Transmission in progress

9 October 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Despite the never-ending march of gentrification, inner-city Melbourne will forever remain a cultural lifeblood.

From street art to live music, it is impossible to imagine Fitzroy and Collingwood as anything but a vibrant creative hub (no matter how many boutique baby stores line their streets).

It is fitting then that community radio stations such as 3MBS, PBS and 3CR call these suburbs home. For over 30 years, the radio waves from these broadcasting institutions have helped provide the heartbeat that keeps Melbourne’s famous artistic communities alive.

However, after three decades of broadcasting their traditional analogue signal, the dawn of digital is shaking up community radio. The digital radio age is here and the community broadcasters are looking to the future, whichever the medium.

In 2008, McNair Audience Research found that 57% of Australians were tuning into community radio each month, a ten percent increase in two years. Listeners were attracted by community radio’s focus on specialist programming, localised content and Australian music.

Despite this strong result for the community sector, the radio industry is in a state of digital flux. After gentle coercion from Federal Government, the commercial and public broadcasters launched digital radio to much fanfare this year.

However, the digital debate continues to rage in and around Melbourne’s community radio stations. Digital radio may have the backing of government, but it seems that the benefits for community broadcasters are proving very difficult to establish.

Digital radio is a new way of transmitting radio signals. Unlike the classic household AM/FM radio set, it works by using technology that converts a radio signal from standard analogue into digital code. The audio produced no longer modulates the radio signal; it is digitised first and then sent out to digital radio receivers.

Because of this, digital radio signals are less likely to encounter the problems that plague analogue radio. In particular, digital radio is not affected by gremlins such as weather conditions, interference and multipath degradation.

In fact, digital radio makes surfing up and down the radio band a different proposition altogether. Instead of navigating the waves of white noise that characterised analogue, digital radio listeners can simply scroll through a menu and select their favourite station.

Furthermore, extra channels, a pause and rewind feature and scrolling text are also offered to digital radio listeners. Digital Radio Plus, the industry group for the service, believes that these features will better meet the needs of niche audiences.

Currently, all commercial networks are producing digital radio. They officially launched their digital services via a synchronised ‘Radio United’ broadcast held in August this year. The public broadcasters have also come on board as digital dilettantes, the ABC and SBS started sending out their signals in July.

However, there has been one notable absentee from the launch of digital radio: community broadcasters.

The Federal Government has indicated that community radio will be involved in digital radio in the future, however a start point remains hard to pin down. According to the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA). April 2010 has been identified as a likely launch date, however this could be pushed back.

Owen McKern, Program Manager at community radio station 3MBS, is adamant that there is a place for community radio on a digital service and that his station will be involved.

As Melbourne’s first community radio station, McKern is keen for 3MBS to “remain as one of the pioneers of community broadcasting”. He says that 3MBS, a station exclusively dedicated to classical and fine music, “will be very much participating in digital radio from day one.”

“We will definitely participate. The risks of not participating are far greater than the risks of participating,” he says.

“We are hoping to go live with the rest of the sector in April 2010.”

Despite the strong commitment from 3MBS, it is indicative of the attitude of community broadcasters as a whole when McKern says that his station is carefully weighing up the risks of going digital. Skepticism of digital radio is rife throughout his station and the community radio sector.

McKern believes that there are issues with digital radio that need to be ironed out before it can be considered a threat to AM/FM radio. He points to the lack of consumer take-up of digital radio sets as one of these key roadblocks.

In the United Kingdom, where digital radio has been on-air for almost a decade, just 32% of consumers own a digital radio. Furthermore, 64% claim they don’t plan to buy one in the near future.

Radio expert Grant Goddard declares this “a clear demonstration that a digital radio is far from being a ‘must-have’ gadget on consumers’ wish lists.”

Once of the factors that contributes to this is the cost. Harvey Norman sell their cheapest models at around $118. The expensive model, which boasts better sound and features, retail for almost $800.

Another reason that few have access to digital radio is the lack of support from the major car manufacturers. Many people enjoy listening to the radio on their way to work or school. McKern believes that if digital radio is to succeed it needs to get the big car companies on board.

“I think it’s instructive that none of the car manufacturers have been falling over themselves to put digital receivers into cars,” he says.

“If they can’t get digital radio into mass-produced cars, then it wont take off as a medium.”

If digital radio does fail to take off, community radio will be struggling to justify any new spending on a new medium. Federal Government funding of $10.1 million has been allocated for infrastructure costs, however the stations will pay for production of new content. Because of this, McKern advocates a wait and see approach to digital radio.

