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for October 11, 2002

Gettin' Those Digits
by Sean Carolan

The FCC has just approved a new kind of radio. After much lobbying by broadcasters who are apparently running scared for many reasons, a new "Digital Radio" scheme will soon be winding its way into high-end radios near you. However, I'm pleasantly surprised to report that it appears to be free of hidden agendas, and might actually result in a better product overall from the average consumer's point of view.
Firstly, unlike HDTV, which aims to force everyone in the U.S. to discard their televisions by 2006 in favor of new ones that operate in a completely different way, the new Digital Radio format will still work on the radio you've got right now. You won't be able to take advantage of new digital services, but you won't lose anything, either.
For the sake of precedent, let's look back at color television. A few competing methods vied for the standard, including one that included a motorized wheel that spun around and decoded the color displayed on the screen - which meant, essentially, that your expensive new color TV would have to have periodic maintenance. Luckily, the winner was the one that didn't require you to throw out your black-and-white TV. From that point of view, this looks like a winner.
Secondly, a widely distributed new technology is a vacuum that often winds up filled by the most eclectically creative people, at least at its start. As FM begat free-form radio, as TV begat Ernie Kovacs, and as the Internet begat Mahir, this could be a fertile place for new and interesting media. On the down side, the media companies that will own the stations won't want to pay people much to staff it; on the up side, that might give the staffers more say in what gets programmed. The potential is there, at least.
Thirdly, a given station isn't limited to one program stream on their digital signal. Each station can potentially broadcast several signals at once. That hopefully will result in more choice, which means even more dead air to fill.
While it's the major media powerhouses that will likely jump on the Digital Radio bandwagon, I hope what's left of the cadre of feisty local broadcasters left in the country will be able to join the party - with any luck, their creativity will make it worth tuning in to Digital Radio's early, embarrassing years.

Original portions ©2002 Sean Carolan

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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