Introduction to Digital Radio in Australia

Digital radio officially launched in Australia on August 6th 2009 with a one-off special simultaneous outside broadcast in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide by more than 40 different commercial and public radio stations.

Digital Radio Launch Day

The event billed as “Radio United” saw the highly competitive commercial sector broadcasting side by side with public service broadcasters to promote the benefits of digital radio.

Digital Radio Australia Logo

What is Digital Radio?

Digital Radio is an established broadcast platform in the UK, Asia and parts of Europe which replaces the old analog radio idea of AM/FM stations and tuning via specific frequencies like 106.5FM with a screen on the radio which lets you choose from all the digital radio stations available in your area by name.

Now it’s Australia’s turn to switch on digital radio transmissions … but is it a case of too little too late starting with a whimper rather than a bang?

Verdict: “In my opinion the current digital radio services by themselves are not compelling enough to prompt a large proportion of the Australian population to spend $150-$1000+ per new radio/home theatre system.

Would I buy a new digital radio just for the new DAB+ broadcasts – NO – however I am seriously considering purchasing a unit like the Kogan radio. I will wait a few months to see what all the manufacturers offer. My feeling is that Digital Radio by itself is not compelling, but it could take off if sold in “digital convergence” devices which bundle digital radio with WiFi radio, iPod Dock, RJ45 Network port, USB Drive slot, Playback from other sources like Network Storage etc

Kogan DAB+ Digital Radio With WiFi and iPod Dock

The technology itself is not to blame. The DAB+ digital radio broadcasting standard that Australia chose to adopt is the latest and greatest, allowing more stations to fit into less radio spectrum.

The issue is that digital radio is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, like Windows 98 compared to Windows 95.

If it had been launched 5-10 years ago than Digital Radio would have been much more likely to succeed but now with the smorgasbord of audio content on offer via the Internet “there are questions about how well [digital radio] will service all Australians, and given the dramatic rise of online audio services, whether it’s actually needed at all”.

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Initially Digital Radio will be available in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth with plans underway for the future extension of services to regional cities and rural areas at least 3-5 years away.

This in itself is a big factor which will confuse radio listeners because people expect an AM/FM radio receiver to work all around Australia, whether at work, home, on holidays at the beach or in their cars while commuting.

  • Many families like my own have several ordinary portable AM/FM radio’s as well as home theatre systems with AM/FM receivers which would need to be replaced at considerable cost
  • In my testing I’ve experienced patchy and inconsistent digital radio signal strength where I live in Sydney well within the boundaries of the transmission area
  • There is only 1 digital radio unit available for cars in Australia at the moment and its a kludgey solution which requires 3 cables, has poor battery life & no real sound quality benefit because to play the sound from your car speakers it rebroadcasts the digital radio signal as FM!

What are the Benefits of Digital Radio?

Digital Radio will not replace current analog AM and FM radio stations for at least 10 years, instead it provides you with more choice in how to listen to your favourite existing radio stations at better quality as well as some new extra digital radio exclusive stations like ABC Grandstand and NOVA Nation.

The Australian newspaper thinks that “ABC Grandstand could be a key driver of take-up of digital radios, of which there estimated to be less than 10,000 around the country currently (most digital stations also stream on the internet).

The new ABC Grandstand will not only broadcast uninterrupted every ball of the Australia and England cricket series from the UK, the digital transmission on the DAB+ spectrum will negate the previous time lag between analog radio broadcasts and digital TV telecasts for loyal ABC listeners who turn the sound down on TV commentary.

ABC Grandstand will also allow the splitting of ABC sports coverage of AFL and NRL matches across the country, which will be broadcast into non-home states on the digital channel. For instance, as Sydney’s ABC702 broadcasts an NRL match into New South Wales, Melbourne’s ABC774 broadcast of an AFL match can be broadcast on ABC Grandstand digital in New South Wales.”

Potentially Better Sound – Digital radio can deliver better sound quality than traditional AM and FM radio. I have 5 digital radio units on media loan for review from various manufacturers.

