Technology Explained

How Analog Radio Works, What’s Digital Radio, and What’s Next?

Bryan Clark 17-07-2015

In 2017, Norway is set to be the first country to completely shut down FM radio. The rest of the world won’t be far behind.


While its fate is decided in Norway, that doesn’t mean we’ll be without our trusty AM/FM companion. Radio, as a means to consume music, news and all sorts of random information isn’t going anywhere, but it is about to undergo a monumental change, and this change brings with it a promise of better signal quality and increased options for consumers in terms of programming.

How Analog Radio Works

In order to get to where we need to go, it’s important to understand where we’re at and why it’s necessary to make the change in the first place.

Terrestrial radio obviously isn’t a new technology, but instead it is one that pre-dates the 1900s. Guglielmo Marconi is credited with the first successful application of wireless technology after sending out the first radio signal – consisting of a single letter, “S” – in 1895.

Modern radio was later patented by Nikola Tesla in 1943 leading to modern use of terrestrial radio as we know it today. And in all honesty, not much has changed from Tesla’s first “modern” radio. In fact, a lot of the vintage stuff is still being used today Quality Sound On The Cheap - Buying Vintage Audio Equipment For the money you put in, an old amp has the potential to provide way more bang for your buck than a modern active speaker system. Read More .

The technology itself is remarkably simple. Terrestrial radio has two main parts, a receiver and a transmitter. The transmitter sends radio waves – called continuous sine waves – using one of two types of modulation. These two types of modulation are AM (Amplitude Modulation) or FM (Frequency Modulation). The main differences between the two is the frequency range (800MHz for FM or 49MHz for AM), the total number of frequencies, and the transmitter power.


The receiver exists to capture these sine waves and make playback possible.

Why Analog Radio is Being Replaced

Much like the digital switch that occurred in recent years for television, radio in an analog format is simply starting to show its age (check out these old time radio shows Bored Of Podcasts? Listen To Old Time Radio Instead! There's a ridiculous amount of free media content available from the Internet Archive, and the most interesting downloads are often the oldest ones. With masterpieces like Alfred Hitchcock films, gunslinging John Wayne westerns and reels... Read More ). That’s not to say it doesn’t work, but digital radio offers a cleaner signal, less signal degradation from devices on the same spectrum. Which is why it’s inevitable we’ll make the switch at some point. Countries like Norway are already leading the way.

Digital radio features things that analog could never offer, such as:

In short, we’ve created a better mousetrap. 


In fact, your radio or receiver may already be equipped for digital radio. In the US, you’ve probably heard it called by a different name, HD Radio. In Europe, it’s commonly known as DAB (digital audio broadcast). Each of these formats is remarkably close to the exact same thing, but each country is still selecting their preferred standard.

How Does Digital Radio Work?

Like terrestrial radio, digital radio sends a signal through the air that a receiver captures, and plays through your speakers.The main difference between the two is that digital doesn’t send complete information all at once. Instead, it compresses the audio How Does File Compression Work? How does file compression work? Learn the basics of file compression and the difference between lossy versus lossless compression. Read More and transmits it from an antenna in pieces.

The receiver then captures these pieces (much like it would on an analog signal) but instead of playing them, it decodes the encoded audio, and pieces together the audio before playing it on your speakers. While this seems like an odd process, it’s actually beneficial because the digital signal is broadcasted redundantly to improve playback.

While an analog signal can travel more distance, it is more prone to signal degradation from competing sources. Basically, this means that the static, hisses, and missed bits of information were pieces of the signal that were lost during transmission. Digital radio doesn’t have this problem.


There are two reasons the signal is better in digital.

  1. Receivers have advanced amplifiers which help to filter out competing signals.
  2. The information is sent redundantly, so even if bits and pieces are lost, the receiver is often able to formulate a sort of back-up plan by pulling from one of the redundancies before playback.

But, digital radio isn’t perfect What To Consider When Buying A DAB Digital Radio Radio has moved on considerably over the past few years. While FM (Frequency Modulation) is still the most popular platform, the combination of DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) and the Internet has expanded the options people... Read More

As I mentioned above, it can’t travel as far as analog. The other problem with digital is the lag caused by transmitting the audio signal in pieces, and then re-constructing them before playback. If you have a digital radio, put it next to an analog radio and tune them to the same station. You’ll notice a significant lag in the digital version.

