As other countries begin to move from analogue to digital radio, I was asked to share some of the history and experiences of digital radio in Australia. This is the text from the presentation I made at Radio Days Jo’burg.
DIGITAL RADIO IN AUSTRALIA
The first image I’d like to show you is an historic one. It’s a photograph I took on my mobile phone on August 6, 2009. As you can see from the photograph, they’re not an attractive bunch. These aren’t people whose faces you would see on television. They’re faces for radio. Although the line-up has changed a bit since the photograph was taken, these are the people who dominate the Sydney radio breakfast airwaves. They’re the breakfast presenters from both the ABC and from Commercial Radio, and they’ve come together for a group photograph to celebrate the official switch-on for digital radio in Australia. This photograph was taken at about nine-thirty in the morning, when they’ve all just finished their programmes are completing the largest outside broadcast in the history of Australian radio. For just one day, they all came together and did their programs from the one location – Sydney’s Martin Plane – as part of “switch on day”. Similar events happened in other Australian capital cities, including Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
I wanted to show you that image first of all to illustrate one important point. That, even though in radio we compete against each other, and we’re divided along public, commercial and community radio lines, there are times when we should and do come together. The one missing element from this group photograph was, however, community radio. In some ways, it was as if, community radio was forgotten about when digital radio came to Australia.
In fact it was only last week, almost four years after the launch, that the federal government provided financial assistance to the community radio sector. They’d been lobbying the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy for some time. In fact, the community radio sector was threatening to switch off their digital radio transmitters, because they said couldn’t afford to keep them going. As you can see from the slide, the Minister confirmed $6-million over three years for community radio which would allow them to keep transmitting. The decision itself was taken on an historic day. It was the day we changed Prime Ministers in Australia, replacing Julia Gillard with Kevin Rudd. Mr Conroy was a strong supporter of Ms Gillard, and in fact resigned he resigned as Communications Minister when Mr Rudd took over again. So giving money to community radio for digital radio was the last thing he did as Minister for Communications.
So with that good news about digital radio in Australia, I thought I would take you back in time to cover a few things in this talk. First, I’d like to give you an overview and a history of the radio sector in Australia. Second, I’d like to give you an insight into planning (or maybe lack of planning) that went into the establishment of digital radio. Third, I’d like to give you an idea of what’s happened since digital radio was launched on August 6, 2009. Some of the new stations which have emerged, some information about sales figures, and some information about audiences. Fourth, I’d like to give you a brief insight into digital radio transition in other parts of the world. And finally, I’d like to offer some observations about things which worked, and things which didn’t work. Hopefully you can learn from our mistakes.
The key message I’d like to impart is that digital radio might seem like it’s years away. We thought the same thing in Australia. We waited, and we waited, and then all of a sudden, when we thought it would never happen, then suddenly, almost out of the blue for many people in the industry, the Federal Government announced it would happen. So even though it seems like it might never happen, or isn’t really on the radar yet, the decision to announce digital radio in this part of the world could happen sooner than you think.
I’d like to begin by talking a little about the radio landscape in Australia, and on the screen you can see a map of Australia, where each number represents one of the ABC Local Radio stations.
The radio station I used to be the Content Director for – which is co-incidentally a talk radio station called “702” OR “702 ABC Sydney” – is Australia’s oldest radio station, having first gone to air in November, 1923. All of the early radio stations in Australia operated as commercial radio stations, until a number of those stations were bought and the government-funded “Australian Broadcasting Commission” (later the “Australian Broadcasting Corporation”) was formed in July 1932.
The important things which distinguish the ABC from the SABC are these. First, the organisation is funded by taxpayer money. There’s no licence fee or anything like that. Every three years the government announces and guarantees funding for the organisation. That means there are no advertisements, except for in-house ones. And second, there’s never been any overt political influence, as the organisation operates independently from the government. I think it’s true to say both sides of politics has hated the ABC – because of it’s independence – from time to time, although there’s a perception the ABC is left-leaning.
If you’re interested in having a listen to ABC Radio, there’s an app which streams 19 different stations. All of our capital city stations are there. This slide gives you an overview of the kind of offerings from the ABC. All of these stations, except Local Radio are national networks, though some of them are only digital radio in the capital cities. As you can see, there’s a classical music network, a youth music network, an Australian-only independent music network, a news network and so on.
The second point I’d like to make is we have a very strong and vibrant commercial radio sector which in fact, dominates the market place. In the capital cities, the commercial radio sector attracts about 70% of the radio audience at any given time.
