John Nathan Anderson
Radio's Digital Dilemma
Broadcasting in the 21st Century
John Nathan Anderson’s new book, Radio’s Digital Dilemma: Broadcasting in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2014), documents the somewhat tortured path of broadcast radio’s digital transition in the United States. Beginning his analysis with rise of neoliberal communications policy in the 1980s, Anderson charts the development of the idea of digitalization by closely examining two key archival sources: The Federal Communication Commission’s extensive archive of rulemaking and public comments and the archives of the two most important trade journals in broadcast radio, Radio World and Current.
As Anderson explores in the book, FCC regulatory neglect coupled with the huge consolidation within the radio industry following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 resulted in a digital transition that was dictated largely by commercial interests. For example, the most important decision about digital radio – the engineering standard for digital broadcasting – was determined by a federation of corporations that formed a proprietary standard called HD Radio. This new digital standard was a failure on a number of levels, argues Anderson. First, it was at odds with the global digital radio standard, Eureka 147. Second, it caused unwanted interference with analog radio signals. Third, the corporate entity which owned the rights to the HD Radio standard, iBiquity, was determined to charge local stations a fee for using its digital radio standard. Once digital radio began to roll out across the nation in 2002, local stations’ and listeners’ complaints about interference and bad reception were effectively drowned out by a sustained marketing effort on behalf of HD Radio’s corporate partners. Today, the future of digital radio in the United States is in doubt: only 13% of all stations are broadcasting a digital signal. Throughout the book, Anderson argues that the lack of regulatory guidance and oversight, coupled with blind allegiance to market forces, has resulted in a radio environment that falls well short of our aspirations for a democratic media system.