On the continuing end of broadcasting as usual

In The end of DAB is nowhere near nigh?, Russell Parsons says,

  …this morning’s announcement from GCap’s that it is closing two digital-only stations, Planet Rock and TheJazz, and selling its stake in national commercial digital radio operator Digital One to Arqiva, strikes a rather more portentous tone.

  With the UK’s largest commercial radio company running to the hills, branding DAB as “not economically viable”, where does that leave the suddenly maligned format? An experiment which is proving burdensome and expensive when set against internet radio or a misunderstood medium that is growing in popularity quarter on quarter?

The key phrase in that last paragraph is the one I bold-faced. This is the first time I’ve seen Internet radio treated with the respect due what will surely be the winning approach in the long run.

Meanwhile, PORS (my new initialism for Plain Old Radio Service: AM/MW, FM, shortwave) is growing ever more anachronistic — and so are efforts either to A) give it with a digital gloss (as do the IBOC digital enhancements to AM and FM, which have made listening worse on old radios while reaching too damn few new ones), or B) replace it with something new developed decades ago (such as DAB), while still sounding like regular old radio stations (while listeners are moving by the millions to iPods and other alternatives over which they are the ones in control).

Everyone’s time is scarce. On the whole, less and less of it will be spent listening to radios as we knew them. Even if the signals they get are called “digital”.

8 comments

  1. Mike Warot’s avatar

    I’m waiting for the time when the collective realization is made that broadcast is a tremendous waste of spectrum. Until that point we’ll be slicing and dicing spectrum, and taxing away innovation as our country continues to slide into last place in terms of communications.

    Any money raised from FCC auctions is a tax… a very heavy and regressive tax.

    –Mike–

  2. Crosbie Fitch’s avatar

    If DAB stations that warranted high fidelity had been given it (instead of being merely noise free) then far more people would have upgraded to CD quality radio (instead of MP3 quality radio).

    When FM provides superior quality to DAB, what’s the point?

    I have a portable DAB radio in the bathroom. It’s permanently switched to FM in order that it remains synchronised with all the other portable FM radios around the house (instead of 4 seconds out of date).

  3. Scott Westerman’s avatar

    My experience with radio on New Years Eve http://tinyurl.com/2nn57v doesn’t do much to reinforce any faith in a turnaround. The fix is relatively simple: local, local, local.

  4. Bob Boynton’s avatar

    Radio stations are aggregators — whatever the technology. The technology becomes less and less important compared to the work they do aggregating for us.

    Some people want to spend a substantial portion of their lives searching and organizing the music they listen to. They are willing to do their own aggregating. I find radio stations that do that for me, and I can spend my life not searching — just listening while I am doing other things with my hands, such as writing this comment.

    In this respect your last two paragraphs are at odds with each other.

  5. Julian Bond’s avatar

    My wife is addicted to BBC Radio 4. Every couple of years, the portable radio gets dropped one too many times and has to be replaced. Each time the radio gets more features and works less well. The latest upgrade was to a portable Sony DAB that has less battery life, takes more batteries and requires a good signal with the antenna extended to work at all. If you change from mains power to batteries, it doesn’t just switch power and stay on, it turns itself off. And all this for only a small improvement in audio over FM?

    This household at least could do with an ultra low power radio that picks up Radio 4 and nothing else and has a sleep function.

    The other half (ie me) is addicted to last.FM tag radio (“Chillosophy” tag). That’s fine in the house, but there’s no solution (yet) for listening in the car. And even in the house, I could do with some portable solution to this. A Chumby perhaps?

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Agreed about the waste of spectrum, Mike. And that spectrum itself is just one way to look at radio energy. Auctioning it, Bob Frankston says, is like selling exclusive rights to the color blue.

    And Julian, I’m not surprised by the bad performance of the Sony radio. The manufacturers have been cheaping out on performance for many years now. They did it first with AM/MW, and later with FM. Near as I can tell, nobody makes a home audio system with an FM tuner that’s much good. They all must use the same ultra-cheap chipset.

