Ireland’s move to digital audio broadcasting could signal interesting new times for radio

18 Sep 2008

Digital audio broadcasting means more radio choice and better sound quality, but are the people of Ireland ready for it?

Irish people are voracious radio listeners and, in their own unique way, voracious radio contributors. Whether glued to the news of the dead on local radio or voicing our woes on Joe Duffy every lunchtime, you’ve got to hand it to the Irish – our relationship with radio is out of proportion with our population size.

From next month, state broadcaster RTÉ will be drawing the public’s attention to its three-year digital media strategy that will encompass internet, as well as its new digital audio broadcasting (DAB) that should bring radio standards kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Or will it?

But first, what is DAB? Also known as Eureka 147, DAB offers several benefits over FM radio as we know it, such as better audio quality, more stations in the same broadcast spectrum and less channel interference.

Europe has been the primary champion of DAB, which has its origins in the Eighties, but globally more than 1,000 stations in the world broadcast over DAB and it has attracted some 500 million listeners, including seven million in the UK.

In conjunction with other major broadcasters in Ireland, such as Today FM, Newstalk, Phantom and Spin, RTÉ has already begun deploying DAB transmitters along the east coast of Ireland ,with phase two expanding to encompass south Leinster and a portion of Munster.

RTÉ has also developed nine DAB stations, including Choice, Playback, Radio 1 Extra, Headlines and a music radio channel called RTÉ Seven. The RTÉ Radio 2 family of channels have developed an indie music channel called 2XM, a dance radio channel called Pulse and an ambient electronica channel called Chill. A separate channel called RTÉ Junior broadcasts between 7am and 9pm.

One of the primary manufacturers of DAB radio sets is UK-based Pure. Colin Crawford, marketing director with Pure, says that from October up to 45pc of the UK’s population can access DAB and people can check their postcodes to see if they are in a coverage area.

“We would hope RTÉ will put something like that in place so that retailers would be better able to advise Irish buyers. It’s up to retailers to know what’s happening. You’ll be fine buying a DAB radio in Dublin but it would be pointless buying one in Galway right now.”

Asked what are the main benefits of DAB over FM, Crawford says: “The first main advantage is content. If you look at these new channels RTÉ has created, you just can’t get them on FM. Our experience of DAB in other markets is that content is driving the demand.

“A second key advantage of DAB is ease of use. People have never been happy about the danger of wandering off the frequency of a favourite station. With DAB, tuning is easier –  as you turn the dial, the names of the radio stations appear on the screen.

“This takes us to the third point – digital display – listeners will soon be able to see scrolling text and can get access to track lists and see the name of the song and artist being played. News stations will be able to use this to show the name of someone being interviewed and tell listeners what’s coming next. Users can also pause and rewind what they’re listening to.

“A fourth and most essential point is the audio quality. With DAB there is absolutely no crackle,” Crawford says. While Pure has developed a DAB receiver for cars, manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes are evaluating the technology and it may be a few years yet before they are pre-installed in new vehicles.

Sarah Martin, press spokesperson for RTÉ Radio explains that radio is one of the many mediums that has survived the technology revolution and with 84pc of Irish adults listening to the radio, DAB is a vital play. “DAB provides much more content and choice. As well as this, in terms of the gadgets themselves, older listeners will find them easier to use with a cleaner display than what they’re used to.

“Future developments with DAB will mean listeners can hit a ‘download’ button to get a song they are listening to on the radio.”

Martin says that at present RTÉ’s DAB platform currently has 44pc of the population of the north east covered. RTÉ has indicated to the Department of Communications that it will have a DAB network covering the south east corridor, making DAB accessible to 52pc of the population by the end of 2010.

“DAB will give the public greater choice in terms of content and how they choose to listen to programmes, and we believe that this will protect the future of radio for the long term.”

According to prominent podcaster and broadcasting enthusiast, Brian Greene, DAB’s proponents are currently working only with national and commercial broadcasters and more work needs to be done to include regional and local community stations.

“Also, DAB is an 18-year-old technology and by the time it eventually is available to everyone, it risks being superseded by newer ways of getting your radio, such as Wi-Fi or WiMax channels in your cars.”

Greene admits DAB offers advantages in terms of better spectrum efficiency and content. “But I firmly believe that Wi-Fi could obstruct it. As soon as music services like Last FM and iTunes are shared between you and your friends wherever you go, then the game will be up for DAB. Why listen to a DJ when you can listen to a mate’s favourite playlist of U2 songs?”

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years