Norway will turn off national FM broadcasts on January 11. However, about 200 local FM stations will continue to broadcast for at least another five years, as we reported last year when the story first hit the international press. That crucial detail was missing from international coverage then, and it continues to be overlooked now.
In fact, only three broadcasters will be shutting down their FM signals: NRK, P4 and Radio Norge. NRK is the the Norwegian government broadcaster, P4 is the nation’s largest commercial station group, and Radio Norge is another national commercial music station. What these broadcasters have in common is that they’re all national in scope, with centralized broadcast facilities strategically located throughout the country of 5 million people. Both P4 and Radio Norge lobbied hard for the FM transition, primarily because transitioning to digital DAB broadcasts represents savings for them.
65% of Norwegians oppose the FM shutdown, according a survey conducted last summer by the Dagbladet newspaper. Given that listeners would prefer to hang on to their FM receivers, local broadcasters are optimistic that will turn into an advantage for them, since they’ll still be heard on good old fashioned analog radio. According to the Norwegian Local Radio Federation, the group’s chairman said that local radio will see a “new renaissance” in 2017.
The national stations’ shutdown will happen region-by-region beginning with Nordland on January 11, with other regions following over the course of the year.
Besides the simple loss of broadcasts on FM, one of the biggest concerns with the shutoff is that citizens will lose access to important emergency information. This is particularly relevant for motorists, who may not be able to tap into other media while on the road. There are an estimated 2 million cars in Norway that do not have DAB radios, and a DAB adapter for a car radio costs the equivalent of about $175 US, an added expense not every motorist is ready to make.
Countries with relatively established digital radio broadcast systems, like the UK, certainly will be watching Norway’s experiment, since many of their national FM broadcasting systems resemble Norway’s. However, as I observed last year, it will still be difficult to generalize from Norway’s experience because the country is an outlier due to the relatively small size and consolidated structure of its national FM broadcast facilities.
In particular, Norway, with fewer than 300 stations, is difficult to compare to the U.S., which has more than 7,000. Moreover, even though ownership of commercial radio in the States is quite consolidated, broadcast facilities are not combined on the scale that they are in Norway. Plus, the U.S. does not have a well-developed digital radio service, like Norway’s DAB, which has sufficient penetration of receivers such that it could plausibly replace FM. The difference between the two countries is truly night and day.
So, yes, Norway is turning off a segment of its FM broadcasts in favor of digital broadcasting. But don’t get suckered by the digital triumphalist argument that this is the first nail in the coffin for analog radio. Even in Norway a complete nationwide shutdown is years away, and is not yet guaranteed. Everywhere else in the world analog FM broadcasts continue, with billions of people tuning in every day, while even older services like AM and longwave solider on. When push comes to shove listeners aren’t ready to give up their radios, and so far no company or broadcaster has offered that one killer technology that gives them any incentive to do so.
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