A conference in Rome analysed the radio system in Italy and some other European countries, as well as how radio is chasing the young audience, which is moving further away from listening
The conference ‘Universi sonori’ was held in Rome on 29 March 2022. ‘From radio to new spaces of production and listening’, it took stock of the radio ecosystem and future prospects. Promoted by Confindustria Radio Televisioni (an association comprising the major national radio and television operators), in collaboration with the Department of Communication and Social Research of the Sapienza University of Rome, it developed thematic panels, round tables, laboratory experiments, and talks with university radio stations. Experts, important players in the radio market, supply chain operators, and institutions, drew scenarios and showed how radio pursues the young audience (which is moving away the most) with thematic offers, talent and formats that represent them, presence on platforms and social networks, and events in the territory.
On Radio Reporter we will present some of the most significant interventions. The morning and afternoon session speeches can be reviewed at the respective links.
The allocation of licences is approaching and we asked an expert what will happen. Pending final guidelines, as of today, those who broadcast on FM can participate (as members of a consortium, otherwise they will compete for the remaining space). Those who only operate in the digital band, on the other hand, have two options: buy an FM frequency or buy half the band that will be allocated to a radio station that is entitled to it
The allocation of DAB frequencies in Italy is approaching and the scarcity of radio resources will not allow all consortia to obtain them. As a result, not all radio stations will be able to have a channel, particularly those that do not have FM frequencies. With Massimo Lualdi, who with Consultmedia has been assisting hundreds of publishers on regulatory issues for almost thirty years, we take stock of the situation regarding the prospects and steps to be taken by traditional publishers and those who have taken advantage of the current availability of channels to bring their web radio to DAB.
A premise: in Italy, the digital band has two limits: the unused channel 13 (reserved by the Ministry of Defence for the VHF links used by the Army) and the interference problems raised by neighbouring countries, which limit the number of channels that can be used, aggravated by the Ministry’s absence at the coordination tables over the last decade, which have left Italy with ‘the crumbs’.
What timeframe is envisaged for the contest and the subsequent allocation? It is difficult to answer since the final guidelines for participation in the calls for tenders have not yet been published by the Ministry of Enterprise and Made in Italy. It was thought that they would be published by the end of February 2023, resulting in the publication of the calls for tenders in the current month of March and with the deadline for the submission of applications within the following 30 or 60 days (it is not even known how long this will be), but this has not happened. I assume it will be soon so we can estimate that by the beginning of the summer, the ministry will be able to start the screening and, barring any surprises, conclude the allocation by the end of the year.
For how many broadcasters will there be space on DAB? Since the draft guidelines indicated a maximum limit of 72 CUs (capacitive units: allows 12 channels with a bitrate of 96 kbps on a multiplex) for each broadcaster, but (rightly, to avoid DTT errors) not a minimum, it is difficult to answer. Theoretically, 36 CU (equal to 48 kbps per channel) is considered a suitable value to carry the existing analogue to digital. But since not all broadcasters will give up the maximum due, the picture is still undefined.
Will those operating on FM have priority in the allocation or only a higher score? They will have it to the extent that only analogue licensees can participate in a consortium as partners. But if they have not done so before the tenders, they will have the same chance as independent, i.e. digitally native, providers.
Will a radio born on DAB still be able to broadcast? What steps will it have to take to avoid having to switch off and protect the investments made so far? A few digital natives acquired analogue dealer status (by taking over the concession and FM plant in the region of interest). A few others have secured a 50% share of the 72 CUs due to an analogue dealer (allowing them to cut costs pro rata in the consortium). For the others, it will depend on the remaining spaces. As Consultmedia, we are convinced that the market will stabilise in the use of 36 CUs, which, if handled well from the point of view of the audio chain (source files, high-quality sound processing and Fraunhofer codecs), guarantee more than decent sound quality. With this in mind, all current independent providers in the experimental muxes should be able to survive.
