Monday, 26 July 2010

DAB radio's slow consumer take-up: lessons not learnt from FM radio 50 years earlier

“Without a knowledge of your history, you cannot determine your destiny”
Misty In Roots, ‘Live At The Counter-Eurovision 1979’

Recent history can teach us important lessons. Efforts to turn dreams into reality come a lot easier if we learn from what has gone before us, what has gone right, and what has gone wrong. This is as true in radio as it is in any human endeavour.

Dr. Stephen Lax, Senior Lecturer in Communications Technology at the University of Leeds’ Institute of Communications Studies, has written an excellent paper entitled ‘A Vision For Radio: Engineering Solutions For Changing Audiences – From FM to DAB’. It was published in a recent anthology ‘Digital Radio In Europe’. The following are excerpts taken directly from Dr. Lax’s work and document what the radio industry should have learnt from the slow consumer take-up of FM radio half a century ago before it embarked upon DAB radio.

“The introduction of FM was itself no straightforward matter of replacing its AM forebear, and neither have innovations in radio technology in the half century that followed been unproblematic. It is in the context of this history that the emergence of DAB should be studied.

Like DAB, FM was widely claimed to offer a significant improvement in sound quality in comparison with the then universal AM modulation system. By the early 1940s, its technical superiority was established. One leading figure amongst US radio engineers, W.R.G. Baker, suggested in 1943 that FM was ‘so much better technically than the present regular broadcast system that it can’t fail of acceptance.’ Yet, despite such advantages, for several decades it did indeed fail to be accepted as a replacement for AM.
[…]
Following a UK launch in 1955, the BBC rolled out the FM service relatively quickly: by the end of 1959, most transmitters had been upgraded and 96.4% of the population was within range of the signals; but, even ten years later, when coverage was over 99%, the corporation noted that only one third of households had any form of FM receiver. A similarly slow rise in the popularity of FM continued in the US: although FM services had begun there on the VHF band some ten years earlier than in the UK, it was not until after 1979 that FM finally achieved a higher share of listening than AM.
[…]
[In 1974], [BBC director of engineering James] Redmond expressed puzzlement at the slow adoption of FM, even for fixed reception in the home. Despite its superior sound quality, he noted that ‘changeover has been slower than anticipated.’ …. [One] reason was the simulcasting of radio programmes on FM and on AM, rather than offering new programmes on the new service: listeners would only be able to hear on FM what their AM receivers already gave them.
[…]
This history serves as an illustration of how an apparently self-evidently superior technology pursued as a solution to a problem of audio quality did not automatically find favour with listeners, who […] were apparently prepared to put up with inferior sound and were less inclined to adopt FM while it offered little new programming or competition with television in the evening.
[…]
A mismatch is revealed between the broadcasters’ and engineers’ beliefs as to what was important to listeners, and the preferences and priorities of the vast majority of those listeners themselves.
[…]
[A group of audio enthusiasts] was contrasted [by Wireless World magazine in 1961] with ‘the most important group of all, the reasonable layman’ who simply wants decent reproduction at a reasonable cost, and it is this far larger group that no doubt hesitated to replace perfectly adequate AM receivers with the more expensive FM variety.
[…]
…. early promotion of DAB by the industry certainly used the phrase ‘CD-quality sound’, and placed this and related phrases at the top of the list of DAB’s advantages.
[…]
However, just as the slow pace of adoption of FM confounded broadcasters, for whom its advantages were self-evident, DAB too has failed to gain an enthusiastic embrace from the audience.
[…]
The exhortation ‘radio must go digital’ has been expressed repeatedly over the years: for example, by the Director General of Audio Visual Policy at the European Union’s Media programme, Spyros Papas, in 1998; by BBC Director of Radio, Jenny Abramsky, in 2003; and, more recently, in 2009 by French National Assembly member Patrice Martin-Lalande and, less surprisingly, by Quentin Howard of World DMB. For these commentators, the logic of this transition is self-evident and so needs little explanation, technical or otherwise, and none is offered – put simply, radio cannot remain an analogue technology when all other consumer technologies are digital. Yet, however compelling the logic might be from a technical point of view, the development of both FM and of DAB have failed to follow it: both have emerged only slowly and, in the case of DAB, its future remains uncertain.
[…]
A further difficulty for DAB was the changing landscape of radio in many countries during the period of its development such that, by the time of its public launch in 1995, it was seen by some as reflecting a view of the radio industry that was out of date.
[…]
Just as, by the time FM was launched, other changes in radio had made its introduction more complex, so too we can observe similar, non-technological reasons for the problems in introducing DAB.
[…]
In the case of digital radio, it is possible to identify a number of intentions behind its development, from an imagined need to compete with other emerging technologies to a macro-economic need to aid a key industry. In contrast to the history of radio technology frequently presented as a straightforward series of technical challenges faced and solutions proffered, we find instead that apparently compelling innovations follow a complex path in which cultural practices and economic interests must be taken into account.”

[reprinted with permission of the author]

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