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DAB radio was the future … until live streaming and podcasts arrived

Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) radio was billed as a transformative technology that would revolutionise the industry when the first services went on the air in the mid-1990s. But a controversial u-turn in policy by the BBC has exposed the cracks in the argument for DAB. Cracks that are widening all the time as live streaming technology improves and podcast popularity grows.

Many of the big public service broadcasters in Europe, including the BBC, originally backed DAB – as did governments, both at the national level and through the European Union. So the announcement by the BBC’s Director of Radio, Bob Shennan, that the corporation’s long promised switch-off of FM in favour of DAB was off the table represents a remarkable reverse in policy.

It is now over 60 years since the BBC opened up its first FM service and nearly 25 years since it started using DAB. Overall, the argument for radio to join the digital world seemed strong. Not to do so seemed tantamount to admitting that the medium was not “fit for purpose” in the new age.

Old retro radio. shutterstock/BrAt82

For the commercial sector, there was a major inducement to go digital. In the 1996 Broadcasting Act, commercial radio licence-holders were offered the chance to have their then hugely lucrative FM licences automatically extended – without facing the threat of losing them through the usual competitive process – if they agreed to broadcast on DAB.

Fierce opposition to DAB

There were other objections to a “forced” adoption of DAB. One of the system’s major critics was the independent media analyst Grant Goddard. He objected to its general development and the specifics of its implementation in the UK, particularly the extra transmission costs for small, commercial stations.

Radio’s so-called “third sector” was also unhappy. In 2006, I examined how community broadcasters (who were initially promised that the perennial problem of highly limited availability on analogue wavebands would be solved by DAB) found themselves squeezed out of the new system by the BBC and large commercial operators. They will now be disappointed again that the FM slots – which they thought would soon be theirs – will continue to be operated by the “big boys”.

However, many listeners will be happy about the stay of execution for FM. They complained that accessing DAB meant them having to buy new sets and that the signal was often non-existent and unreliable.

No global standard

For decades, radio had the advantage of TV in that an AM/FM radio could be produced, and accessed, almost anywhere in the world. So the mass production of analogue car radios and transistor/portable sets, as well as FM chips for early Smartphones, made good economic sense for manufacturers. Radio was cheap, ubiquitous and used a common standard. Not so in the digital era.

The US developed their own digital radio standard, transmitting on existing FM and AM bands – known initially as In Band On Channel (IBOC), latterly branded HD Radio.

Yet another standard, Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), which piggy-backs on existing frequencies, including Short-Wave (still important in international broadcasting) has its adherents in some parts of the world. Then, France and some other countries adopted DAB Plus, with transmissions that couldn’t be “read” by receivers of the original DAB standard.

One thing seems clear: the dream of the inventors and developers of the original Eureka 147 project for DAB back in the 1980s to be THE radio standard in the digital age is never going to be realised.

The streaming game changer

There was and remains a mode that is almost universal – the internet. However, this initially required a fixed-point connection and with more than a fifth of UK listening taking place in cars, the inability to stream in moving vehicles was a major problem. At that point, the case for retaining terrestrial transmissions was still strong.

But the development of wifi-hotspots, G3, G4 and soon G5 mobile standards – as well as bluetooth connections from smartphones to car audio systems – has all but killed off the need for a “one standard” approach. As former Radio Luxembourg DJ and Programme Controller Tony Prince, who has launched an internet-only music radio service called United DJs, put it:

At this time we have no interest in FM or DAB and are convinced that the moment the internet streamed into the car radio, radio once again faces an enormous game-changer.

Radio shows and podcasts can now be live-streamed onto smart phones and tablets. Shutterstock/

The podcast challenge

The final major development is podcasting. This is now big business in the US, where more people now use podcasts every month than regularly use Twitter. Some of the money and talent that would have gone into linear radio is now being invested in podcasts. The range, depth and quality of these – from traditional broadcasters and a plethora of other operators – is impressive. Moreover, as academic Richard Berry has argued, podcast audiences don’t care if the audio content is poor, so long as the content is relevant to them. If so, they are likely to give them more attention than they would traditional radio output.

The BBC’s Bob Shennan believes the public service broadcaster can combine “live”, on-demand radio and podcasting into a single, personalised “offer”. The importance of this experiment in hybrid delivery from a broadcaster of the size and reputation of the BBC cannot be overstated.

If it fails, any form of linear radio may become increasingly challenged – from on-demand, tailored and “niche” styles of audio. So podcasting may yet sound the digital death knell for traditional radio, as the idea of broadcasting to many people at the same time becomes more and more quaint.

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