Buy a concession and an FM channel? Some have already done so: will this new interest in FM drive up prices? (Which, as you write in the Newslinet magazine, have plummeted by 90% in recent years)? Absolutely not. This is a transitory phenomenon related only to participation in tenders. In fact, we will see a new collapse immediately afterwards. I’ll say more: it is very likely that incentives will be provided at the ministerial level (at the instigation of Agcom, which has already expressed its opinion on the point) for the voluntary decommissioning of installations in exchange for a guarantee that analogue status will be preserved in digital form (hence the possibility of competing for contributions and other support measures, and of course of participating in consortia as members).
Radio is also a passion, for those who make it and listen to it. Among those who ‘turn the knobs’, Dario Monferini has left an indelible mark: in almost fifty years he has listened to and visited thousands of radio stations
His unmistakable look sticks in the memory of thousands of radio operators who welcome him into the studios. He is well-informed about all radio stations, not just the ones he listens to. He visits as many as possible to get to know them better, to ask for information and, above all, for gadgets. He dreams of a museum that tells the history of stations all over the world. To do so, he collects everything that bears witness to the radio epic: newspaper cuttings, specialised magazines, books, stamps, coins and phone cards with station logos, programme schedules, and photographs. In the pre-internet era, he created a network of hundreds of correspondents scattered all over the world, who, like him, hunt for material and exchange it. Swirling.
The picture above shows him on an overseas trip. It’s the nineties: Dario poses in front of the trademark and slogan of a Venezuelan Circuito Nacional Belfort, closed in 2009 when President Ugo Chávez withdrew the concession from radio stations opposing his regime. The shot is by Marzio Vizzoni, a passionate photographer who follows him on the South American stage. Almost everyone welcomes this curious Italian who knows frequencies and radio names inside out, even though he lives on the other side of the ocean: in the analogue era, he has the memory of a computer. In his hand he holds PlayDx, a fanzine edited every Sunday morning with a typewriter. Uninterruptedly until 2012, when the tapes become unavailable. He published more than 1500 issues before migrating to digital, helped by friends.
Fifty years of travel
In almost fifty years, Monferini travelled the length and breadth of Europe and the American continent. He visits thousands of stations. Some interview him live, and air the recording of the programme he received in Italy. Friendly, he dispenses vitriolic jokes in various languages. He learns them as an autodidact, to decipher the details of programmes that often arrive with a signal at the limit of comprehensibility. He listens to everything, on short, medium and long waves. He approached radio listening at the end of the 1960s: passion, intelligence and willpower immediately made him excel. He became an institution and actively participated in international conventions of enthusiasts’ clubs, representing Italian radio listening.
The trophy room
He becomes a leader. For him, listening is also redemption. Polio has left heavy marks: he wears orthopaedic shoes and has to get help from friends to open drinks cans. But his will makes up for the gaps and drives him to wear out the soles of his shoes by travelling the world far and wide. He throws himself into his hobby and renounces starting a family. He marries radio. In just a few years, he has hit the ground running and is a cut above other enthusiasts: he writes to every radio station he can tune into. In the first four years, he gets 1,200 replies. A record. He listens to practically everything that reaches Italian latitudes (disadvantaged by propagation, which gives northern Europeans exceptional openings, thanks to the earth’s magnetism and the many hours of darkness). He compensates for the lack of propagation with commitment.
From North American medium wave stations to FM
He runs on the bands every night until the wee hours to receive South American stations. And when the cone has no more secrets, he switches to North American medium-wave stations. He wakes up between four and six o’clock to take advantage of the cone of shadow that precedes the rising of the sun and that favours reception. He identifies favourable days by phoning the observatory in Boulder, Colorado, every day, which broadcasts a recorded message with the solar activity values. These were the roaring years of radio on short and medium waves. And, when the liberalisation of the Italian airwaves began in 1975 and frequency modulation became populated with broadcasters, he also devoted himself to FM. The wave of freedom spreads over the band and crosses Europe. It sweeps away the dreariness of state radios and brings a generation of youngsters onto the airwaves, some of whom are still in the saddle today, almost fifty years later, but just as passionate as they were then. Thousands of broadcasters were born: an opportunity not to be missed to gather material to document them.
