La Radio Digitale Terrestre
November 20, 2015
Okay, I'm back. Anything happen while I was gone? Didn't think so.
The thing about vacations is, you're supposed to totally disconnect from work. These last few weeks, I did try to do exactly that. It was, after all, a slightly belated 25th anniversary celebration in Italy, and obsessing over radio and podcasting and media would have been....
What? Oh, sure, I checked out the radio scene there. You knew I would.
So, radio. The main thing I observed was how digital radio was doing over there, and, essentially, it's doing how HD Radio is doing here, which is to say, it's hard to find any radios for it in the stores (yes, I finally found one and yes, I bought it) and I didn't notice anyone listening. Now, I'm not going to hand down a blanket dismissal of the entire DAB format based on my own anecdotal testimony from 10 days in Europe, but I did notice a few things worth mentioning:
First, despite being a different delivery system, DAB works a lot like HD Radio, meaning it doesn't entirely work. While HD Radio is in-band, on-channel, and automatically shifts between analog and digital, DAB operates on a different band and you have to switch to it; in Italy, there are generally two multiplexes of channels available in major cities. But just as HD Radio inexplicably cuts in and out even when you're within literal line of sight to the antenna, DAB radios lose their signal more than the average listener will tolerate. Indoors, signals drop out now and again even within a few miles from the transmitter. In my Florence hotel room, I could get only get the multiplex the antenna of which was in the direction my window was facing; the one across town (and roughly equidistant) just showed no signal. And in Venice, there was no signal, period, 20-30 miles from the transmitters. I imagine performance might be better in cars, but if the drop outs are as frequent as I get in my car for HD Radio in Los Angeles, that's not great, either.
Second, the programming wasn't special -- a bunch of RTL and Rai channels doing different music variations, plus a few you could get on analog, too, like Vatican Radio. It's like HD2 channels here: nothing that makes you want to go there. And that's one lesson I think I took from playing around with DAB and observing the far better performance of DAB, audience-wise, in places like the U.K. I thought about what all the countries are doing, what common threads there might be, and where they differ, and I came to a few conclusions.
After you get past the hurdle of recognizing the limitations of the technology -- there are going to be dropouts, it is not going to always sound better than analog, it will take time for ownership of digital receivers to reach the tipping point -- the key is programming. Simply put, "it's digital" is not a good enough reason for people to make the switch or to seek out DAB or HD Radio. Radio made the mistake of pushing into digital without a cohesive plan for what it would offer once it got there. People are not looking for "the same, only digital." If they've moved to digital platforms, it's for unique programming, whether it's the ability to pick their own music or to get customized streams based on a music genome or -- critically -- to hear what they cannot get elsewhere. That's what podcasts do, that's what successful streams do, and that's what some DAB channels do. American HD2 channels sometimes feint in that direction -- say, with '60s oldies or dance music -- but they fail when the channels turn out to be just jukeboxes with the same old imaging and same old "radio" image and no personality. Same-old won't convert anyone.
But what if you had shows with huge A-list hosts? Sports play-by-play unavailable elsewhere? Music formats far out of the mainstream curated and hosted by experts? Or, my favorite idea over the years, channels programmed by high school or college kids, people in the community, anyone who wants an hour or three to do a show? (There's no better way to attract new listeners than to PUT THEM ON THE AIR.) What I'm saying here is that we've gone over the deficiencies of radio's digital initiatives ad nauseam. We know about the technical problems and the slow adoption of receivers and the lame promotion. But if there was something worth seeking out, people might go there. And it makes a lot more sense than trying to resurrect AM, because no matter what you do, AM isn't going to come back and it's never going to sound good again. I'll also reiterate that I still think that, ultimately, DAB and HD Radio are interim technology, that it's all headed for Internet IP delivery via your phone anyway, but like satellite radio, there's still a business opportunity there if something hugely desirable and awesome is ONLY available through your platform.
I mean, it couldn't hurt. What I hear on HD-2 and HD-3 here doesn't make me want to bother with HD Radio. What I heard in Italy on DAB was nothing I couldn't get elsewhere. DAB, and HD Radio, are less "the future" than a diversion on the road we all know we're inevitably going to take.
Okay, then, whatever band you're on, you need material to do a show, and that's where All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics comes in. We give you hundreds of items and ideas and bad jokes for your show prep needs, all up-to-date and conveniently available now by clicking here. And there's the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item. And don't forget the new Podcasting section at AllAccess.com/podcasts.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
Anyway, I'm back now. But another programming note: No column next week due to Thanksgiving, then back to normal but only through December 8th. The last The Letter column will be on December 4th; there'll be a couple of Perry on Podcasting columns in there, too. On December 9th, I'm on call for Net News duty for a week, so Talk Topics will get back-burnered, with occasional updates. And then it's off until the end of December, when I'll do a couple of days' worth of topics on the 29th and 30th. Then, off for New Years and then off for a week to cover CES in Las Vegas. So look for a column on January 8th and back to full power on January 11th. Meanwhile, to keep up with me and see some pictures from the Italy trip, you can always follow me on Twitter @pmsimon and on Instagram @pmsimon, too. Do that, and have a great Thanksgiving.