How the internet is remaking AM Radio

Comment from Peter Saxon.

When it launched about a decade ago, DAB+ was seen by some as radio’s answer to digital television. Of course, it wasn’t.

Consumers couldn’t care less about “digital” television. What they cared about was big, flat HD screens.

As exciting as DAB+ was for the industry’s techies, without a wow factor, like big screens, most radio bosses were privately sceptical about consumer uptake. They only became mildly enthusiastic about DAB+ when the government told them that if they didn’t want it, they’d offer the digital band to new competitors such as World Audio.

Today, DAB+ still has a place in the radio landscape but it’s not the digital future that Communications Minister Helen Coonan envisaged for Australian Radio when she announced it’s development at the CRA conference in October 2005. Newer platforms such as smart speakers and apps that can appear on desktops, mobile devices and smart TVs have overtaken DAB+ and could, one day, supersede AM and FM as well. Happily, radio has a strong presence on all those platforms ensuring that it goes wherever the technology takes us.

Strangely, while other major networks made the best of their new DAB+ assets, Nine Radio’s previous owners, Macquarie, seemed disinterested in utilising their allotted spectrum to extend their offering beyond simulcasting their existing brand. Perhaps it was because they feared that their ageing listeners, some of whom were unaware there was a “new” FM band, let alone how to tune into it, would be even less likely to embrace DAB+.

Last week, speaking with Nine Radio’s head of content, Greg Byrnes, about the surveys migrating from paper diaries to e-diaries he admitted “I was a little bit concerned about how a more mature listener might adapt to that.”

But then the extensive research and early trials done by GfK showed that the audience was more open to new technologies than thought. Byrnes now says, “The increased use of e-diaries over recent months has had a minimal impact on surveys overall. So, I’m quite comfortable with it all.”

Obviously, there’s been a significant shift in attitude towards technology of those in the 55+ age group over the past decade. During that time, two thirds of those in the considerably more tech savvy 40 – 55 group have inevitably found themselves at the lower end of 55+, replacing the least tech savvy at the top end, who… how do I put this… um… no longer listen to radio.

Radio still doesn’t have a big HD screen equivalent with which to lure listeners over to a digital platform. It doesn’t need to. It’s already there and operational on those platforms where audiences have already been lured. By now most people on the better side of 80 have learned enough about using computers and mobile devices to send and receive emails and texts as well as keep contact with friends and family – grandchildren, in particular – through Facebook and Twitter. That’s the wow factor that enticed them to learn about the internet in the first place.

“We’re getting about 1.7 million streams a month at present,” says Byrnes. “We’ve certainly over recent months put a focus on to listening via the app for ease of access across the network, and that’s been picked up. We’ve introduced a single sign on across the network over recent months.”

And because they’ve learned to use the apps on their phones, most will conceivably never buy another calculator, camera, flashlight, newspaper, CD, wallet, landline phone, street directory or a radio, ever again.

When DAB+ was first introduced, some FM operators were concerned that it offered AM stations a free kick by leveling the playing field in terms of sound quality. Stations such as 3KZ, now Gold104.3 in Melbourne, had paid in excess of $30 million to convert from AM to the FM band. The station also managed to promptly drop from #1 to #5 after the conversion. But that’s another story.

Online, through apps and smart speakers, there is no AM or FM, just radio brands – their personalities and formats. There aren’t any licenced coverage areas either, so anyone can network all over Australia without having to sell their content into local stations.

Ben (Fordham) did an editorial on a Victorian real estate agent, recently, who was in a spot of bother. And within five or six minutes after the editorial, a listener rang in from Victoria, who knew this real estate agent personally. It’s not as if that’s never happened before, but a large number of our listeners are outside of Sydney.

 “Obviously, the ratings are determined by who’s in the listening area, but already people have adapted and listen. We’re all across the country at all times,” says Greg Byrnes.

All this, plus the super surge in listeners that Covid-19 provided for Talk stations, augurs well for Nine Radio and the ABC  – as well as the music stations such as 4KQ, 2UE, 3MP, Magic1278 still on the venerable AM band.

Peter Saxon


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