Is FM Radio Facing Extinction?
Following through on a policy switch passed in 2011, Norway has begun phasing out its national FM broadcasts, switching to digital radio and potentially signaling what some feel could be the start of a worldwide trend.
The New York Times reports that the switch to "radio digitization" started in the country's Nordland region this week, kicking off a yearlong shutdown of national FM broadcasts that's scheduled to conclude in December. According to Norway's Culture Ministry, moving to digital audio broadcasting will save roughly $25 million a year.
The decision — and the technology — has its detractors, who cite everything from choppy signals to the death of a nationwide emergency broadcast system as reasons for alarm while decrying what they describe as a government-mandated push to buy expensive new radios when the old signals still work just fine.
One Norwegian citizen interviewed, for example, admitted that he tends to get most of his listening through podcasts or an SD card slot in his car — but he still bristled at the idea of the digital switch, telling the Times the national parliament was wasting "vast amount of resources on shutting down a functional system and at the same time pushing lots of people into scrapping their otherwise well-working radios."
Digital broadcasting is part of a long-term trend — SiriusXM boasts millions of digital radio subscribers, and in the United States, television broadcasters started the wholesale migration away from analog bandwidth more than a decade ago — but industry pundits predict it'll be quite awhile before listeners around the world are forced to phase out their analog radios.
"Norway has a small and relatively affluent population that can be convinced into making the transition, in spite of the costs for the consumers," pointed out University of Leeds lecturer Stephen Lax. "Norway’s switch could prove a symbolic moment in the history of radio broadcasting, but not a significant one, in the sense that it’s not going to start a snowball rolling."
Be that as it may, it isn't hard to see the switch as a very early bellwether for the future of radio — and a sign that a technology that's always been cheaply and widely available to listeners of all demographics may slowly be leaving older listeners behind.
"Norway is now conducting a massive experiment with the future of radio on a national scale with no guarantee of success," added Finnish professor Marko Ala-Fossi. "You can lose older listeners without any prospect of recruiting younger listeners."
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