Norway Not a Trendsetter for FM Radio

What’s not to like about Norway?

Great ski slopes. Magical fjords. Ridiculously low crime rate. And, according to a 2013 United Nations report, #2 among the “Happiest Countries in the World” – aced out only by Denmark.

But the Norwegian parliament’s forced turn-off of many FM analog radio stations in favor of digital audio broadcasting (DAB) – which began this week – is causing not just static, but outright anger. Oslo opinion polls indicate 66 percent of Norwegians oppose the shutdown, with only 17 percent in favor. The angst stems from the fact that the shutdown could leave tens of thousands of people without access to some of their favorite free and local radio stations.

“We are simply not ready for this,” Ib Thomsen, a member of the Norwegian parliament told Reuters. “There are 2 million cars on Norwegian roads that don’t have DAB receivers. Millions of radios will stop working. So there is definitely a safety concern,” he said.

In reality, not all of Norway’s analog radio stations are being phased off the air – it’s only the country’s “national” stations that will go dark. That means the five major radio services distributed over a network of FM transmitters across the country that reach close to 100 percent coverage of Norway’s citizens will all be shut down by the end of the year. These include three state-provided noncommercial services and two commercial services, all of which are being replaced by digital radio channels that have been simulcast with the FM network for the past several years.

But over 200 independent, local FM stations across Norway will remain on air for at least the next five years, and could now enjoy a boost in listenership. (Whether these stations stick around on the FM dial after 2022 will be decided later.)

Could It Happen Here?

The Great Oslo Radio Experiment has prompted a smattering of press reports suggesting that America may eventually follow suit. So, pun intended, is Norway the tip of the iceberg?

The answer: No. No. A thousand times – No.

In fact, for American radio, this development is much ado about nothing. The difference between Norway radio and American radio is as stark as the Northern Lights versus fireworks on the Capitol Mall on the Fourth of July.

Here’s why:

• Norway has 5 million radio listeners; there are 268 million listeners in the U.S. every week;
• Many of Norway’s radio stations are state-owned; in the U.S., commercial radio listening dominates the charts in most places.
• Norway is converting to digital radio using a completely different technology than we are in the U.S.

That last bullet point is especially important. Norway (along with much of the rest of Europe) long ago adopted a digital radio transition plan completely at odds with the plan adopted in the U.S.

Norway requires two separate swaths of spectrum for radio – one for its FM stations and another for its digital radio channels. It costs the government (and broadcasters) extra money to run both services to deliver the same content. Turning off analog FM is apparently seen by the Norwegian parliament as a cost-saving efficiency – even though actual radio listeners in Norway are quite unhappy about losing this service.

By contrast, we in the U.S. chose a different path to digital radio. Our system, “in-band, on channel digital” – better known now as HD Radio – uses identical spectrum and the same channels for both analog and digital services. Thus, there’s no cost-saving advantage to shutting down analog FM services in America. More than 2,300 radio stations in the U.S. have converted to HD Radio, which improves the radio listening experience and affords American radio stations a remarkable array of advanced capabilities.

HD Radio’s growth is most apparent in the automobile. All 36 auto brands available in North America and more than 200 vehicle models, including 34 new model year 2017 cars, now have an installed HD Radio tuner, and the number grows every year.

Bottom line: No way will America go Norway’s route and “turn off” FM radio. It’s just not going to happen, in my lifetime or yours.