Friends and family who have listened to my test digital radio’s in an area with strong digital radio signal remarked “they have a clear crisp sound, no static, I can hear subtle notes in music that are lost in the hiss of analog radio units”

Easy Tuning – No need to remember your favourite station’s frequency. You can tune by station name. Simply scroll through the list of stations and with one touch, you’re tuned and listening to your favourite ABC, SBS or commercial radio stations.

Allegedly Better reception – Digital radio is said to offer interference-free, digital-quality sound but as with digital TV this is only true if you have a strong signal in your area/building. If you have a weak signal you might not pick up some of the stations at all. If you have a strong signal than it’s true and the sound quality is really great.

Pause and rewind – A minority of digital radio receivers on sale like the PURE Evoke 2-S are able to pause, rewind for a few minutes and start playback a few minutes later. No need to miss the news, sport or weather because of a phonecall etc. Just pause and rewind.

PURE Evoke 2-S

Choice – More stations and new content will be on offer over time as new stations come online. SBS is testing a re-broadcast of the BBC World Service, the ABC offers new stations including ABC Dig Music, ABC Country and ABC Jazz and several commercial radio stations are offering new digital radio only preprogrammed music stations like NOVA Nation.

Text and Graphics – Digital radios have screens for text and small graphics so you’ll be able to receive “song now playing” information, weather forecasts etc. Some stations may offer scrolling text with news, weather, traffic updates and in time possibly an electronic program guide.

What are the Problems with Digital Radio?

Signal strength issues – In some areas of capital cities where digital radio has been launched the signal isn’t as strong as analog radio so you have to extend a digital radio antenna fully to get a strong signal.

Delayed Broadcast – Digital radio DAB+ broadcasts in Australia are up to 5 seconds delayed compared to analog AM/FM radio broadcasts.

This causes a problem for the many radio fans, you have several radios around the home playing simultaneously, in bedroom and kitchen for example. If you introduce a digital radio to this environment, it’s like living in an echo chamber.

Of course, if you’re listening to a single digital radio, the delay matters little unless you are paranoid your Swiss chronograph no longer hits the ‘pips’ spot on the hour. But it makes simulcast listening – to radio sports coverage while watching on TV, for example – impossible.

According to Joan Warner (CEO of Commercial Radio Australia) at the very best listeners can expect “DAB+ digital radio should come out of your speakers of your radio just a little over three seconds after leaving the studio”

Who Will Digital Radio Appeal To?

These parts of the Australian population are the ones likely to spearhead purchases of digital radio receivers at the initial high prices:

  • People who work from a home office – like me. I work from my home office most of the week and often listen to the radio in the background
  • Audiophiles – who will appreciate the improvement in sound quality, especially for music
  • Gadgeteers – Who will like the digital radio convergence units which offer iPod docks, WiFi internet radio and digital radio all in 1 unit
  • Expats – who have moved to Australia from overseas eg: the UK/USA and want to listen to their favourite radio stations. eg: I just used my test digital radio units to listen to “BBC 5 Live” via the internet. In my experiments WiFi radio uses appx 30mb/hour of ADSL data downloads.

Public, Commercial and Community Digital Radio Stations

I asked digital radio spokespeople at ABC and SBS what their offerings would be and also found what Commercial Radio and Community Radio had to say:

SBS Spokesperson: SBS Radio will offer programs on 9 digital radio channels.

SBS Radio has grown up with multicultural Australia. The world’s most linguistically diverse broadcaster, SBS Radio is many things to many people: news, information, entertainment, education.

With diverse cultural and community views, Radio is a bridge linking to the 3.1+ million Australians who speak another language. Broadcasting in more than 68 languages; producing 650 hours of programming each week, with thousands of correspondents across the globe, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

This will be a simulcast and time shift of current analogue services. As a result, listeners in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane will be able to tune into all SBS Radio programs, which include a number of new programs, and more programing hours.

These services will also be repeated 2 hours later.

SBS Radio 1 – Sydney AM live
SBS Radio 2 – Sydney FM live
SBS Radio 3 – Melbourne AM live
SBS Radio 4 – Melbourne FM live
SBS Radio 1+2h – Sydney AM + 2 hour delay
SBS Radio 2+2h – Sydney FM + 2 hour delay
SBS Radio 3+2h – Melbourne AM + 2 hour delay
SBS Radio 4+2h – Melbourne FM + 2 hour delay
SBS Radio 6 – Sports events / music / special programming eg: BBC World Service.

