To cope with a possible energy crisis, Compromís, a political party in the Valencia region, has asked the government to consider among emergency measures whether to change the broadcasting technology for radio stations. Switching to DAB, as Norway did in 2017 and Switzerland plannes to do at the end of 2024, could reduce electricity consumption by up to 90 %, according to Carles Mulet, the party’s spokesman in the Senate. But first Mulet proposes rationalizing the medium waves by employing the savings in the implementation of a DAB network and finally turning off FM. He then cites the costs declared by Radio Nacional de España after the parliamentary question submitted by the party in March 2022: between maintenance and expenses at transmitters in 2021 the medium waves absorbed 6,823,026 euros, and 6,287,503 euros were spent for the FM network.
BETWEEN SAYING AND DOING
Shutting down a band takes years of planning (while the energy crisis could occur in a few months, with the arrival of winter) and if the transition is not well managed it can cause ratings to plummet. As was the case in Norway, where it was public radio that decided to switch to DAB (also not to renew an outdated and expensive ground network: commercial and community broadcasters are still active) and the loss of audience five years later has still not been fully recovered. Switzerland, on the other hand, is a small country that between public and private radio does not reach 200 stations but has been preparing for the switch-off for years, with advertising campaigns in favour of digital radio so much so that now only 14 out of 100 people listen only to FM. In Spain, on the other hand, there are 163 medium wave transmitters (of which 103 are public and 60 commercial) and approx. 2,500 radio stations with over 6,000 transmitters on FM, of which it is estimated that at least a thousand are unlicensed, and only a few experimental DAB radio stations in Barcelona, Madrid and in a few cities (as well as a few unlicensed private muxes).
An article written by a researcher from EuroScience (European Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology), traces the evolution of radio receivers. Debojit Acharjee, a software engineer and “geek,” as the author likes to call himself, starts from the prototypes invented by Guglielmo Marconi to digital ones. Novelties that have come since the 2000s: from the first pocket radio for listening to the DAB digital band (launched by Purein 2003), to one for listening to broadcasters streaming on the Web (3com’s Kerbango, which debuted in the 2000s). To arrive at those without the tuning knob, there are the SDRs (Software Defined Radio): receivers that in their more advanced versions (but sold at a price comparable to that of the “transoceanic” radios of the 1970s, such as the Grundig Satellit) allow you to see the full spectrum of the FM band and record 24 MHz. The impetus to innovate? Behind every discovery is the improvement in listening quality, such as that which prompted General Electricin 1940 to invent frequency modulation, demonstrating that it was less susceptible to electromagnetic interference than amplitude modulation, used on medium waves.
To counter possible damage to its FM repeater network, Ukraine has switched back on some radio stations operating on medium waves. They had been switched off in 2018, like so many energy-intensive installations supplanted over the years by the frequency modulation network, which has the advantage of offering better audio quality. But reactivating them has become strategic because they are installations that can serve large areas of the country and are often located in areas far from those affected by the conflict, and could operate undisturbed. Of the six reactivated, mainly between 24 and 26 February 2022, only one was damaged. They all broadcast the first programme (UR1 Pershiy Kanal).
Rumours coming from the back
549 kHz from Mykolaiv (Миколаїв)(100 km east of Odessa) with 400 kW: reactivated on 24 February 2022, on air until 6 March 2022 (it had been off since 1 January 2022). 657 kHz from Chernivtsi (Чернівці́)(400 km south of Kiev, near the border with Romania) with 25 kW: reactivated on 26 February 2022 (no longer active since 1 February 2018). 837 kHz from Kharkiv (Ха́рків)(150 kW): on-air since 25 February 2022, discontinued the next day (had ended broadcasting on 1 February 2018, broadcasting the cultural programme UR 3 Radio Kul’tura). 873 kHz from Chasiv Yar (Часів Яр) (25 kW): this is in the Donetsk region, in the self-proclaimed Doneck People’s Republic (it had been off the air since June 2017). 1278kHz from Kurisove (Курісове), near Odessa (100 kW): reinstated on 8 March 2022 (it had been broadcasting the cultural programme UR 3 Radio Kul’tura until 1 February 2018). 1404 kHz from Izmail (Ізмаї́л)(in the Odessa region, but close to the border with Romania): restored since 26 February 2022.
