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The top eight radio platforms to be on

With the advent of digital satellite, digital terrestrial television, cable, the internet, DAB Digital Radio, and the continuing FM and AM transmissions, getting a great choice of radio is easier than ever before. But which is best for you?

By James Cridland
Posted 18 September 2014, 6.43am edt
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This is a full overview of available broadcast radio platforms, with benefits, drawbacks and rough costs for each; and, roughly, which countries are using these technologies. Comments are welcome.

AM and FM

The original way of broadcasting radio, 'Amplitude Modulation', was supplanted by a higher quality transmission method in the late 1950s, called Frequency Modulation. Unlike AM, FM transmissions can include a stereo effect, as well as, because of their higher transmission frequencies and different modulation format, a greater resistance to interference.

AM/FM is used everywhere in the world; though the US and Canada use different frequency spacing to Europe, and some parts of the world, notably Japan, uses different frequencies. FM also has subtle differences between different continents in terms of "pre-emphasis", which essentially means that a European-bought radio won't sound as good in the US as a US-bought one.

FM was formerly known as UKW ('Ultrakurzwelle') in some parts of Europe; AM was also known as "MW", or Medium Wave, though AM is technically correct for Short Wave, Medium Wave and Long Wave.

  • Benefits: Everyone's got a radio. Robust reception for many uses.
  • Drawbacks: AM can sound awful for music, particularly at night. FM can be subject to interference from pirate radio stations and occasionally atmospheric effects; as well as poor signal strength. Finite frequency resorce can mean a lack of choice.
  • Potential listeners: Transmissions can be targeted at a small local area, or much larger. Every household has on average 4.5 radios.
  • Current listeners: 56.6% of all radio listening in the UK is to AM or FM. (RAJAR Q2 2014).
  • Sound quality: AM is highly variable and mono. A good FM signal can sound excellent.
  • Transmission cost: Around £40,000 per year to run a single local FM transmitter. Rental can cost significantly more. National networks are far higher.
  • Reception cost: Receivers are anything from £1 upwards.
  • Coverage: From a few miles to hundreds of miles each.
  • Pay-radio capable: No
  • Now playing capability: limited information via an RDS-equipped FM set
  • Schedule capability: None
  • Display: station name and limited information via an RDS-equipped FM set
  • Best for: most radio listeners who are comfortable with the current sound quality of their current station, who don't want or need extra choice.

Digital Satellite Radio via TV

In the days of analogue satellite television, all television channels came with around nine mono audio channels, primarily meant for transmitting different language versions of the same television programme. While some channels used this, notably Eurosport, many channels sublet their audio carriers to radio stations. Tuning in to radio in this way was difficult, and confusing - since the picture of the hosting channel remained on the screen - and consequently few people knew of the facility, let alone tried it.

With the advent of digital satellite transmissions in late 1999, radio stations were given their own channel numbers and displays, so publicly-accessible digital satellite radio became a reality. Sky and Freesat are the only satellite systems aimed specifically at the UK, and there are currently a large number of channels on the system. Radio stations are accompanied by a 'soft' dark-blue display, including information related to the current programme. On Freesat, some BBC stations are accompanied by a logo and now-playing information similar to DAB.

Digital Satellite Radio via TV in this way is also available in some parts of the world, notably South Africa and Australia.

Note: in the US, there is a satellite radio service called Sirius XM, which uses a number of terrestrial transmitters and satellites to broadcast a US-wide service of a few hundred stations. There is no such service in Europe, and due to the economics, no such service is likely.

  • Benefits: Satellite can deliver high quality audio over a large coverage area. Large choice.
  • Drawbacks: Few local radio stations use the system. No dynamic 'now playing' information on Sky. Limited information on Freesat. Fixed antennas only, so no mobile coverage.
  • Potential listeners: Around 2m FreeSat households; 7m Sky households (Ofcom, 2012)
  • Current listeners: Unrecorded (separately) by RAJAR. 4.8% of all radio listening is via the television (RAJAR Q2 2014).
  • Sound quality: Digital, between 96 and 192k, MP2 encoded.
  • Transmission cost: Around £20,000 for transponder space, and £20,000 for appearance in Sky's Electronic Programme Guide (and therefore allocation of a channel). Freesat also charges for appearance in their EPG.
  • Reception cost: A digibox is free with commencement of a SkyDigital subscription (the cheapest is around £258 a year), or you can buy without any subscription for a one-off £175. No subscription is required to receive the majority of radio stations. A FreeSat box is normally a one-off charge from £50.
  • Coverage: UK-wide (in practice, most of mainland Europe), to fixed antenna
  • Pay-radio capable: Yes (Sky only)
  • Now playing capability: None on Sky; limited on Freesat
  • Schedule capability: Now/Next only on Sky; a full schedule on Freesat
  • Display: limited to text in a standard format
  • Best for: people who don't want local information, but a wide choice of music, including the ethnic and the unusual. High amount of speech-based programming.

