many more digital stations are expected to follow in the next few months.

(Credit: Radar Radio)

Australia has a new national radio station, with many more to come in the next few months. Radar Radio was launched last Friday, playing music from undiscovered artists, with an emphasis on local talent.

It's part of the digital radio revolution that will, belatedly, hit Australia next year. Soon you'll be able to hear crystal clear digital sound as you drive around, with a greater listening choice and the bonus of some associated on-screen data. So far, opinions are mixed as to whether the new content will be compelling enough for listeners to invest in the receivers needed to pick up digital radio channels.

Spend an hour or so listening to Radar Radio online and, although you probably won't love every song, you will find some gems — like "Believe", a new release from Sydney band Reflector, currently the most popular artist on the new station. It is a refreshing alternative from a lot of the research-led playlists you hear on mainstream commercial stations, although Cathy O'Connor, CEO for DMG Radio, says the new station is "scarily like Nova". She says if Austereo really had a commitment to new artists they should be doing it now on their FM channels. "But", she says this is an exciting time for radio with "an opportunity for new content and diverse genres".

Later this year Radar Radio will be broadcast free-to-air as a DAB+ digital channel. Like digital TV, digital radio will enable broadcasters to multichannel, as well as provide scrolling text and other data. It has been made available in 128Kbps of digital radio spectrum per existing licence. For Austereo, the owners of popular music stations FoxFM, 2Day, Triple M and now Radar Radio, it still leaves the company room for at least one more station. Jeremy Macvean, Austereo's head of Digital Strategy, told CNET that other digital channels will be rolled out in 2009.

In theory, capital city audiences could have at least twice as many radio stations to choose from. That's certainly been the experience in the UK where Londoners can now choose from more than 40 digital radio stations. We could expect a similar number in our state capitals if the operators find the advertising revenue to support them and the ABC and SBS get the government funding they need.

Fairfax, owner of talk stations like 2UE in Sydney and 3AW in Melbourne, is also planning extra digital channels. Graham Mott, the group general manager for the Fairfax Radio Network, says there is no final determination on what those extra channels will be, but the emphasis will be on providing extra content for the company's existing core audience. Cathy O'Connor says DMG will simulcast Nova and Vega on digital radio and broadcast new channels from the launch of digital radio in May, as well as experimenting with feeding associated data.

The question remains as to whether broadcasters will find sufficient advertising to bring incremental revenue to their operations. BigPond has jumped on board as foundation advertising partner for Radar Radio. Jeremy Macvean says "BigPond is keen to support undiscovered music, so Radar is a great fit". Users will soon be able to buy tracks they hear from the BigPond Music Store online.

There is a fear that the new technology will simply dilute existing radio advertising revenue across a broader range of stations. Mott says that Fairfax is not expecting a return from digital radio in the medium term and its main focus will continue to be on its core analog radio business. But he adds, Australians have repeatedly shown that they are rapid adopters of new technology and that spells out strong prospects for DAB+. DMG's O'Connor says audiences will go wherever there is strong content and advertisers will follow. "The important thing is to ensure great talent with relevant content," she says. Austereo's Macvean says that digital radio adds a wide range of listener benefits that should increase the time we spend listening to radio and that could help radio to grab an increased share of the total advertising market.

Some industry pundits are more sceptical. The program director at one Sydney station says it's too little, too late. Digital radio launched in the UK 13 years ago. Since then internet usage has mushroomed. There's now a huge listening choice online, including personalised radio channels, like CBS's Last FM, where you tailor the station to the music you like. Over the last few years, time spent listening to internet radio has increased markedly. Graham Mott doesn't follow this argument at all. He says that anyone suggesting that internet radio could kill the chances of digital radio has a "vested interest in online".

One of the biggest hurdles for internet radio and digital radio is in-car listening, as it's where most of us listen to radio. In the UK, digital car radios are selling for hundreds of dollars. You would have to be hearing a lot of extra content to warrant the investment. In the meantime, high speed mobile internet access technologies like WiMax, should it ever become available, could make it feasible for you to listen to internet radio while you are on the move. Again you'll need to invest in new hardware, but the extra choice might warrant the spend. Certainly it won't happen overnight, but then again, neither will widespread adoption of digital radio.

Digital radio launches in Australia's capital cities on 1 May 2009.