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Is digital radio really as good as it sounds?

by John Carroll , 07.03.2016

When did you last hold a real record in your hands? I was reminiscing recently with a friend of mine about the lost pleasure of the vinyl experience: from browsing and then purchasing a record in an actual record store, to getting home and undoing the cellophane wrapper, to carefully holding the record’s edges in the palms of your hands and placing it on the turntable – not to select a track, but to listen to a whole album. It was a ritual!

But it wasn’t just this experience of buying and putting a vinyl on that was special, its magic was in the quality of the sound it produced. It was rich, yet raw – a sound quality that even today’s CDs, MP3 downloads and streaming don’t compare. Neil Young, who apparently winces when he listens to digital downloads, has set up PonoMusic in an effort to make music available in a way that sounds closer to how the artists heard it when they originally played it in the recording studio.

Digital radio is on the rise but listeners still tune in to FM radio

So, this sound quality nostalgia begs the question: If the compressed sound of a CD doesn’t match that of a vinyl, how will digital audio broadcasting (DAB) be able to outperform analogue radio one day? The audio quality argument for digital radio was always a weak one. And, present sales figures and listening habits don’t provide an answer either to date. A total of 22 million digital audio broadcasting (DAB) radio sets have been sold in the UK up to the end of 2015 (excluding in-car sets), which is almost an average of one per household (source: GfK data); despite the latest RAJAR figures (Q4 2015) reporting that 38.6% of the UK population listen to radio on a DAB set in an average week. Yet, sales of analogue radio sets still outnumber DAB sets and people currently spend more time listening to FM radio than to digital.

Certainly, digital radio listening is growing, as the number of opportunities to listen to radio digitally is rising. The number of new cars sold that had DAB digital radio as a standard option in the UK reached 80% in the final three months of 2015. In total, 1.9 million cars with DAB radio were sold in 2015. We will see how quickly this translates to increased digital listening as the industry heads towards the 50% digital share of listening threshold required for the digital switchover (currently 41.7%).

It's estimated that 98% of consumers in the US want an AM/FM radio with their new car purchase. Car owners have the opportunity to enjoy the technological advances afforded by Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, with connected dashboards providing a number of apps for audio entertainment, but Americans are not embracing this. J.D. Power research claims that nine in ten consumers do not use built-in car apps regularly a year after they purchase their new car.

Is analogue the new digital?

We live in a world obsessed by all things digital and this is particularly so in the media industry. There are many advantages, of course. It's presented as superior to everything non-digital, yet brands should be cautious about adopting digital strategies as a blanket approach.

New technology does not always mean progress. Moreover, humans are analogue by nature and not everyone wants new technology forced upon them. We're still listening to FM radio, reading printed newspapers, magazines and books and rediscovering vinyl! We're not shunning digital devices but the enriched, engaging analogue experience is still one of life’s more simple pleasures.

Please email me at John.Carroll@GfK.com or follow me on Twitter @MediaCarroll to share your thoughts.