ABC Spokesperson:
ABC Radio currently offers simulcasts of the following stations on digital radio:

ABC Radio National 40kbps
ABC Classic FM 56kbps
ABC NewsRadio 35kbps (There will be a separate feed of ABC NewsRadio when Parliament is in session)
triple j 48kbps
702 ABC Sydney 35kbps
774 ABC Melbourne 35kbps
612 ABC Brisbane 35kbps
720 ABC Perth 35kbps
891 ABC Adelaide 35kbps

New Services:
ABC Dig Music 48kbps
ABC Jazz 48kbps
ABC Country 48kbps

These three new stations are replacing the internet radio stations Dig, Dig Country and Dig Jazz and will now include on-air music news, reviews, interviews and features.

Each station is streamed online and complemented by a feature-rich website. Song and artist details, album covers and extra information on each track is included in the media player.

The websites also give listeners access to unique musical content, plus material gathered from across the ABC and around the web. Online, listeners can also set up pages to upload their own material and join musical communities to interact with artists and other music fans.

“We’re delighted to have three additional stations broadcasting on digital radio from its switch-on,” Kate Dundas, Director of ABC Radio said. “Each station will deliver the best possible listening experience with a large amount of distinctive and high quality Australian music. The new websites provide us with a terrific opportunity to build listening communities both on-air and online.”

And 2 special events stations:
ABC Grandstand Digital – 35kbps Ashes, AFL, NRL and other live sports coverage etc
ABC Extra – 56kbps which can be used for one-off special events like 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

Both ABC Grandstand Digital, and ABC Extra, are examples of how digital radio provides the opportunity to present special events broadcasts outside of normal network and local radio programming.

Commercial Radio Spokesperson:
Digital radio is the radio you know and love plus new programming such as ARN’s EDGE Digital, Austereo’s Radar and Pink Radio and DMG’s NovaNation and Koffee.

It’s also digital quality sound and interference free reception, the ability to tune to the station by name, rather than frequency, and on some radios, the ability to pause and rewind a few minutes, plus scrolling news, sport and weather text and some receivers will have the capacity to transmit on screen a picture of a radio host, cover of a CD or a product picture.

Now that digital is up and running, listeners can expect a number of new stations to be launched soon.

Community Radio Spokesperson:
The President of the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, Deborah Welch says,

“It is fantastic to see Digital Radio getting off the ground in Australia, and this is only the beginning. You’ll see a raft of new services coming through over the next year, and particularly the innovations that always come from community radio.”

Metropolitan community radio stations are starting later than their commercial and government funded counterparts because infrastructure funding, confirmed in the May 2009 budget, is arriving a year later than first expected.

There are 37 community radio stations eligible to participate in the first roll out of Digital Radio in Australia; like the ABC, SBS and commercials it is limited by legislation at present to the metropolitan audiences of Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. These stations are drawing on the grassroots energy and creativity that powers community broadcasting to bring new digital services on-air.

Welch says, “Digital Radio will bring huge benefits to some of our listeners and greater choice to all. Listeners to our AM stations, including the Radio for the Print Handicapped stations in each capital city will particularly benefit from improved clarity and reception quality”.

What the Media and People Are Saying About Digital Radio

Telecommunications Consultant Paul Budde: The initiative has been taken away from the traditional radio organisations and basically has moved to the internet. From an infrastructure level then, increasingly people are using radio on the internet, and not just podcasting, but many people now have home media centres, and they simply link their internets to their hi fi equipment, and they listen to their own radio programs, or they’ll make a selection of the thousands of radio programs that are available from elsewhere.

Courier Mail Newspaper:Retailers are finally stocking digital radios, but a new survey shows they may have very little of what listeners really want. That would be cheap digital radios, and digital radios for the car. Are you willing to upgrade your radios regardless? And will you pay $200+ to do so?