An immense collection… dispersed
To collect a memento on each radio he makes whirlwind exchanges with enthusiasts all over the world. In fifty years he created an immense collection and filled a flat with stacks of boxes reaching up to the ceiling. Unfortunately, the unforgivable decision of the tutelary judge (two years after a heart attack in 2021 and the first stroke) and the insensitivity of the support administrator sent everything to the scrap heap in order to sell the flat and pay for the retirement home. A pity. But if the collectors at the time and the radio editors, all now in their old age, join forces, they can realise that dream they perhaps shared in their hearts. Something that tells their story. It would be an opportunity to reconstruct their memory since the publicity materials collected by enthusiasts are often the only evidence of many of the more than 12,000 Italian radio stations that have been in existence since 1975. To organise the materials, valorise them and organise travelling exhibitions instead of letting them get mouldy in some cellar. Or have them end up in a landfill. Dario left us on 17 October 2022 before dawn, in the health facility where he had been hospitalised for months in Milan.
We drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel in both directions to check what stations are being received: on the Italian website of TMB, the company that operates the tunnel, the list is not available, while on the French version it was removed a few months ago. There are 12 frequencies, two of which are reserved for info traffic channels (Autoroute Info and RAI Isoradio) and ten for public and private broadcasters in the two countries. France prevails, with three public networks (France Inter, France Musique, and the regional France Bleu Savoie) and three from the main commercial networks (Europe 1, FunRadio, NRJ). The Italians, on the other hand, number four: one public network (RAI Radio2), two private networks (Radio 105 and RMC – Radio Monte Carlo), and the Piedmont regional station GRP (Giornale Radio Piemonte).
Here is the list sorted by frequency of the stations that can be received by driving through the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Compared to what was indicated on the website, which divided them equally (5 and 5 between the two nations) there are now six French radio stations. There is no longer a trace of Rai Radio1 on 89.3. 88.7 RMC – Radio Monte Carlo (Italia) 89.6 NRJ 91.0 France Inter 91.9 RAI Radio2 94.7 France Musique 99.0 105 100.0 Fun Radio 103.3 Isoradio Rai 103.6 France Bleu Savoie 104.4 Europe 1 107.7 Autoroute Info
Every six minutes an emergency message
On the Italy side approach route and inside the tunnel, one can listen to RAI’s commercial-free public service channel Isoradio 103.3, with traffic information and live links to CCISS Viaggiare Informati and Autostrade per l’Italia’s Multimedia Center. On the French side and inside the tunnel, traffic news is broadcast by Infotrafic 107.7. During transit, drivers are asked to stay tuned to FM frequencies because a reminder message in three languages (Italian, French, and English) about compliance with the main traffic rules in the tunnel is aired every 6 minutes on all channels. For security reasons, information about behavior in the case of an event or emergency is broadcast.
When travelling by car and driving through a tunnel, the signals picked up by the radio are quickly attenuated. Only when the repeater is close by or has its antennas pointed towards the longitudinal axis of the tunnel, the waves are able to make their way through and you can keep the station tuned for longer, but then the signal disappears. Those travelling by car may also like a few minutes of silence, but in the event of an accident, the signal blackout would prevent the rescue vehicles from communicating with the outside world. Therefore, for safety reasons, communication systems are installed in the longer tunnels that can carry emergency signals and allow FM and DAB radios to be heard.
