Digital radio proves sceptics wrong

Figures show almost half a million people in Australia are tuning in to digital radio every week, just six months after the consumer launch of the broadcasting platform.

Phil Dobbie
3 min read

commentary There are some early indications that digital radio in Australia might just be proving sceptics wrong. Many, myself included, argued that it was all too late, pointing to the mixed success overseas and the rise in online listening. With most sets over the AU$100 mark, limited abilities to pick it up in your car and availability restricted to just five state capitals, you would expect a low take-up rate. Forecasts were far from optimistic, with the industry predictions put at 50,000 receivers sold in the first 12 months.

In reality, in less than half that time, there are 104,000 digital sets out there in Australia, according to official data released by Commercial Radio Australia (CRA) today (although I suspect this figure includes many still sitting on the shelves at your local technology store).

Philips digital radio
The first official data relating to digital radio broadcasts in Australia shows449,000 people are now listening to digital radio each week. (Credit: Philips)

Those that do have them love them and, yes, I count myself among them. The first radio survey of the year shows that of all radio listeners in the five state capitals 3.7 per cent listened to DAB+ digital radio, for an average of eight hours 16 minutes a week. That's not too shabby when you consider that the comparable figure for internet radio was 4.2 per cent for just five hours 31 minutes a week.

The undoubted benefits are the clarity of the sound and the extra channels. Surprisingly, 71 per cent of those who bought a DAB radio did so for the digital sound quality, according to research commissioned by Commercial Radio Australia late last year. Many of those, I suspect, are AM listeners. I'd suggest for most people the improvement over FM would not be worth the investment. The new channels were less important. Only 20 per cent of DAB+ listeners listened to them at all and there's no word on how long they listened for. I'd say they had novelty appeal at best, after all they are nothing more than automated jukeboxes. Not being a cricket fan, I did catch some of the voice-tracked music alternatives offered by the ABC over summer where announcers could be heard, albeit not entirely live. I'd have said that if you really wanted to listen to music all day devoid of personalities you don't need to buy a digital radio, you just listen to Vega, but hang on, I forgot, they disbanded because no one was listening. Maybe that tells us something about how people still want to hear people on the radio.

The good news is that with such a high initial take-up of digital radio, perhaps there's scope for more entertaining options down the track. The bad news is that government regulations restrict the providers of those services to incumbent operators for some time to come. This isn't an industry that likes too much competition.

There's one development that will certainly have a marked impact — in-car listening. There are no DAB+ car radios available right now and even in Europe, where digital radio has been around for many years, new cars are generally sold without them. There is an expensive gadget available here that sticks on your windscreen and rebroadcasts the digital signal into your FM radio, but that kinda defeats the purpose. Although if you are an Alan Jones fan you will be able to hear his holiness and his AM shock jock stalwarts in crystal clear FM stereo.

There's another choice if you want digital radio on the go. I spent AU$85 on the cheapest DAB+ radio I could find, plugged it into the auxiliary socket on my car stereo and it works a treat, except in the underground car park at Westfield Hornsby. And there's a simple fix for that. Don't go shopping in Hornsby. A win all round, I'd say.

Have you tried digital radio yet? Today's survey also claimed 80 per cent of people who own a digital radio would recommend it to a friend. Would you? Tell us your thoughts below.