The Australian Newspaper: Australia was slow to take up the compact disc, compared with the US, Britain or Europe. It took the best part of a decade from its introduction in 1983 before the CD became the norm in Australian record stores and home collections.

Doubleclick can’t help wondering if the same fate – slow take-up – might await the latest technological marvel being heavily promoted to consumers across Australia: digital radio.

“Digital radio is free,” stresses the publicity material, ignoring the fact that analog radio is as well. And it adds: “All you need is a new digital receiver.” Ah, there’s the rub. Digital radios, alas, ain’t cheap. Small ones are priced from about $169 and go up to almost $1000. Brands include Yamaha, Pure, Sangean, Revo, Roberts and Grundig.

Digital Radio Receiver Units

I recently reviewed the budget priced Kogan DAB+ Digital Radio: WiFi, iPod Dock and USB Slot and also have several other digital radio’s also on media/press loan from OXX Digital and PURE Australia. These reviews will be published during the next few weeks

Verdict: “In my opinion the current digital radio services by themselves are not compelling enough to prompt a large proportion of the Australian population to spend $150-$1000+ per new radio/home theatre system.

Would I buy a new digital radio just for the new DAB+ broadcasts – NO – however I am seriously considering purchasing a unit like the Kogan radio. I will wait a few months to see what all the manufacturers offer. My feeling is that Digital Radio by itself is not compelling, but it could take off if sold in “digital convergence” devices which bundle digital radio with WiFi radio, iPod Dock, LAN Network port, USB Drive slot, Playback from other sources like Network Storage etc

25 thoughts on “Introduction to Digital Radio in Australia”

  1. nice read. i still going to sit and wait to see what happens.

    the radio sets seem to be be going for $280 +, which ain’t cheap.

    but i can tell that this is going to be future.

    the revolution will not be analog……

  2. I do think that radio has been moved over to the internet. I usually use my Iphone to listen to the radio through my car speakers when I’m driving.

  3. Please change “than” to “then” where appropriate throughout your article. Thanks.

  4. This is typical of all new tech dumped into Australia

    Typical example is the Sony PS3 ,being AU$300 MORE in Australia and EU then Japan and USA

    If companies would just LOWER the cost of new tech they would SELL MORE and earn a BIGGER profit in the end .

    When you look at Radio its what 20 to 100 bucks or a car stereo is 50 to 200 , some that also play mp3s from cdr/dvdr

    Would would u pay extra to listen to digital radio thats converted back into analogue back into low end speakers that you wouldnt even notice the difference .

    If new LCD TV’s , LCD OLED TVs and new cars supported digital radio with built-in digital radio and digital speakers then it might improve the uptake but I could see a lot of people like truckies and long distrance travelers not wanting to change their current setup in car/ute/truck since AM/FM radio works fine and sounds okay .

  5. Once again Canberra is left out, not that I would want to pay multiple hundreds of dollars for such a device when I personally wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in audio quality over normal FM that is currently in place.
    Once again Australia is late in setting this kind of technology up.

  6. I think that it is completely unforgivable that DAB is launched and only one kludgy solution has been made available for the car. What is the industry thinking?? I would have thought that the car is one of the most popular places to listen to the radio and no real solution at launch. I for one am going to pass until this is resolved. I agree that radio is moving to the internet and I think Digital Radio is going to struggle to get mind share. (I really cannot believe the car situation!!??)

  7. Hey blueatria, i understand what you mean about the kludgy solution but amazingly the highway was the 2nd best selling auto accessory in the UK in 2008 (according to Pure/GFK) – what would you like to see in a car unit? Are you aware that the DAB/DAB+ operates on Band III and AM?FM operates on Band II which as far as I know prohibits the existing car aerials from picking up DAB/DAB+ signals.

  8. Would DAB+ not be more compelling if devices made it easy to record songs to MP3? I mean, specific functionality to record a song and store and name it to a hard disk. Is this functionality being prohibited by copyright concerns? What about specific functionality for sports fans, such as “replay the wickets that fell in the last session?”

