The ABC announced with much fanfare last week that Dig Music will be rebranded as Double J, a new digital-only station to address the complaint that “Triple J isn’t what it used to be”. Launching on April 30 with Myf Warhurst at the helm, it has ruffled some feathers in regional Australia, where digital radio is yet to be rolled out.

The national broadcaster is looking to digital for new products as there is no more FM bandwidth available, says Jane Connors, ABC Radio’s head of industry policy and strategy. “We don’t have any more analog spectrum, unless we took it off something already there, which we don’t plan on doing,” she said.

Steve Ahern, editor of RadioInfo, says it makes sense that the ABC is investing in digital radio. “Radio’s future is digital, because all new media consumption devices — tablets, smartphones, computers — are going digital. If radio is stuck in the analog age, limited to old devices, it will die. So digital radio is part of radio’s future-proofing strategy,” he said.

Six months of research and consultation has gone into developing Double J and its sound, which is pitched at listeners 30 and over and will play 70% new music. Digital radio is now available to 64% of the community, but according to Paul Budde, CEO of telecommunications research site BuddeComm, growth in digital radio has been slow, in Australia and overseas. “Nowhere is in a rush. There’s no real incentive to buy a new radio,” he told Crikey.

Digital radio has been broadcasting in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth since July 2009; trials have been underway in Darwin and Canberra since 2010. Community radio has been broadcasting on digital in these areas since May 2011, but the government has not yet committed to roll out digital radio outside of capital cities. The Department of Communications recently undertook two reviews into digital radio and is due to report on them in the first half of this year. Extending digital radio to regional areas isn’t practical, the Department of Communications said in a statement:

“This is because the technology currently used in Australia to deliver digital radio services, and the spectrum available for such services, will not enable them to match the coverage of all existing analogue radio services in all areas, particularly AM services.”

As with digital television, digital radio offers listeners increased audio quality. Some devices have the ability to pause and rewind and have screens that can display information such as song artists and titles. But unlike digital TV, which has replaced analog transmission completely, the Department of Communications website labels digital radio “a supplement to existing radio services in Australia, rather than a replacement technology”.

Budde says this is similar overseas, although the AM band has already been switched off in Europe. Connors says the ABC is watching overseas developments in digital radio closely as it plans for future content.

The ABC and Commercial Radio Australia are both positive about the future of digital radio and its take-up in Australia. CRA figures from late last year show that 1.6 million people listen to digital radio each week, which is 12.7% of total listenership. As of November last year, 1.4 million digital radios had been sold in Australia since 2009 — a fraction of the 60 million radio devices that exist in the country.

Ahern says “people change their mobile phones every couple of years, they change their TVs when a new size or feature comes in, but they don’t think about changing their radios so frequently”. “The radio industry will need to educate consumers to buy new radios and putting on new digital stations as some incentive for consumers to do that and to upgrade to digital,” he said.

Connors says “like the rest of the industry, we’re very pleased with digital radio sales and take-up. We would like to see digital radio rolled out across the country that would give it security as a fully fledged platform that would really start to secure its future.”

Double J is one of six digital-only channels from the ABC; the others are ABC Grandstand (sports), ABC Jazz, ABC Country, ABC Extra (a pop-up event channel) and Triple J Unearthed. Connors says “we don’t invest very heavily in digital radio, but we do see it as essential”. “We don’t want to see radio marooned on an island in a digital age,” she said.

Double J will be funded to a “slightly more satisfactory level” than the other digital stations, two of which are jukebox-only stations (Jazz and Country), another two are part time (Grandstand and Extra), and Triple J Unearthed “runs on the smell of an oily rag”, according to Connors. She says the ABC is happy with the listenership figures for digital radio, with ABC Jazz as one of the best performers.

The ABC is not the only media provider to invest in digital radio, with more than 20 digital-only commercial stations in the eastern capital cities. Supermarket giant Coles has also invested in Coles Radio, to be played in-store (and for anyone who likes to hear “down, down, prices are down” between songs).

Community radio stations have also experimented with digital radio. The Community Radio Network marked International Women’s Day this year with pop-up station Girls to the Mic, and SYN Media in Melbourne launched digital-only station SYN Nation last week.

After six months of consultation and a mostly positive online reaction, it seems there is also a market for Double J, but listeners in regional Australia will only be able to tune in by streaming online. About 34% of Australian radio listening occurs in cars, but digital radios are yet to become standard fittings. As of last year, only 11 vehicle manufacturers in Australia had digital radio as standard or an option.

There are some positives for regional listeners, though: Budde says streaming won’t send internet bills through the roof like it once did. “The technology of streaming has improved, you don’t need the same bandwidth as two to three years ago,” he said.

Budde expects the rollout of digital radio across regional Australia to be slow, as “there’s no uproar in regional Australia, no one is saying ‘where is my digital radio?’”. Perhaps if Double J delivers the goods, the demands may come.

Peter Fray

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