What the law says
The problem of communications has been addressed by the legislator, who in Europe has stipulated (with Directive 2004/54/EC) that in tunnels longer than 500 metres the minimum safety requirements of the trans-European road network must be met. If the tunnels exceed 1,000 metres in length or are located on particularly busy arterial roads (with more than 2,000 vehicles passing through), the road manager is obliged to install special radiocommunication systems that allow contact between emergency vehicles (ambulances, breakdown vehicles, fire brigades, road maintenance company vehicles) and the police.
Cable or radio wave transmission systems are used for communications. In the first case, ‘slotted‘ coaxial cables (with openings drilled at regular intervals, from which the signal comes out) are laid along the tunnel. The system has the advantage that it can be used to simultaneously transmit and receive on the different frequencies used by emergency vehicles, and to allow to listen to radio in the car. But since signals propagate differently depending on their frequency, corrective measures must be taken and amplifiers are introduced at regular intervals to compensate for attenuation. This requires careful design and a lot of maintenance (with increased costs). However, the system is delicate and vulnerable to fire and accidents, and there is a move towards radio wave transmission. (Written byFabrizio Carnevalini)
After years of waiting, the long-awaited planning of the DAB band by Agcom has arrived. The regulator waited for the channels in band III to become free with theswitchover to DVB T2 and released the plan at the end of July 2022. There was no shortage of controversy, fuelled by rumours of the switch-off of hundreds of FM frequencies on the Adriatic coast due to interference caused to broadcasters in Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Greece. A problem due to technical reasons (installations in the mountains point towards centres on the coast), to the high powers used (Italy’s historical problem) but above all to tropospheric propagation. This is a meteorological phenomenon that occurs mainly in summer, when the lower layers of the atmosphere, compressed by high pressure, become denser and reflect radio waves.
Did they just try it?
The specialised periodical Newslinet reported in July 2022 that there was a plan to shut down hundreds of channels on the Adriatic coast because they were disturbing foreign radio stations. It is a problem that has been known about for decades and is due to the fact that since 1990, after the freezing of the airwaves brought about by the “Legge Mammì“, no planning has ever been done for the FM band in Italy. And the interference situations, not well managed by Italy also due to the absence (lamented by the associations) of the Italian delegation at the European planning table, now leave very narrow margins for manoeuvre. Hence the attempt to induce broadcasters to exchange DAB-FM or to scrap it in order to fall within the parameters of the Geneva regulations.
Associations on different levels
The position of the associations varied. Among them, Aeranti Corallo, which has always pushed to accelerate planning, continues to be critical, reiterating that the frequencies are not sufficient to allow the transition from FM to digital. On the other hand, ConfindustriaRadio Televisioni applauds the planning: will it be because the networks it represents already have one or more channels in the DAB band? But what does the plan say? It confirms the three existing national networks (Rai, DAB Italia and EuroDab, for a total of about 50 channels) and envisages 54 local ones with regional coverage, of which 27 can be broken down into sub-basins, and another 36 in the local areato cover one or more provinces. Beyond the technical data, in some provinces there could be space for six multiplex (for a total of about 120 channels), but not in the southern Adriatic regions, due to interference problems.
Perhaps the officials who decided on the shutdown could have given a less symbolic date, but the public broadcaster’s website speaks clearly: as of September 11, 2022, medium waves will no longer be usable. In the country that invented radio, the last medium-wave broadcast towers will soon fall, without even waiting for the centennial: the first “circular” broadcast by URI (which became EIAR and finally RAI), dates back to October 1924. The news had been circulating since September 2021, when it was learned that the new service contract, the agreement RAI has with the state to guarantee public service, specified that decommissioning would take place within a year. This is the culmination of two decades of cuts: on May 15, 2004, the medium waves of Radio2 and Radio3 had been shut down and merged into the unified Radio 1 network. Then more cuts continued in 2013and 2014. There were few facilities left. And in September there will be a denouement. Will Guglielmo Marconi turn in his grave?
