Will Switching To Digital Kill Community Radio?

The future of radio is digital but that future is at risk for community radio because of government funding cuts.

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There are 37 community radio stations providing on-air services in digital form as part of the first phase of the switchover to digital with new projects and services starting regularly.

But all of this is at risk, due to a funding shortfall in last year's federal budget of $1.4 million.

In the May 2012 budget the federal government provided four‑year funding, but that was short by around 40 per cent on the basic transmission costs. This funding is critical to meeting the government's public policy objective for community sector inclusion in digital radio.

The digital radio legislation requires broadcasters to share a common transmission facility fed by standardised data and audio encoding equipment. Of course, this means community broadcasters must build systems and incur costs in the same manner as commercial broadcasters. In fact, the legislation specifically prevents community broadcasters establishing transmission facilities in any other way.

According to the CBAA, there are a variety of reasons for the legislation being constructed in this manner but the upshot is that linking, data and transmission costs need to be covered by direct government funding support. Not-for-profit community radio services are unable to cover these costs at this stage of the medium's development, as well as the content, studio and staffing costs.

It is understood by the CBAA, that the Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has made several attempts during 2012 to restore the funding, which is much appreciated by the community sector. Even so, time is now running short and the number and range of current digital services will have to be reduced sometime after June 2013 if the funding shortfall is not addressed in the 2013 Federal budget.

If we have to turn off services to cope with this funding shortfall, will they ever be able to be turned on again? And what about the small stations, or regional stations? If big metropolitan stations, like 2SER, 3RRR, 4MBS, Radio Adelaide or Noongar Radio can't stay on digital radio, how will the smaller sub-metro licensed stations, who often serve a vital community need?

Just like digital television, digital radio is clearly the future, and even if there is no policy to turn off FM or AM radio, will you be able to buy an FM receiver in ten or 15 years?

Digital radio is not online broadcasting. It is not streaming or mobile apps. There are issues around social equity as radio is free to receive, once you buy the receiver. It is also the most efficient use of this valuable digital spectrum. Moving to streaming or internet platforms only would mean drop outs, and huge costs to broadcasters, and it would be almost impossible to have all current radio listeners to radio in Sydney or Melbourne listen at an audio stream at the same time.

Media diversity will suffer if community radio cannot fully make the leap to digital. The community radio sector is made up of stations, serving diverse communities and interests that aren't catered for by mainstream media, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Ethnic broadcasters; youth; educational, fine music, and religious groups. For many people, community media is the only media that they access, and across Australia, 4.4 million Australians listen to Community Radio each week according to the 2012 McNair Ingenuity National Listener Survey.

This sector also provides local news and information through sub-metro stations, or through regional areas where the community radio station is often the only medium that isn't syndicated from somewhere else.

It would be a shame to turn off digital radio, not to mention a waste of the resources already invested. Community radio is great at innovation. It takes risks and helps drive the take up of this new medium.

It is vital that community radio be helped make the switch to the digital future.

Melanie Withnall is the Managing Director of 2ser 107.3. She is a board member of the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia and sits on the Digital Radio Consultative Committee. Melanie also works as a casual tutor at UTS and the AFTRS. 2ser is owned by UTS and Macquarie University. The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Comments

    If we continue to insist on DAB+, digital radio will fail. It is impossible with the spectrum allocated and the total inefficiency of spectrum usage for sub-metro stations to go digital. It will be a stretch for major regional centres to go to digital radio, let alone community stations.

    The DAB+ multiplex model means a whole block of DAB+ spectrum is used regardless of the number of stations needed - and sub-metro community stations are often the only station that covers their licensed area. There are only 8 frequency blocks nationally for DAB+ - with 3 used up already for the existing broadcasts in the major capitals. Leaving only 5 to cover the adjacent areas - there are 8 commercial radio licence areas surrounding Sydney within a distance that DAB+ blocks can't be reused within - and that's before you try to find spectrum for the sub-metro community stations in Sydney.

    A system with this level of obvious flaws at this point in the rollout is not the future. Certainly not one to be plunging funds into.