To illustrate my point, this is a screenshot from the Sydney Morning Herald the other day as they reported on the latest radio ratings. The number one breakfast show in Sydney for almost twenty years now has been a program hosted by Alan Jones. He regularly commands about 15-20% of the radio audience. Some of you with an interest in rugby union may recall he was once the coach of the Australian Rugby Union team. He’s a controversial figure to say the least. He’s very overtly political in favour of the conservative parties. He’s influential. There have been books and tv shows about him, and his infuence extends beyond the breakfast show he presents. I’m very proud to say that 702 ABC Sydney performed well in the ratings this week, as the station regularly rates number two in Breakfast, number one in Drive, and number two overall. 702′s Breakfast Show is also the only breakfast show to have ever beaten Alan Jones.
The next station down the list, regularly is 2-DAY FM which some of you might have seen Sam Cavanagh talk about the other day. Beyond that, there’s maybe half a dozen other station on similar figures. Unfortunately, they all do fairly similar things. There’s not a lot of variety on commercial radio. And part of the reason for that is there wasn’t much choice for a long time.
It wasn’t until the 1980s before there was significant change and significant competition in the capital city radio market. Even then, the town in which I grew up continued with just one commercial station, one ABC station, and one community radio station. In fact, the community radio station I began my radio career at, at the age of 12 as a volunteer was one of the first community radio stations in Australia. That station, called 2NCR-FM began in 1976.
As of January last year there were 359 community radio stations in Australia. As well as the “general station” the community radio sector also targets specific community groups, including various language groups, religious groups, Indigenous Australian, Gay and Lesbian Australians, and so on. The slide you’re seeing now is a photograph which is being used to promote an exhibition which celebrates twenty years of the Gadigal Information Service in Sydney. Gadigal runs the Indigenous radio station, Koori Radio, and also runs a record label which promotes Indigenous performers. I went to the exhibition launch last week which was a fine affair, and if you are interested in reading more about community radio in Australia, the story of Koori Radio and before that, Radio Redfern are good stories to read.
So that brings us up to date. A strong public sector. A strong commercial sector, and a strong community radio sector.
On top of that, it’s important to know these facts. Although Australia is geographically large, most Australians (85%) live within 50km of the coastline. In Tasmania, that figure is 99% About half the population lives in the three largest cities alone. Sydney/Wollongong/Central Coast – 5.5 million; Melbourne – 4.2 million and Brisbane/Gold Coast – 2.8 million. Total Australia – 23 million. In the city, the FM band is over-crowded. On top of that, urban growth has meant those big AM transmitters in the countryside on the outskirts of places like Sydney, are now surrounded by housing.
The significance of these figures in terms of digital radio, you could cover a lot of the population with a digital signal fairly easily. The biggest challenge Australia faces with digital radio is what to do about the rest of the country which doesn’t live on the coastline. As someone who has lived a number of years in those middle parts of Australia, I think it’s vitally important for those areas not to be left behind, and I guess that’s part of why the government struggled for many years when it came to making a decision on digital radio.
The first we heard about digital radio in Australia was in the early 1990s when the UK launched DAB. For almost a decade, however, nothing much happened in Australia. In 1999, the government announced some trial services. But it wasn’t until 2005 when the Minisiter, Helen Coonan announced the DAB+ standard, and a switch-on plan for 2009. It was exciting news for the industry when it was announced, but there was a bit of sadness too, in that digital radio was only approved for the five largest capital cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. But as you can see from these transmission maps for Melbourne and Perth, there are still large parts of these cities where the reception is insufficient. Even though I live in the centre of Sydney I struggle with digital radio reception in my own home. On one side of my apartment digital radio works, but it doesn’t on the other.
On top of the lack of comprehensive coverage in the capital cities, digital radio is not available in regional areas.
As in South Africa, we have a body which regulates spectrum. As in South Africa, we’re on the verge of switching off analogue television. There’s a hope within the industry that when all of that finally happens, the government will consider a plan to improve and extend digital radio to other parts of the country.
