Radio: Don’t sign the death certificate just yet

Opinion from Dr Harry Criticos 

Joan Warner, the CEO of Commercial Radio Australia, and John Patkin Australian media researcher, make some good arguments for and against radio and DAB+. However, I think they have both omitted some pertinent information.

Harold Mitchell was right when he stated that the radio industry is like a cockroach: it’s a survivor. Whenever a new technology arrives that competes with radio, the doomsayers predictably make the funeral arrangements for the radio industry. It happened in the 50s with television, the 80s with MTV and now with streaming through services such as Spotify and Apple Radio.

But is DAB or DAB+ the answer? Well, if it was, why is it taking so long to roll out? The UK has had DAB for many years and still it is well behind 100% market penetration despite it being available since 1996. One of the largest radio markets, the US, is not implementing DAB while the uptake across other European countries has been consistent. Countries such as New Zealand are still trialling which system to use. While motor vehicle manufacturers are installing DAB sets into their vehicles, figures I have seen show that household penetration in 2014 for digital radios in Europe ranged from 1% to 53% while in Australia it was stated to be 23%. As some countries shut down their analogue service and switch over to DAB, these figures will obviously change. However, the slow uptake by consumers raises more questions than it answers. For example, is DAB industry driven or consumer driven?

If radio moves into this digital broadcasting platform in Australia it may risk more than it seeks to gain. Let me say form the outset, that the move to DAB will certainly offer better quality of sound, but it is the service that needs to match the technology. This is one area that Joan Warner did not address in her response to John Patkin. Audience fragmentation is, and should be, a concern. We can learn from commercial television the problem with running multiple channels. What will radio do? I would suggest that rather than growing, audiences are stagnating especially in the metropolitan areas. Can radio afford to offer multi-channels to such a small population and more so in regional areas? While offering a choice of formats may seem to be giving the listener variety, broadcasters may be sacrificing the cash cow, what I like to call the heritage or legacy station, that has built its brand over many years. Is the multi-channel ability of DAB worth breaking up and diluting an already fragile audience?

Then there are the coverage issues associated with DAB. A Digital signal compared to AM and FM does not work well in a number of areas such as through mountains or underground car parks and Sydney still has a number of black spots. So how is this benefiting the audience? If anything, it leads to frustration and drives the listener to something more reliable: their analogue radio or streaming service. At one seminar I attended, a representative from the ACMA mentioned that in one regional area, to overcome the potential signal block-outs caused by mountains would require a major investment in infrastructure. I would suggest that this investment might be out of reach for some regional licensees without government assistance. As for mobile networks and streaming, it is not an option for many people when you consider that mobile phone coverage is minimal in regional areas and in some built up areas. Let’s face it, by the time you stream for a month you’ve used up that measly 1.5gb of data.

So what about Apple’s impending removal of the 3.5mm audio socket from their phones? Does it spell the end of radio? I’ll argue that the answer is no. Firstly, not everyone on the planet has an iPhone. John Patkin, as does the radio industry, makes a few assumptions about audiences and their use of mobile devices. Now this is definitely not an extensive sample, but I always ask my students how they listen to radio. Those that do listen to radio, do so mostly through streaming while others listen via the car radio. They take advantage of free Wi-Fi at McDonalds, when they are on campus or at home. That way they preserve their mobile data for important things like Facebook and other social media sites.

Patkin, while arguing the demise of radio forgets that there exists a digital divide. It is too easy to assume we are all connected – we aren’t. There are many households in Australia who cannot afford to connect to the Internet or buy a smartphone or a computer. The divide is not getting wider (accessibility), but deeper (affordability). Those who are considered part of the digital divide can only access the global village when they go to school, their local library or university.

Patkin also argues that the Internet offers more. This may be true in terms of the amount of information that is available, but what the Internet cannot offer is a consistent service, nor can it offer immediate and timely information in an emergency. The Hunter region in New South Wales experienced this with two major storm events. The Pasha storm of 2007 and the April storms in 2015. Many households were without electricity and therefore Internet for many days. The only way they could obtain up-to-date information was through the radio. It was a reliable and immediate source for thousands in the Hunter. I’m sure the NRMA was also quite busy replacing car batteries that were being used to charge mobile devices. Something unnecessary for battery operated radios.

Another related point, although it has been somewhat lacking in recent years, is that radio through local programming connects regional communities. This can’t happen with the Internet. The local aspect of radio, when it is done well, is irreplaceable and is one of radio’s strong points.

Patkin makes an interesting point however, and that is ‘how do you share something on the radio with your friends’. Well, John, it’s called conversation and has been happening for many years. Oh, and podcasts.

Patkin also argues that ‘businesses who use the Internet have more control over how they advertise’. Another assumption. I’ll point John to this statement he made: ‘There are no real time figures, just semi-generalisable data from a fixed time period’. This can also be applied to the Internet as there is no agreement on a currency to cover audience measurement on the web. If, as Patkin argues, advertisers have more control over their advertising using the Internet, he has conveniently ignored the increased uptake of ad-blocking software. Users of the web are becoming increasingly resistant to having their data mined and then used to target them with advertising. Websites cannot accurately provide data on whether or not an ad has been noticed or acted upon and click rates as a measurement are debatable as is other web measurement data. How many of us, for example, skip the ads on YouTube? How many of us, have looked at the ads on Facebook and clicked on them rather than skip them to see what our friends posted. I would side with Joan Warner on this point, that advertisers have more certainty advertising on radio than they do on a website.

While there is more detail and further issues that could be covered here, I’d only be repeating what many others have said over the years. There are other problems for the industry that are more important than debating the worthiness of DAB or otherwise. The advertising model for a number of regional areas is broken, and bits of the radio industry are falling off in other areas such as local content. I do have faith however that radio will survive the Internet, will survive streaming and it will survive that missing 3.5mm headphone jack. Without a solid funding model, and a system of delivery that will offer consistency and not dropout, as digital is prone to do, radio will be limping rather than having one foot in the grave.

Dr Harry Criticos is a sessional academic at the University of Newcastle.