Static is rising over Norway’s plans to literally turn off its FM radio network next year and replace it with Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB). As the date for launching the FM phase-out draws closer, Norwegians are waking up to the fact that their traditional AM/FM radios will no long work, and protests are pouring in.
“Norwegian politicians have decided to make 15 million FM radios in Norway completely useless,” wrote journalist Jan Thoresen, a longtime digital media expert in Norway, in a commentary in newspaper Dagbladet earlier this summer. “That’s a bad idea.”
It’s not so much the ultimate conversion to DAB that’s upsetting people, since most realize that the future is digital. It’s rather the process and how many Norwegians feel DAB is being shoved down their throats (or in their ears), at considerable expense. The Norwegian Parliament may have exhibited cutting-edge boldness when it voted in the spring of 2015 that Norway would become the first country in the world to have completely digital radio by the end of 2017. Critics claim the shift is simply occurring far too quickly.
Thoresen, who has played a key role in the evolution of websites in Norway, has been at the forefront of crossing the digital divide but is nonetheless highly critical of how Norwegians are being forced into converting to DAB radio. “Forced digitalization of the radio network is not part of a technical debate,” Thoresen wrote. “It’s an embarrassing exhibit of nation-building with no vision.”
Many other critics agree that government politicians and Members of Parliament have let the radio industry in Norway decide how Norwegians should listen to radio. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) has been a major proponent of the conversion to DAB, turning up the volume in recent months by airing frequent messages about how important and necessary the move is. The messages are meant to prod Norwegians to go out and buy new digital radios, otherwise they’ll only be able to listen to radio online. NRK justifies the conversion by arguing that the FM dial is already overcrowded and only DAB radio will give listeners full freedom over all the channel choices available.
Millions are not convinced. A recent public opinion poll conducted by research firm Ipsos for Dagbladet showed that 65 percent of those questioned opposed snuffing out the FM network next year. Only 16 percent were in favour while 19 percent were unsure or had no opinion.
Nordland first to lose FM radio
Those unsure might find themselves with strong opinions when they suddenly realize they’ll have to replace all the radios in their homes and at least get adapters in their cars when the DAB shift hits the area where they live. The transition is due to begin in Nordland County on January 11, just over four months from now, when all FM channels will disappear at once. The FM shutdown will then spread to Trøndelag and Møre og Romsdal on February 8, with the initial disappearance of NRK’s own FM channels, followed on April 21 by the disappearance of P4, Radio Norge and local radio stations.
Telemark, Buskerud, Hedmark and Oppland counties are due to lose NRK’s FM channels from April 26 and the rest on June 16. Then the DAB transition will spread to Sogn og Fjordane, Hordaland, Rogaland and Agder on June 21 and September 15. Østfold, Vestfold, Oslo and Akershus will also lose NRK’s FM stations on September 20, followed by P4, Radio Norge and local radio on December 8. The far northern counties of Troms and Finnmark will lose all their FM channels at once, on December 13, 2017.
The looming radio revolution is suddenly jarring many faced with the new reality into action, either by complaining or breaking down and buying DAB radios. Opposition politicians from the Labour Party, which held government power when the DAB process was first launched, are having second thoughts about its approval and steamroller effect. So are several others, faced with a new public outcry.
Security and preparedness issues
The biggest concern is related to Norwegian security and preparedness. State authorities have been strangely quiet about the consequences of shutting down the FM network before all Norwegians have invested in new DAB radios. A large percentage of the radios in cars alone are standard AM/FM radios. How can reports of anything from traffic conditions or accidents to bad weather or even national emergencies be communicated to all those without DAB radios? Car owners without DAB are being instructed to buy adapters, at a cost of around NOK 1,200, but not many have bought them yet.
Since Norway will also be the first country to switch to DAB, others complain that those with DAB radios won’t be able to pick up FM networks when driving in other countries, like neighbouring Sweden.
Several politicians, including some from within the government’s own Progress Party, are urging the minister in charge, Linda Hofstad Helleland, to at least delay the transition to DAB, until more Norwegians have purchased new DAB radios. She refused to so earlier this year, but will likely face more pressure when parliament reconvenes this fall. Ib Thomsen of the Progress Party intends to ask again for a postponement. He noted that the Progress Party was the only party that disagreed with an initial political compromise to shut down the FM network back in 2011. “In today’s situation, it’s clear that we should wait with shutting down FM until it’s clear that folks have in fact gone over to DAB radio,” Thomsen told newspaper Dagsavisen. “There is a provision in the parliamentary decision that FM’s shutdown can wait until 2019.”
Arild Grande, spokesman for the Labour Party on media issues, has also become skeptical, but mostly because he thinks Thomsen is adding to the uncertainty and confusion around DAB. Grande thus wants an evaluation from Helleland on what the loss of FM radio will mean for security and preparedness. “Can the minister confirm that all aspects of the security situation have been thoroughly evaluated, and that we will have better preparedness after FM is shut down than we have now?” he asked in June. DSB, the state directorate for security and preparedness, told Dagsavisen earlier that month that it had not examined the consequences of snuffing out FM radio.
EU concerns, too
More confusion arose when Helleland also had to answer questions from EU officials, after Norway’s local radio federation complained about the forced transition to DAB. It fears that the bigger players NRK, p4 and Radio Norge will get preferential treatment and that local radio stations won’t get heard. Others deny that, and don’t think EU regulators will call a halt to the process. “Digitalization gives more room for more players and a greater offering on the radio network than FM,” Tarjei Bekkedal, an assistant professor at the University of Oslo, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). The EU has been concerned, however, about whether the big players led by NRK will effectively monopolize radio in Norway.
NRK, meanwhile, claims that 99.6 percent of Norway will have DAB coverage by the end of the year. NRK seems clearly eager and ready for the conversion, but listeners are not, hence NRK’s DAB campaigns on the air this summer.
“We have an incredibly demanding job ahead of us,” Øyvind Vasaasen of NRK told Dagsavisen, to convince Norwegians to buy DAB radios or adapters. An estimated 2 million cars still lack the ability to take in DAB, along with around 40 percent of all Norwegians.
“We know from the transition to digital TV that folks waited until the last minute to buy new equipment,” Vasaasen said. NRK has long dismissed the idea of maintaining both the FM network and DAB, because of costs and conflicting technology. “It’s a challenge that so many people wait right up until or even after FM disappears.” The only ones cheering the DAB transition are those selling DAB radios and adapters, which they think will be under many Christmas trees later this year.