19. December 2008 09:00

Going digital – new challenges for community radio

Community broadcasting, which is owned and managed by citizen groups and members of civil society, has gained foothold on local FM and AM radio across Europe since the 1980s. These media outlets have not only been serving as valuable tools for local empowerment and cultural diversity, but they have also contributed tremendously in promoting minority languages. But with the spread of digital broadcasting, community radio may run the risk of being marginalised, according to scholars and media practitioners at an European Science Foundation (ESF)‘s Exploratory Workshop in Budapest, 12-15 May 2008.

The DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) standard was designed in the 1980s, and proponents claim the standard offers several benefits over existing analogue FM radio, such as higher fidelity audio, more stations in the same broadcast spectrum, and increased resistance to noise, multipath, fading, and co-channel interference.

“Theoretically this may lead to more spectrum space available for community broadcasting”, said Dr. Arne Hintz, Programme Director of the Centre for Media and Communications Studies at the Central European University. ”However the risk is that the switch-over from analogue to digital radio may simply grant the already established and wealthiest broadcasters access to new media channels rather than allow more citizens’ access to media infrastructure.”

More available spectrum may also lead to a change from state to market models of regulation of assigning frequencies. Current practices include spectrum allocation through auctions.

“Unless a portion of spectrum is set aside for community media”, argued Steve Buckley, President of the World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC), “such market-based approaches to spectrum management would put community media at a clear disadvantage”.

Some technical aspects of DAB, the first generation of digital audio broadcasting, may create additional hurdles for community radio. “DAB platform operates as a ‘multiplex’ carrying up to ten programme services, and as transmission infrastructure costs are high, digital multiplex operators may become new ‘gatekeepers’ for small area and community broadcasters”, Buckley explained.

While FM still remains the most flexible and cost effective platform for local community media, there is a risk that the FM range would become ‘analogue backwater’ should commercial and public radio switch to digital.

In order to listen to digital radio, one first needs to spend about 45 EUR to buy a DAB receiver. The UK, which substantially invested in the development of DAB, now counts five million DAB receivers. Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands are also moving forward with DAB.

In the omnipresent ‘push’ for technological convergence and ‘going digital’, sound broadcasting has a number of yet newer technologies promising better sound quality and new functionalities.

“As is often the case with new technologies, digitalisation in sound broadcasting appears to be industry-driven rather than stem from the careful analysis of public interest objectives”, explained Hintz. “And while new technologies, including Internet and telephony, provide exciting new opportunities”, he said, “in order to make good use of these opportunities it is necessary to support citizens’ access to communication infrastructure through appropriate policy”.

The workshop “Access To Communications and Democratic Media Infrastructures In The Digital Environment: The Impact Of Convergence Digitalisation On Community Media Policy And Practice”” was convened by Kate Coyer and Arne Hintz, Central European University, and Mojca Plansak, University of Maribor, in Budapest, Hungary, on May 12-15 2008.
Each year, ESF supports approximately 50 Exploratory Workshops across all scientific domains. These small, interactive group sessions are aimed at opening up new directions in research to explore new fields with a potential impact on developments in science.

Media contact:

Ms. Julia BomanE-Mail

Science contact:

Dr. Frank KuhnE-Mail