Radio convergence = less local content?

In January, news articles mourned the death of FM radio in Norway. The country has been broadcasting DAB since 1995 (McLaughlin, 2017), which offers “better sound”, “is easier to tune” and is “more affordable for broadcasters” (McLaughlin, 2017). But DAB is still a broadcast technology, and commentators suggested it would soon be replaced by “internet radio and music streaming from companies such as Spotify… and Apple” (McLaughlin, 2017).

One theme pervasive throughout their articles was a focus on either technology (is the sound quality good at 128kbit/s?) or economics (how much will a new radio cost?), with little to be found on the societal and cultural implications of DAB and/or internet radio (henceforth described as “new radio formats”). I argue that, if a similar switch were to occur in Australia, the following questions would need to be raised:

Do new radio formats provide the same level of exposure for local music?

Section 5 of the Commercial Radio Code of Practice (which stipulates that, between the hours of 6am and midnight (Commercial Radio Australia, 2017, p. 19), at least 25% of music broadcast by Top 40 stations must be performed by Australians (Commercial Radio Australia, 2017, p. 8)) “does not apply to digital-only services” (Commercial Radio Australia, 2017, p. 9). This exemption has been in place since 2010 (Brandle, 2010), and may result in stations of the future “[playing] back-to-back overseas artists” (Brandle, 2010).

Of course, the 25% quota has not been exceptionally successful, even in FM commercial radio (as evidenced by music promoter Michael Chugg’s observation that “Mainstream radio will not… play Australian music until they have to. It’s awful” (Newstead, 2012), and that stations fulfil their quotas by playing “greatest hits s***” (Newstead, 2012) instead of new releases), but at least regulatory bodies are attempting to affect change. Not so with DAB.

Will new radio formats provide enough local news, especially for regional areas?

For most of its history, commercial radio has had a tenuous relationship with regional areas. At first, stations were reluctant to even enter the market, as “licensees… held the view that with a small population… regional centres were not able to support a commercial radio station” (Criticos, 2015, p. 142). Networking (eg. obtaining “programmes such as drama, sport and news” (Criticos, 2015, pp. 142-143) from national networks like Macquarie, to “[minimize] operating costs through economies of scale” (Criticos, 2015, p. 142)) soon presented itself as the perfect solution, but cast the future of local content into doubt.

I contend that, although local news content will be lacking if Australia shifts to DAB, its continued existence (albeit in a marginalised fashion) is assured by the broadcasting scarcity rationale. Often used to justify the existence of public service broadcasters (PSBs), the scarcity argument claims that a lack of spectrum space necessitates the regulated provision of public interest services (Tremblay, 2016, p. 195). Hopefully it will be applied to DAB news services in the future, even though digital broadcasting allows more channels to be squeezed into the same spectrum (McLaughlin, 2017).

Extending this argument further, it follows that, as the scarcity rationale would cease to remain relevant if the concept of broadcasting was abandoned, local news content may be nearly non-existent on Internet radio stations in the future. Perhaps the radio industry body’s laughable definition of “local content” (as “material of relevance and appeal to the local audience” (Criticos, 2015, p. 144), even when such material is not produced locally) will become the standard.

Can you think of any other societal or cultural issues that must be considered when switching from FM to DAB and/or Internet radio? Please post your thoughts in the comments below.

References

Brandle, L. (2010, 2nd July). Australian Digital Radio Exempted From Domestic Quota. Billboard.  Retrieved 28th May 2017, from http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/global/1204277/australian-digital-radio-exempted-from-domestic-quota

Commercial Radio Australia. (2017, 15 March). Commercial Radio Code of Practice.   Retrieved 28th May 2017, from http://commercialradio.com.au/CR/media/CommercialRadio/Page%20Banners/15-March-2017-final-code.pdf

Criticos, H. (2015). Regulating local content on Australian radio: Can it restore local radio in an era of convergence? Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media, 13(1/2), 139-150. doi:10.1386/rjao.13.1-2.139_1

McLaughlin, K. R. (2017, 12th January). Why reports of death of FM radio have been greatly exaggerated. The Sydney Morning Herald.  Retrieved 28th May 2017, from http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/why-reports-of-death-of-fm-radio-have-been-greatly-exaggerated-20170112-gtqd86.html

Newstead, A. (2012, 20th November). Michael Chugg Slams Radio For Not Supporting Aussie Music. Tone Deaf.  Retrieved 28th May 2017, from http://www.tonedeaf.com.au/229645/michael-chugg-slams-radio-for-not-supporting-aussie-music.htm

Tremblay, G. (2016). Public service media in the age of digital networks. Canadian Journal of Communication, 41(1), 191-206. doi:10.22230/CJC2016V41N1A3062

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