Additionally, it can’t be retrofit to existing devices. So you’d need to upgrade your receiver, car stereo How to Get Digital DAB Radio in Your Car How do you get digital DAB radio in your car, maintain signal strength and, ultimately, enjoy trouble-free digital audio broadcasts while you travel from A to B? Read More , or in-home boombox in order to take full advantage of digital. Luckily, there are tuners and adapters that are currently available if you want to avoid the expense of a full upgrade.


So, When Will Analog Radio Die?


There’s really no confirmed dates in most places (apart from Norway). While Norway will undoubtedly get the wheels turning, it’s not going to be a transition that came about as quickly as the switch to digital television. Instead, we’ll see sporadic deployment of digital test markets (or countries) while we continue to enjoy our trusty analog signal.

Many countries are already experimenting with digital radio, but haven’t made plans to completely replace analog just yet. Denmark, France, Australia, China, Belgium, Malaysia, South Africa and The United Kingdom are just a few of the many countries where you can currently enjoy digital radio.

The United States has a sort of “wait and see” attitude regarding complete roll-out of digital-only HD Radio. While HD Radio currently exists, it’s nothing more than a simulcast of the analog signal that is offered in digital. Instead of forcing the issue, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has decided to leave it to the stations themselves to determine when they should go fully digital.

“FM and AM radio will still be operational ten years from now… Five-year licenses for new AM and FM radio stations, which are three or four years away from launching, are still being offered.”

-Radio Today’s Roy Martin

The US government, while not forcing stations to change, has offered to subsidize the changeover and is urging current broadcasters to “..commence trials of digital radio in regional areas so technical and other issues can be resolved.”

So for the time being, it appears that analog radio will exist at least a few more years in Europe, and it could be close to a decade in the United States.

Is digital radio (DAB, DMR, HD Radio, DAT+, etc.) offered where you live? What do you think the biggest hurdle is for widespread rollout and adoption? 

Image credit: Vintage Fuji Radio by Joe Haupt via Flickr

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  1. natschultz
    October 20, 2017 at 6:09 am

    Old post (I was looking for an analog (dial) radio and found this), but this is a TOTAL DISASTER!

    First of all, BANNING REAL RADIO IS LITERALLY DANGEROUS - just like the banning of copper landlines. (Yes, only analog radio is genuine / real "radio," as in "radio waves." Digital (everything digital) is fake / synthetic - it does not genuinely exist in nature; radio waves do.)
    I was the Program Director of a local FM non-commercial radio station when the Great Northeast Blackout hit about a decade ago. That was before digital "landlines." The ONLY way to get any information during the blackout was via ANALOG AIRWAVE RADIO or copper, hard-line CORDED phones. Cell phone service was DEAD (no power). I had one corded phone in my house that I was able to call the station from (all the electric portable phones were dead); I was running back and forth between my car with the radio on and my corded phone in the kitchen talking to the person on the air and lining up fill-ins who lived close enough to get to the station without needing gas (no working pumps). The radio and copper landlines REQUIRED NO ELECTRICITY TO OPERATE!!! The old copper landlines had built-in DC power in the lines that was independent from the grid (during all the hurricanes and Nor'Easters I lost power but never phone and water), and radio stations have automatic back-up generators that kick on.
    Fast-forward to Hurricane Sandy: copper landlines had already been banned by the government and all of our phone lines were replaced with Fiber Optics by Verizon. My "landline" was nothing more than a useless joke hanging on the wall with a useless Verizon-installed "battery-backup" in the basement. Translation: No electricity, no gas, no cell phones, no land-lines for two weeks. But I DID HAVE AM/FM RADIO! In fact, in addition to propane and batteries, ONE OF THE BIGGEST SELLERS AFTER HURRICANE SANDY WAS ANALOG RADIOS! We actually bought the last available "boom box" at Target!

    Second, this is being done for two reasons only:
    1) So the NSA knows exactly what each person is listening to at every moment. Prime target audience to label as "terrorists": Those who listen to Coast to Coast AM; after that any "conservative" talk radio listeners. With Analog, Big Brother cannot track who is tuning in to what radio shows. Just like with copper landlines (now banned) - the government needed a WARRANT to wiretap anyone and listen in - now the NSA records EVERY phone conversation being had over all forms of telephony because it is all digital (cell or "landline").
    2) Money. 99% chance "radio" will no longer be free (just like "network" TV used to be free until TV went digital). And, I have no interest in targeted digital advertising, free or not. Corpora-Fascist NWO boondoggle, just like digital "surveillance" TV.

