DRM brings digital radio to the world

Something really exciting is going on in UK radio, reports our London correspondent Fairlie Hamilton.


It isn’t Jason Donovan’s breakfast show on Heart (he’s currently taking some time off staring in Priscilla: The Musical), nor is it Russell Brand returning to the airwaves.

The UK is a world leader in the development of digital radio, and as a result of big moves by UK based industry bodies, an expansion of digital radio across the world is already underway.

DRM, or Digital Radio Mondiale, is the only global open digital radio system which can be used in all frequency bands, and works seamlessly with other digital standards currently in use across the globe. The result is that a global standard in digital radio service has been achieved.

The DRM consortium is at the helm of this technology. Formed in 1998, the Consortium has the input of broadcasters, network operators, regulatory bodies, unions and researchers from 25 countries, including Australia, all of whom collaborate to improve the market position of radio worldwide. Essentially, they have created the latest in digital radio, and are now tasked with the duty of spreading the signal.

Ruxandra Obreja is Controller of Business Development at the BBC and is involved in the broadcast of the BBC World Service in digital. She is also the Chair of the DRM Consortium, and through these two roles is a major player in seeing the rollout of digital radio worldwide. It is serendipitous that the chair of this international body should also be affiliated with the worlds greatest public broadcaster.

According to Obreja, one of the reasons the UK is such a key player in the advancement of digital radio across the globe is due to the BBC. She says that as arguably the world’s most powerful public broadcaster, if you’re able to get the BBC behind the project, there will be extra development, extra content, and extra support in terms of a communication campaign to the public. That is what has happened to digital radio within the UK, and is now happening with the expansion of DRM across the globe.

Currently nearly half the world can listen to DRM. Key countries in the implementation of DRM as a world standard are India, Brazil, and Russia.

Other nations using or testing the transmission platform include Japan, New Zealand, the Vatican, Belgium, Nigeria, Malaysia, South Korea and Uzbekistan to name a few. This figure is set to expand, and DRM has the potential to deliver 100% coverage to the world’s population, as long as the various Governments of the world adopt the technology as standard.

All stakeholders in the radio chain benefit from DRM. Manufacturers will see profits soar with new market potential in digital radio sales. Broadcasters will see more opportunity to engage their audience through creative programming as well as being able to make money via new revenue streams. Regulators will enjoy an international standard, as well as ‘green broadcasting’ which results in lower power bills. As for the listener, ultimately that’s what all this new technology is about.

Listeners already enjoy better sound quality and extra data content with digital radio. Australia has been hearing the dulcet tones of Alan Jones in DAB for a few years now. Since 2009 DAB+ broadcasts havebeen available in Australia’s capital cities.

The exciting thing about DRM though, is that it will be available to people around the world who have previously not had access to radio. This opens a Pandora’s Box.

According to UK based organisation ‘Radio for Development’, radio remains the most important electronic medium in developing nations. With a digital radio platform that is able to reach more people in more communities around the world, there is massive potential in terms of the impact radio, specifically DRM, can have.

Radio is a communication medium first and foremost. We rely on radio to hear about the things that are relevant to us, and the things that are going to have an impact on us. We also rely on radio for entertainment, but stripping it back to bare essentials, the communication radio delivers to us daily, is imperative. Radio is educational. We hear government health announcements on radio, SES warnings on radio. Radio in developing communities provides information where illiteracy may present challenges to other methods of communication.

Remember Boxing Day 2004? As a result of the tsunami, a warning system was put in place for low lying communities in the case of underwater earthquakes. DRM, and other radio systems, will deliver this warning system to communities the instant it’s needed, and potentially to communities who previously did not have access to radio. This is just one practical example of the role DRM will play outside of delivering some Psy and Bieber to the world.

There is one issue here. You could say there’s a certain gentrification of radio going on. Radio is being renewed, and thanks to this renewal is able to compete with new media technologies which present challenges to broadcasters in maintaining listener numbers and for the commercial sector, profits.

However like gentrification in the urban sense, there is a displacement of sorts going on. It’s all very well to have a great digital radio service available, but one needs a receiver in order to access this service. It’s possible that we are leaving people behind, not because the signal doesn’t reach them, but because they lack the technology to access it. This issue could not be more true for the developing world, and as the rollout of digital across the globe develops, time will tell how many people are accessing this new medium, and how many will be left in silence.

Digital radio is still fresh and is yet to reach its heyday, but it is a good sign that DRM will deliver reach literally across the entire globe and keep radio thriving. As a communication medium, radio is evolving to keep up with new standards. As

‘old’ media goes, radio is winning the race to remain current, relevant, profitable, and most importantly, competitive.