Digital radio

Digital radio was launched today.

Interesting, and they’re crowing about a number of new funky features. But the bottom line for me is:

Q: Will AM and FM radio be switched off soon?

There are no plans at this stage to switch off AM and FM radio services. As there is an estimated five radio devices per home, listeners must be given time to change over all of their radio devices before any discussion of switch off of analogue services. In addition, planning needs to continue for the switch on of digital services to the rest of Australia outside of the five launch cities.

Digital Radio FAQ

I listen to radio a bit, but the new features like clearer sound and extra channels aren’t grabbing me. I’ll only upgrade if I’m dragged kicking and screaming off conventional radio. $150 for a set? No way.

Maybe the serious radio-heads will take it up?

Podcasting mogul Cameron Reilly has a post comparing Digital Radio to podcasts and notes that podcasts already have most of the features. True.

But then, I listen to radio for its immediacy. You don’t get breaking news on podcasts.

Oh, boy am I glad I missed the mind-numbing four-minute-long “road-block” (all stations) segment at 7:40am.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

10 replies on “Digital radio”

After listening to it all this morning, it was not difficult to tell that the ABC broadcaster’s hearts just weren’t in it. There were some nice old bits and people broadcast though. One of the very early versions of news theme Majestic Fanfare brought memories. How bad it was.

One can easily use an older analog TV with a set top converter but what fix would one have for all of the millions of analog car and truck radios in use??

i’d love a digital radio but not for those prices. They say the prices will come down, but they’d want to halve and then some before I’d buy them. I listen to the radio every day, but still can’t justify paying that much.

They would have to think long and hard about ever switching off the AM stations; digital is broadcast at such a high frequency that its range is very short (it barely even covers Melbourne very well, according to the maps I saw somewhere).

774’s AM transmitter covers a huge swathe of Victoria and right up into NSW and south into Tasmania. Its programs are much, much better than the ABC’s regional radio and many country listeners will be very unhappy if it were ever to be switched off.

I’d agree with Paul, though it didn’t seem to deter the commercial AM music stations from paying big bucks for FM licences in the early ’90s.

AM is good in some spots (eg pedestrian underpass at Richmond Station or picking up 774 from Traralgon) but is poor in others (eg high-rise). It was however suprisingly good in a Comeng train on the way in (reception seems poorer in a Siemens).

My understanding is that the Melbourne stations are running reduced power. Their frequency around 200 MHz is somewhat inferior to regular FM. But the biggest concern is what happens when signals are marginal – a marginal AM station is listenable but a marginal digital one might not be. I think Red Symons was alluding to that when (I think) he deliberately broke up his voice to try to imitate a bad digital signal. No one can easily test mobile reception yet – there were no digital car radios at the demo.

I believe another problem with digital is the lag time of several seconds. So time pips may no longer be accurate and radio might be almost but not quite live.

Part II

As for the clearer sound, existing broadcast FM can be very high quality and I can’t see digital being any better. It is however better than the sort of AM that comes out of most receives which are built cheaply with small speakers. Many of the digital portables had larger than average speakers and were of a size of older portable radios so I’d expect them to sound quite good.

There is one feature you might like – and that was an ability to repeat/replay stuff you’ve missed. Dont’ know about the limiations. The sets I looked at had their station scrolling on the screen. Changing the station was turning a tuning knob and then pressing it in – if you coudn’t get it (eg tuning to a Sydney station) you just got silence.

Apart from brochures from the set manufacturers (few specs in them) there was no stuff I could see about digital radio as such – the ABC and SBS had the most but they were about existing stations and frequencies.

We only have 7 radio devices (great phrase) in our house, one of which is playing up and three are less than 2 years old. I don’t fancy having to replace them all for digital radio. I can put that money into food or, more importantly, books.

What about all those radio devices going into landfill? How is that good? If everyone is trying to buy digital then there’s no point freecycling them so they’ll just go into landfill.

Thanks for the comments.

Yeah, for me, AM is okay enough now to be listenable, with the exception of long drives into the country, where Digital won’t do any better. Better quality on the talk stations is by no means a big seller for me. I’m betting that you’re right – digital reception (just like on most other media) will be either great or nothing. For many people, you’ll get better quality AM and FM by just buying a better radio, and it’ll still be cheaper than the cheapest $150 digital radio is now, though agreed the prices will drop over time.

The coverage maps for ABC digital radio are here. Obviously other stations may vary, but it’s hardly impressive.

The rewind thing is neat, but only available on the more expensive digital radios that have that facility. You can achieve the almost the same result by listening to a web stream and recording it with Audacity or similar (though you couldn’t easily play it back at the same time as recording later sections of the broadcast).

By my count, I have 4 radios in my house, plus 1 in my car, plus my mobile phone (FM only). I assume the other reason there isn’t a great push to move off analogue radio is that the savings in the spectrum aren’t as great as they are with the move off analogue TV.

Unless they front up the cash to get the community radio stations moved across I’m not changing.

Remember how they tried to switch ABC radio stations across to FM in the country, but had to change back as they couldn’t pick them up in the hills? Same thing with digital.

I hadn’t even thought about the ones in the cars, that makes another 2, and the ones on our mobiles phone so add another 3, not to mention all four mp3 players have FM. Admittedly the phones and mp3 players have other uses but if we had to replace everything it’d get pretty expensive on cost and even more expensive on landfill. That would make 16 radio devices. I was excited about digital radio but I’ve just changed my mind.

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