Millions more lose FM radio stations

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UPDATED: Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) resorted to airing warnings in recent days of the harsh reality setting in this week for roughly 2 million people living in Oslo, Akershus, Østfold and Vestfold counties. They’re the latest to lose all NRK channels on the FM dial, plus many more in the weeks ahead, as the next and biggest phase of Norway’s conversion to digital audio broadcasting (DAB) plays out.

DAB coverage has spread to more than 97 percent of the country, but the dreaded words “No signal” can still light up display panels as the radio falls silent. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The warnings for those still without DAB radios were hard to miss: Programming on NRK’s stations suddenly turns to loud static, followed by a message that “you’re hearing this if you’re listening to an FM radio.” That was followed by an official reminder that the state broadcaster would shut down its FM radio transmission, shortly after 11am on Wednesday September 20, in the most heavily populated areas of the country. Then regular programming resumed for the shaken FM fan.

The not-so-subtle message was that radio listeners either must have DAB+ radios installed in their homes and vehicles by Wednesday, if they still want to hear the NRK stations that they’re paying for regardless, through the country’s obligatory licensing fee. The only other option is to click in via the Internet, where there’s not only a slight delay but listeners have to be online. Commercial radio stations including P4 and Radio Norge will continue transmitting via FM until December 8. After that, only local niche radio stations will be heard on the FM dial until the end of 2021. After that, the FM network is due to fall silent.

Calls are now rising for an investigation into how and why this is happening.

DAB revolution not without protests
Norway’s controversial conversion to DAB, signaled for years, started last winter in Nordland County and has since spread south amidst protests. Only the northernmost counties of Troms and Finnmark will still have the current full range of FM radio stations after Wednesday, but they’ll lose it, too, on December 13. Only the few small local radio stations will be heard on FM, an only until 2022.

The massive conversion on Wednesday posed the biggest test yet for NRK, and looked poised to set off the latest (and potentially loudest) round of protests. Not only have Norwegians objected to seeing their FM radios become all but worthless while they feel forced to buy new DAB+ radios: Complaints continue to come in that DAB+ radio still can cut out even in populated areas that are supposed to have blanket coverage. Numerous creative proposals were lodged in Norwegian media this week over how to keep using FM radios, either by boycotting NRK or hooking up mobile phones to radios with such capability, to stream NRK stations off the Internet. That would rely on WIFI access, however, and can be erratic or expensive in vehicles.

DAB coverage can still drop out, like here while driving late last summer in the mountains between Sirdal and Setesdal in Southern Norway, which switched to DAB in June. Others have experienced a lack of coverage in tunnels, even in the populous Østfold County south of Oslo, which was set for DAB conversion on Wednesday. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

NRK officials, however, decided that DAB would be better for Norway than FM in the long term, with more room for stations on a system that can provide more than 30 channels with nationwide coverage compared to just five with FM. NRK started experimenting with DAB more than 20 years ago, in 1995, and ultimately convinced state and local politicians that it was the way to go.

The public doesn’t seem to entirely agree. A survey conducted by research firm IPSOS for newspaper Dagbladet this past summer indicated that three out of five Norwegians are unhappy with the transition to DAB. NRK officials, who’ve been braced for complaints and set up customer assistance service, respond that questions and complaints have been fewer than expected since the transition began in Nordland in January, that coverage now applies to more than 97 percent of the country and that 1.2 million Norwegians are now listening to stations they didn’t have earlier.

Skeptics remain and NRK arguably has succeeded in forcing DAB+ upon a population that has long radio traditions. The late professor Frank Aarebrot summed up the situation last spring when he told news bureau NTB that “DAB probably means more for those broadcasting radio than those who listen to the radio.” He was professionally responsible for yet another survey by research firm Respons Analyse that also showed more than half of Norwegians unhappy with the DAB conversion.

State auditor asked to investigate
The jury is out whether consumers have won or lost in the long run. One thing is clear: While many Norwegians have felt compelled to spend thousands of kroner on new radios, NRK and the state expect to save hundreds of millions of kroner by not having to maintain the FM network.

On Monday, newspaper Aftenposten called for an investigation into the shutdown of the FM network, arguing that becoming the first country in the world to do so isn’t necessarily anything to brag about. It cited not only consumer concerns but others that DAB technology is already becoming outdated.

Aftenposten noted that there was broad political agreement to shut down the FM network, but that questions remain over the political process involved. The state auditor general already has been asked to probe connections between NRK and companies involved but so far has demurred.

“Hopefully the state auditor wouldn’t find anything wrong,” Aftenposten editorialized. “That would at least contribute towards dampening the public’s suspicions and dissatisfaction tied to the FM shutdown.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund