Radio in Europa: l’esitante corsa verso il digitale

La radio sta cambiando, forse più dei suoi stessi ascoltatori. E le tecnologie hanno un ruolo crescente in questo cambiamento. Resta da capire se le tecnologie sono quelle che alcuni fautori della radio digitale hanno in mente

(Radio Passioni) – Non c’è molto da aggiungere all’articolo di Eric Pfanner ripreso oggi dall’International Herald Tribune. Partendo dalla chiusura dell’impianto in onde medie svizzero di Beromünster, Pfanner traccia una ampia panoramica dei progetti di radio digitale in Europa, evidenziandone ragioni, promesse e lati oscuri. Non per vantarmi, ma vi ritroverete molti dei temi e dei nomi che popolano le mie pagine elettroniche.
La radio sta cambiando, forse più dei suoi stessi ascoltatori. E le tecnologie hanno un ruolo crescente in questo cambiamento. Resta da capire se le tecnologie sono quelle che alcuni fautori della radio digitale hanno in mente. Perché il vero problema, con le tecnologie, è che molte di loro tendono a riempire la testa più delle tasche e di questi tempi di tasche vuote rischiano di essercene fin troppe.

As AM signal fades, Europe moves hesitantly to digital radio
By Eric Pfanner
Sunday, January 11, 2009

PARIS: During World War II, when Nazi propaganda ruled the airwaves in the Third Reich, the 215-meter radio tower near Beromünster in Switzerland was a beacon of independent information to German speakers in Switzerland and beyond.
Radio Beromünster, the AM signal broadcast from the transmitter, may have defied the Nazis, but it was unable to resist the march of technology. Last month, the Swiss public broadcasting organization shut down the station and moved its last remaining program, a Swiss folk music show, to a new channel on digital radio. “We think it’s an old technology,” said Ernst Werder, digital project manager at the Swiss broadcaster, referring to AM radio. “It is time for radio to be digital.”
Radio has lagged behind television and even newspapers in making the jump from analog to digital distribution. Now, in small steps like the one in Switzerland, the transition is gaining momentum. But it has not always gone smoothly, and some analysts are questioning whether it is even necessary.
Backers of digital radio point to a number of benefits. The sound quality is often clearer, without the crackle and hiss of analog transmission. Digital broadcasts take up less of the airwaves, allowing more channels to be broadcast. And the sets can be given nifty features like buttons that “tag” music, so that listeners can buy it directly from digital music stores. Some digital radios can pause and rewind programs, and broadcasters are working on adding still images like weather maps.
Features like these, said Anthony Sethill, chief executive of Frontier Silicon, a London-based designer of chips for digital radios, could make radio cool again. Young people, he said, “want a multimedia experience” – so they often prefer their iPods, which Apple so far has refused to equip with radio receivers of any kind.
Digital broadcasts are already available across many parts of Europe, the United States and Japan. Australia plans a big rollout in May, and Germany is also expected to announce plans soon. But so far only one country – Britain, where about eight million people have bought the new receivers – has seen widespread consumer adoption. And even there, while the publicly financed BBC has championed the new technology, some commercial broadcasters have recently backed away from it, preferring to focus on FM transmission and the Internet.
Complicating matters is a battle over competing standards, with the United States, Britain, Japan, France and Australia all adopting separate digital radio technologies.
“This should have been resolved by now,” said Mark Mulligan, an analyst at Forrester Research. Instead, “it will be another 5 or 10 years before it’s even clear what the European standard will be.”
To try to restore the sheen in Britain, where digital radio has been broadcast alongside FM and AM since 1995, a panel of experts recommended last month that the country begin switching off the analog radio airwaves around 2017. If the government were to endorse such a target, radio executives say, broadcasters and consumers alike would convert – as they have done with digital television, as the days of analog have become numbered.
“There’s no question digital radio is a transition that is going to happen,” Hossein Yassaie, chief executive of Imagination Technologies in Kings Langley, England, which makes digital radios and broadcast equipment. “With the 2017 date suggested, it highlights that everyone needs to be thinking about this.”
While the shutdown of Beromünster leaves only one AM transmitter in Switzerland, serving French-speaking parts of the country, several other European countries have gone further, ending AM broadcasting entirely. Ireland did so last March; Austria followed suit at the end of the year. But cutting off FM broadcasts is not an option anywhere, because too few consumers and advertisers have made the switch.
Even in Britain, digital broadcasts account for only about 12 percent of radio listening, according to Rajar, an audience measurement bureau. These broadcasts collect only 2 percent or 3 percent of radio advertising spending, said Howard Bareham, investment director for radio at the British unit of Mindshare, a media-buying agency. “It’s very hard to make money from digital radio stations in the best of times,” he said.
And these are not the best of times. Radio ad spending will fall 3.5 percent worldwide this year, according to Group M, the parent of Mindshare. Considerably steeper declines are expected in some markets, like the United States and Britain.
Still, interest in digital radio is on the rise again for several reasons – one of them a recent investment by Apple in Imagination Technologies. Apple spent a mere £3 million, or about $4.5 million, to buy a 3.6 percent stake in the company. But the move prompted speculation that Apple might decide someday to add digital radio capabilities to its iPods or iPhones. Apple, which already uses Imagination Technologies chips for other purposes, declined to comment on the investment.
Digital radio networks are also expanding. Australia, which has invested more than 400 million Australian dollars, or about $285 million, in the development of digital radio, plans to start broadcasting digitally to more than 60 percent of the country’s population May 1, using a new technology called DAB-Plus, an upgraded version of the system in use in Britain.
“This will be the biggest radio event, not just in Australia, but in the whole world, since the introduction of analog radio,” said Graeme Redman, managing director in Australia for PURE, the name under which Imagination Technologies’ radios are sold.
Supporters of other new radio technologies have made similar claims. Sirius XM Radio, which delivers radio programming to North American subscribers by satellite, has attracted about 19 million paying customers. But it generates only tiny amounts of advertising and has never delivered a profit.
Satellite radio has struggled even to get off the ground elsewhere. Worldspace, a U.S.-based company that operates such a service in India and parts of Africa and the Middle East, has announced plans to enter Europe. But those plans are at a “standstill,” said Benoît Chéreau, chief executive of Worldspace Europe, after the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States in November.
Analysts say the appeal of paid-for radio might be undermined in Europe by the fact that free radio contains less advertising than in the United States, where many subscribers signed up to XM or Sirius to avoid the frequent commercial breaks on U.S. radio.
And European radio listeners looking for alternatives to their AM/FM sets already have other options. Satellite television services like British Sky Broadcasting, for example, include a range of radio channels in their subscription packages. Many radio stations are streamed over the Internet. Listeners can also download podcasts to portable music players.
Now fans of DRS Musikwelle, the Swiss folk music channel formerly beamed out from Beromünster, are weighing those alternatives against the purchase of a digital radio. To help exlain the options, the Swiss public broadcaster organized a party at the transmitting station, which is southwest of Zurich, last autumn. About 15,000 people attended.
“Many of them had their AM receivers for 50 years,” said Andreas Notter, a spokesman for the Swiss broadcaster. “Explaining to them that they suddenly had to go out and buy a DAB receiver was difficult. It was an emotional issue.”

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