Digitising radio creates new opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region

Digitising radio creates new opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region

Musings on Digital Radio

In early April, I was in New Delhi attending a high level committee meeting on public broadcasting. The committee has been set up by the Govt. of India to advise it on how to bring about major shifts in the functioning of Prasar Bharati, the public broadcaster in India.

In one of the working groups of the committee, a comprehensive presentation was made on the technologies and technology choices that are available to Doordarshan India and to All India Radio. Interestingly, the recommendation on the radio technologies was unequivocal. DRM technology was recommended for large area coverage in place of medium wave analogue radio broadcasting and DRM+ was identified for the FM bands, ostensibly to extend coverage to the entire population of India.

I was seated next to a seemingly well informed lady and we started talking about digital radio. She spoke about the often repeated issue of affordable digital radio (in this case DRM) sets not being currently available in India and impact of this on uptake of digital radio services. I offered her my best explanation that lack of digital radios (for that matter any consumer device) is a phenomenon associated with every new broadcasting service, as a matter of fact with any new service. And the solution is that the broadcasters should go ahead with offering their services and the audiences will purchase the digital radios as soon as they see some interest. She seemed quite receptive to the idea. I pointed out to her that in the case of digital radio there were three main points of interest; excellent audio quality and high quality surround sound; several types of value-added services (and visuals); and attractive content.

While we may try hard to bring about the first two features stated above, it is ultimately the innovative and new genres of content that will be the driving force in digital radio uptake. The content theme was driven home by me and several eminent media professionals at the meeting. While there was agreement on the issue all across the board, no concrete steps were enunciated in this regard.

Going back to my conversation with the lady, I explained to her the crucial role India is poised to play in the commercialisation of digital radio sets by its sheer market size. This would mean that the digital radios could be available for as much as analogue radios in a couple of years’ time.

On another issue, it was heartening to note that the lady was quite aware of the 2007 DRM trial in New Delhi and was very happy with the outcome. Since I was involved in this project, it was gratifying for me to note this.

If you take stock of radio broadcasting on a global basis, some industry experts are somewhat unsure about the future of radio in the long term. Their misgivings are based on the current developments in the media space taking place all around us. To my mind, this apprehension is misplaced, to say the least.

Though the digital technology has shaken the traditional structures in the broadcasting industry, the future will bring in more dramatic changes and many new types of services on the horizon. Today, broadcasters have already added new facets to their service offerings through digital radio, surround sound, enhanced quality sound, visual imagery on radio, web-streaming and content time-shifting. Broadcasters are wooing audiences across the social media platforms and providing content on multiple mobile and stationary smart devices.

Connected radio represents the success in harmonization of broadcasting and Internet. It provides specific information that enriches content. Growth of media services and consumption patterns are not the same around the world. Some regions are typically more inclined towards radio as their main source of media consumption than others.

Radio in India is an example of high growth with higher listening, more radios and more radio stations. Mobile phones proliferating are currently totaling around 900 million. A significant percentage of listeners make use of the mobile phone embedded FM radios and the trend is enhancing.

For instance, both India and Indonesia have huge radio audiences with access to both public service and commercial radio broadcasts. The public service broadcasters in both countries have set up extensive radio networks for coverage of the whole population. Commercial broadcasters are addressing more concentrated and affluent population groups.

The strength of radio is that it is all over the place, in cars, stores, the workplace, online. Simply put, radio offers so much more, it involves people and connects people. Even as compared to the online media, perceived as providing access to vast audiences, still radio connects people with its wider network e.g. from the local communities to national audiences and internationally.

In some countries digital radio has successfully been implemented in a big way, becoming an important component co-existing with FM and AM radio. Radio listening has gone up and so have the radio revenues.

Digital radio is a tool in radio’s strategy to remain relevant in this converged multi-media world. When will analogue radio be completely turned off? This is again country and region specific, and is difficult to predict. Digital radio is more spectrum efficient, cheaper and greener, and it is then the future. At the same time, streaming and converged content on mobile devices will also grow rapidly into the future.

 Sharad Sadu