Why Standards are Boosting Radio in 2002

2002-11-15
 
In an age of television and the Internet, some people may think radio has been relegated to a poor third place. Yet, over the last 75 years, each time radio has been challenged, it has re-emerged in a new form. And each time, it has become better and stronger than ever. It is now happening again, despite world-wide economic problems. For there have never been so many radio stations in the world as in 2002 and the numbers are still growing! This is why in many country's radio is also a prosperous medium, stimulating local and national enterprise.

As television has grown, so radio has adapted to be more personal and portable. Radio reaches listeners on the move who need to keep in touch. It travels into the areas where television cannot reach. It speaks to, and involves listeners in many more languages than can ever be possible with television.

Yet some people make the mistake of quoting the old argument that radio is more "immediate" than television. With satellite trucks and digital connections, TV can be showing pictures much faster than before. No, radio is more "intimate". Cameras will have to get a lot smaller before they can match the "closeness" of a radio interview, especially if the subject being discussed is personal or traumatic. For radio still addresses the huge visual three-dimensional screen inside your mind. Whilst some other electronic media can shut you off, radio draws you in.

And, although the Internet and the so-called World-Wide Web may be grabbing the newspaper headlines, even the wildest estimates for the new media over the next few years cannot compete with the reach that traditional radio already has today. In fact across the globe more than one and a half billion radios are in daily use.


Radio Must Develop

But to remain competitive over the next fifteen years, radio must evolve into the digital age. It must drive a new course along the information super-highway. Those billions of radios must gradually be replaced, to use more effective, more energy-efficient technology of the 21st century. For the radio spectrum is a finite natural resource. All this represents a huge challenge, but, at the same time, it is also a giant marketing opportunity for the radio- and transmitter-manufacturing industry.

Across the globe, tens of thousands of radio stations, operating below 30 Megahertz, are now searching for a way to improve their sound quality. For many of their listeners are growing accustomed to the competitive sounds of the compact disc and stereo sound. It is in the interests of listeners, broadcasters and manufacturers, that we address this challenge.


Digital Radio Mondiale

For the last 25 years, engineers at many stations and broadcasting organizations such as the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, the Caribbean Broadcasting Union, and the European Broadcasting Union have been studying the future of sound broadcasting. They watched the rather expensive and unsuccessful attempts by TV colleagues to develop high definition television using analogue technology. They were determined not to repeat those costly mistakes.

By the mid-eighties, many engineers began to look for alternatives, digital alternatives. In the professional world of broadcasting, we started seeing digital methods via satellite for delivering programmes to overseas relay stations. And by the start of the 1990's, the path to digital was clearly the only one to take. But we have had to wait until the speed of microprocessors and the cost of computer memory chips have reached a certain point. All this new digital technology is useless if ordinary men and women cannot afford to buy the new digital radios. We are entering this decisive period now.

At the same time, tremendous developments have been made in digital compression systems. We can squeeze moving video pictures over a mobile phone-line. The same principles can be used to make AM radio sound as good as FM. The standard is called DRM - Digital Radio Mondiale.


DRM Co-exists with FM DAB

In 1994 and 1995, engineers from AM radio stations in the Pacific, Asia, Africa and Europe met several times to discuss possible scenarios for radio broadcasters. They saw the developments surrounding digital audio broadcasting for FM, but realized that systems such as the EBU's Eureka 147 had only limited range. Whilst this is fine for local reception in major cities, the cost of national terrestrial DAB coverage for many larger countries is still prohibitive. But just as AM and FM have co-existed alongside each other since the 1960's, there is no reason that in the coming years, DAB for FM cannot co-exist alongside the new DRM standard for AM broadcasting below 30 MHz. Each has different, but complementary qualities.


DRM and Satellite Radio

In addition to digital terrestrial networks, we have seen several proposals emerge for satellite radio broadcasting. Some are very elaborate. They involve complex systems of satellites circling the earth in highly elliptical orbits, which are ideal for the high latitudes where we live in Europe. For the moment at least, the price tag attached to such systems runs into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Other proposals have turned into reality. The much-publicized Worldspace satellite system uses geo-stationary satellites to cover areas of Africa and Asia. However, the sales of the proprietary delivery system are slow to take off. By, in effect, putting a transmitter on a satellite, 36,000 kilometres above the earth, you'd think that the coverage would be ideal. In theory, you should be able to pick up the signal on a car radio and drive from one part of a continent to another without having to retune to another frequency. But the power broadcast from a satellite is strictly limited. The satellite is, after all, running on energy provided by solar panels.


Vital Importance of Standards

The secret to radio's universal acceptance has been the power of a single standard. The portable radio that you can buy in the streets of Hong Kong, will work in Amsterdam, Accra and Acapulco...or anywhere. What other piece of electronics can boast this global universality? None!

So far there have been twelve different television standards to confront the traveller, and six different videocassette systems to choose from. Once in the hotel room, you can encounter one of nine different types of power plug, and anything from 110 to 230 Volts. DVD is also (deliberately) split into 6 incompatible zones.

And should you wish to connect a laptop computer to the Internet, make sure you've selected correctly from the thirty-nine different types of telephone plugs on this planet! Can you imagine the size of the suitcase if you would have to pack the same number of radio sets when travelling abroad?

Tests results posted on the DRM consortium website (www.drm.org) show that it is possible to make an AM station sound like FM stereo, whilst retaining the AM station's advantage of a huge coverage area. Tests on short-wave are also going on at the moment and the results are astounding. With over 70 members, the DRM standard is set to be a winner and Chinese companies have a potential to make money with the manufacturer of the new radios. Terrestrial signals are stronger than current satellite options, having the advantage that radio receivers continue to operate inside the house.

There must be billions of people who share my hope that we will keep the tuning of a radio set to a simple standard. I also hope that we can tune a radio by station name instead of trying to remember a number for a frequency.


Digital Production

Today's radio broadcasting stations have the power to exploit the digital revolution. Programmes stored on computer hard disk are gradually replacing quarter-inch recording tape. Likewise, we now use digital telephone lines, like ISDN, (integrated services digital network) to link studios across the country, or across the world. Listeners expect the correspondent in Afghanistan to sound like he's in a studio and not a phone booth.

In Holland, Radio Netherlands is moving to become a multimedia station, but we are not there yet. At the moment, radio, television and Internet journalists still have to face the production nightmare of different production formats...a tape or Minidisc for a radio programme, a digital Betacam tape for television, and Real Audio or Windows Media for the web. Conversion between these formats is time consuming, so much so, that many radio people would rather call an interview again on the telephone rather than try and copy a tape containing a television interview.

At Radio Netherlands we have developed training modules to help radio journalists realize that the web is an excellent complement to radio - the web is radio's memory. Hopefully standards will develop in web production too.

It is difficult to predict how radio will sound in 2010. It has great potential to reflect the language and life-styles of a much greater cross-section of the community. But we're optimistic that the new tools coming on the market for radio professionals have the potential for some great radio. At the end of the day, the only limit will be the producers' creativity !
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