Digital Terrestrial Television

Freeview, launched on 30th October 2002, is a bouquet of entirely free channels through your aerial, including radio channels. Just like Sky, viewers can select a channel - starting at channel 700 - to listen to a limited choice of radio services.

Radio in this way is also available in other countries, notably in Australia.

  • Benefit: High quality audio.
  • Drawbacks: Limited station choice. A significant lack of choice for commercial radio stations. No ethnic programming except that provided by the BBC.
  • Potential listeners: 12 million homes claim that Freeview is their primary television supplier (Ofcom, 2012). It should be noted that Freeview, due to its low cost, is a good second-set option (for bedrooms and kitchens) so total potential audience is rather higher.
  • Current listeners: Unrecorded (separately) by RAJAR. 4.8% of all radio listening is via the television (RAJAR Q2 2014).
  • Sound quality: Digital, between 96 and 192k, MP2 encoded.
  • Transmission cost: Rumoured to be upwards of £120,000 per year for a channel. Space is very limited.
  • Reception cost: DTV set-top boxes available from one-off £19.
  • Coverage: Dependent on transmitter multiplex, but total coverage approaching 99% of the population. Fixed antenna only.
  • Pay-radio capable: No
  • Now playing capability: Limited
  • Schedule capability: Yes - for up to seven days in advance
  • Display: text and a station graphic; some stations have interactive applications
  • Best for: people who want a few extra stations for free with their television - including the BBC's digital bouquet.

DAB Digital Radio

The oldest of all digital transmission facilities, DAB Digital Radio started in 1990, with a London-wide transmitter network by 1994. DAB Digital Radio uses a network of local transmitters covering particular areas of the country - transmitters which are designed to work together, unlike current AM, FM and TV transmissions.

  • Benefit: Existing stations mostly available on DAB Digital Radio, and extra choice. Great audio difference between AM and DAB; higher signal-to-noise ratio than FM. Portable and easy to tune.
  • Drawbacks: Variable audio quality and coverage
  • Potential listeners: Over 50% of all adults live in a household with a DAB receiver
  • Current listeners: 24.1% of all radio listening is to DAB (RAJAR Q2 2014)
  • Sound quality: Digital. Music stations from 112k to 192k (most at 128k) MP2 stereo. Some lower and mono.
  • Transmission cost: Around £30,000 for carriage on a local multiplex. Higher in London. Dependent on bitrate.
  • Reception cost: Receivers available for less than £15.
  • Coverage: Around 92% of population, and growing. Some blackspots. Designed for mobile reception.
  • Pay-radio capable: No
  • Now playing capability: Yes
  • Schedule capability: On supporting sets from supporting broadcasters. In practice, few sets and broadcasters support the EPG.
  • Display: constantly-updating 128 character display. Limited use of DAB slideshow (full-colour images) on suitably-equipped radios.
  • Best for: people who want to listen to their current stations, as well as gain more choice and higher quality than AM transmissions. Best choice for high quality mobile reception subject to local reception conditions.

DAB+ Digital Radio

An update to the original MP2 digital radio that the UK uses, DAB+ is in use in many countries across the world: from Germany to Norway, Australia to Belgium. Any DAB+ radio will also pick up DAB transmissions; most new DAB sets support DAB+ as well. Any radio with the UK's Digital Radio tickmark is DAB+ capable.

Benefits to DAB+ over original DAB are mostly related to a better audio compression codec, AACplus, which allows broadcasters to squeeze more stations into the same space. Usage elsewhere would seem to suggest that DAB+ does not appear to result in higher quality audio. Additionally, there is a better error correction on DAB+, which subtly improves reception in marginal areas.

DAB+ in the UK is currently limited to a trial in the Wrexham area, but it is likely that the new national commercial digital radio multiplex will carry some DAB+ services.

Cable

Digital radio on digital cable carries a smaller choice than digital satellite, and is normally sourced direct from digital satellite (therefore audio quality is at least similar, if not inferior, to digital satellite). Normally available through the TV, not (as in some countries) on FM rebroadcast.

