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 As was the case in Norway, where it was public radio that decided to switch to DAB (also not to renew an outdated and expensive ground network: commercial and community broadcasters are still active) and the loss of audience five years later has still not been fully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).
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.
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.