“If we’re going to commit resources, we’re going to commit them to people who already have radios not to those who don’t.”

Adrian Basso, General Manager at PBS, agrees with this sentiment. He believes that breaking the hold of analogue radio is an unrealistic idea at this point. He says PBS, which espouses itself as ‘the home of little heard music’, will “dip its toe into digital radio” allowing them to “muck around with it, without being too risk-intensive”.

He says that, while Melbourne’s community radio sector is strong, it simply does not have the funding to blindly dive into digital radio.

“To throw too much money at it would be a bit stupid,” he says.

With no switch-off date identified by the Federal Government for the analogue radio signal, Basso can’t see the imperative for community radio stations to switch to digital.

“Everyone has four or five analogue radios. You have one in your bathroom, in your bedroom, in your kitchen, in your tool shed. Even one on your phone. Analogue is pretty pervasive,” he says.

“I know there is an argument that if you don’t go gung-ho into digital radio, it will just fall over. But I don’t think we’re going to make it fall over.”

Internet streaming is one alternative that community broadcasters like PBS see to digital radio. In 2008, 64% of Australians were connected to the Internet, allowing them to stream community radio through their computers.

Unlike digital radio, most community radio stations are already set up to produce the correct format for Internet streaming and can simply place their feed online. Furthermore, streams can be broadcast around the world, exposing community radio stations to a much larger audience than is possible with digital radio.

Community radio stations are also using extra online delivery methods such as podcasting to further increase their broadcast capabilities. PBS is even on the social media bandwagon. They use Twitter, MySpace and Facebook to inform their listeners of upcoming events and broadcasts.

However, while Basso believes that new technology has a place in community radio’s future, he also says that it should not get in the way of what PBS has done best for 30 years.

“99% of our custom comes through analogue radio and I think it’s important that we don’t forget that,” he says.

“Ultimately, people don’t care, they just turn it on. I think this industry tends to over-analyse things. Really, the consumer doesn’t want to think about the radio, they just want to turn it on.”

The CBAA’s Kath Letch also believes that community radio shouldn’t be putting all its eggs in the digital radio basket. As Digital Radio Project Manager for community radio’s peak body, she says that broadcasters should embrace a range of different content delivery options.

“What’s becoming apparent is that radio listeners will access services across a range of platforms and it’s important that community radio services are available across all of those platforms,” she says.

Letch believes that both Internet streaming and digital radio have their place alongside an existing analogue signal. She points to the capabilities of Internet streaming to “reach a worldwide audience” and for digital radio to offer “extended programming choices”.

However, it’s the wasted potential of extended programming choices that give the CBAA a major headache. One of the main benefits of digital radio is the ability for radio stations to broadcast multiple audio streams.

Letch believes that due to limited access to the digital radio network, community radio stations may not get the chance to provide these broadcasts.

Under current Federal legislation, Melbourne’s digital-ready community stations will have to divvy up two nineths of the digital network between nine stations. This will allow for a maximum audio compression rate of 64 kbps (kilobits per second) for each station.

This audio quality means that a community station’s primary digital stream would sound worse than FM radio. If a community radio station then attempted to broadcast multiple digital streams with their share, the quality would be hitting AM radio levels.

“Multiple audio streams are not possible for digital community services at this stage, as we have been allocated considerably less access to digital capacity than the commercial or national broadcasters,” says Letch.

“The CBAA will continue to lobby for equitable access to the level of 128 kbps currently allocated to commercial services.”

The commercial networks have already begun broadcasting their secondary streams. A quick scan on digital radio will find channels such as Koffee, NovaNation and Pink Radio (a station wholly dedicated to the artist Pink).

In regards to the future of community broadcasting, Libby Jamieson, General Manager at AM community station 3CR, believes that the sector needs funding not digital radio to survive. She says that the Federal Government’s allocation of $10.1 million to community broadcasters for digital radio could have been better spent.

For stations like 3CR, which are run off volunteers, philanthropy and the smell of an oily rag, regular funding could provide a great deal of help.

“I know that we could have spent that money far more successfully as a sector and contributed to the really great broadcasting that’s already happening,” she says.

Back at PBS, Adrian Basso agrees that extra funding and attention from the government would help the sector. But he also believes stations like 3MBS, PBS and 3CR will be broadcasting for a long time yet.

“We’re important. People gravitate towards community radio because we’ve got voices that are different and people connect with that.”

So, there you are. Take it or leave it. Local, real, specialised programming.

Or Pink.

Tom Cowie is a final year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University. This piece has also been posted as his blog, stop making sense.