    The assertion that internet radio is bandwidth inefficient is a false one - IP multicasting over 3G/LTE is the likely future of radio beyond AM/FM - it is far more flexible than DAB - likely far cheaper in practice - and once it is commonplace, will be a negligible cost to listeners, if any. Mobile phone coverage is also superior to the horribly (and deliberately) limited DAB+ coverage - and also allows greater choice. I don't understand why IP multcasting isn't already very widespread, but it's certainly the simplest technological solution to this problem.

    Commercial radio is the only winner out of DAB+ - it means it's near impossible for new stations to be added into the future. As such they should be footing the bill for carrying community radio, not the taxpayer, who loses out for the total lack of a digital dividend with digital radio.

      Er.. You SEEM to know something about the spectrums used etc etc.. But in the end of the day all your points seem to be sticklers, in that.. Who cares. There's plenty to allow for much MORE radio than we have ever seen on Analog, not at all due to spectrum, but because of the lower implementation costs making it more feasable. It probably won't last forever.. But who cares.

      As for many of your other points, they sound largely like problems of outdated broadcast regulations, and the end result will more than likely be reforms if it is indeed a problem..

      And coverage? I get flawless coverage within a pretty massive area.. And part of the expense of this is making sure that significant other population bases have sufficient coverage, it might not be 100% there everywhere yet - but it will be soon. You might still never be able to get it in your shed 100km from Kalgoorlie.. And you're just going to have to deal with that lol.

      IP Multicasting is great.. If everyone you multicast to wants what you're sending.. The problem is 99% of us don't want what 99% of the others are listening to at that moment.. It would cost billions in infrastructure for little to no benefit.

      And you say the only winner is commercial stations.. Unsure how you arrived at this conclusion.. It's cheaper than ever to establish a radio station and get heard by an audience larger than potentially possible previously.

      All that said - While DAB+ is meant to be an easy and cheap established plug and play standard proven to work without issues elsewhere, it isn't the future. The future will be just raw data streaming.. But even that has complications.. Like who pays for the data. People just wont use it if it's costing them money, even if it's just in data from their cap.. And to have it running in parallel while still able to use the regular phone radio for calls/etc you would need 2.

        DAB+ has an absolute limit of how much it can carry - 1.15Mbps of stations on eight multiplexes. Those are full in Adelaide and Perth, and near full in Sydney and Melbourne. It's not a 'who cares' point to say you literally cannot expand digital radio using current technologies, and a bunch of stations cannot go digital ever.

        When you have a technology that's full at the outset, you can't just add more radio, there's no space for it - you can't add more multiplexes because there's a hard limit of the compatible radios, you can cut down bitrate per channel, but then the sound quality suffers to the point it is worse than the technologies it aims to replace.

        That's why it's good for commercial radio - there's a hard limit on spectrum and they hold the keys to transmitting - whereas on AM/FM you could easily have a small scale station, and you could even operate outside the regular bands. Limited space means limited competition.

        IP Multicasting leverages existing infrastructure - it's a few million in backend stuff. The ISPs offering Fetch TV Full already do IP Multicasting on ADSL - which then offers quota free viewing. In a free to listen model it just replaces broadcast over the air cost with a data pipe cost. If 99% of people don't want what you're listening to, radio, digital or otherwise, isn't going to work in your situation.

        If DAB+ was cheap and plentiful, this article wouldn't have needed to be written.

          Already Adelaide's DAB+ is full. And its full of BAD stations. I just recently bought a DAB+ tuner for my car because I loved the NovaNation station and wanted to listen to that as I drove around. It turns out that because Adelaide's network is full and that the regulating bodies decided they wanted to add another station... they ditched NovaNation in place of a classical radio station in instead? Seriously? Not sure what they were thinking because NovaNation kinda filled a gap that the other stations did not provide. I find it almost useless now because the rest of the digital stations here are not really worth listening to.. at least not my taste being talk back radio's or old school / classics lol.

    is digital radio the future? i would guess in 5-10 years every car will have some kind of data connection to stream from, sattelite would be pretty effective for this

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