  • Benefit: Some extra choice.
  • Drawbacks: Fixed reception, and limited choice.
  • Potential listeners: Around 4,000,000 subscribers to Virgin Media.
  • Current listeners: Unrecorded (separately) by RAJAR. 4.8% of all radio listening is via the television (RAJAR Q2 2014).
  • Sound quality: Digital. Similar to digital satellite, but may be subject to extra encoding/decoding generation.
  • Transmission cost: Rumoured to be around £15,000 for carriage per cable network.
  • Reception cost: Cable boxes normally free with subscription.
  • Coverage: Cable unavailable in many areas.
  • Pay-radio capable: Yes
  • Now playing capability: Limited (offered by BBC only)
  • Schedule capability: Some providers do have full EPG, but sources for schedules may not be direct from the radio station so can be out of date.
  • Display: Limited to programme information for most. For BBC, similar to Freeview.
  • Best for: people who appreciate some extra choice, but who already have cable.

Internet Radio to desktop

With the uptake of broadband, the internet can be used for reception of radio stations from around the world: either on a laptop computer or a standalone internet radio.

  • Benefit: Huge extra choice, including everything from international stations to one-man-band stations. Much larger amounts of interactivity, like webcams and direct chat to the presenters.
  • Drawbacks: Many stations have poor audio quality, sometimes as bad as AM. Unreliability ('buffering' and unavailability)
  • Potential listeners: Hundreds of millions worldwide.
  • Current listeners: 6.2% of all radio listening in the UK is via the internet. (RAJAR Q2/2014)
  • Sound quality: Variable. Some stations sound better than DAB or FM, at up to 192kbps AAC. Some stations sound poor.
  • Transmission cost: Dependent on listener base, but from £20 a month to hundreds of thousands.
  • Reception cost: Compatible computers can start from £180. Standalone internet radios start from £99. Broadband internet is £10 a month.
  • Coverage: Worldwide, subject to rights
  • Pay-radio capable: Yes
  • Now playing capability: Yes
  • chedule capability: Full EPGs from websites, though a lack of co-ordinated information.
  • Display: Video and text is virtually unlimited
  • Best for: people who listen to a wide variety of eclectic styles, or want to hear speech programming worldwide.

Internet Radio to mobile apps

Mobile apps are marketed by many as the future of radio. The reality is less clear-cut. Listeners do use mobile apps, but for an extremely limited time each week. Listening time to internet radio on mobile is dwarfed by desktop. It remains an important medium for radio, however.

  • Benefit: Huge extra choice and relatively mobile.
  • Drawbacks: Coverage via 3G/4G is patchy, and can cause unreliability in listening. A typical listener walking down a high street will also latch onto captive wifi networks, too: some of which require logging-in before offering full connectivity.
  • Potential listeners: Hundreds of millions worldwide.
  • Current listeners: 6.7% of all radio listening in the UK is via the internet. Industry estimates are that less than 20% of this is done on a mobile device.
  • Sound quality: Variable, but typically 48kbps on a mobile stream, which can sound less than hifi quality.
  • Transmission cost: Dependent on listener base, but from £20 a month to hundreds of thousands.
  • Reception cost: The listener needs a data connection and adequate amounts of bandwidth in their contract. These start from around £15 a month. A smartphone is also required (anywhere from £0 to hundreds of pounds). Battery life is also a consideration, with 4G especially using significant amounts of battery life while mobile. Most listening, however, is via domestic or work wifi.
  • Coverage: Worldwide, subject to rights
  • Pay-radio capable: Yes
  • Now playing capability: Yes
  • Schedule capability: Full EPGs from websites, though a lack of co-ordinated information.
  • Display: Video and text is virtually unlimited
  • Best for: people who listen to a wide variety of eclectic styles, or want to hear speech programming worldwide.

There's plenty more detail here: and the author has also done significant research into the relative benefits of broadcast vs IP. For a presentation or more information, contact the author directly at james@cridland.net

James Cridland — James is the Managing Director of media.info, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. His website is at james.cridland.net, where you can subscribe to his weekly newsletter.
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Comments

PRO3 years, 2 months ago

Regarding internet streams. I very rarely encounter a station that streams with poor audio quality. Most I listen to on a desktop stream at 128kbps MP3 or 48k AAC+, this includes what may be considered 'Bedroom FM' stations.

