Are streaming apps making DAB+ redundant?

 

The other day, after just eight years of faithful service, the Pure DAB+ digital radio in the bathroom carked it. A hot and steamy bathroom is not a healthy environment for sensitive electronic equipment.

My first instinct was to drive down to my nearest JB HiFi store and buy a new one. Call me old fashioned, but I still prefer to shop in real time at a bricks and mortar store where I can touch and feel an item before I buy. The Covid induced lockdown, however, has forced a change in that particular habit of a lifetime. So, I went online instead, where I found a disappointingly small selection of DAB+ radios on offer.

By the time next morning came around, I was still vacillating about my proposed click & collect purchase. My wife, who also has a habit of a lifetime – listening to the radio while in the shower, became quite distraught at the prospect of showering alone. So, as any good husband would, I found an immediate solution to her problem. I grabbed her phone, hit the MyTuner app which immediately displayed a comprehensive list of Sydney stations – and the world, if I wanted. I then hit the logo of her favourite station and, bingo! Radio! But the sound that came out of the tiny speakers at the base of the iPhone 12 was ordinary at best.

Then I had a brainwave. Sometime ago, the good folk at ARN gifted me an iHeart branded portable Bluetooth speaker that had sat in a drawer for several years because I couldn’t find a use for it. Now I had one. After charging its battery, I paired it with Pauline’s phone, and presto! The sound was rich and clear and as loud as you’d ever want. Much improved over the DAB+ radio that had occupied the bathroom shelf for the past eight years.

There was no funeral. Covid had put a stop to them too. But DAB+, at least in the Saxons’ bathroom, is dead and buried – its place taken by a smarter device and a better speaker. The Pure Sensia in the bedroom is still chugging along nicely but I fear is on borrowed time the as technology that powers broadcast platforms advances at an ever-increasing rate.

ARN’s Duncan Campbell admits he doesn’t listen to DAB+ or FM radio at home anymore. “Everyone’s got devices, wherever they are,” he tells radioinfo. “I stream radio through smart speakers at home. I don’t listen to it through an FM tuner. As streaming is growing, the podcasting medium will grow as well. Streaming is the new technology. DAB+ was the new technology of the day. But it was hard to predict at the time what was around the corner in the future. I mean, who would have thought there was going to be Netflix and Stan?”

“Streaming’s not going away anytime soon.”

Nine Radio’s Greg Byrnes says, “I think convenience is the advantage of streaming. Your phone’s with you all the time. And everyone walks around with airpods.

But for Nine’s network of talk stations there’s an added benefit in that it allows them to reach far beyond their licensed areas with the potential to be heard anywhere that there’s internet or a mobile phone signal.

“We network a lot of programs and always have,” says Byrnes. “So, we’re used to getting emails and calls from people in far flung places. But I’ve really noticed over recent months, particularly in regional areas, they’re not just listening to say, Ray (Hadley), they’re listening right across the day.”

Will streaming eventually overtake listening on DAB+?

“Maybe it already has,” says Nova Entertainment’s Paul Jackson. “People may not be sure of the terminology of these things. We in the business call it DAB+, but they’re just listening to a radio station. They’re just putting Nova on – whether that’s DAB+ in the car or streaming, or whatever. But in terms of their usage of smart speakers and through phones, ultimately: Yes.

“And right now, people have streaming through iPads, laptops and desktops. People can use their phones when they’re out and about. That makes it easier to listen to radio for so many different occasions. The future for radio, like for so many other things, is probably around your phone.”

From before the first digital station was launched in Perth on 4 May 2009, no one has done more to champion the benefits of DAB+ both here and around the world than Commercial Radio Australia’s CEO, Joan Warner.

Back then, relatively slow internet speeds and mobile data plans made early attempts at streaming live online content such as World Audio and Doug Mulray’s thebasement.com.au, virtually unlistenable.

No one could foresee, at the time, that broadband speeds of 25 – 100+ mbps would become accessible to most households within a decade.

Ms Warner worked tirelessly, with considerable success, to get car makers to include DAB+ radios in Australian delivered vehicles. More recently, though, one of its early adopters, Volkswagen, has dropped it from its range in favour of Apple Carplay/Android connection. No great matter, provided consumers are encouraged to ensure that the local radio industry’s MyTuner app appears on their vehicle’s infotainment home screen.

While Ms Warner acknowledges that online streaming has made significant gains as the preferred platform for many audio listeners, her enthusiasm for DAB+ as an important platform ‘in the mix’ has not waned.

“The commercial radio industry communicates with listeners using a range of platforms – AM, FM, DAB+ and online,” Ms Warner told radioinfo. “This diversity of platform choice meets the needs of Australian radio consumers in metropolitan, regional and rural areas.

“People use different platforms of radio for different needs and times of day.  It’s great to see growth in audiences listening via apps and smart speakers, but it’s also important to remember that not everybody wants to listen on a smartphone or has good internet access at home.  Radio must remain accessible to all audiences.

“CRA is continuing to talk to the Federal Government to seek support for the rollout of DAB+ into regional areas to provide regional communities with the same level of services enjoyed by listeners in metropolitan areas.  The government provided television with such support for their digital rollout and radio should have the same given its role in providing an essential service. This is especially important given the fact that radio is now, in many places, the only hyperlocal source of news and information and given the impact on broadcasters of not only COVID but natural disasters,” Ms Warner said.

Peter Saxon