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Developments in the digitisation of radio

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The leap from analogue to digital has been one of the most revolutionary transitions in the media. Not only radio, but also the written press, has taken this step that has changed the format of production and distribution, but also some aspects related to how the media is conceived.

As far as radio is concerned, it is a media with a lot of internal competition, due to the large number of stations. Its digital transition, therefore, meant a form of differentiation and the possibility of attracting new audience segments. However, just as the written press could quickly visualise how to adapt its medium to the digital era, the case of radio has been a little more complex.

The radio medium works by means of waves carrying electromagnetic signals. These waves are emitted by an electrical circuit and picked up by a receiver, an antenna, isolated in another place that decodes these waves to convert them into sound. The sound can therefore be generated and heard in different places but maintaining a certain proximity. At least, this is how it used to be.

The digitisation of radio has broken the spatial barrier that determined this format. Each medium has, in principle, a frequency within the spectrum, a place of its own from which it creates those waves that will later be decoded. To access that content, the receiver must pick up that same frequency of waves. The frequencies, nominated with numbers such as 93.5 or 103.9, vary depending on where the transmitters and receivers are located, but they have been the most important elements of the radio format and, at the same time, have been a challenge for its digital transition.

The digitisation of its production and distribution is characterised, as we said, by the challenge of transferring the electromagnetic wave format to the digital space. This process began with great uncertainty, like any transition of this calibre. Among the first doubts that assailed those who worked and listened to this medium, the coexistence of both formats was one of the greatest concerns. Will analogue radio be able to coexist with the new digital version or will it end up displacing it? These are not questions that have not also arisen with other media or transitions of this type. For example, with the big screen and the small screen, cinema and theatre, electronic books and paper, etc.

Whenever a change of this magnitude occurs, the threat of extinction of the original media looms over those who created it. But the reality is that, although their use may diminish, the old media never die or fade away. Thus, digital radio and analogue radio coexist today, although the former is still in a phase of expansion.

The digitalisation of radio is carried out by means of software, the new spaces that either replace the electromagnetic waves of radio equipment or coexist with them. The sources, recording and manipulation of sound have changed, and are now located in the digital medium, where devices such as mobiles and computers are the new radios.

Examples of digitised radio

There are mainly three examples of digitised radio.

  • Digital Terrestrial Radio (DTR)

Digital Terrestrial Radio is the digitisation of the radio spectrum of frequencies. It is, so to speak, placing the radio within the internet. The radio station's signal is placed within a web portal that is accessed like any other address.

As part of the network, it is a much more interactive format that offers other advantages such as better audio quality, resistance to interference or additional capabilities such as video and multimedia.

However, it is not a widespread technology as it requires a specific receiver. Compared, for example, with its television equivalent, Digital Terrestrial Television, the differences in broadcasting between the two media can be seen. Just as the analogue switch-off of television took place, this step has never been taken with radio.

The two most notorious examples of RDT are IBOC (In-Band On-Channel) and DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting). One American and the other European, these RDTs were the first successful cases of this new digital modality.

  • Virtual radio stations

Also known as online radio, these are stations that use streaming technology to broadcast in real time, so to speak, placing the radio within the internet, not using the web as a link to the analogue transmission.

Virtual radio can include blogs, forums, chats, calls, sections and texts, among other examples.

They are slightly different from other types of radio because they are already designed for this digital format, but they have not yet achieved a great place either on the web or in terms of radio.

  • Podcast

The success of podcasts is one of the most recent evidences: this is the most successful digital radio format so far and it could still be considered to be in the development phase.

The basic idea of podcasts is permanence. They are, with some exceptions, recorded radio programmes that are left on the platform where they are placed for as long as desired. The format of these podcasts is also different from analogue radio. It breaks, for example, with the constraints of linear programming, and offers a high degree of interactivity.

The variation of these programmes, as well as their subject matter, are very varied: information, culture, humour... Anything can become a podcast nowadays. An audio, radio style, that accompanies us while we do anything else. With different registers, a lot of design, sound effects and high quality, these new formats are not only revolutionising the conception of radio but are conquering other spheres. There are many companies or brands that, without being media specialising in radio, are joining in to make these programmes more accessible to increase their audiences. For example, the magazine Historia del National Geographic, originally written press, on paper and digital, offers part of its contents in these formats.

Therefore, this quest for digitisation, which began in the 1980s and which did not seem to have borne the desired fruits, is now reaching a good path that could change the concept of radio and the world of radio broadcasting.

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