Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Future of Radio - DRM path looks rocky

I wasn't trying to buy a radio at all. I was attempting to buy a multi-region DVD in Media Markt, a giant electronics warehouse near Amsterdam. It took me an hour. I needed the salesman to disappear behind a screen, fiddle with the technical menu, and get rid of the stupid Region protection, allowing me to play Region 1 DVDs I have legally bought in the US. The salesman was serving another customer, who was spending forever trying to decide. At Media Markt, inventory comes before service.

In the meantime, I watched with some amusement, the total clouds of confusion enveloping members of the public who were simply trying to understand the different types of DVD hard disk recorders.

I laughed when overhearing the total bollocks being shared with customers as to what really defines a High-Definition TV screen. HD-Ready means you are buying a TV with a special connector on it. When (finally) we see either HD-DVD or Blu-Ray DVD players capable of delivering a decent HD picture, those with the current plasma/LCD screens will realise they have been sold something which is clearly NOT a true HD picture. But, by that time it may be a good point to upgrade the TV again.

At the same time, it becomes crystal clear that the DRM digital radio standard hasn't got a hope in hell of being successful in the short term. It has nothing to do with the delay to the chip-set, meaning that the promised DRM radios won't be on the market until the first half of this year. It has everything to do with the fact that there is no clear programming message that salesman in places like Media Markt can repeat to potential customers. It has been the programmes that have convinced several million people in the US (and now Canada) to subscribe to a satellite radio system -either XM or Sirius. Even then, I think it is just a matter of time before the two platforms merge. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, we can see evidence that major manufacturers like Pioneer understand how to integrate a portable satellite radio with an MP3 player (of course they couldn't demonstrate it working INSIDE the exhibition hall, but still). A similar case for the DRM camp is still a long way off.

DRM's biggest problem is the total lack of recognisable "stars" and "unmissable" content on the HF part of the spectrum. Scan the 49 metre shortwave band at any time of day and ask yourself if this is content is a serious proposition for any customer in an electronics store. If it is, I really want to hear the pitch. Then add the extra challenge. Please give me an example where a broadcast technology in Country X has been introduced only because of activities by broadcasters in Country Y. Throughout the Cold War, countries shouting at each other over the radio were using technology that was already in place in the target area. I am listening to the current output on shortwave in several different languages and comparing the quality to satellite TV and what's on the web. My conclusion is simple - I'm afraid if it doesn't improve, DRM as a stand-alone technology is a total non-starter.
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