Guest post: The future for radio broadcasting in Australia

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Phil Brennan, who shares the following guest post–an article he originally authored for the Australian DX News:


WHKY-AM-Radio-Tower

What Future for Radio Broadcasting in Australia?

By Phil Brennan, Darwin, NT

As we witness the worldwide decline in long wave, medium wave , shortwave and indeed FM broadcasting, it can be at times a slightly depressing exercise to ponder the future of our hobby.  As I write, just last week Radio France announced that it will soon cease all LW broadcasting.  There’s an on-line petition to save the service: this morning it had collected 770 signatures after one week. It was 769 until I sent my modest click across the universe L.

On the domestic front we’ve seen the pointy-headed bean counters in Canberra and their political masters take the knife to our national broadcaster to the point where Radio Australia now seems to be little more than a relay station for the ABC with barely any in-house production tailored for its audience.

With all this doom and gloom it was with some trepidation that I spied a recent Australian Government report entitled Digital Radio Report [1] which arrived via my email in-box through the excellent Australian Policy On-line resource.  The report was published in July 2015 by the Department of Communications and was conducted by the Minister for Communications under the Broadcasting Services Act and the Radiocommunications Act. Note: the Minister for Communications then was Malcolm Turnbull who is now Australia’s Prime Minister.

The report makes for an interesting read (for nerds like us) and provides some great insight into the bureaucracy’s thinking on the future of radio broadcasting in this country.  So while the report ostensibly considers the current and potential state of digital radio in Australia, in so doing it looks at the other forms of radio broadcasting and gives us a peek into the future.

The report broadly considers the following issues:

  • The current state of digital broadcasting and alternative forms, eg streaming services through the interwebs
  • Whether Australia should set a digital switchover date and close off analogue services; and
  • The legal and regulatory framework for digital services.

Like you would have dear reader I quickly scrolled through the report to see if it was recommending a full switchover to digital.  The good news is that this won’t happen anytime soon and perhaps not ever.  Phew! It seems Australia’s geography and sparse population works in our favour (for once).  Anyway, more on that later.

So what does the Australian radio broadcasting landscape look like at present?  Well for lovers of analogue radio it’s still looking pretty strong and it’s likely to remain that way for some time to come.  In the five big cities the 2014 average weekly audience for commercial radio services grew by 4.13 per cent to 10.1 million people.  That’s pretty impressive given the quality of the stuff they serve up each day.  Aunty’s (that’s the ABC to foreign folk) radio service reached a record 4.7 million people in 13/14, an increase of 155,000 listeners on the previous year. Well done Aunty!

All up there are 273 analogue commercial radio services (104 on AM, 152 FM and 12 outside the broadcasting service bands.  Community radio is going strong with 357 analogue services (13 AM and 344 FM) plus 244 narrowcasters (33 AM and 211 FM).  There’s lots of stuff still out there it seems.  Perhaps too much as the FM band is becoming very crowded in the major metropolitan areas.

There are 142 commercial digital services in the big capitals plus the two trial sites in Canberra and Darwin.  Interestingly a good proportion of the digital services are simulcast analogue services, for example 11 out 29 of the commercial digitals in Sydney.  Listenership of digital radio is growing slowly and steadily, reaching 25 per cent in the first quarter of 2015, primarily due to the growth of receivers in motor vehicles.

Streaming services are rapidly gaining ground with services like Spotify, Pandora and the new Apple Music picking up new subscribers each week.  The move by Aunty and the Special Broadcasting Service’s (SBS) to mobile apps for streaming content is also showing good growth. It would appear that to some extent this growth has been at the expense of terrestrial digital services, but audience data in this area is pretty sketchy it seems.

So what of the future for digital radio? Well it seems that for the present the public does not show a preference for digital radio over other forms. And while some European countries such as Norway with near total digital coverage are looking to switch off their FM services, some countries such as the UK have postponed their planned switchover to digital due to slow uptake by the listening public.

In Australia there are big interests such as SBS, Commercial Radio Australia and Broadcast Australia pushing for a switchover to digital as soon as possible.   Thankfully the report’s authors have listened to other bodies that advocate for a multi technology approach.  Significantly the report notes that while digital could match FM for coverage with a similar number of transmitters, it will struggle to match the coverage provided by the medium and high powered AM transmitters that reach the remaining population.  Digital Radio Mondiale and satellite digital radio technologies could increase digital’s coverage but are not considered viable.

Internet based services are not seen as a realistic alternative in the medium term due to high data costs, restricted wifi coverage, likely interruptions in high traffic areas and poor battery life on mobiles.  It’s likely that this will be a niche medium for some time.

So what does the report conclude and recommend?  Well, digital radio was only ever introduced as a complimentary technology and that will continue to be the case.  In saying that the report makes a series of recommendations to free up the rules so broadcasters can take up the digital option more readily.  DAB+ is the preferred technology so don’t go ordering a DRM set anytime soon.

Perhaps most interestingly, the report makes a major finding that there may be an opportunity to consider how analogue terrestrial radio coverage can be improved pending the roll out of digital radio.  This includes further research into how AM coverage can be improved in metropolitan areas and whether the FM spectrum can be made available in regional areas for new analogue services or switching existing AM services over to FM, potentially in lieu of the rollout of digital services.  For us lovers of analogue radio this is certainly good news, particularly if more high powered AM broadcasters hit the band.

Does this actually mean that analogue radio services are safe?  Well, governments have been very good at ignoring reports advocating for the public good and succumbing to the commercial interests with other agendas, particularly when it comes to media.  That said, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the government to pull the plug on analogue anytime soon given the coverage issues in regional Australia.  However, when it comes to governments, the sensible thing to do is often viewed as the last option.