The relative ease (budget permitting) of opening a national digital broadcaster in Italy is leading to the emergence of several stations. Thus, after Aci Radio, of the Automobile Club d’Italia, the Roman Radio Cusano Campus Italia, the Venetian Canale Italia and Canale Italia+, all hosted on the RAI-Radiotelevisione Italiana multiplex, now a football radio station could arrive. The possibility of communicating without filters with the more than 20 million Italian fans, in fact, tickles Serie A, the association of football clubs, as revealed by the business daily Milano Finanza. For the production of the programmes, contacts have reportedly been initiated with RTL 102.5 and RDS, while the broadcasting on DAB could be entrusted to RTL 102.5 (which has a national multiplex where it already carries the BBC World Service) or to RAI, even if the coverage by the public broadcaster is less capillary. Also to be understood is the content of the programmes since RAI has exclusive rights for Serie A radio broadcasts until 2024. The investment, estimated at between 4 and 5 millioneuros, would be recovered through advertising, given the very favourable market trend and the appeal the broadcaster would have.
From being a multi-regional broadcaster, Radio Zeta has become national, with the purchase (on May 25) of the concession that gives it the right to broadcast its signal no longer over certain regions but throughout Italy. The authorization to broadcast the signal nationwide was held by Monradio, a company in the Mediaset galaxy, the second-largest television hub after RAI (with the Canale 5, Italia 1 and Rete 4 brands) and which through Mediaset Radioowns four radio networks (Radio 105, R101, RMC – Radio Monte Carlo and Virgin Radio) and the superstation Radio Subasio. To keep it from lapsing, the concession had been used for years to broadcast (lately from a single facility located in Valtellina, in the province of Sondrio, in Lombardy) Radio Orbital, a Portuguese broadcaster. Why a foreign broadcaster on Italian soil? Because the concession had been created in the 1990s (requested from the then Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications) by Radio Milano International to repeat a foreign broadcaster, VOA-Voice of America. And when Monradio took over the RMI network (which has since become Radio 101-One O One) from bankruptcy in 2005, turning it into the current R101, it found itself with a second valuable concession to use.
How many national radio stations are there?
The announcement of the acquisition was made by Lorenzo Suraci, president of RTL 102.5, during the press conference of “Future Hits Live 2022,” a festival promoted by Radio Zeta. In Suraci’s statement reported on the website of the association Confindustria Radio TV, of which the publisher is also a director, it is stated that “Radio Zeta to all intents and purposes is the 18th national radio station.” However, the same Confindustria, in a study on national advertising some time ago, had published the list that we reproduce, which counts 21. Since then Radiofreccia has turned into a commercial radio station (in 2021) thus leaving Radio Maria as the only national community radio station, while Radio Radicale, which has a commercial concession, does not carry advertising.
Radio Zeta can now complete its national coverage. It has 256 repeaters, less than half the number ofRadiofreccia (the group’s other station has 545) and one-third of flagship RTL 102.5 (which can boast 765). After all, the radio station had to concentrate only on certain regions in order not to exceed coverage limits, which the law sets at 15 million potential listeners for superstations (broadcasters with multi-regional coverage). To reach uncovered areas, the broadcaster is acquiring dozens of new frequencies in different regions, either by taking over redundant channels from other broadcasters in the group or by purchasing them. This could revitalize somewhat the frequency market, which has been depressed by the crisis and with prices in free fall. This is a typical anomaly in the Italian market, in that no new authorizations have been issued since 1990 (pending regulation that never happened), so they must be purchased from other publishers.
The study office of Confindustria Radio Televisioni, the association representing the main Italian commercial radio and television networks, has published a chrono table with the significant events in the radio and television sector. The graphic formula is interesting: it represents, divided by year, the main events in the sector: industrial operations, commercial agreements (from the launch of new national broadcasters to acquisitions or sales of shareholdings involving national radio networks). Regulatory or normative interventions in the sector in recent years are also mentioned, including (in the lower section) on-demand streaming services.