Radio killed the radio star

By Anthony Fordham

All the world is digital, except in one important place. Your portable music-on-demand is digital, your TV is digital, your rental and collectible movies are digital. But what about radio?

If you’re a serious music listener, odds are you own a high quality FM receiver. Maybe you’re even into that crazy shortwave stuff, picking up transmissions from half a world away. And surely, even as you wired up your new HD set-top box via an HDMI cable to your LCD TV, you wondered “Where’s my digital radio?”

The short answer: 1st January 2009. On that date, in urban centres, major radio networks will begin transmitting a digital signal alongside their traditional FM and AM streams. Don’t worry; unlike analog TV, there’s no plan to switch off analog radio any time soon, so you’ll have plenty of time to decide if you want to make the switch.

Which is the whole problem with digital radio. The immediate benefits are the same as with TV: no more static, no more stereo dropping out, just a crisp, clean signal at near-CD quality. But unlike analog TV, FM radio works really well just about everywhere. And on the majority of crappy car stereos, FM sounds about as good as a CD anyway.

Also unlike digital TV, there’s no amazing new device to push digital radio, like the HD flat panel TV. And digital radio will sound, after all, almost indistinguishable from really good FM to a lot of listeners.

Yet the times, as they say, are a changing. Even new cars costing less than $30,000 now come with surprisingly good audio systems, and spending less than $2,000 gets you a pretty snazzy aftermarket head-unit and speakers.

Portable devices such as MP3 players and mobile phones now also have the kind of processing power that can deal with digital radio. After all, if they can decode MP3s on the fly, doing the same to a signal from the air should be no sweat.

And there’s one kind of radio station that will benefit massively: AM. Digital versions of AM stations, such as Radio National, will be much clearer, and in stereo.