Monday Media – Where to for DAB Radio?

dab welcomeI’ve been in Radio long enough to remember the slow-motion train-crash that was AM Stereo – and I have to say, DAB or Digital Audio Broadcasting shows all the signs of being deja vu all over again.

To explain: for 50 years, Australian broadcast radio was all AM, or Amplitude Modulation. Stations had whopping great transmitters that broadcast over large areas – the quality wasn’t great to start with, and the further away you got the more interference you heard – crackling, and phasing, and whistling etc.

Then, in 1980, the first new commercial FM (or Frequency Modulation) stations opened – with their crisp, clean sound and their focus on music rather than talk, they started to devour the AM audience. That got even worse (for AM) when a significant number of stations converted from AM to FM in 1990.

By the mid to late 80s, in reaction to the rise of FM stations, AM stations launched what they hoped would be their saviour: StereoAM.

This was a technological trick which allowed listeners with appropriate receivers to hear a synthesized stereo signal (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C-QUAM for an article on how it worked).

I quite liked StereoAM – but there were a number of problems.

First was that listeners needed to go out and get new receivers to get the StereoAM effect. Second was that the sound wasn’t as good as the dominant sound-source of the time (FM stations). Third, stations weren’t really willing to commit the resources, or the enthusiasm, to make it work. Fourth, AM stations were increasingly talk-based, with only ‘oldies’ music being played – and older listeners tend not to adopt new tech like StereoAM. And finally, the broadcast signal didn’t travel anywhere near as far as the basic signal.

Sound familiar?

dab stationAnyone with a DAB radio (and I have six – geek that I am) will by now be nodding in agreement.

Penetration of DAB+ in this country has been minuscule – because all of the above problems exist once again.

You need new equipment to hear it – and finding a halfway decent car stereo for example is quite hard. I couldn’t tell you how many car radio salespeople have tried to talk me out of buying one!

The quality of the signal can be excellent but because each ‘ensemble’ of stations has only a certain amount of bandwidth, 48k is pretty much the standard – and some stations are only half that bit-rate (those used for Coles in-store stations, for example). Compare that to FM with its CD-like quality – or even streaming services like Pandora at 64K.

But the biggest problem, and the biggest similarity to StereoAM, is the lack of commitment.

There’s a discussion over in the Radio Green Room Facebook page prompted, in part by an article at Radio Today

As part of that discussion, a participant writes: “According to a regional Ford executive for Asia Pacific, the company has never spoken to anyone from Commercial Radio Australia about DAB radios in their local models.”

Think about that for a moment. If they are right, then DAB+ almost certainly faces the same fate as StereoAM.

And so slips away another hope to salvage the industry I love.

4 thoughts on “Monday Media – Where to for DAB Radio?

  1. Oh dear! Another doomsayer doing his level best to kill off commercial radio. Such crap journalism too – “minuscule penetration” – did you actually research the sales for DAB+ radios? No I didn’t think so. You only mention the Ford situation but did you bother to list the makes that DO already have DAB+ radios? Nope Did you mention the plans for expansion into regional areas and the trials currently underway. Nope. You profess to “love” the industry yet you only write about the negatives. Hypocrite.

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    • And a cheery good afternoon to you, too! 🙂

      Seriously, thanks for your thoughts.

      I’d stand by my ‘miniscule penetration’ comments, even if you believe the 25% ‘household penetration’ figure (and the Digital Radio people are careful NOT to say that’s ‘regular listeners’)

      But even so, that’s effectively 25% of those people who live within 25km of transmitters in capital cities. It does not actually equate to all that many people. Anyone who lives more than 25km away (and that includes the outer suburbs of most cities) simply cannot recieve DAB+ with any assurance. An d while there is TALK of DAB being expanded to regional areas, there’s very little concrete movement in that area.

      But OK – I’ve corrected the reference from “miniscule” to “hamstrung”.

      As for in-car DAB radios .. The Digitalradioplus website says 275,000 new cars have had DAB+ radios fitted in the last six years. That’s out of car sales of abound six-point-five million – or effectively fewer that 5% of all new cars sold in that period.

      Now, I concede that the number is increasing (up by 25% in year-on-year terms) … but I would argue that many more cars are being sold with other entertainment options than are being sold with DAB.

      But in any case, I hope you are right and I am wrong.

      Hells, I’ve so far spent more than $1000 on DAB radios over the past five years (A Pure Highway, a Pure One, a Bauhn kitchen radio, a Eonon car radio, a Kenwood Car Radio and a couple of portables) – so obviously I’M committed to the platform.

      I just wish radio management was just as committed.

      Cheers!

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  2. All they had to do (and in the USA, the FCC had to do) was establish the NAB’s AM Stereo standards and mandate them as well as mandating AM Stereo itself. It really did sound better. Also the stereo effect didn’t go away as long as the signal was usable. From San Francisco, I picked up KFI from Los Angeles and would get the signal in stereo.

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  3. Pingback: Monday Media – DAB Radio Goin’ up the country? | Cairns Communications

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