Dr David Wood blogs about the future of radio which will be covered in-depth as part of a special feature on the progress of the digital switchover in the upcoming edition of ITU News.
How much is radio ‘worth’ to society? It may seem an impossible question to answer. But, as part of an analysis for the prospects for Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), I asked a group of UK domestic consumers about ten years ago whether they would keep their radio set or their motor car if they had to choose one or the other. They all said that they could not survive without their radio. Their life companion would be gone. But at the recent Motor Show in Geneva, I doubt if the attendees would be prepared to give up their car for any price whatsoever – though all the cars still contained radios, so consumers can actually have both. Which would you choose? Radio and the ITU are the greatest of friends and mutually supportive as the recent World Radio Day in February 2015 showed. A series of technical presentations illustrated that there are many different doors open to develop radio in the digital era. An evening session brought to light the key role that radio plays in society. Although I love the simplicity of radio, I admit that I like the idea of integrating radio reception into smartphones and tablets. This would not only mean that the kids and the oldies could enjoy the free-to-air programming of radio and a huge wealth of additional content when these smartphones and tablets are finally surgically adapted to them, but the apps – the software programmes that run on the phone or tablet – can manage their radio listening and extract elements of radio programmes for all kinds of fun things like mash-ups that kids love to do. The great new ideas at the World Radio Day did not stop there. We’ve all found ourselves short of enough time to listen to a complete radio programme. The new techniques of personalized radio enable listeners to choose the length of the radio programme for the time they can spare. Any programme can be broken down into ‘objects’ and these can be arranged to be shorter or full length. There were some super tools for helping those with disabilities to enjoy radio more. There were demonstrations of processing radio programmes to make them sound like they are being spoken more slowly, although the overall time of the programme remains the same. And these exciting ideas were just the start. There is no doubt that radio has a great future, especially in the developed world. Digital radio in-car was one of the stars of the recent Geneva Motor Show. But there is another side. At World Radio Day, François Rancy, Director of ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau, pointed out that although six billion people in the world can access radio, there are still one billion people who cannot. There is still a big job to be done to bring radio to them. He is right. One answer could be to look back in time – the last decade saw the Worldspace project of Noah Samara. Noah’s dream was to use digital satellite radio to bring education, entertainment, and information to the developing world. He told me himself that in essence he wanted to tell stories to Africa and India – what a wonderful idea. Worldspace did not ultimately prove successful, and this may have been because the digital radios needed were too expensive for the intended users. Is there someone out there willing to pick up the baton? We’ve had the 100 dollar laptop – how about the 10 dollar digital radio?
David Wood is EBU Consultant, Technology and Innovation, at the EBU Headquarters in Geneva Switzerland. David is a former Chair of the World Broadcasting Unions Technical Committee, and he has represented the world broadcasting unions and EBU in international forums. He currently Chairs ITU-R Working Party 6C, and several groups of the DVB Project.