Incidentally I pay £3.50pm for unlimited internet, excluding line rental using a ADSL2 connection.

2 years, 12 months ago

Tinternet Radio is by far the best value for money as a broadcaster. Like Martin says, it's extremely rare to find a poor quality audio stream, that bit about poor quality audio sounds to me like a bit of industry snobbery or jealousy creeping in.

I know plenty of outfits (one man bedroom FM & actual companies) who use software based processors and often the sound quality if far superior to FM/AM and even most DAB networked stations.

PRO2 years, 11 months ago

Tinternet Radio is by far the best value for money as a broadcaster.

For small broadcasters, yes: though as you grow in scale, the maths quickly points to broadcasting being cheaper.

that bit about poor quality audio sounds to me like a bit of industry snobbery or jealousy creeping in

Perhaps "Many" should be changed to "Some" - since some clearly sound poor. Would that work for you?

2 years, 11 months ago

In full I have only read up the first (AM) section for now.
What about AM in detail?
Say, there are still receivers in use that were produced in yonder years - when FM either wasn't or was only starting to develop/spread.
Such sets can (could) receive I guess only AM, and their tuning scalers were named (divided) differently, namely:

  • LW (Long waves),
  • MW (Medium waves),
  • SW (Short waves),
    then I don't know if there was such a band or what it was called, but in the USSR it was called UKW (??? - "?????????????? ?????" - "Ultrashort waves").

Long waves were heavily used (almost entirely here) to broadcast the top major official state station - with retransmitters all over the country (allegedly); though their physical properties allowed (allow) for the retransmitters being quite sparsely distributed - only to ensure the signal's stability.
Medium waves were well used by the second rank state and regional stations. They seemed more "variable", and the transmitters must've covered less areas.
Short waves were also used by our official station (maybe to reach certain areas and/or those who didn't a stable LW signal or like that). Interestingly, they were also used by foreign official stations to broadcast on our country (BBC, VoA, others).
Now you also can perfectly tell me that short waves were - and still are - used by individuals (radiomaniacs) to talk to --- wherever:)
Now, I'm not sure if UKW means amplitude modulation or it was just an earlier name for the FM. Did you (do you, perhaps) have such a band on your old receivers there?
If yes, what was it called?
The certain thing here is that UKW meant basically the same wave frequencies as today's FM - hence using the same 'hardware' to receive the signal (an adjustable aerial, same input curcuits).

[Now I'll proceed reading the further content, if you'll excuse me.]

2 years, 11 months ago

James, you need to do something with non-Latin characters. Yes, right about now, please...

2 years, 11 months ago

Internet Radio to desktop
... Drawbacks...

Well, the audio quality does only depend on the input itself - means the amount of money and/or effort put by the station management to their internet-broadcasting hard/software, which can't essentially be seen as a platform drawback at all, I believe.
Buffering/lagging issues - as user-dependent - may be seen analogous to poor perfomance with AM/FM that heavily depends on the user's radioset's quality/condition.

Reception cost: Compatible computers can start from £180.

That one is not exactly a proper reference - since I can't imagine a person buying an entire computer only to listen to internet radio streams (image)
With a modern computer the "hardware cost" may be virtually ignored - with few exceptions like battery usege in the laptop case or/and, say, "exhausting" the CPU (which may be somehow counted in) and certain memory consumption (that can affect other open applications' performance but which is not very significant usually - probably causing some slight additional waiting/tinkering which can only indirectly be transferred to any monetary harm:).

That's my 5 kopeeks to the article (image)

2 years, 11 months ago

Josh - why post once, when many posts in quick succession will do?

PRO2 years, 11 months ago

Josh - the article now contains:

FM was formerly known as UKW ('Ultrakurzwelle') in some parts of Europe

...and I agree with you about the internet audio quality needing to include buffering, so I'll go and make that amendment too.

2 years, 11 months ago

James: Just a point of information for you, your bitrate information for DTT/satellite is a little out of date. These days, the majority of commercial stations on DTT are 64kbps mono MP2. In fact, of the commercial stations only Magic, Kiss are 80kbps mono MP2, with Absolute, Capital and Heart at 128kbps joint stereo MP2 - the rest are 64kbps mono. Even the BBC don't broadcast any radio stations above 160kbps joint stereo MP2 on DTT anymore.

On satellite, it's much the same story (although there are some BBC/commercial services at 192kbps).

2 years, 11 months ago

...and I agree with you about the internet audio quality needing to include buffering, so I'll go and make that amendment too.

