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Digital Radio – what it is and what it isn’t

Digital radio sits alongside AM and FM as an alternative radio transmission platform, and as with many other industry areas is part of digitising the delivery of radio services. 

Like AM and FM radio, digital services are broadcast free-to-air. Digital radio does this via DAB+ technology. Digital radio is not the same as Internet radio, which is listening to radio via an online audio stream.

Community digital radio in Australia

Digital radio was launched in Australia in 2009. Currently, there are 53 community radio licensees operating 60+ digital services across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Canberra, Darwin, Hobart and Gold Coast. There are also additional temporary DAB+ services broadcast by several licensees nationally.

Digital radio is future-facing and a vital element in Australia’s multi-platform media environment. Community digital radio augments FM/AM radio broadcast and online streaming. The policy framework has been rolled out by the government, and national Digital Radio Channel Plans have been completed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

McNairs Yellowsquares Listener Research indicates over 30% of community radio listening is by way of DAB+ digital radio, with 70% of the population with listening access to digital radio nationally according to the ABS. Commercial Radio Australia reports listening in car is key, as 82% of new vehicles sold in Australia are fitted with DAB+ compatible radios.

What will I hear on community digital radio?

Community digital stations share guiding principles with FM and AM community radio stations. You can expect to hear a similarly diverse mix of specialist talks, Indigenous services,educational content, specialist music , print disability reading services, youth, seniors, religious, ethnic and multicultural, and general geographic services.

Some stations use the opportunity of a digital service to broadcast extra content for their community that can’t be heard elsewhere. Other stations mirror simulcast their FM/AM signal on digital, and others do a mix of both – broadcasting content from both FM and AM and digital pools of content

As well as day to day radio services, digital stations also do ‘pop up’ and special event broadcasts. These are usually a collaborative effort by a national network and examples include:

How does Digital Radio Broadcasting (DAB+) work?

Digital radio broadcasting (DAB+) utilises an audio compression encoding system called AAC+ to transmit data (a digital program stream). Digital radio receivers are able to receive and decode the digital program stream which you can then hear and, on compatible receivers, see program and station related information displayed on small screens. Digital radio receivers provide visual information via text which scrolls across the screen – this is similar to the ticker tape-styled text you may see on a television or computer screen. Some receivers have larger screens which will accommodate both text and images.

Why not just listen online?

Streaming radio online and the free-to-receive digital radio platform are different. 

Internet radio:

  • an audio data stream accessed through a connection to the internet via a computer, an internet-capable radio or mobile device
  • streamed over the telecommunications networks and incurs a data download cost which varies with your internet service provide
  • limited to a certain number of concurrent listeners able to access audio streaming subject to the available bandwidth and associated costs. 

Digital radio:

  • terrestrially broadcast from a multiplex transmission site and received by digital radios
  • a free-to-receive broadcast platform. While it may be integrated, no internet connection is needed and there is no subscription fee or sign up
  • accessed via a digital radio receiver, DAB+ chip enabled mobile, or DAB+ in car adapter
  • independent of data used for mobile devices that are DAB+ chip enabled
  • flexibility in service provision and greater choice of services for listeners
  • available to all listeners in a broadcast area free-of-cost.  

For more information, read our Digital Radio FAQs or contact the CBAA’s Digital Radio Project staff on 02 9310 2999 or email drp@cbaa.org.au.