Digital radio – new sound, new stations

The new sound of the airwaves is gaining momentum, with more radio stations now broadcasting in digital and more DAB+ equipment in stores. Anthony Fordham surfs the digital radio landscape.

Good things come to those who wait. At least, that’s the message from Commercial Radio Australia as digital radio completes its initial roll-out to capital cities across the country.

It means more channels, more features, but most of all it means no more terrible, terrible AM sound from your favourite talk stations – stations that make up nearly 50 percent of Australia’s radio audience.

If you’ve been holding off on a digital radio purchase because all you could pick up were test broadcasts, take heart. Commercial and national broadcasters are on the air now, with simulcasts of many FM and AM stations, and several entirely new channels.

Digital stations

First, the familiar: ABC broadcasts the now confusingly-named Classic FM, NewsRadio, Radio National, Grandstand and the capital city station (such as 702 Sydney or 891 Adelaide) as simulcasts with traditional AM and FM channels. Triple J too now has a digital simulcast.

New stations include ABC Dig Music, ABC Country and ABC Jazz, which until now have been broadcast using the digital TV network, receivable only as a ‘radio’ channel on a TV or set-top box. Meanwhile, SBS broadcasts its national radio service, simulcast with its existing FM and AM services.

Your new DAB+ radio can also tune in to the major commercial networks – simulcasts of familiar FM and AM stations in your capital city are up now, such as Sydney’s 2GB and Melbourne’s 3AW. The major FM music stations are there too, including MIX, Nova, Fox/2Day and Triple M.

Essentially, if there’s a big station broadcasting on FM or AM in your capital city, it now has a DAB+ digital simulcast: have your DAB+ unit scan for new stations, and your old favourite should appear, with very few exceptions.

However, you’ll also discover some new stations on your digital dial. Koffee is a DAB+ music network that aims to offer “time to chill” – low impact music for relaxing. Novanation is more or less the reverse, advertising 24/7 digital dance music to keep you bopping at all hours. Radar and The Edge are ‘themed’ stations, offering R&B/Hip Hop and undiscovered independent acts respectively.

As far as digital-only stations are concerned, it’s still early days. Commercial Radio Australia, which oversees the DAB+ roll-out, is still focused on ensuring the new slice of the radio spectrum is working properly, especially in topographically-challenged Sydney, where creating a whole new radio network is a lot more complicated than just throwing up a transmitter and plugging it in.

…and sub-stations

The nature of DAB+ means each broadcaster can ‘slice up’ their section of the spectrum as they see fit. The maximum 192kbps of bandwidth can be divided among numerous channels or offer features besides audio, such as playlist information, traffic reports, or news headlines – though much of this still remains in the realm of possibility, rather than being something you can access right now.

The current trend is toward genre-specific mini-stations, slices of bigger networks. If you want to listen to only House dance music, you’ll be able to tune to a House sub-station.

Naturally these stations will exist only where demand exists. Larger commercial networks will experiment with various offerings, but as always audience behaviour will determine how far from the traditional model the commercial stations will venture. ABC and SBS both promise more specific-interest stations to join their new digital stations “soon”.

One of the great things about digital radio is its essential compatibility with online streaming. Instead of randomly twiddling a dial to see what station is where, you can visit the station’s website, see a playlist, sample a live stream (or listen all day via your web browser), and read up on the station’s mission statement and find out about any upcoming special events or programs.