Tony Avelar / The Christian Science Monitor
Lorraine Dechter, news director at Northstate Public Radio KCHO 91.7 FM, edits a news story to broadcast at the radio station in Chico, Calif., in 2011.

Norway to end FM radio broadcasts. Will US follow?

Norway is the first country in the world to announce that it is ending FM radio in favor of digital broadcasting. How long before other countries follow?

Norway's government led the world last week with its announcement that it would be ending FM radio.

Last Thursday, Norway’s Ministry of Culture announced that the nation would be switching off FM analog radio broadcasts by 2017, in favor of digital broadcasting.

Thor Gjermund Eriksen, head of NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, told media there that listeners will be provided with more radio channels and greater diversity in content.

In Norway, DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) coverage currently exceeds FM coverage, with 22 national channels, as opposed to just five channels transmitting nationwide on FM, according to media reports.

Fans of the digital switch celebrated Norway’s decision on Twitter.

Åge Lødøen from Sea of Moss, Norway writes in a Facebook message, "It is in 2017, so all new cars will be adjusted to fix this for people. DAB radios. And DAB radios are [on] sale now. So people will not really notice."

But some music aficionados have noted that DAB may produce lower quality sound compared with FM, and arrive several seconds later than FM broadcasts. 

For its part, America is taking a longer, voluntary road to the same end, as analog car radios are gradually being replaced by digital or hybrid models.

According to an email from an FCC official, there is no push in the US for doing away with FM in favor of digital because, as with the transition to digital television, it would require an act of Congress.  "While there are efficiencies to going all digital," the official wrote, "it would make the over a half a billion analog radio receivers used by consumers inoperable."

But according to Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington D.C., the digital revolution has already arrived.

“It is happening in the United States, it’s in the top 50 markets, virtually all the top 10 stations have switched to digital.” Those switches have been voluntary, Mr. Wharton says.

“In smaller markets, it’s more of a challenge because of the financial issues, but right now about one in five radio stations in the United States have switched to digital and that number will increase over time,” Mr. Wharton says.

Why make the switch to digital?

“In smaller markets across the country these are stations that do not have the revenues to support this change, so there’s a financial issue at stake here,” Wharton explains. “But obviously, in the larger markets where there’s more opportunities to reach advertisers and monetize your radio station’s programming there has been a move towards digital.”

A 2012 study by The PEW Research Center in Washington, D.C. revealed that, “vast majority" of Americans still report listening to analog radio broadcasts weekly. But the survey also found that as many as 40 percent of Americans now listen to audio on digital devices, a figure that was expected to double by 2015. 

In an interview, Jesse Holcomb, senior researcher for the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project says, “The trend stayed the same [since the report in 2012]. One thing that’s kind of interesting is that terrestrial radio itself has a somewhat surprising resiliency. It certainly hasn’t disappeared, but, digital and mobile listenership is where the energy is, of course.”

“The market for terrestrial radio remains pretty saturated for the past few years it’s been the case that the vast majority of Americans say they listen to the radio on a traditional AM or FM  format and that’s sorta been the same, and that’s according to Nielsen and Edison data,” he says.

Wharton adds, “I think over time there will be more and more stations that migrate to digital because of the higher sound quality and better clarity of the signal. The issue is getting more digital receivers into the marketplace, and over time, that is happening as more new cars are being sold with HD Radio digital receivers. So, there’s certainly not a resistance to moving to digital. In fact, I think there’s a desire to move to digital. The issue more is how you finance that.”

“Ultimately the goal would be to move to digital since other technologies are moving to digital and you don’t want to, long term, be the only analog player on the digital block,” Wharton concludes.

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