  9. Would DAB+ not be more compelling if devices made it easy to record songs to MP3?

    Agreed! Only one unit does this to date in AU – The Roberts tabletop system (to SD card or USB) , the biggest issue is getting chips to speak to the Frontier Silicon DAB+ chips….it makes everything very complicated….I am unsure of any copyright issues but we are looking into it….re replay the wickets..i guess that is a content thing and will be down to the stations on what they provide.

  10. As a 70 year old who likes to listen to test cricket either in my garden or whilst I drive, tell me how digital radio is going to benefit me. It isn’t. I have to change my radios and miss out in the car….. How many hospitals are going to install digital radio?….. zilch. Nil. So the old guys confined there will miss out on their cricket. It’s just an unnecessary costly waste of time. Pity the poor pensioners who used to enjoy their cricket….it aint there anymore.

  11. I’m only 46 and I love listening to cricket too, and the car is an important part of that. I look at the digital radios on sale now and most of them seem of dubious build quality. The photos look schmick, but you see them on the shelf and think “this will probably break in a year or so”. So, in the meantime, it’s listening to ABC sports and hope they remember that cricket is being played somewhere, and that AFL isn’t the only sport on for the next 5 months.

  12. I have spoken to the ABC about the cricket. I should have saved my breath. Then I spoke to the Australian Cricket people in Melbourne. Another waste of breath. I wonder if they will start whinging when the popularity of the sport drops. Wanting to hear the cricket I just bought a digital radio. It cost me $70.00 and was the cheapest one at Dick Smiths. In HK you can buy the same radio for $23.00 Aust $. We are being ripped off big-time. Of course…. made in China. The reception is really poor compared with my ordinary portable transistor radio.

    In some locations in the house the sound drops out completely. The model of the one I bought is Kaiserbaas and it’s a plastic white colour. It’ll be used for cricket only as it can’t compare with my Sony transistor in any way. Just another con on the public and a huge lack of consideration by the ABC on all the car drivers (no digital car radios yet) and the old people who can’t afford to buy a new rip off price digital radio. The Cricket board deserve a kick for not going to ordinary radio stations to carry the cricket broadcasts. For sure the interest in the sport will wane. No wonder that Fox TV are carrying the tests. Nobody else can find it on radio or free to air TV.

  13. We tried to sell a USB solution via work (we import TV tuners and wed cams etc) but it wasn’t viable and way to expensive, it only worked in Sydney (that is where we tested it)…

    I have the sample here and it is quite useless. Maybe in a few years I will get the sample out again, if I can receive it in Canberra.

  14. Not one of the Digital Radios I have looked at were in the least attractive in design. Most of them reminded me of the first of the klunky portable radios that were on the market in the 50’s.
    Ungainly box like structures. Many that spoke of pause rewind in their sales pitch , failed to have onje of these capabilities on any radio currently for sale.

    Others had no speakers!What sort of stupidity causes companies to reconvert digital signal back to analogue and expect buyers to swallow the guff about DIGITAL radio being the waqy of the future? It should be the NOW and have features that we are all conversant with from the so called analogue age.. MP3, Internet access, CD/DVD playback/record USB connections SD cards.
    Well it will be a long time before I waste my money on a lemon with a box like apopearance that has no appeal.

  15. Bought an iRiver MP3 player that also has a DAB+ radio. Thought I could listen to the Commonwealth Games whilst down the beach at Scarborough, didn’t I? The only station it couldn’t pick up at that location was, you guessed it, ABC Grandstand.

  16. I was given a digital radio for father’s day. A Pure One mini.
    Not very impressed. In fact I am trying to listem to a station as I type this message. The signal strength is very week, even at my workplace in Macquarie park. It is very annoying trying to listen to the music but it keeps dropping out.
    Not impressed. Hopefully this will improve over time.

  17. i live on the central coast and i have looked and according to north sydney ,we are part of north sydney ,yet we dont get the digital signal yet , how long before we finally get the signal ,how many years , it was supposed to be a trial in sydney yet its been running for about 4 years ,, if its been running that long ,we should all have it , come on , hurry up and put it in , i have the new bush digital radio ,it cost me $180 , and i want to use it , wake up , put towers up and get the signal right , full signal strength ,not this half signal strength that some tv stations have ,

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