Two years ago we asked whether iBiquity’s in-band digital radio was killing radio. We wrote:
IBiquity's in-band on channel (IBOC) digital technology (has won in the US).The alternative, DAB (Eureka), was too radical. It meant shutting down AM and FM and moving everyone to new spectrum space.
Instead of creating something new and bold, shiny and bright, we protected the old and worn. We made sure that all those old dusty boom-boxes worked.
We made sure that dad's old transistor with the analog dial still worked. We told America that same old radio, that throw back to an earlier pre-digital time, was still just fine.
What would be different about radio today if Eureka had been chosen? A time would have come when analog radios no longer worked. All those accumulated clock radios, portables, and consoles with the fake wood trim gathering dust would become obsolete.
Now we know the answer. In-band HD radio is sputtering, but so is Eureka. Neither approach has convinced significant numbers of listeners to buy a new digital radio.
While these numbers are considerably higher than US HD radio acceptance, UK goals are considerably more aggressive than US goals. The plan in the UK is to shut down analog radio all together.
With the prospect of both the BBC and commercial broadcast stations no longer broadcasting on AM or FM, UK listeners have a much greater incentive to purchase a digital radio than Americans.
The fact that 64% of UK listeners haven’t bothered to upgrade even at the risk of losing radio altogether is telling.
The government, hoping for brisk sales of the new radios had originally set a goal of switching off analog transmitters in 2015. Here’s how one broadcaster recently assessed that likelihood:
There isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of it being in 2015. That date is dead in the water, and we all need to wake up to that fact.
As the graph above shows, UK digital set sales are under two million a year and declining. The UK needs to replace an estimated 100 million analog radios in people’s homes, and another 30 million in cars.
At a rate of under two million sets a year, it could take a while.
While the British consider the transition to digital a disaster in the making, digital radio set sales in a country with only one-fifth the population of the US are greater than in the US.
Late last year iBiquity claimed US HD radio sales totaled three million units (accomplished in about five years), a total nearly matched in the UK in three years.
With in-band HD radio in the US stalled and UK DAB in a similar state, it is more obvious than ever that listeners just don’t see the point.
With AM and FM stations doing a reasonably good job of meeting the needs of listeners, and the availability of thousands of Internet radio stations for the few listeners looking for something more, it is hard for listeners to get excited about spending money on a radio that adds a few more channels.
Maybe the quality is a little better than regular FM, but how many people care? Most people seem quite happy with the quality of analog FM and low bit-rate MP3s. High fidelity as a selling point is as anachronistic as the term itself.
Two years ago we asked whether adopting DAB would have helped US radio. If the UK experience is any indication, the answer is no. Like AM Stereo, and FM Quad-Stereo before that, digital broadcast is too little too late, in-band or not.