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Adrienne Owens

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Crank it up

Digital radio sounds terrific however, Michael Lallo accounts, winning listeners will be hard. In the early hours of Monday, May 11, a tower near the top of Mount Dandenong started emitting Melbourne's first digital radio signal. There was no fanfare, no senior politician on hand to congratulate all concerned; even when this little piece of press history was made, valuable few were aware about it. From this exact humble foundation, the nation's biggest wireless networks are looking to expand their empires; to use the quality and technological advantages of the digital signal to improve audience and marketing share. For more information: Car audio speakers

The significant question concerning digital radio would be: will it fly? Can Australians do what those in Britain haven't and purchase expensive radios to acquire the stations and features only accessible in the digital format? There are plenty of cynics who will inform you digital radio is doomed before it actually starts. Radio's dead anyway … and (digital radio) is as pointless as steam locomotives at the age of this diesel-electric." A lack of funds in the new federal budget saw that the ABC and SBS shelve plans for new digital channels. The industrial networks, fearful of fragmenting their current audiences, are designing brand new stations to have just a narrow appeal.

In Britain, in which digital radio has existed since the mid-'90s, there are only a few million sets in use, compared to 100 million analogue places. Many Australians don't know what digital radio is. Other people predict it is going to be adopted as slowly and unenthusiastically as digital tv. You say you are going (to push electronic from the outset)? Yeah, we consider you."' But do not write it off just yet. Despite promises the technology is over-hyped, it does offer real benefits to listeners.

And industrial Radio Australia, having scrutinised the errors of Britain, is determined not to repeat them. "We do not expect all to rush out and buy new radios to their own homes and their cars straight away," Warner says. "Yet some retailers say they are already selling from digital radio sets." So what is digital radio? To put it differently, it is a new broadcasting format named DAB+, that can be an alternative to AM, FM and internet radio. To listen to it, you need to purchase an electronic receiver. It offers superior reception and sound (depending on the bit rate used by each station, the audio quality ranges from FM to CD standard). Other models have colour screens that show everything from album covers to photo finishes of horse races.

Nearly all sets have a pause and rewind function. And channels are listed by title, not frequency, so they're easier to find. Most existing Melbourne industrial and government-funded channels are or will shortly be simulcast on electronic, and there are currently four brand new digital-only stations, with much more due to launch this year (see sidebar). Excitingly, many networks will utilize a portion of the digital spectrum to broadcast one-off occasions like concerts and sports games, or to create temporary stations like Pink Radio. In my scepticism about electronic radio, I quickly became a convert. To begin with, AM stations - many of that sound as though they're broadcasting from a concrete tube when discovered in an analogue receiver - sound excellent in digital. There's no static because you get either perfect reception or none at all (though, very rarely, the signal cuts out and in). I use the pause and rewind feature to repeat songs and information updates and also the artist and title information is useful. Along with the digital-only channels are surprisingly great. Nevertheless I remain underwhelmed with the sound quality of the simulcast FM channels, because my unit has just one little speaker. Stations such as Fox and Nova sound better in my own analogue stereo radio than in my mono digital set. Naturally, digital stereo places are still available but price a few hundred dollars. Still, with prices set to drop during the next few years, this should not be a problem for as long. So why is there a lot of uncertainty about the viability of the new technology? Well, much of it stems from Britain. In the first days, even the most basic recipients were prohibitively expensive. See Also: Top best rated 4 inch car speakers in the world | The best 4 inch speakers for car reviews

There was little co-operation between the commercial and government-funded channels without a unified advertising effort. In Australia, each broadcaster was allocated a chunk of digital spectrum to use as they pleased. Alas, many chose to make plenty of new stations with poor audio quality instead of some good-sounding ones. "We have learned from those mistakes," Warner says. "Our local broadcasters understand the value of sound quality. They're not going to be smashing (their spectrum) into little rates to acquire a growing number of stations because it defeats the purpose." Poor comprehension among sales personnel is usually cited as another reason for the slow uptake of digital radio in Britain - but things aren't much better here.