    Oh yeah, a third reason this ROYALLY SUCKS: REAL MUSIC IS ANALOG! DIGITIZED MUSIC SOUNDS LIKE CRAP COMPARED TO ANALOG SURROUND SOUND! At least when it comes to non-electronic music. Try listening to The Pixies "I Bleed" in a modern compressed format (digital radio) vs in analog stereo. And I don't just mean on vinyl; even on CD you still get the full effect of the music, whereas listening to it in an online / downloaded (compressed) version it is literally half as complex, like the music has literally been stripped hollow. Compression (digitizing) literally degrades the actual quality of music that was originally recorded in analog.

    Oh yeah, with an ANALOG DIAL you get MORE STATIONS and CLEARER SIGNALS! My car has both a dial and a digital scanner; when listening to AM the signal will often get interference, so I just go up or down one notch and it comes in better and just do that whenever the interference changes. With digital scanner only (my radio alarm) I get fewer than 5 out of 10 truly available stations. On FM I only hit one Classic Rock station on my digital radio (it literally skips over 50% of stations), whereas I get 3-4 Classic Rock stations with the dial radio.

    Not for nothing, but in 10-15 years the ONLY form of truly secure and private communication and transportation will be via hand-written snail mail and horse and buggy. I am literally NOT JOKING. The only safe people will be the hard-core Amish.

    And yes, I am fully aware that the NSA and other NWO Fascists are reading this. And frankly my dears, I don't give a flying foot.

    • D. Wagner
      November 17, 2018 at 2:24 pm

      I could not agree more about it being a bad idea to shut down analog radio. I thought Norwegians had more sense.

      I have lived in a world prior to the computer age, and it worked very well. However, we have come to a very insecure place in a very short time with the computer age.

      If the web goes down, our world will collapse, and we will have ZERO ability to get news without analog radio.

      Who gives a stuff about all the “benefits” of HD radio when you don’t know if and when food will reach the supermarket.

  2. Anonymous
    November 11, 2015 at 7:59 am

    No thanks. When analog degrades, it gets fuzzy. When digital degrades, it is useless. Digital signal reception is all or nothing. I live and work in a remote area. When I am driving long distances, and the analog signal fades, if I have an old school analog radio vs the "improved" digital tuners, I can slowly scan to tune in the signal longer. The digital tuner loses the signal. Same with digital radio, like SIRI. Yes it is good when you get it, but then it is gone.

    And yes, the person who commented about repeated recorded play lists is right too. Try listening to a station for 8-12 hours day after day and you catch the repeats. The only advantage is that you can probably switch to another station with content that you like.

    Digital radio like Siri is OK if you are local. But where I live there was no local digital content on Siri. Digital satellite is great if you are driving long distances in remote locations. I suppose digital will be more acceptable when there is local content.

  3. Anonymous
    July 31, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    We could have had it 20 years ago. What's the holdup?

    • ngoc
      July 23, 2017 at 10:35 pm

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  4. Anonymous
    July 29, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    In Italy they're trying to push it, but since we have already experienced the (not so) great switch toterrestrial digital tv we're not impressed.
    Add that several years ago we had a total national black out. I was on duty withthe red cross that night and the ONLY working device for communication was the old, reliable radio. I would never ever trust anything else in an emergency.
    Besides it seems that through DAB you can enter a modern, technology-intensive car and disable its braking system.
    No thanks!

  5. Anonymous
    July 21, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    the AM radio band is from 540 to 1600 KHz with channels every 10KHz (US) or 9 KHZ (Europe).
    the FM radio band is from 88 to 108 MHz (falling in the middle of the old VHF TV band) with 99 channels (all the odd decimals from 88.1 to 107.9).
    the 800 MHz band is for mobile phones and other services (fire/police).
    the 49 MHz band is for radio control/ancient cordless phones/baby monitors etc.

  6. Anonymous
    July 21, 2015 at 4:53 am

    Sounds to me like what DirecTV and other "cable operators" offer at the end of their visual channels. Some scripted music that just plays over and over with maybe some randomization thrown in to occasionally change the order or add a new song. I can't even be bothered with it on TV I can't imagine being bothered with it on my radio unless commercialization gets so bad that you have to give up on analog.

