Radio’s one of those technologies that you probably don’t think about that much at all. It’s just there, for the vast majority of us it’s always been there, and aside from the shift for some music formats from AM to FM in the late nineteen seventies, there hasn’t been much of a technological shift in radio to speak of in the way there has been for television or in information technology in general. Digital Radio’s the latest theoretical shot in the arm for the radio industry, albeit one that’s still in an early growth phase in Australia.
Recently I attended the launch of a range of new Digital Radios from PURE, who are distributed by Pioneer Electronics within Australia. The new models do offer some interesting twists on radio listening. They’re internet radio equipped — hardly the only digital radios on the market to offer that — and have an inbuilt feature that will allow you to identify tracks by analysing them, similar to the Shazam application available for many smartphones. Aside from the funky new models on display (some of which were just technically funky, while others sported patterns last seen adorning curtains in 1960’s sitcoms), PURE also revealed some rather interesting statistics on radio usage in Australia.
The growth of digital radio — if you happen to be in a digital broadcast area, which currently restricts you to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth right now, or trial services in Canberra and Darwin — has been slow and steady. In eighteen months, according to the figures PURE was touting (which were probably the Commercial Radio Australia figures you can read here, although it wasn’t clear: http://www.digitalradioplus.com.au/index.cfm?page_id=1048&display_news_id=1079) some 400,000 digital radios have been sold, and they count an estimated 700,000 digital radio listeners in the country. On a broader scope, putting all radio up for consideration, some ninety percent of the population listen to radio, and digital radio listeners apparently take in eleven hours of radio per week on average.
So will digital radio explode on the back of a few new models? It seems unlikely.
The lack of regional coverage is obviously an issue for travellers, but the current coverage area does address an awful lot of radio listeners; PURE’s estimate at the launch was something like 50-60% of the population were covered by digital radio already.
Where I suspect digital radio will live and die for take up is in the one area where it’s remarkably weak right now, and that’s in-car listening. Commuters listen to a lot of radio on the way to and from work, and right now there’s a genuine paucity of digital receivers for them to use. Even the prestige car brands are only now starting to add digital radio as an option in their car lines. BMW will apparently be first, with the option adding somewhere around $900 for the 7 Series and 5 Series models, but those are vehicles that aren’t exactly in the price range of the average punter.