In the UK, frequency modulation will not be switched off, at least not for the next ten years, media minister Julia Lopez said a few days ago. Although it is estimated that analogue radio will only account for 12 to 14% of all radio listening in 2030, FM remains popular with many listeners, particularly the elderly or vulnerable, who drive older cars or live in areas with limited DAB coverage. The fate of mediumwave broadcasters is sealed: with 3% of all listeners, they will have to plan to switch off, to reduce the costs of a substantially duplicated network. There are currently more than 300 analogue stations operating in the UK and over 570 in DAB. Sixty percent of all listening comes from DAB or other digital platforms. Programme offerings are expanding as new franchises in DAB are giving many small local stations the opportunity to broadcast.
Markus Weidner, an editor since 1999 of the telecommunications site teltarif.de, has published on his blog a report on the new car radios on display at the IAA Mobility in Munich, the fair that replaces the biennial Frankfurt Motor Show, overwhelmed (like the Geneva Motor Show) by the pandemic. According to Markus, after having integrated the car radio more and more into the car (making it difficult to replace with third-party products), car manufacturers are now limiting its functionality. In the most recent models, the receivers offer a list that integrates FM and DAB stations, updated in the background. The function is useful because it avoids searching and memorizing the station, which can be recalled (more and more often) with a voice command. Such an organized list is convenient for those who listen to the most powerful radio stations, but it limits the choice: if the signal is not strong enough or slightly interfered, or without RDS (in FM there are still some) it is completely ignored. Weidner suggests an expert mode that enables the old manual tuning in FM and DAB. Otherwise, this “rationalization”, prevents you from freely choosing the radio of your heart.
More details and photos of the new receivers can be found here and here.
The transition to digital requires investments that not all broadcasters can afford. Especially community radio stations, which have little advertising (or are self-financing) and therefore lack the necessary resources. This is a common situation in many countries, but in Belgium, the association of independent voices Radio Z has launched a petition to urge the government of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation to take action. The stations it represents are followed by hundreds of thousands of listeners in the region, employ more than a thousand volunteers who inform, entertain and promote the territory and the community; and above all train presenters, technicians and journalists. Unfortunately, these independent voices are financially exhausted and would need to double their revenues to survive. Despite warning signs, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation is not taking action and the diversity of the radio landscape is in danger of being destroyed. By 2030, in fact, 50-60% of them could disappear, due to the lack of economic, technical and logistical aid and a penalising digital frequency allocation plan.
A four-point plan
The association calls for annual funding for independent radio stations, similar to that provided for the press and local television, which receive, respectively, 10.9 and 10.4 million EUR a year, not counting municipal, provincial, Brussels region and French Community Commission (Cocof) subsidies. More support and flexibility is also needed from the operators who will carry the DAB signal to avoid any stations being excluded. It is also necessary to immediately optimise the frequency plan, which today does not allow the proper broadcasting of independent radio stations. Finally, the procedure for allocating funding to guarantee the transition to digital broadcasting must be reviewed.
In 2017, news that Norway was the first country to switch off the FM band in favour of DABgrabbed headlines. The idea tickled the imagination, so few verified it. But it was a hoax: the sensationalism of the news had overshadowed the reality. What abandoned FM was public radio NRKand, above all, the commercial networks. NRK occupied two frequencies out of three of those active in the country: 2000, compared to 1000 of all other radio stations, networks included. The main beneficiary of this operation was public radio: concentrating in a single multiplex four national networks, divesting hundreds of transmission sites (they were 700) and decommissioning FM transmitters nearing the end of their life, would have realized great economies of scale.
Towards a five-year extension
Of the remaining frequencies, 40% (400) have been switched off by private networks and large commercial radio stations, especially in the capital and in large urban areas. But the others are still on the air: 552 (data from www.fmlist.org) used by 100 radio stations, many of which declare on their website that they are proud to continue in analogue. Some stations have also switched on DAB muxes (there are several used by a single station, which at most host two or three thematic channels) to keep up with the news. Broadcasting will continue until at least 2026: Mari Velsand, director of the Norwegian Media Authority recommended the government extend the FM licenses another five years, believing that media diversity would be compromised if the shutdown occurred at the end of 2021, as planned.
