Digital Audio Broadcasting, or DAB, was meant to be the next wave of radio technology. Over the last 15 years, it has stuttered on the edge of the Irish radio landscape, its initials emblazoned on the front of shiny new radio sets, and then largely ignored once the radio is turned on.
Its promises of better audio quality, more reliable signal, and more choice for the listener are still largely unfulfilled.
Around Europe, DAB has made significant inroads into traditional radio markets, but there are no commercial or independent digital broadcasters in Ireland.
RTÉ’s digital stations – Pulse, Gold, Chill, One Extra, etc – have been on air for almost 10 years, but their audience is unknown, and their impact has been minimal.
In the face of stiff competition from globally available online broadcasters and significant loyalty to existing formats, it’s not clear what the future holds for the digital radio format.
Dusty Rhodes is a former 2fm DJ and co-founder of DB Digital Broadcasting, a company seeking to become an independent national network transmission provider for digital radio. Between 2012 and 2017, Rhodes was involved in running an independent DAB trial using three digital transmitters in Cork, Dublin, and Waterford.
This trial run carried a number of small independent broadcasters, including Irish-language station Raidió Rí-Rá, Amazing Radio (a UK station that plays only ‘unsigned’ artists), Sunshine, All 80s, All 90s, classic rock station Zenith and Pure Classic, a more mainstream version of Lyric FM.
Though the trial was less than rigorous in the way it collected information, relying purely on feedback from listeners directly to the radio stations, Rhodes is confident that it achieved its aim of confirming DAB’s viability as a format for national independent broadcasting in Ireland.
“The technology is absolutely 100 per cent robust, and it absolutely delivers massive savings in running a national transmission network,” he says. “For a national broadcaster, someone who wants to broadcast nationwide, it was coming in that you would be saving 70-75 per cent of what is currently charged for FM.”
Rhodes says the best example can be found in Norway, where state broadcaster NRK last year became the first in the world to complete a full switch from analogue to digital radio broadcasting. Where the analogue setup required about 1,200 transmission sites for each of the country's four national radio networks, the digital equivalent uses just a single network and 800 transmitters to provide the same service and coverage. The payback on that investment should be significant in the long term.
My view is that DAB will be an unnecessary cost for the industry when technology means that actually mobile listening, on-the-go listening, and voice activation will play a bigger part in the future
But it’s not all been smooth sailing. Even though the transition date had been signalled over two years in advance, not everyone was ready. Radio listeners in Norway weren’t happy about having to purchase new receivers or adapters, typically costing over €100.
As of December last year, only 49 per cent of Norwegian motorists were able to listen to DAB in their cars, and a local study suggested that the number of Norwegians who listened to the radio on a daily basis had dropped by 10 per cent in a year, while NRK had lost 21 per cent of its audience in the same time.
Though radio officials expected to recoup those listeners in time, the immediate impact was substantial.
Rhodes compares the process to the switch from analogue to digital television: not without friction, but ultimately soon forgotten. For him, it’s all about the value proposition.
Saorview boxes offered better picture quality and more channels for a low, one-off price, and developing a similar incentive would be key to any such switch in the radio world.
The need to convince radio listeners of the format’s promise is obvious, but there is a parallel battle to convince commercial operators who have been largely absent from the digital airwaves in Ireland.
Unlike in the UK, where the proliferation of digital radio has allowed for numerous new stations and substations to emerge in the independent market, the lack of any investment in the area from Irish commercial broadcasters has stifled the format.
“My belief is that commercial radio in Ireland does not want to see any expansion of the market whatsoever,” says Rhodes. “They want to keep everything exactly the way it is, they do not want new competition. For that reason, they are not engaging with DAB. They’re literally protecting their own interests – they don’t give a damn about the industry as a whole, they don’t give a damn about any kind of public service broadcasting, they don’t give a damn about the listener. The only thing they care about is the bottom line.”
David Timpson has been involved in RTÉ's digital broadcasting efforts since the very beginning and he agrees that a greater engagement from the commercial broadcasters is necessary to push DAB as a viable format.
"We do not enjoy being on the platform by ourselves," Timpson says. "We look at developments in other countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, and we see the developments in digital radio in those countries, and the only way that those guys have managed to advance the platform of digital radio to the stage that they're at, is through collaboration with the industry.
"We've said it publicly: look, we're not going any further. RTÉ, as an organisation, we're not going to go any further with digital radio until such a time as the industry acts together. We are at a stage where we're trying to collectively decide what next steps we might take."
The Irish Radioplayer app is the best example of the kind of collaboration Timpson is talking about. It's a joint effort from RTÉ and the independent broadcasters that makes 43 Irish radio stations available within a single app, and it has been successful in making Irish radio more discoverable and more accessible. It recently became available on Amazon Echo and Google Home.
