On the last week of November/2013 the second edition of ESC took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. ESC is the acronym to “Espectro, Sociedade e Comunicação” (Spectrum, Society and Communication); as the name suggests people in this meeting discussed a fair use of the Radio spectrum in order to empower society by the use of a multiple and free mean of communication: the digital radio broadcasting.
Yes, the radio broadcasting is still important in many ways and not only in Brazil. At least since Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) wrote “Radio as a means of communication” in 1932 there is a struggle related to the right to speak trough the radio waves. Communitarian and unlicensed free radios have been trying to survive despite the efforts from big communication groups to take them down. The radio spectrum scarcity has always been used as technical excuse to keep the communication power concentrated in fewer hands.
But now this picture can be changed in Brazil. More than two years ago the Brazilian House of Representatives created a special commission to study the digitalization of the radio broadcasting in order to facilitate the choice of the standard that will be adopted nationally. No decision was taken until now mostly because there is a strong dispute between two technological standards. This dispute clearly is a technopolitical matter.
The already established communication conglomerates support HD Radio lobbying in its favor through their class association ABRA (Brazilian Broadcasters Association). The HD Radio is a closed and proprietary standard, therefore broadcasters must pay a licensing fee to adopt the technology. Component manufacturers must get a license from patent holders and they are not able to adapt and change the standard. On the other hand DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale) is an Open Standard based on free hardware and software and has been supported by free radios as well as academic researchers. Given the openness of the DRM standard, the national industry would be able to produce the basic equipments and adapt the technology to some regional characteristics and necessities. In the Amazon region, for example, shortwave transmissions have an important role in connecting isolated locations within the rainforest. HD Radio does not work with shortwave transmission; DRM does.
The radio broadcasting itself is changing its nature by being digitized. As we know very well the digital content is not restricted to sound, then new applications and features are being produced within the scope of digital radio. This convergence with information technologies makes the dispute even harder because at the end of the day we are talking about having a significant amount of the radio wave spectrum working with free and open technology that may transmit multimedia content. I cannot say for sure what the digital radio broadcasting will become from now but it seems that the Brecht proposals are still making sense: the “radio could be the most wonderful public communication system imaginable, a gigantic system of channels — could be, that is, if it were capable not only of transmitting but of receiving, of making the listener not only hear but also speak, not of isolating him but of connecting him”.