Nº 2 2015 > Celebrating radio
Radio — The soundtrack of our lives
Dr David Wood
Chair, ITU Radiocommunication Sector WP 6C
On 13 February 2015, in conjunction with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), ITU hosted World Radio Day at its Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to celebrate radio and its value to society — past, present and future. Held on the anniversary of the first broadcast by UN Radio in 1946, World Radio Day aimed at raising awareness about the importance of radio, facilitating access to information through radio, and enhancing networking among broadcasters. This article by Dr David Wood, Chair of the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU–R) Working Party 6C, charts the value of radio, and how it is continuing to evolve.
For many of us, radio is an old friend. Since the first mass broadcasts took to the air in the 1910s, radio has opened a door to entertainment and information for billions of people around the world. The first radio “frequency plans” were prepared in the 1920s, regulating the use of broadcast frequencies, and allowing listeners to enjoy broadcasts, while avoiding interference from radio stations in other countries. ITU has been continually involved with the evolution of radio, which still remains the world’s most ubiquitous media. Radio continues to have new and continuing relevance in the modern era of smartphones and tablets.
Radio is a daily companion for many — we wake up to the radio and we drive listening to the radio. It is a lifeline for the old and lonely. It has been called “the theatre of the mind”, because it exercises our imagination. Surveys reveal that it is the medium we trust most. In many countries, it is still the number one place we go for music. Production costs are low. And when there is a national or local disaster, time and time again, radio proves to be the most reliable way to find out what is happening, and what we need to do.
As new media forms have arrived — radio, cinema, television, and the Internet — not one has fallen out of use. Rather, each new medium has added a new dimension to our media experiences. And just like other media, radio is responding to the evolution of technology. Today, there is a host of technical options being actively explored in the future development of radio. Which technical options will make most sense for tomorrow’s radio?
Digital radio: the next step
As for all media, radio can be digital. During the 1980s and 1990s, various digital radio broadcasting systems were developed. Today, the two most widely used are probably the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) family (DAB/DAB+) and HD Radio, each of which has features suited to different markets. Other options include DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale). There has not been agreement on a unique technology for worldwide digital radio; however, specifications for all the major alternative digital radio systems are readily available from ITU.
Digital radio offers solid advantages over analogue: the sound quality can be superior and as a consequence, listeners can become more involved and immersed in what they are hearing; radio stations can be found more easily; the transmitter power per station can be lower; additional multimedia can be provided; and many more radio stations can be made available (a list of advantages similar to digital television, in fact). However, after many decades, the cost of analogue radio sets is negligible, and analogue radio is so ubiquitous that many national Administrations prefer to encourage, rather than enforce, a transition from analogue radio to digital. The transition from analogue to digital radio is proceeding more slowly than for television, but as for every item of consumer equipment, it looks inevitable that it will happen eventually — the question is more about the timescale — “when”, rather than “if”.
Moving to digital radio also makes it easier to provide visual services that complement the sound — the totality of which may be called “illustrated radio”. If the radio set has a small screen, it can carry rolling collections of still or moving images or text about the announcer, the music, an advertisement, or anything else the broadcaster decides.
Radio services can also help people with disabilities. Along with the sound, a transcript can be broadcast of what is being said, which can be displayed on a small screen so that those with hearing difficulties can “read” and hence enjoy radio programmes. An ITU specification exists for the technology needed. Radio sets can also be arranged to help non-native language listeners or the elderly by “slowing down” the speed of conversations or spoken words, or by compressing the loudness range, making them easier to follow.
More advanced services giving traffic and travel information are also possible, and ITU specifications are available here too. These systems can work if needed in conjunction with the car’s GPS system.
Radio stations can be, and are, provided by many means — via conventional stand-alone radio broadcasts, or included in digital multiplexes for television or, more recently, as part of an integrated broadcast broadband service. The Internet itself offers access to thousands of radio stations from around the world. Radio sets can be designed to access the web, as well as radio stations. The set can seek out and bring up content from a website associated with the radio station. These sets can effectively offer a more advanced form of illustrated radio, or they can be used to provide other sound services. A rather neat feature is to be able to switch between a broadcast version and an Internet version of the radio station, according to which offers the better reception in real-time. In future, we can also expect mobile phone or tablet apps to be developed that make use of radio content.
If listeners are in the right place with the right equipment, radio can potentially provide “multi-dimensional sound” — sound that derives from any direction around us (as in real life). For example, if speakers were located around the interior of a car or a lounge, the broadcast can give listeners a sense of actually being present in a concert hall. ITU offers specifications for multichannel sound systems. Headphones (binaural sound) are another convenient way to experience multidimensional sound, without disturbing others.
A continuing need for radio for future generations
Today, many of us benefit from the constant companionship of a smartphone or tablet. If the content and variety and benefits of free-to-air radio are to be enjoyed by the smartphone and tablet generation, radio reception should be incorporated into these devices — this should be a rallying cry to all of us.
We know that many mobile phones have the capability for analogue radio (although in some countries, this capability is not “enabled” in mobile handsets). In countries such as India, where analogue radio reception is normal in mobile phones, there has been major growth in the number of radio stations. If the capability is designed into the handset, experience shows that it will be used.
Conversely, listening to a free-to-air-radio service via a smartphone or tablet could be perceived by some operators as taking away user time from the smartphone’s paying data services, so network operators and manufacturers may need some convincing to include digital radio in all their smartphones or tablets. Digital radio capability should be seen as a complementary selling proposition for network operators, rather than competition — and innovative new apps may also help to do this.
Radio can cheer us up, inform us, and entertain us — and it is always there as a useful option when society or widespread or far-flung communities need to be informed quickly. In the digital era of smartphones and tablets, radio continues to be a steadfast and reliable friend for billions of people around the world, underpinned by ITU’s valuable work.