In a small addendum to the project, Timpson and his colleagues have used just two small masts on top of the RTÉ radio building to digitally broadcast all the same stations to the Donnybrook area. It’s a localised proof-of-concept: a pair of transmitters carrying practically all the radio stations in the country.
This digital signal automatically and seamlessly takes over from Radioplayer’s internet stream, providing a hybrid, free-to-air solution within a mobile app environment. It’s not necessarily how things would work on a national scale, but for Timpson it shows the power and simplicity of the technology.
“We wanted to use that project as a prism that the industry could look through to perhaps ask how we could take the next step together,” he says. “At the moment we’re in the process of finding ways to collaborate and make a collective decision. And it has to be a decision that would be perceived by the rest of the industry as viable.
Launching DAB will introduce new stations to the market, but no one has any evidence that will grow total listening
“It is the question that digital radio throws up: what will this do to the existing market? And they have to consider that in the round, looking at new technologies, new ways to listen, new potential dilution of audiences, or the internet.”
For Adrian Serle, group chief executive of Communicorp, DAB offers a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist right now, while opening up the commercial radio market to new and unpredictable pressures.
“Our view is that we would want to be on every platform that exists,” says Serle. “And we want to be everywhere our consumers are going to be. But my view is that DAB will be an unnecessary cost for the industry when technology means that actually mobile listening, on-the-go listening, and voice activation will play a bigger part in the future.”
Serle is similarly sceptical about Rhodes’ claim that new stations will increase overall radio listenership.
“Launching DAB will introduce new stations to the market, but no one has any evidence that will grow total listening,” he says. “In fact, the UK example is that they added 100 stations over the last 15 years, and total listening remains exactly the same. Therefore, all that would happen would be that existing radio revenues would get shared across more stations, and put pressure on the existing radio sector.”
Radio is facing into one of the most tumultuous times in its history. The incredible variety of radio which is available to anyone with an internet connection means that local and national stations are competing with a global industry. The traditional idea of radio, as something which is on in the background, “a box that sits in the corner and makes noise” as Rhodes puts it, is quickly becoming outmoded.
It's as easy to put on a playlist from Youtube or Spotify as it is to stream radio. There's innumerable podcasts catering to every interest imaginable. If you do choose radio, you can pick any kind of station, broadcasting from any part of the world. If you finally choose Irish radio, it's just as easy to hear it through an app or a website as a separate radio set.
And at a time when media outlets of all kinds are trying desperately to glean more and more information from their audiences, the vague statistics that radio provides about engagement and listenership are both a strength in the spiritual sense and a weakness in the financial one. RTÉ don’t even track their digital listenership through the JNLR figures.
Maybe heaping the problems of radio on the shoulders of DAB is unfair, but if the digital format is to be the future of the medium, it will inherit its unsolved issues as well.
DAB, while laden with technical advantages, seems to cater for an audience which has already begun to leave its problem-space behind.
Ultimately, the combination of audience dispersal, commercial reticence, and a changing marketplace makes the future of digital radio in Ireland uncertain. Almost a decade on from the first digital broadcasts, it’s only becoming harder to see what the next step might be.
What is DAB?
The history of digital audio broadcasting goes back to the 1980s, and a collaboration between German and French broadcasters, manufacturers, research institutes, and telecommunications agencies. The first DAB broadcasts began in 1995, though it took until the turn of the decade before receivers were widely available. In 2017, there were over 2,000 DAB radio services on air in 38 countries around the world.
While traditional radio stations broadcast on particular frequencies, DAB networks broadcast on a single frequency which contains all the information required by the receiver to decode the individual stations on that network.
This means you no longer have to re-tune your radio to switch stations, and it has the added benefit of potentially freeing up bandwidth for alternative uses. The latest technology, DAB+, boasts encoding twice as efficient as standard DAB, allowing for over 20 stations on a single network. Standard DAB radios are incompatible with DAB+, but broadcasters can mix DAB and DAB+ in a single transmission.
Receivers don’t generally cost any more than a traditional radio, with cheaper options available from as little as €30, while adapters can be purchased for cars which don’t have DAB capability built in.
DAB signals can include information like text or pictures, which can be displayed on the receiver’s screen – the name of the song that’s playing, or a graphic element for an advertisement. Portable DAB receivers use an increased amount of electricity, resulting in a much shorter battery life than traditional portable radios.
If you switch on a DAB radio in Ireland today, you’ll find only the RTÉ services available – all the familiar FM stations, plus RTÉ Gold, 2XM, Junior, Pulse and Radio 1 Extra. RTÉ’s digital service has 54 per cent population coverage, and is available in Cork and Limerick cities and the greater Dublin area.