I think you didn't exactly get it.
I meant that any stream's poor quality is at the end of the broadcaster only and is never can be considered the whole platform's drawback.
The only "drawback" theoretically to think of might be that a person should have a computer, and it's not mobile per se.

And I reiterate there's no essential reception cost (using a computer) - you don't consider the entiire price of a Maserati to calculate how much it will cost for a smoker to use an ashtray in it.
You're not an internet listener, are you?
I've already mentioned a pair of loudspeakers (listening to music or the radio is different to watching movies or alike in that you're likely to move around instead of sitting staring at your screen), now I can adjust the list - but it won't EVER be a computer.
Most internet listeners use separate applications to listen to... whatever. Some of them are free, others may be paid for. However, the overwhelming bulk of internet radiostreams are perfectly served with the former, unpaid ones, so even this cost you can only count as extra.
So, forget about "computer cost blah-blah-blah millions-trillions" - 'cause it's simply irrelevant here. (image)

2 years, 11 months ago

Internet radio.

I seldomly use a PC to listen. Instead I have wi-fi radios and old redundant mobile phones acting as wi-fi radios and MP3 playing devices, which are plugged into a 5-way audio lead adaptor which in turn is plugged into the auxilliary channel of my hi-fi system's amplifier.

Quality is dependent on two things, those being whatever bitrate the broadcaster is streaming at and the other is buffering and latency issues which can be a problem at the broadcster's source as well as the internet service provider at my end and occasionally how well my own hub wants to behave. However, I have noticed much less buffering when my local exchange was upgraded to fibre-optic. We have yet to have the individual street boxes upgraded to fibre-optic but that is imminent.

2 years, 11 months ago

Street boxes?
That's where you're plugged in to the Internet?

2 years, 11 months ago

Street cabinets if you prefer. The exchange is enabled but as yet the closest cabinet to me isn't. Even so, I am noticing a difference already with the intergoogle being more reliable than it was.

I wish the 3G reception was as stable. It's fine outside almost all of the time but indoors it fluctuates badly. On train and bus journeys there are still too many black spots to enable full listening for a whole journey.

2 years, 11 months ago

So, is it like Wi-Fi or Wi-Max hubs along the street, Art?
Do you mean using it off home or something?

2 years, 11 months ago

No - it's simply superfast broadband by fibreoptic cable going into people's homes.

The main telephone exchange has to be upgraded to superfast broadband (as has already happened to most towns, cities, villages and islansds). The next part is to get individual street cabinets that serve several dozen or several hundred households within a town or city, in the streets that neighbour the cabinet, upgraded to provide fibreoptic superfast broadband, which is the part that BT are still working on. Sometimes it involves carving up the streets with lots of roadworks to lay down new cables, so it's not as easy. Cable TV operators provide superfast broadband over their networks just now because they upgraded their infrasture many years ago. I don't live in an area served by cable TV, so I have to use the copper wire based telephone network for the timebeing, for internet access, until it finally gets upgraded to fibreoptic, which will make a small difference to the quality of service.

2 years, 11 months ago

No - it's simply superfast broadband by fibreoptic cable going into people's homes.

????????????????? ???
noun

  1. switchboard
  2. distributing board, panel, feeder switchboard

Right?


islansds

For the luls, I prefer to make a typo in the word "understand" - having an extra "a" there: "undersatand" (image)

2 years, 11 months ago

Josh. I think you need to speak to someone. :-) It's only spelling mistakes, in the same way as I occasionally have a tip of the slongue, sorry, I mean slip of the tongue.

Then again, I had a conversation about Stephen King yesterday and why he probably needs to see a psychiatrist. I'm not a fan of Stephen King and the only work by him that I even remotely appreciate is Misery. The rest of his work I perceive as being ridiculous fantasy and nonsense. It just make sense, to me, that a grown man is trying to entertain other grown-ups with it. What? You've written a story about a bunch of ghosts encouraging a bloke to beat up his wife and kid? NURSE!!!!

I also don't appreciate sci-fi or horror movies for the same reasons. I can't get to gri with the concept of people dressed up, wearing masks to look anything other than human, repeating a script that goes along the lines of "earth must be destroyed." As for Star wars and Star Trek, apparently they are both different but I struggle to find what the difference is.

Also, I won't forget walking past a TV and seeing an image of a flying double decker bus, flying over a desert, getting chased by giant flying stingrays. Apparently that program was watched by millions of adults. No wonder the Tories win elections.

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