    Car radios are better. And a few portables from Eton/Grundig and Sagean are good too. When I travel to Europe (as I will next week, to London), I’ll have a small Sangean with me. It does the job.

    But I’m not surprised that you have to twizzle the antenna to make it work. In most of Europe the approach to analog FM is cellular. Each “station” (e.g. Radio 4) has many transmitters, most of them not very high in wattage. The numbered BBC transmitters on the Croydon tower in london are all 4kw, and the tower is only 153 meters (502 feet) high. That’s not much. The DAB system is IBOC, I believe, so it suffers from the same problem, only in digital ways.

    It will be interesting to see what happens when we go through the switch from analog to digital over-the-air television here in the U.S. Last night we got back to our house in Santa Barbara, where our only choices of DTV channels are ones from San Diego, more than 200 miles away across open water. Our house is 500 feet above the ocean, and we have “line of sight” in the sense that only the curved Earth is in the way. UHF frequencies bend little, but they do to some degree across long distances, but the refractive properties of air (measured as dielectric values) vary locally and can as easily bend signals out toward space as down toward Earth. We get a watchable picture about 5% of the time, I’d guess. And not from all the stations. Oddly, the best source is KGTV, which has a directional signal pattern, nulled with a minima almost exactly toward us. KGTV is actually radiating a digital signal on an analog frequency also known as Channel 25 on he UHF band, or 537.25MHz. When we rented a house next door, we could get all the VHF and UHF analog signals from San Diego with crystal clarity, using a big Radio Shack directional antenna that wasn’t as good as the one we’re using now for UHF only. We also got everything from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

    So far only one Santa Barbara station, KEYT, is broadcasting on its HD channel as well. By analog it’s on Channel 3, or 61.25Mhz. Here the waves are long and wrap around buildings and hills. From its perch on 4000-foot Broadcast Peak, about 25 miles away, it’s the one signal you can get on rabbit ears, just about anywhere, even when you’re in a terrain shadow, as are we. That 100Kw transmitter will be shut down next February. After that, only the 1000Kw (1 billion watts of ERP, or effective radiated power) transmitter on Channel 27 (549.25Khz) will be on. When I turn our Winegard top-of-the-line UHF antenna toward Broadcast Peak, I get a very broken-up signal from KEYT. It’s unwatchable.

    And most people won’t be watching it anyway. They’ll be watching the picture on “digital” cable, where the signal is further degraded and full of artifacts. HDTV signals here already have to be packed into 6MHz of bandwidth anyway, which is why they already look way too artifacty.

    Same goes for satellite TV and radio, both of which in digital forms are full of compression artifacts and hard for critical eyes and ears to see and watch.

    As for Chumby, we’ll see. Nobody to my knowledge has written a Chumby widget that does Internet radio, which is the main reason we bought our Chumby (for $179). I very much want Chumby to succeed, but so far the only person (including all the geeks at the Berkman Center Geek Cave) who likes it is my 11-year-old kid. I’d hold off, or just devote an old laptop to the job. It’ll probably work better at that anyway.

  7. John Quimby’s avatar

    Hey Doc,

    It’s been some time since I came around.

    I’ve been launching a new internet comedy channel since my last note. Still in beta test but working up to asking you to visit for a few laughs (I hope).

    Your radio posts always make me a bit nostalgic…

    I was 23 years old when I got a job as an FM radio DJ.
    The program director pointed to a wall full of vinyl lp’s and
    two Technics turntables and said, “There’s the format. Play what you want.” My job was to learn the music and build each set live on the air.

    Our copy of Led Zepplin’s “Whole Lotta Love” was beat to hell but it sounded pretty good to me. I even managed to make a segue from Devo to Elvis work one night.

    All that for $650.00 a month. We got paid like field hands.

    Ahhhhh. Those were the daze.

  8. David Cushman’s avatar

    It gets interesting when you think about talk radio, or news-based radio – (BBC 4 does quite a lot of that). I listen to BBC Radio 5 a lot in the car. I want to be able to fast forward it often, in the hope that I’ll find it more interesting. Give me a Last.FM of news! Relevance over quality every time.

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