Myer needed a dozen components and its staff were reasonably knowledgeable. But David Jones and Dick Smith had just a couple of models each, whilst JB Hi-Fi had none. What's more, the assistants at these shops were unable to specify a single benefit of radio. Internet radio could pose a hazard. Thousands of stations from around the globe can now be streamed through iTunes and a few high-end digital recipients also have internet capabilities. However, as with any internet service, it has to be paid for in terms of data usage. And just because you can hear a channel in New York, are you really going to quit listening to local radio? More pertinent are the issues with in-car listening.

Local makers, for instance, won't set up digital radios until 2012 at the earliest. And because most late-model cars have integrated sound and climate control units, electronic receivers cannot be retrofitted. Companies like Pure offer outside sets that may be attached to some windscreen or dash - however with lots of dashboards already sporting a stick-on navigation platform, owners may be reluctant to add to the mess. Unsurprisingly, community channels are fighting to go digital, with most claiming they haven't received sufficient government funding. But before the analog signal will be closed down - and at this phase, there is no suggested switch-off date - they're not likely to lose listeners at the brief term.

Nor are no plans to extend the digital broadcast array beyond metropolitan Melbourne. To assess if your suburb will receive the signal, visit digitalradioplus . Warner thinks digital radio will succeed in Australia despite these issues. "Each of the business networks and the government-funded stations are working together to market the technology," she states. "We're employing the same logo and marketing material and we're spreading the same messages. And we've got ads on air right now telling people about digital radio," she says. "I will pluck a figure out of the atmosphere and it'll seem pessimistic or hugely insecure. "We will need to determine how it goes at the very first couple of months until we start making predictions. "But it's wonderful how competitive the systems are becoming," she says. "They've noticed the success of the new digital channels such as for instance and Koffee plus they are busy developing their own new stations. I think digital radio will be much more successful than we give it credit for."

Digital gets tickled Pink DIGITAL RADIO IN MELBOURNE - Many AM and FM channels happen to be simulcast on digital, including 3AW, Magic, Fox, Triple M, Nova, Vega, Mix, Gold, 3MP, SEN and Sport 927. - You'll find four brand new digital-only channels on air: Radar (which plays unsigned Australian musicians), Novanation (dance music), Koffee ("chill audio") and Pink Radio (a temporary station playing songs by Pink while she tours Australia).

When the analog channels interrupt their shows to broadcast sport or philosophical proceedings, the electronic channels will continue with routine programming. ABC's three internet stations - Dig, Dig Country and Dig Jazz - are also simulcast in July 1. Additionally, ABC will broadcast one-off occasions such as Triple J concerts on another, unbranded station. However, the broadcaster has had to ditch its plans for new digital-only channels - such as a children's channel, a sports channel and also a health channel - because it didn't receive sufficient funding in the Federal Government. "However a brand new sports channel is still on peak of the list." - Besides July 1, SBS will digitally simulcast both Melbourne channels and two Sydney stations - subsequently rebroadcast them using a two-time period delay. "We are not just decreasing the number of stations; we're providing listeners more opportunities to catch up in their favourite programs," says the acting manager of SBS Radio, Christoph Wimmer. Related article: SBS intended to establish several new digital-only channels - a South-East Asian channel, Chinese channel, European channel and a recent affairs and childhood station - but the Federal Government diminished funding. - Pacific Star Network, proprietor of SEN and 3MP, plans to start "one or two new channels later this season" but won't reveal its plans. - Australian Radio Network, proprietor of Mix and Gold, will launch a digital-only youth music channel known as the Edge on July 1. The channel will play artists such as Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. - Fairfax Radio, proprietor of 3AW and Magic, will launch two digital-only music stations in August. "We are putting the finishing touches on them so that I can't reveal what they're yet," says Fairfax Radio boss Graham Mott. "But they are going to be low-cost formats. 3AW and Magic will continue to be the focus … as far as our business operates." - Sport 927 may utilize a part of its electronic spectrum to broadcast events such as the major racing carnival days uninterrupted. It is going to also make sports programs aimed at a younger audience.

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