  7. Anonymous
    July 20, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    I have an HD radio and it is not all it is cracked up to be. There is a lot of interference. With regular Analog you might get a little static but you still hear the broadcast. With my HD , any interference no matter how small cuts the signal off completely. Silence. If I walk in front of my radio a certain way it will be silent for like ten seconds. A's a mater of fact I can be sitting in a chair listening and it will all of the sudden go dead, then come back and then go dead again. The only advantage I see is the extra channels available. Like digital TV each station has two or three extra channels. The conundrum is advertising revenue. Hard to run extra stations with little extra revenue.

  8. Anonymous
    July 20, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    I do not know where you are getting your information, but Tesla did not patent modern radio in 1943, given that he died on January 7 of that year, long past his prime.

  9. Anonymous
    July 20, 2015 at 8:07 am

    Unlike TV Stations, Any Attempt From RADIO Stations To Go Premium Will Be Dead On Arrival.

    To Avoid The All So Common Digital Interferences, I Hope All Free To Air TV And RADIO Stations Allow Their Content To Be Delivered Free OnLine Worldwide By Anyone Else, Without Any Geo Restrictions - I Will Not Hold My Breath, Though.


  10. Anonymous
    July 19, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    With reference to your:
    ".. Terrestrial radio has two main parts, a receiver and a transmitter. The transmitter sends radio waves – called continuous sine waves – using one of two types of modulation. These two types of modulation are AM (Amplitude Modulation) or FM (Frequency Modulation). The main differences between the two is the frequency range (800MHz for FM or 49MHz for AM), the total number of frequencies, .."

    Where did you get the specific Values of 800 and 49 ??

  11. Anonymous
    July 19, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    I tend to like new technology when it comes available for good to humanity. But in this case, I remember back in time when the cable companies promoted their service to the customer as a commercial free broadcast and full choices of all available channels. what this meant for the customer was that they have full access to all channels and watch their favorite programs without commercial adds interruptions. But once the move to commercial broadcast started and air television dooms days were on the horizon, the cable companies, took advantage of this opportunity to rise the prices, introduced commercial, and finally control the amount of channels you have access to depending your selected package. Not to mention that now you are paying to view TV, when you used had the free channels on air TV. Is all about money...The technology is good, but it would create another bill that you are going to pay from this point forward and with commercial added against your will. Companies would be double dipping, since they already have you, and you don't have anywhere to go to avoid to avoid this monthly bill. They would make monies from the commercial that would be introduced to you even if you like it or not. So if you are opt to pay another bill for the rest of your life on something that used to be free, then go ahead and join the crowd and embrace it with an open wallet. Don't be fool of nice propaganda words of how good is this or that, the fist thing you should ask this going to cost me any money, if the answer is yes, then reject the offer because air radios are free and programs are paid by commercial. If the answer is free, make sure is in writing and not another trial period as well. Let commercial companies pay for these service and let radio to be free for the people. In this era, no one needs another bill to pay each month. Thanks

  12. Anonymous
    July 19, 2015 at 12:59 am

    I'm not thrilled about it. Yes it offers sooo many wonderful benefits. But, as we've seen with digital TV broadcasts, instead of a fuzzy but still usable playback we now have a signal that totally freezes with the slightest interference. None of those benefits of digital mean a thing when the broadcast doesn't come thru at all.

  13. Anonymous
    July 18, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    Just wondering, what happens to the Emergency AM stations, the one putting out 100,000 watts. Those stations relay on analog to cover large area and distances.

    • Bryan Clark
      July 18, 2015 at 6:36 pm

      This is a great question, and one that never even crossed my mind when writing this. I had to go do a little digging to answer this question and unfortunately there isn't a lot of good information on the subject. Since the changeover is still years away in most areas, there isn't a lot of concrete information.

      Now, what I was able to find was a proposed digital hybrid format called CAM-D and Digital Radio Mondiale. Both of these would provided better access to AM stations and offer varying levels of digital service.

    • Anonymous
      July 19, 2015 at 12:58 am

      I want to make a correction, they are 50,000 watt stations not 100, 000.

  14. Anonymous
    July 18, 2015 at 3:40 am

    It's available here in Australia as well, but we're not forced it. I think we will be eventually though: we're forced to use Fibre Optic internet which in theory is better than cable but it's not: it's actually slower unless you pay a crapton more.

    • Bryan Clark
      July 18, 2015 at 6:37 pm

      In a nuts and bolts approach, fibre is definitely faster. I think the blame for that one goes on your ISP, and how they decided to tier their pricing.