[1] © Commonwealth of Australia


Thank you, Phil, for your article and opinions! I agree–in a country with such vast expanses, analog radio still has advantages over other mediums. Comments?

Shortwave Radio Recordings: Australia Bureau Of Meteorology

Australia-BureauOfMeteorologyThis morning, I re-discovered a recording I made in the early morning hours of January 25, 2015 on 6,230 kHz SSB: the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s marine weather radio service.

This was actually a new station for me and, no doubt, decent DX (though I’m sure the broadcast is quite audible when conditions are favorable). While I prefer old-school recorded voice for shipping forecasts, this nonetheless has a catchy cadence.

Click here to download the audio as an MP3, or simply listen via the embedded player below:

Radio Australia closes shortwave service to Asia

Radio-Australia-BannerMany thanks to SWLing Post reader, David, who passes along this announcement from Radio Australia via Pacific Beat:

On Sunday, Radio Australia’s shortwave signal to Asia will be turned off, another result the ABC says of recent government funding cuts.

Shortwave broadcasting into the Pacific will continue, but signal strenth outside Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji may be degraded.

Alex Oliver from the Lowy Institute has contributed evidence to Australian parliamentary inquiries and committees on foreign affairs, defence and trade for many years.

So does she view the switch off as a big step back from international broadcasting by Australia, or simply the retirement of some old technology.

Presenter: Adam Connors

Speaker: Alex Oliver from the Lowy Institute

Listen to audio of the full interview by clicking here.

Cuts to Radio Australia shortwave broadcasts

Radio-Australia-Banner

(Source: WRTH Facebook Page via contributor, Mauno Ritola)

“According to information from Radio Australia, there will be a drastic cut to their shortwave schedule starting 1st February 2015.

Only these transmissions from Shepparton will remain to the Pacific:

  • 2100-0900 UTC on 15240, 15415, and 17840 kHz
  • 0900-2100 UTC on 6080, 6150, and 9580 kHz

Their web site hasn’t yet been updated:
http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/

Radio Australia is a staple news source for many in the Pacific islands. Fortunately, RA plans to maintain shortwave services 24 hours per day via the frequencies above. I’m happy to see that 9580 kHz–which is a morning blowtorch signal into  much of North America–will still be transmitted.

“The Gutting of Radio Australia”

ABC-Radio-Australia(Source: Inside Story)

We’re sitting on the grass in the village of Matangi on the island of Futuna. This is one of the more isolated communities in Vanuatu, a small group of houses on a small island at the southeastern extreme of the archipelago.

“We rely a lot on Radio Australia when there’s a cyclone coming,” says Miranda, a member of the island’s Community Disaster Committee. “We have no telephone on this side of the island and we often can’t hear Radio Vanuatu.”

As Australia debates budgets, debt and deficits, we rarely hear the views of communities affected by planned cuts. Whether it’s the size of the aid budget or the resourcing of the international services of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or ABC, our neighbours have little input into decisions that affect their lives.

The latest blow is the planned redundancy of eighty staff from ABC International following the Abbott government’s decision to take Australia Network television away from the ABC. Revoking the $250 million TV contract – with just ninety days’ notice – has had an impact well beyond television. Given the integration of TV, radio and online services within ABC International, the decision affects not only Australia Network but also the other international services providing crucial information to the islands region.

Continue reading at: http://inside.org.au/the-gutting-of-radio-australia/#sthash.4cwXhev9.dpuf

View other posts related to Radio Australia cuts by bookmarking the tag RA Cuts.

Lynley Marshall defends ABC overseas broadcasts

Lynley Marshal (Source: ADNews.com.au)

Lynley Marshal (Source: ADNews.com.au)

(Source: The Sydney Morning Herald)

“The chief for the ABC broadcasting into the Asia Pacific insists the taxpayer funded network has a growing audience with better programs on the way – despite reports the service is for the chop in the May budget.

ABC International boss Lynley Marshall stoutly defended overseas broadcasts as a way of promoting Australia, saying the spread of social media and mobile devices in Asia has vastly extended the potential audience.

She told a Melbourne audience on Monday evening the service had more than 1 million supporters on its Facebook page for learning theEnglish language.”

[Continue reading…]

While this article doesn’t mention shortwave radio per se, it’s most interesting to see where Marshall must both defend Australian international broadcasting as a form of diplomacy while also defending the news agency when its reports are critical of the government.

There’s an inherent tension all international broadcasters face–at least, those that are tax-payer supported–as many try to transition from being purely a mouthpiece of the government to an example of free press and democracy.

Radio documentary on history of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

ABC reporter, and later RN documentary maker, Tim Bowden on patrol with a US Marine squad near Da Nang in Vietnam. (1966) [Photo: ABC ]

ABC reporter, and later RN documentary maker, Tim Bowden on patrol with a US Marine squad near Da Nang in Vietnam. (1966) [Photo: ABC]

(Source: John Figliozzi via InternetRadio Digest)

ABC Radio National will broadcast a weeklong series highlighting the history, development, key moments and future of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on the occasion of its 80th Anniversary, from December 24-28.  Details from:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/specialbroadcasts/abc-80th-anniversary/4373618

There is a 16 hour difference between New York and Melbourne during our standard time winters; 19 hours between Los Angeles and Melbourne.  “Live” broadcast, therefore, will be at 2 am, Dec. 23-27; repeated at 9 am, Dec. 24-28.  No word yet on whether or for how long a podcast of this series will be made available.

John Figliozzi