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Radio is going digital

If you’re sick of all-talk AM radio, scratchy static or shortwave signals that sound like they’re being sent from Mars, take heart. Just like television, radio is going digital.
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If you’re sick of all-talk AM radio, scratchy static or shortwave signals that sound like they’re being sent from Mars, take heart. Just like television, radio is going digital. But lines are being drawn in a battle between the U.S. choice and the standard set for the rest of the world.

InsertArt(1819171)FOR THE MOST PART, AM radio has remained unchanged from the early days of broadcasting. In the United States, AM radio, once our main music medium, is now mostly relegated to talk, sports and all-news formats — because voice sounds good on AM and music sounds not so good.

But what if AM transmissions could be improved to the point where the quality was equal to, or slightly better than, FM transmissions today? And what about CD-quality FM broadcasts?

Last October, the Federal Communications Commission approved digital broadcasting for U.S. radio stations using a system from a company named iBiquity. Within the next few years, AM and FM radio stations across the country will begin broadcasting a digital signal alongside their current analog signals on the same frequency. Of course, you’ll need new radios to hear the new iBiquity “HD” radio signal; they should be available for sale to the public later this year.

A small but growing number of stations, in places as varied as New York and Birmingham, Ala., have already begun broadcasting digital signals. Currently, 130 stations are licensed to do so, according to iBiquity.

It will take up to ten years to convert all 13,000 AM and FM stations in the United States, said Jeff Jury, a senior vice president at iBiquity.

THE STANDARDS MUDDLE The HD standard is also available to AM and FM stations worldwide, but faces an uphill battle against competing standards that have already gained approval in Europe and elsewhere. Digital FM radio already has a big foothold in Europe, thanks to Digital Audio Broadcasting, a free, over-the-air digital service that requires only a special receiver attachment on the listener’s end. While DAB is approved in Canada as well, the FCC opted for iBiquity instead of DAB.

Digital radio goes beyond AM and FM, however. In many parts of the world, long wave and shortwave radio are the main sources for news and music. That’s where yet another standard, DRM, comes in. Digital Radio Mondiale was formed in 1998 to create a universal, digital system for shortwave, medium-wave and long-wave bands.

(Time for a brief radio jargon lesson: “AM,” which stands for amplitude modulated transmissions, is actually used in three major bands of transmissions: long wave, for short-distances; medium wave, which is what we think of as AM radio; and shortwave for around-the-world coverage such as the BBC World Service.)

Both HD and DRM are free to the listener, in contrast with the only form of digital radio most in the United States are now familiar with: satellite radio.

Satellite radio services such as XM and Sirius are more analogous to cable TV, with a far wider variety of channels available than what you can tune in locally — and many of the channels are commercial-free. But like cable TV, there’s a monthly service charge for programming.

In the last five years, the DRM group has expanded into an international consortium of more than 70 broadcasters, manufacturers, network operators, research institutions, broadcasting unions and regulatory bodies. Just last week, the International Telecommunication Union cleared the way for broadcasters in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia/New Zealand to switch to the DRM system for broadcasting.

IBiquity says that the ITU has also approved their system for AM and FM stations worldwide.

THE BENEFITS The reasons to switch to digital are numerous.

For the listener, AM radio will now sound like FM, with bandwidth somewhere similar to current FM monaural signals in the United States, improved reception quality, receiving stations on the same frequencies, new, low-cost, energy-efficient receivers and easy tuning by frequency, station name or programming format. You will also be able to get text information from the station that could include things like the title of the song you’re currently listening to and the name of the singer.

Broadcasters using the DRM system get the additional benefit of much lower broadcasting costs. DRM estimates its system uses about 20 percent of the total energy needed to produce an old-fashioned AM signal — in other words, they can now reach the same number of people at one-fifth the cost.

Radio manufacturers will benefit from people purchasing new radios in order to receive the upgraded signals. One estimate says that 2.5 billion radio receivers may need to be replaced.

THE SOUND I traveled last week to the Northeast SWL Fest (a conference of shortwave listeners) to hear DRM in action.

For now, listening to the DRM test transmissions requires a lot of effort. You need a PC with Windows 98 or better, a 16-bit soundcard that supports full duplex at 48 KHz sampling rate, LAN or dial-up network installed, a unique software program (available for 60 euros at and a specially modified shortwave receiver with 12 KHz IF output.

James Briggs of DRM and Jan Peter Werkman of Radio Netherlands set up the display and also brought with them a very, very, very early beta of a stand alone DRM-enabled radio, which had all of the above built inside. When it worked (I’m being kind) it showed what could be available in the next five to ten years.

What did work were the three setups using PCs and the special software. Briggs and Werkman got a number of shortwave broadcasters to send test signals to the gathering and the results were very impressive.

Gone was the the fading in and out of the signal. Gone was the very narrow bandwidth, with no treble or bass to speak of. Instead, we heard music that actually sounded like music. People speaking sounded like they were nearby, not thousands of miles away like they do on today’s shortwave broadcasts.

In short, DRM sounded terrific. It will give AM stations a new lease on life and could give FM and even the satellite radio channels a run for their money. Briggs told me that he’s heard the iBiquity system and sound-wise the two systems are very similar. I’m hoping to hear FCC-approved digital in the next few weeks to see if that’s true.

THE FUTURE IS COMING Back to the SWL Fest. Briggs and Werkman told the gathered crowd that all the stuff that now requires a PC, special software and a modified radio will be shrunk-down to one integrated chip. With radio manufacturers like Sony, Sanegan, Bosch, JVC and Telefunken on board the DRM bandwagon I’m sure we’ll start seeing receivers very soon. Kenwood and Harmon-Kardon are among the manufacturers working on U.S. radios for the iBiquity standard.

Within five to 10 years the price of digital radios should be low enough for people in remote areas and third-world countries, where reliance on shortwave is particularly strong, to afford new receivers.

The big rollout of DRM is coming this spring at the World Radio Conference in Geneva, when a number of the world’s largest broadcasters will announce a permanent schedule for DRM digital transmissions.

Back in the States, local shortwave fans are hoping that the start of digital transmissions will mean the resumption of BBC World Service to North America, which ended a short while ago. German broadcaster Deutsche Welle also plans to end their North American services in the next few weeks. For now, BBC World is available via their Web site and on satellite provider XM.

For now, it looks like we in the United States will have one digital AM and FM radio standard and most of the rest of the world will be using another one (or two if you count DAB). It won’t be the first time this has happened: television, HDTV, cell phones, etc.

I’m just hoping that someone out there is working on an AM/FM/LW/SW/DRM/HD/DAB radio — and that it won’t be too big or too expensive.