As we head towards a Federal Election in Australia in several weeks, Commercial Radio Australia is running an on-air campaign urging listeners in country areas to get in touch with their local candidates to say that people in country areas want digital radio too. A few months ago, CRA announced the industry was “seeking Federal assistance of around $500 million over a 16 year period to phase in digital radio services into major regional areas and has submitted a detailed proposal to both the Government and Opposition. The funding, of which about 50% accounts for ABC and SBS services, will help cover infrastructure set-up and operational costs to service all regional licence areas.” Even though Australia is a wealthy country, and one which has survived the global economic crisis, there’s absolutely no commitment from either side of politics at this stage. There’s a perception amongst some parts of the bureaucracy, it seems, that digital radio is a dated technology, and that radio over the internet is the future.
But as James Cridland who was here last year points out there’s a lot to be said for traditional broadcast. The figures make it clear that, for the moment, it’s cheaper for both the individual and for the broadcast station to use a terrestrial transmitter. With one terrestrial transmitter, the cost of broadcasting to one person or to one million remains the same. But when you’re dealing with IP, the cost increases for the broadcaster for every extra listener you have.
So four years down the track, what do we know about the success or otherwise of digital radio in Australia? As of the first of May, the estimated number of Australians listening via digital radio (DAB) was 1.6 million people, which is about 12.3% of the available audience. In terms of radios sold, 88,004 digital radios were sold in the first quarter of 2013. The biggest sales periods, incidentally are around Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. The survey information shows digital radio is well ahead of internet radio in both actual numbers, and importantly, in terms of time spent listening.
The other really important development in the last twelve months has been the arrival of DAB+ in vehicles. Commercial Radio Australia, in particular, has been lobbying the automotive industry for them to make digital radio available in cars. As of a few months ago, the main cars to carry digital radio as an option or as standard were Ford, Land Rover, Mercedes,and Toyota.
In fact, almost a year ago, ABC and commercial radio stations got back together to re-launch digital radio in a giant outside broadcast, and commercial radio were giving away cars with digital radio installed. Our ABC budget didn’t extend that far.
One of the problems of limited radio spectrum is that you have a small number of stations competing for the same audience, and so they tend to have very similar programs. Even now, there’s not a lot of difference in the music played on FM radio in Sydney. Over on the AM band on talk radio, there’s not a lot of difference there either. It’s an environment mostly inhabited middle-aged and older, socially-conservative men who talk about politics and sport. In Sydney, they’re called “the shock-jocks” because their style is to entertain the audience with sometimes outrageous opinions. But when digital radio came along there was suddenly more room to move.
I wouldn’t get hung up on the detail of this next slide. But put simply, on the left hand side, there’s a list of commercial and ABC stations which were available on AM and FM before digital radio. And on the right hand side, there’s a list of all the new commercial and ABC stations which became available after the introduction of digital radio. This graphic comes from the digital radio player (digitalradioplus.com.au) and doesn’t include the community radio stations. So in a city like Sydney, we’ve gone from about twenty radio stations to about fifty.
In the case of commercial radio, many of the stations also decided to create some new automated music stations which extended their brand.
In the case of the ABC, we began simulcasting our existing range of station on digital radio (which sounded far better than the awful old AM transmitters we have). We also had three music stations which had been operating online only which we transferred to digital radio – a country music station, an adult music station, and a jazz station. We’ve also since launched some new stations including Triple J unearthed which only plays Australian independent music, and we’ve also started up up a sports station, called Grandstand, and a station called “ABC Extra”.
I spoke about this the other day, so apologies for those who’ve already heard about this. The idea behind ABC Extra was that it would be a station to experiment with. To try out new program ideas. To try new radio formats. To extend our existing programming.
Over the last couple of years we’ve created a number of temporary stations located around events such as International Womens Day; our national memorial day, Anzac Day; and the annual week which celebrates Indigenous culture, NAIDOC Week. Through ABC Extra we’ve also celebrated a number of musical anniversaries for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and American composer, John Cage. We’ve also provided national coverage of some our local state elections, as well as conferences, such as TED-X, and one which covered the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
We’ve also had a fair bit of fun with the station. Last year, for example, we set up a station called, “Back To Vinyl”. Despite the fact CDs have been with us for about thirty years, there’s still a lot of vinyl out there. And maybe it’s because of digital downloads, but a lot of artists are now choosing to release new product on vinyl. So for our station, “Back To Vinyl”, we asked about 25 of our top broadcasters from across radio to drag out their vinyl records, and for each of them to put together an hour long program where they celebrated the music they had collected on vinyl from throughout their lives. And I should emphasise they played the actual vinyl with all of its occasional pops and crackles. At one point, one of the records actually got stuck, and had be to skipped along, old school.
