This article was published 9 years ago

Norway to shut down FM radio in 2017. When will the US?

broadcast towers mountains
Broadcast towers in the mountains – Image credit: Flickr / GPA Photo Archive

Norway will become the first country to shut down analog FM radio in 2017 and operate on digital only using Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB).

“Radio digitisation will open the door to a far greater range of radio channels, benefiting listeners across the country,” Norway’s Minister of Culture Thorhild Widvey said in a press release. “Listeners will have access to more diverse and pluralistic radio-content, and enjoy better sound quality and new functionality. Digitisation will also greatly improve the emergency preparedness system, facilitate increased competition and offer new opportunities for innovation and development.”

Widvey continued, “Whereas the FM system only had space for five national channels, DAB already offers 22, and there is capacity for almost 20 more. In addition, more than half the population already has access to localradio on DAB, and there is considerable potential for further local channels.”

Norway will be a testing pattern to see how this is executed as other nations, mainly in Europe and Asia, are also considering shutting down analog FM. Denmark and Sweden are considering analog FM shutdowns in 2022 while the United Kingdom is considering one between 2017 and 2022.

I’m sure there are some wondering if the United States follow Norway’s lead with another analog shutdown? My guess is no and the reasons are pretty.

  • Multiple private stations – Norway can shut down their FM signals because the country only has five stations that broadcast on FM. New York city has 118 stations and Los Angeles has 112. And some stations bring in money – tens of millions of dollars. WTOP radio in Washington, DC brought an estimated $64 million in revenue in 2013, followed by KIIS-FM (KISS-FM) with reportedly $56 million annually. They do not want the government to mess with their cash registers, especially with radio audiences declining every year.
  • HD Radio is a failure – The radio industry needed something to compete with satellite radio (There were two different companies at the time) and they came up with HD radio. The first clue this wasn’t going to work was the name: HD radio – which didn’t stand for High Fidelity, it was a marketing name that meant nothing. The promise was clear sound: AM radio sounded like FM and FM sounded like CD quality. The selling point for HD radio was free stations, no subscriptions! And nobody bought it. Car manufactures were slow to make HD radios and they were an add-on, not standard and those that made the equipment didn’t advertise them. Microsoft had HD radio on the third generation of the Zune lineup and radio stations – as well as Microsoft – never mention HD radio.
  • No choice over format – iBiquity – the manufacture of HD radio and escapee of Apple lawyers – decides what format should go on a station’s digital channel – not the station’s owners. This is not as bad as it sounds: it’s meant to prevent the same format used on different stations (I.E. KISS-FM, The Wolf, NASH FM, The End, Gen X, etc.). However, it still sounds like the manufacture telling the radio station you have to use our format and nothing else.
  • Poor reception – This is probably the number one reason HD radio never took off. HD radio frequency was transmitted at a much lower power than analog. For example: KVDU-FM in New Orleans transmits on the 104.1 frequency at 100,000 watts. This station is often referred to as the blowtorch because you can hear the signal from Lafayette, LA to the LA/MS border. While it’s not stated, a typical HD radio signal usually transmits at 2 – 3,000 watts – nowhere near the analog signal. This was one of the main reasons why Norway is moving away from analog to digital as the digital signal reaches 95% of the population.

The only way I see this happening in the United States is the cellular companies lobby hard to convince the FCC to auction off the FM spectrum. However, many regulators – including members of Congress – remember the debacle of the analog TV shutdown in 2009 with the DTV coupons used to get digital converters (“DTV bailout”). That won’t happen again unless someone (I.E. radio and cellular industries) are willing to give up money to pay for analog to digital transition.

Which they won’t!