More than 60,000 Swiss citizens have signed a petition to hold a referendum to block the switch-off of FM radio channels, scheduled to start in 2022. Switzerland was following in the footsteps of Norway, which was the first country to choose to migrate to Dab in 2017 (although there are currently more than 100 FM radio stations and 552 transmitters on air in the Scandinavian country). The initiative’s promoters cite an article published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung by media expert Urs Saxer, which states that SRG SSR, as a public service, has a clear mandate to guarantee a basic service to the entire population, and switching off FM would have no legal basis. The switchover is planned to take place in two stages: the public broadcaster SRG SSR will switch off its transmitters in August 2022, while the private broadcasters will have time until January 2023. According to a survey conducted last year by the Swiss branch of the market research institute GFK, only 29% of Swiss listen to terrestrial radio (FM and/or DAB) and only 13% of the Confederation’s citizens use analogue FM radioonly.
As small and slim as an MP3 player, it attaches to the air vents or dashboard (various adapters are provided), and connected via Bluetooth to the phone opens the door to Spotify, Sweden’s market-leading music streaming platform. This small device could revolutionise music listening in the car. The price is low ($79.99 to the public), and in the United States the first units will be given away for free: you register on the site and pay only shipping: $6.99.
With this move, Spotify is skipping all the middlemen and attempting to deal a heavy blow to its competitors: car manufacturers, streaming platforms and, above all, radio stations, especially those that have recently landed on digital DAB. Car radios, on the other hand, are complicated, due to their ever-increasing integration with the on-board computer. Spotify, on the other hand, promises to simplify the relationship with music by offering a simple device that can be controlled by voice. Streaming platforms (such as TuneIn) have also been penalised, even though they are well integrated into cars, given that the “hunger for content” had prompted manufacturers to sign collaboration agreements with audio content aggregators.
But the blow could be very hard in view of the innovation that everyone is waiting for, Spotify Hi-FI, the high-performance format expected in the second half of 2021. Subscribers will be able to listen to their favourite tracks in CD quality with a bitrate of 320 kbps, something that not even Dab offers today: it could do so by drastically reducing the number of broadcasters currently hosted in a dab bouquet: in Italy, only the ADN group’s broadcasters in Calabria and several RAS channels in Alto Adige go at 128K, generally all of them, like those hosted by DabITalia, broadcast at 64 kbps (one fifth of the definition of Spotify Hi-Fi).
Spotify is also on a roll: its Q1 2021 report states that it has 158 million premium users (users who pay for all features without advertising), a jump of 28 million subscribers on a year earlier. There are 356 million active users globally (including those who use the free service: 198 million). In Italy, a study carried out by research institutes Kantar and ComScore on behalf of Google found that of the nine out of ten Italians who listen to music online, Spotify is in second place (54%) after YouTube (90%). This is followed by PrimeMusic (34%) and Apple Music (9%). While web radios account for only 15%.
Between May and June 2021 the British public broadcaster will switch off the medium-wave transmitters of another ten local radio stations, because the installations on this frequency range “no longer offer an advantageous quality-price ratio for British citizens”. The migration to digital had been announced ten years ago (in 2011): the first closures began in 2018, followed in 2020 by further deactivations in Scotland, Wales and England. Today, all BBC local radio is receivable on digital terrestrial TV and local DAB multiplexes, on FM or online (via smartphones, computers or smart speakers). Abandoning amplitude modulation will be: BBC Essex; BBC Radio Cambridgeshire; BBC Radio Devon; BBC Radio Leeds; BBC Radio Sheffield; BBC Hereford & Worcester; BBC Radio Stoke; BBC Radio Lancashire; BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Radio Foyle. Two other stations, however, will reduce their coverage area: Radio Wales and Radio Gloucestershire. Listeners are provided with a website https://www.bbc.co.uk/reception/ with alternative listening options, a help line and a telephone for listening advice.