Regular readers will no doubt be aware that i’m an advocate for digital radio and particularly radio delivered over DAB. I spent a long time being involved with it at GWR and GCap (now Global), I worked closely with the DRDB on it, some of our current clients have stations on it, I own some DAB multiplexes licences and even a radio station, Fun Kids, that broadcasts on it. I guess this means, perhaps, I have a bit of an interest in it being a success.
And personally I do think it’s a success. 10 million radios out there, 20% of the UK listening to radio through DAB each week and it accounting for 13% of all radio listening (that’s over double the listening through the internet and digital television combined).
DAB’s reach and hours is bigger than Radio 4’s reach and hours.
This week we’re likely to see more arguments over digital radio from the people who potentially have the most to gain – the existing radio industry. The arguments are all about switching off analogue radio. There’s two camps, those who think there is value in an up-front process to get to a point to migrate the majority of stations from analogue to digital and those who think analogue should remain.
To be honest, I couldn’t particularly care less about analogue switch off.
Firstly, it’s not really an analogue switch off, it’s just saying that most of the bigger stations will no longer be on AM and FM from 2015. The main reason these new rules have been suggested is to save these stations money by stopping them having to pay the costs of broadcasting on both analogue and digital. By removing these stations within a similar time period it provides a level playing field and a co-ordinated approach for listeners.
This planned analogue to digital transition works for most existing UK radio stations. There are some issues for stations (and listeners) outside current and planned digital coverage areas but nothing is particularly insurmountable. The good thing about the proposed DAB organisation Digital Radio UK is that it becomes a well-supported vehicle by industry and government to be able to fix these problems. It’s something that Digital UK has achieved for TV switchover and they faced a different, but much larger set of problems.
The other thing the current radio industry forgets is that ‘radio’s future’ is not all about them.
My radio station, Fun Kids, has no analogue licence. The station’s privately funded by its parent company and is well on the way to being a profitable part of the business. It chooses to broadcast on DAB Digital Radio because that’s where the majority of our listeners are – and they’re how the station makes it money.
I don’t always have a lot of sympathy for the analogue operators. They get a piece of government analogue spectrum – originally awarded by promising some ‘public good’. They argue (as I believe is right) that the value of this spectrum is declining so they have to provide less ‘public good’. As an added incentive to ‘support’ digital radio these licences have enjoyed free rollovers – maintaining their radio monopolies. As we move towards a re-planning of digital radio they are likely to get another incentive form supporting digital radio, probably again around having their licences extended to ‘switch-over’ and reducing ‘public good’ commitments.
We, on the other hand, produce a radio station full of ‘public good’ on DAB, which we pay carriage for and, amusingly to people who won these licences basically by being existing analogue operators. We get no ‘incentives’ to another part of our business to do this, there are no roll-overs for us.
We don’t particularly moan about this or make stinging declarations to the Government. We just get on with trying to grow our radio station and make it successful. We like being on DAB.
I think what’s interesting is that some of the existing analogue operators think that they hold the key to the future ‘success’ of digital radio. They’re wrong.
Listeners don’t really care about platforms, they care about ease of use and accessing the content they want to hear. For 10m people, DAB does that for them.
Analogue radio’s a good technology and for most people it does a good job of delivering their favourite station. But this is mainly driven by habit.
The only analogue radio in our house is the one in the bathroom. It does a perfect job of delivering me Radio 1 in the shower. That’s its only function. However across my total radio listening analogue either fails, or doesn’t do a very good job of delivering me stations like NME Radio, Fun Kids or even Five Live. Pirate activity ruins some of my analogue listening in the office and it won’t let me see the pretty RadioDNS pictures that I see on my Sensia.
When someone buys a radio now, there’s a pretty good chance it will be a DAB one. It’s actually quite hard to buy a radio that’s not a digital one now. People will, however, mostly listen to what they already listened to. Radio 4 doesn’t suddenly get rubbish because you can listen to The Hits after all. Total listening to Radio 4 may drop a little though as people replace certain elements with speech from BBC Radio 7 or LBC, now they can more easily get it.
This changing listener behaviour will not be changed by Global Radio and GMG suddenly supporting digital radio a bit more. The job they can do is to use their size to tell more people about and accelerate the take up.
Oddly the main beneficiary of them supporting DAB will be their own companies and stations. Getting to the point they’re happy to switch off analogue, quicker, would save them money (from having to fund dual transmission) and if there would more people listening to their portfolio of stations for longer, and less to the BBC they would make more money from advertising.
If they stay on analogue, DAB’s growth will still continue, and their reach and hours will decline. If they replicate their analogue station on digital, their reach will remain, but their average hours will drop. If they enhance their station through a move from AM to DAB, increasing their broadcast areas or by offering multiple channels and choice they will grow their audiences and grow their total hours.
What does not exist, partly because of the size and growth of DAB, but also with stations on digital television and the internet, is any hope of a return to a comfy analogue monopoly. The train has left and it’s speeding away.
There are lots of people that this is good news for.
Firstly, the BBC. They’ve created some new radio stations, including BBC7, 1Xtra and 6Music. These stations are generally cheaper than their existing ones and it helps them reach new audiences. They cross-promote them heavily on their other platforms. It’s helping them grow reach and making sure that if listeners flick around they’ll at least be informed about other stations in their portfolio.
Secondly, new entrants. Stations like Planet Rock, NME, Jazz and us with Fun Kids. On analogue radio there wouldn’t be licences available to us, or they would be too expensive to buy. Digital allows us to reach a large number of people on a platform that’s used to consume loads of radio – perfect. We can also take hours from all of the existing stations too.
Now, I don’t want to dismiss the concerns of certain stations, but without sounding too American, they’ve got to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. They also have to realise that the ‘radio industry’ does not just include people with analogue licences.