Brazil – So what now radio?

Brazil is experiencing a period of political and economic crisis, and this is not new to any of us, Brazilians. But the radio sector here does not even register the current crisis. Why? Simple answer: because Brazilian radio has experienced a huge crisis for years, and it is already so used to the lack of investment and growth that we don’t even feel the current chaotic situation which the country lives in.

The solution to overcome the crisis was presented in the mid-2000s: digital radio. However, only the HD Radio system, owned by a private company, presented itself as a solution to be adopted in the country. The current Government decided not to deliver Brazilian radio to American entrepreneurs and rejected HD Radio.

In 2012, with the radio sector in eclipse, due mainly to the migration of advertising to the internet, the Ministry of Communications opened a public call for digital radio systems to apply for adoption in Brazil. At the time, in addition to Ibiquity or the HD system, Digital Radio Mondiale came on the scene. DRM is an open system, being promoted by a non-profit international consortium supported by entities that believe in the standard and in open radio. Both systems are tested. The Ministry of Communications creates a Council to carry out a technical, technology and business model assessment. It gets complicated. The systems are too different: DRM is state of the art and uses half of the spectrum size, but the HD is already deployed in the U.S. and has receivers on the market; DRM is an open system and its development depends also on the local industry. On the other hand HD brings everything prefabricated. DRM would depend on investments in the sector in Brazil. For HD everything is ready made, you only have to pay. No decision on the matter is taken.

In 2013 a new solution for the radio sector emerges: the AM to FM migration. What? Was the Brazilian radio crisis the fault of AM? So pushing AM stations to a saturated FM market and saving the AM stations’ owners financially would revitalise radio in Brazil? Besides, there is no room in the FM spectrum. So let us open spaces in the spectrum of the FM with the digitalization of TV- this was the answer coming from the defenders of the process. And how much will it cost to turn an AM station owner into the owner of an FM station? New response ready: cheap! In November 2013 President Dilma signs the Decree of migration with a speech that can be classified as, at least, contradictory, when she declares her “love for AM radio she used to listen to when she was a political prisoner during the dictatorship”. And she added: “now we’re here to save AM radio”, while she was signing a decree that was the death certificate of AM radio. If she were a doctor, she would be killing the patient to save him from his terrible pain.

Let’s advance to late 2015. Digital radio was abandoned and the migration didn’t work out. Both processes depend on the Government, and the successive Ministers and Secretaries are doing what they do best: not deciding anything. To take a decision takes a lot of work and can be compromising. And there are also more important things than radio like telecoms, internet and television.

ABERT, the most powerful association of commercial broadcasters in the country that, unlike the Government, takes positions and defends them, at its Congress last month showed signs of desperation about the stagnation of the migration process. Surprisingly  ABERT asked for the postponement of analogue TV shutdown, which should slowdown the migration even more.  Also contradicting facts it stated that digital radio is “old hat” and that the future of the radio resides in radio apps for mobiles (which they called “digital radio” several times during the Congress).

As a researcher I am not sure what is going to happen about the migration. I am worried and feel sorry for the radio broadcasters who believed in this migration, because they are desperate.  And if we rely on Governments (since Ministers change often), the tendency is to postpone decisions which means  that nothing happens.

Around the world, digital radio grows in AM below 30 MHz (the so-called “DRM30” mode of the DRM standard). The ability to deliver good sound quality and multimedia content over long distances has been shown to be useful in several countries with large territories, and also for international broadcasters, a very important attribute in a globalized world. Conflicts in Africa have brought about investments in digital broadcasts on shortwave from European public broadcasters covering that continent.  It is the implementation of this new medium that delivers the large coverage with quality and robustness.

In Brazil, the only digital radio development is supported by the Brazilian public broadcaster EBC which has been trying for over a year now to put a solid and robust SW DRM on National Radio of Amazon. This means DRM for domestic use but the lack of equipment and financial resources keeps the initiative embryonic.

So, what next? Will the new Minister of Communications do something? How is radio to survive? Shall we turn to mobile apps and listen to radio only where there is broadband internet? What about the countryside listeners? What now radio?

Marcelo Goedert


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