In the commercial radio sector, there have been a number of great pop up radio stations in the last few years. Every year, for the last few years, there’s been a radio station called “Elf Radio” which only plays Christmas Music. It might get a little much on your mainstream station to only play Christmas music, but on a pop up station, it’s a place where you can listen in whenever the feeling takes you. Also a couple of years ago when the singer Pink toured Australia, one of the commercial stations set up a radio station which only played her music. I’m not exactly sure of the nature of the deal, but I’d imagine it was something they negotiated with her record company and touring agency. Also this year, the community radio station in Sydney, 2SER, set up a station which played music in celebration of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.
I should also mention in Australia, we have a second public broadcaster, SBS Radio, which mostly has radio programs in foreign languages. In the case of SBS, they were able to use the additional spectrum to time-shift their programs. Recently they’ve also made significant changes to the variety of languages they offer. You may be interested to know, with an increasing number of people from Africa moving to Australia, SBS recently began broadcasting in a larger number of African languages, including Somali, Dinka and Swahili.
So the introduction of digital radio has most definitely led to a significant increase in the variety of programs available to Australian radio listeners.
Compared with other parts of the world, the growth over three or four years has been strong. But after early strong growth, it would be fair to say the figures are starting to flatten out. On top of that there’s absolutely no talk of switching off the analogue network in Australia, in comparison with places like Norway (2017), Denmark (2019) and Sweden (2022). Later this year, it’s expected the UK will announce an analogue radio switch-off date. So despite early success, there are definitely some things we’ve learned which could have helped things along.
The first question to ask – was it a mistake for the industry to be happy to accept the decision to roll-out digital radio to the five major capital cities only. Despite lobbying the roll-out to the rest of the country is proceeding at a glacial pace. Only Canberra and Darwin have been approved for further digital radio trials, and even then they’re not being offered the full range of services?
The second question to ask is whether or not the industry should have also campaigned for a presence on digital TV. At the moment, only the ABC and SBS have a radio space on digital TV, and even then it’s only two channels.
A third question to ask is around the nature of the advertising campaign. As an industry we’ve tended to think the offer of better sound quality and more choice would be enough to convince people to go out buy digital radios. But was that the right approach? I don’t know.
A fourth is a strategy around mobile. By that I mean both mobile phones and digital radio. In lobbying the automotive industry to install digital radios, should we in fact, have been asking them to consider a range of devices which would allow them to listen to radio programs. As people use their mobile phones more and more, does it really matter if there’s a digital radio in the car or not? Should radio be sp[ending more time talking to Apple, HTC, Nokia and the other phone manufacturers to ensure digital radio chips are installed in smart-phones.And finally – an observation about the industry. I think it’s absolutely fantastic that commercial and ABC worked together on launching digital radio. But I’ll let you in on a secret – I’m not sure if we really brought our staff along with us on the journey. A couple of years ago I did an internal survey of our ABC Local Radio presenters in those markets where digital radio was launched, and of the thirty-something on major on-air personalities in those markets, only a handful had bothered to go out and buy digital radios themselves.
With respect to the manufacturers you would have to say the digital radios aren’t particularly sexy. Personally, I can’t see how the retro-styling of most of the radios on the market can hope to attract existing radio listeners, let alone the next generation.
So, I think it’s fair to say that after almost four years I have mixed feelings about digital radio in Australia. It excites me greatly, but I also think there’s quite some way to go in making it a great success.
I know digital radio seems like it’s years away in South Africa (in particular), and even further away in neighbouring countries, but my message to you is to start thinking about it, because your government might just surprise you and announce the implementation sooner than you think. So in starting to think about this, I think it’s important for all of the radio industry to come together. The SABC, the commercial sector and the community radio sector need to have a dialogue about this. You need to talk to radio manufacturers, car manufacturers and the retail sector. You also need to talk to your staff. I think it’s crucial for you to think about the content you might want to offer your audience in the future. What can you give the audience of today and the audience of the future. One of my big beefs, is that in radio we’ve forgotten about teenagers. We’re spending all our time playing music for and talking to people over the age of eighteen. Teenagers may not be in control of the purse strings at the moment, but they soon will be, and if you haven’t engaged with them as teenagers they might never listen to radio at all.
And finally, I’d say it’s important for you to remember one thing and that is why most of us in the room got into radio in the first place, and that is to be creative. With all of the additional spectrum comes with digital radio, you have opportunities to make the world’s best radio, and to really capture the heart, the minds and the ears of today’s radio listeners, and those of the future.