Sunday, April 19, 2015

Thoughts on the Norway FM Radio Switchoff.

Something showed up on my Facebook timeline today, linking to an article which caught my interest.  The reason it caught my interest was I could see the three-way clash of North American culture, worldwide culture and the fact that I've worked in and around radio (and radio related technologies) for most of my life.  What is very apparent to me isn't apparent to everyone, and sometimes I forget that.

A quick primer on radio and I...

  • As a kid I would do DX'ing (listening for radio stations from other countries).
  • As an adult, I've used radio to transmit stuff over vast distances (the most extreme case was using a YAPP packet radio and atmospheric skip to transmit stuff at 300 baud from the UK to a fishing trawler that was south of the Falkland Islands). 
  • I am still an avid radio listener.
  • I was once the sole iOS developer for Clear Channel's "iHeartRadio" app (I worked on it from version 2.45 through to 3.1), which is now called iHeartMedia.
  • I've worked alongside FEMA and their EAS test a few years ago.
I moved to Canada in 1998.  When I came over, I brought my radio/tuner with me - a Sony that was made for the European market (Yes, it runs on 220 volt electricity).  At that point this radio was about 5 years old and it was the second of it's type I'd owned.  In Canada, most of it's features didn't work until about 2004-2005, which I found highly fascinating.  To date, some features still don't work in Canada because Canadian radio hasn't caught up with the early 1990's yet.

Without getting technical, most people (including Canadians) are now aware that modern radios can tell you the name of the station you tuned to - some even tell you the name of the song/artist.  This comes from a system called RDS (Radio Data Service), which has been in Europe for a lot longer than in North America.  There's an advanced version of RDS called EON (Extended Other Networks), which gave us lots more features in the early 1990s that still don't exist in North America today.  I've never been able to switch on a Canadian radio and tell it to "only play Punk" music, or have it jump to a different station if the weather forecast comes on.  

These features don't exist because if you remove choices from the listener, you can create niche stations and so in places like Toronto, where I now live, you can't listen to what you want and still have the weather every 10 minutes - instead you have to tune to a specific type of "talk radio" station where you get the weather every 10 minutes, along with forced traffic (thats a different option in RDS EON) and adverts.  Put another way, whereas European usage of radio gives you a buffet of radio to pick and choose from, the North American model gives you 100 stations and you can only listen to one at a time - and the media companies just looove a captive audience.

This illusion of choice is much like the mechanism you see in Canadian burger restaurants;  Whilst the adverts with their condescending American narratives saying "Have it your way, Canada" are telling you that you have a choice to make things exactly how you want, what they're actually selling you is either a) you can pay X dollars for a fully loaded burger, or b) you can still pay X and skip some toppings.  Obviously, this works in the burger chain's favour as everyone still pays a premium price even if you decide not to have all the toppings you just paid for.

What this broadly translates into is radio turns into these little "islands" of listeners who are being kept away from other stations - and because the audience are not exposed to other stations, no stations have to try to win over new listeners.  Radio in Toronto is crap, and radio across most of North America is bad.  Ask anyone in North America to name a famous radio station where the DJ actually "DJ's" (i.e. spins a 30 minute session of proper mixes, or introduces you to something new) and nobody can name one.  In the UK, people would say "Pete Tong", "John Peel", "Danny Rampling", "Nicky Holloway".... In Canada and the USA, this really just doesn't exist, which is strange when you consider how much music and culture is born here.  

Again, it all comes down to these "silos" or "islands"...  To really ram this point home, lets say you're a Canadian and you're sitting at your computer and you want to listen to CBC Radio 1.... you have to go to cbc.ca to listen to that.  Then you want to listen to Q107, so you go to their website.  If you want to listen to something new, you have to find a new website.  Nothing is tied together even though they're all supposed to answer to the CRTC.  

By contrast, in the UK you just fire up www.radioplayer.co.uk and every station that has a broadcasting license is available there.  Now, there's over 400 radio stations on that site, and this brings us back to the digital radio issue.  In Ontario, there's just over 500 FM stations.  In the UK, there's over 400.  So, imagine cramming 80% of Ontario's radio into 1/6th of the province and you'll have some idea of what the airwaves look like. The radio spectrum is pretty crowded!

Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) solves two goals:
  • Free up radio broadcasting spectrum in dense areas.
  • Allow the addition of more features to the radio that RDS EON cannot handle.
When the bulk of people move over to this type of radio, the entire old FM spectrum can be freed up for better uses.

Now, this isn't a one-sided rant, because in North America we're seeing technologies like RDS being used in equally innovative ways that Europe doesn't.  The biggest one that comes to mind in Ontario is electricity grid management.  When your Air Conditioner is being commanded remotely to shed about 10% load in a heatwave because we're running out of electricity, it's RDS radio technology.  

This is really a culture thing;  Norway switching off it's FM radios will be shocking to many people, especially to those who didn't know that many European countries have already done the same with TV.  For instance, the UK switched over three years ago.  In Europe it's normally referred to as DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting), and a quick look down this list will likely shock the average Canadian or American into realising how far behind things are here.  I have always found this interesting.  I know what's going on as well, especially in Canada where two companies run most of the media and also happen to own the cable and broadcasting networks.  

It's a money thing.  Why give the people choice when you can keep them ignorant and gauge them for money?