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Digital radio: In the pink or just in the red?

Yes, digital radio is here and it does sound better than FM. But it will hardly change the world of radio overnight.

Commentary Dedicating a digital radio channel to playing songs by the artist Pink 24/7 may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but the blitzkrieg of her music on conventional radio stations has made one of digital radio's signature launch channels largely redundant. Nonetheless, the idea has set a precedent for the types of innovative content we can expect from radio's new age, which kicked off last month with a flurry of radio station-sponsored events in our five largest cities.

Pink Radio was one of Australia's first unique-to-digital radio stations. (Credit: Austereo Pty Ltd)

Last year, long before digital radio was finally becoming a small bit more than a glimmer of hope on the part of Commercial Radio Australia, I predicted difficult times ahead for the technology. After all, fighting a broadcast medium with the reach and penetration of AM/FM radio is an incredibly difficult endeavour that requires clear differentiators to convince people to switch. The ease of access and prevalence of choice on internet radio just makes digital radio's value proposition even harder.

Internet radio has one major benefit: accessibility outside FM broadcast areas and on a range of devices. And the approach has enjoyed rebounding legitimacy thanks to recent decisions supporting commercially-sustainable licensing arrangements. Like all things internet, however, there's an air gap between the early adopters and mass-market acceptance. One wonders whether digital radio can do much better, at least for the next few years before it starts being built into cars so people can access digital radio without thinking about it.

Hands on

I recently spent time experiencing digital radio first-hand thanks to a review of the Pure Highway in-car DAB+ (digital radio) receiver organised by Dick Smith. After many hours spent listening to it while driving around Melbourne's suburbs, I can report that digital radio does, indeed, sound better than FM.

As long, that is, as you're not in one of the many black spots I encountered. And you have the 2m antenna fully extended around your car's cabin space, and have it connected directly via plugging into a tape adapter or car line-in plug: using the built-in FM transmitter works, but it squeezes the brilliant digital radio sound into FM's narrower analog broadcast. This means you can hear new channels like NovaNation and Pink Radio, but you lose digital radio's crispness and go back to FM quality.

There are issues: there is no static in digital radio, just signal or no signal; thus, there's no sound at all in underground car parks or in particularly bad black spots. And in areas where the signal is suboptimal, digital radio seems to shift to a lower bitrate that provides continuous sound but comes off like listening to radio through a tin can. Early comparisons between low bitrate MP3 encoding and the uncompressed fullness of a CD seem particularly apt here.

When digital radio works, it works well: I became fond of Koffee, a DMG radio venture featuring coffee-house "chill-out" type music. As a contrast to the doof-doof and endless Pink of the other channels, Koffee — which also publishes current and recent song titles and streams its content over the internet — is a welcome soothing balm. It's especially appealing because there were, while I was listening at least, no ads.

Hold on: no ads? This may be great for listeners, but it highlights the commercial realities that broadcasters face in getting digital radio to fly. The situation is not dissimilar to that of digital TV, which faced a chicken-and-egg paradox as it tried to lure advertisers to new channels that nobody was watching.

Brett Nossiter, program director for Koffee and NovaNation at DMG Radio Australia, admits the commercial reality of digital radio is still, well, hazy. "It's very new territory," he conceded. "Koffee is a new format and people are still wrapping their heads around it. The model isn't something we want to try and flood with hundreds and hundreds of spots; we're shooting more for a partnership and sponsorship model.

Nossiter's comments reflect the learning curve that digital radio is currently climbing. The opportunity for new channels is certainly appealing, but without clear revenue streams to support those channels, digital radio will struggle to fulfil its potential.

Will customers buy it?

Equally challenging is the need to educate customers and convince them of digital radio's value. This is hardly helped by the fact that today's DAB+ receivers are poorly prepared to support some of the mooted differentiators — such as album cover art, lyrics and other value-added digital content — that were supposed to make digital radio better than FM.

Many of these features, I have been told, are on hold for now while authorities work through concerns that windshield-mounted digital radios represent a significant distraction. Paired with the Pure Highway's difficult tuning system and monochrome display screen that couldn't show such content even if it wanted to, and it's clear this part of the digital radio value proposition is still foggy at best.

Retailers aren't helping the situation either: "digital" radios — meaning those that display the station's frequency using digits rather than showing a red needle in front of a series of tuning numbers — are already a dime a dozen.

And how many people, were you to do a poll, would know that to hear proper digital radio they're looking not for a box that says "digital" but one that says 'DAB+'?

Although it has the word digital on it, this radio will not pick up Australia's new DAB+ radio channels. (Credit: David Braue)

How many consumers will buy such a unit and return it complaining that it won't receive digital radio? Worse still, how many will buy such a unit and keep it, thinking they're listening to digital radio, and then tell their friends the new broadcasting is exactly the same as the old one?

You may laugh, but digital TV faced exactly the same problems when it was new. Years later, only half of Australian households have digital TV — and it, at least, offers value everybody understands.

Yes, digital radio is here. Yes, it sounds better than FM (at least when it's working). But will it change the world of radio overnight? No way. Many broadcasters are hedging their bets broadcasting online as well as via digital radio to ensure they are wherever the action is. But with Pink's record-setting concert run now a memory and Pink Radio, presumably, set to be decommissioned, the fate of digital radio is still very much up in the air.

Have you bought into digital radio? If not, what would make you switch? If so, what do you think of it? And what still needs fixing? Tell us in the Talkback section below!