DAB is on the way to Ireland but don't hold your breath
For reasons too difficult to quantify, Ireland’s love for radio has held up in the face of an ever-changing media landscape. Because of this Ireland should be well disposed to the arrival of digital radio but recent international experiences and changing market realities are causing doubts over the potential for a digital future.
According to the latest JNLR/TNSmrbi poll over 80% of people asked had listened to their radio on the previous day. While the over 35s category was the most loyal with a listenership of 87% those aged 15+ were only slightly less enthusiastic with 83% tuning in.
In a country with near-blanket penetration of television sets, a rising number of broadband connections and an obsession with games and mp3 players this is an impressive statistic. It also makes the regular arrival of new radio stations more understandable.
Of course this constant stream of new stations can only go on for so long – but that is arguably more to do with limited frequency space than market saturation. Enter digital radio.
“Digital radio is not going to be taking over from FM any time soon but it’s something we’re really exciting about taking the next step on – we’re treating it like it’s something new and experimental,” says Sarah Martin, press and communications at RTÉ Radio.
Put simply, digital radio works by packing more information into the airwaves than analogue signals are capable of doing. This can mean the quality of the signal is better, there can be more room for multiple signals or there can be space made for other information – like details of the song being played – to be sent alongside the audio signal.
With the right receiver you can even pause, record or rewind the live broadcast too.
There is currently a digital trial running in parts of Leinster, Cork and Limerick using the DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) standard and once this ends on November 30th it will be replaced by a more permanent service from RTÉ. It is too early to say if commercial broadcasters plan on launching digital stations too, or whether listeners actually want them.
“From the off we’ll be using a lot of the rich resources that we have to hand in RTÉ but over time it will develop, change and evolve,” says Ms. Martin. “There have been fears in the industry that all we’ll do by launching more stations is cannibalise our own market but we think media is become more and more focused and this is an extension of that.
“You’ll have the likes of 2FM playing more general music for a wide audience, and then its sister stations on DAB playing a more specific genre.”
RTÉ’s initial plans include three music stations; ambient electronica station Chill, alternative station 2XM and dance station Pulse; RTÉ Junior, which is aimed at 2 – 12 year olds and RTÉ Choice which will repeat Radio 1’s content at different times, replay archived programming and relay international broadcasts.
Despite the scale of these plans the DAB service will remain a niche project for RTÉ with just 0.05% of the overall radio budget expected to be spent on the platform for now.
DAB has been the standard of choice for many European countries including the UK, which is far more advanced in its digital radio plans than Ireland. It has hit a rocky patch, however with Channel 4 recently pulling out of its ‘Digital4’ consortiums’ DAB plans as a means of saving £10m. UTV Radio was a 10% shareholder in the Digital4 group and it, along with companies like BSkyB, is now left deciding how it can proceed without the main player.
The problem in the UK has been a distinct lack of public interest in the format, despite the huge amounts of money invested by the BBC into the technology’s rollout. So why is Ireland so keen to follow suit?
“In spite of Channel 4 we’re encouraged by the overall market development across Europe; earlier this year a UK working group proposed the analogue switch-off for 2020 so it’s clear that they’re confident in DAB too,” says Ms. Martin.
DAB itself is also an aging format, one that is being replaced in countries like Germany by the DAB+ standard which is said to resolve many of the issues created by its predecessor. The UK itself is even planning a slow conversion to DAB+, although it has the legacy issue of over 6 million incompatible DAB units to deal with first.
“Our biggest priority was making sure we could give choice to the consumer and the fact that there were over 300 different types of DAB sets out there it was the obvious choice – also we wanted to be compatible with the North’s digital radio system,” says Ms. Martin. “It’s entirely possible that Ireland will switch to the DAB+ standard over time, though, and that wouldn’t be difficult for RTÉ to do – it would really come down to the manufacturers of the radios.”
Incompatibility between DAB and DAB+ may not be a concern for much longer, however. A recently-announced agreement means that a standard has been created for the technology which will allow for multiple types of digital radio signal to be received seamlessly, removing much of the potential for obsolete devices in the future.
“This is really the development many have been waiting for – particularly car manufacturers,” says Ms. Martin. “Once we start to see digital radio sets appear in mass produced cars it will be the turning of the tide in terms of digital radio’s success; the car market is crucial.”
However the standards do not really matter if the content is not there to get the listener interested. Whether broadcasters like RTÉ can deliver compelling and commercially viable stations will only become apparent in time.
An edited version of this article appeared in Business & Finance magazine on the 6th November 2008.