Next Big Wave

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Radio: The Next Big Wave

by Geoff Forgie (2001, revised)

Radio continues to be a part of our lives and is integral to the development of new communications and IT products.

To many people, radio has the image of an old fashioned, played out medium. As a radio enthusiast I cop the jokes of my colleagues about my interest in this "boring old stuff". The picture of a family gathered around their large, floor standing, wooden cabinet, vacuum tube receiver, is still an image which defines radio. But the genie escaped from that container many years ago, assisted by the development of transistors. It transformed and multiplied by the millions, colonizing places at work, in the home, and in transit. Car radios and portables became commonplace, and radio's role in society evolved.

Radio is many things to many people. It provides music, news, chat, documentaries, drama, book reviews, and background information on numerous subjects. It can be company, sometimes trivial, sometimes serious. It can be genuinely informative and mentally satisfying to a degree that TV seems challenged to match. The rate at which interesting ideas can be delivered on radio is prodigious - perhaps because it is not hampered by the need to be harnessed to the moving image. Too much talk can kill a TV show, while too much talk is never enough for radio.

The importance of radio was highlighted a few years ago when the "cash for comments" affair blew up. Prominent talk back radio personalities were accused of taking payments in return for product endorsements or favourable comments about companies which were allegedly woven into their shows. It was a hot controversy and illustrated the power of radio as a promotional medium - it has a long reach and many tentacles. The amounts being paid for new broadcast licenses is another indication that radio, in one form or another, has a vibrant future.

Thanks to the miniaturization flowing from the transistor, then the microchip, radios are everywhere. Mobile phones often include FM receivers, and a new generation of mobile devices with internet access will also make the new "podcasters" available to anyone on the move. Pod casting is the latest form of "radio" propagation. It is going to make it possible for anyone to run their own radio station on a shoestring. The programs are not broadcast, but downloaded to an MP3 capable device. Production and dissemination costs are so low that it will not be beyond anyone's means. In the developed world that is. See links below for more info.

While we can use the internet to get clear reception of any station in any country (as long as they stream their output via the net) there are millions of people in the third world who have no such option. For them, electricity might not be an option. Still, radio is available to them in battery driven form, or perhaps the very clever little wind-up radios, invented for this reason (see link below for more details). You wind them and get about 40 minutes of play before rewinding. Radio broadcasts via "shortwave" remain the only contact isolated communities have with the world. The late 1990s were a bad period for shortwave fans. Governments saw cost savings to be made, and many broadcasters had their wings clipped. Those decisions are being revisited now in the knowledge that we do need to reach those without computers, and SW is still the way to do it. International broadcasting gives the country of origin a means to enhance its image abroad, while enriching the lives of the recipients. The simple radio remains the most democratic of media devices, being affordable and usable just about anywhere. In our part of the world there are still regular shortwave broadcasts by Radio Australia, the BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Wella, and Radio Netherlands, to name a few. Radio Moscow disappeared during the 1990s, but Radio China is the new force in the region. Its programs are professional, modern, and easy to receive.

Governments are not always fully across new technologies, and media policy can hold back developments of new media. The Menzies government did not think that FM was going to be used in Australia, despite its adoption in America and Europe. So, they allocated part of the band to TV. This had to be reversed later, to free up spectrum for FM. The Hawke government has to take the rap for the Cable TV debacle, which saw it languishing for years. The introduction of Digital TV under the auspices of the Howard government has had its own difficulties, and the auctioning of datacasting licenses had to be abandoned due to lack of interest. That situation will continue until the rules are overhauled.

Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB+) is about to start, ushering in a whole new modus operandi for radio. With some models you'll be able to pause and rewind live radio, and get info crawls on the display, or even full colour artwork on some. AM and FM will transition to DAB+ over a long period, and there is no definite shut-down date for the current broadcasts - it'll be up to the individual licensees to decide.

Wireless propagation for computing and entertainment purposes are now a reality. We have systems like Sonos for music, and various TV manufacturer's introducing wireless media boxes which allow you to mount your flat screen on the wall then "send" the programs to it from a nearby stowage point for the media box.

The future is all tied up with radio, in one form or another.