Come in Analogue Radio, Your Time is Running Out

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.

8 thoughts on “Come in Analogue Radio, Your Time is Running Out”

  1. So after 10 years of DAB, only 13% of the population listen to it?

    I’m yet to be convinced this out of date technology is the future of radio, to be honest.

  2. Personally, I think the Evoke is the true start of DAB in the UK, but yes that’s still seven years ago. However it’s not 13%, it’s 20% of the UK that listens to DAB each week. The 13% is the volume of of radio listening it contributes each week.

    Internet Radio – which has been around much longer, and with broadband penetration much higher, accounts for only 2.2% of all listening – and we don’t suggest turning that off, do we?

  3. I don’t want to start naming names and I’m not claiming to have the definite word on this subject, but I feel I can comment having been involved with two local speech and music stations over the past year or so.

    One was only on DAB – it never really got going. Despite all of us trying our absolute hardest to get the thing to work, the phone almost never rung with any listener contributions, the most common incoming phone call being “how do I pick you up, then?”. We filled the station up with local news, interesting guests and fantastic new talent – we built it but they never came and it had to be closed after six months.

    The new station is on a brand new FM community licence, launched last week on what is meant to be a dying band. The group running the FM station is entirely unconnected to the former DAB station but it broadcasts a very similar format and carries over a significant number of presenters and shows. In the first week of broadcasting, the phones and email have been positively alight with contributions compared to the former DAB-only channel despite the FM station having a much reduced coverage area. I’ve been staggered by the number of people getting in touch with dedications, news, events and so on from such a small area.

    From this experience, I’d have to say that FM is still the place to be if you want to gain a significant local audience. DAB may well be the go-to format for specialist stations like Fun Kids or Planet Rock in London or nationally, but the sort of audience who’d listen to a mainstream 25-55 local station just doesn’t seem interested.

  4. Hi Phil,

    I’m really pleased that your community station’s had a successful launch.

    What I wasn’t trying to say in the post was that FM’s unpopular. Of course, it’s hugely popular and massive numbers of people tune in every week – about five times the amount that listen to digital radio. If I was launching a station and wanted to reach the most amount of people it would definitely be on FM. However, that’s really hard to do as there aren’t going to be any more FM licences released for commercial radio.

    One of the thing’s that I tried to say was that listening to FM-only stations is gradually reducing as people listen to more and more other platforms.

    I think one of the reasons that your station didn’t do as well on DAB is partly where that platform is in it’s development cycle. As mentioned in the article – Radio 4 doesn’t get rubbish just because The Hits is on-air. Most of the stations that have been successful are the ones that provide a targeted complementary service – rock, kids etc. I think the hardest thing to do (as many incremental stations on FM have found too) is trying to attract listeners to a full-service type station. Making people leave their ‘favourite’ is always going to be a difficult task.

  5. I have a Pure One in my bathroom but I can’t listen to Fun Kids or NME Radio (or Jazz or The Hits or LBC) on it! Until the whole of the country gets the same level of choice as London has, DAB is going to remain a much less attractive choice of technology beyond the M25.

  6. Hey Matt,

    I know, I bet you didn’t think I read your posts!

    A very interesting post, but I worry that there has been too much delay in DAB implementation, the technology is already as far as I can gather out of date and not in line with the rest of Europe. I seem to remember the Psion Wavefinder exploiting data capabilities of DAB, but that was a long time ago. Do you not think Radio stations broadcasting over 3G networks are a cheaper and better alternative? Look at the iPhone and Android based phones and I can get streaming radio/music in many different ways with dedicated applications. If quality is an issue services like Spotify could be a model (caching streams).

    I know these points miss an important factor which of course is the car. Until DAB is in the car or some kind of ‘digital’ alternative to FM, then FM will still be king.

    Anyway that’s my 2 pence, looks like you are doing well!
    Thought you might be interested in this article on The Register:
    Talking DAB and the future of radio

  7. Some valid observations… Responses would be….

    The bandwidth for the UK internet, never mind the cellular network, would be full if less than a third of Moyles’ listeners tuned in. Also they need to be ‘subscribers’ and someone ends up paying for that data… Broadcast has its benefits. 1 listener or 10m – my bandwidth costs are the same.

    DAB, DAB+ and DMB – the three main digital radio standards – are all based on DAB and all new radios support all three of them – so there’s interoperability for listeners and manufacturers.

    The major car operators have committed to DAB line-fit across Europe.

    I think music streaming services are cool, but none of them have managed to afford the rights to offer even an ad-supported service (Spotify limits sign ups to different territories and forces some to be subs only as the ad model doesn’t pay their bills).

  8. hi Matt and all,

    There really is soooo much you can do with DAB/DAB+/DMB that not of the others can even dream of. And many of the standards and technologies are already set down.

    I tend to think of myself as an early experimenter with DAB. My station and a handful of others plus the BBC were on DAB exploring its potential with the belief that this would defintlely be the future. The extended FM licence sweetener helped get the ‘industry’ invest in DAB, but the ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma (transmission investment Vs sets/listeners) remains the root of the problem. I think it’s safe to say that inexpensive sets are now with us, but coverage is still not. It remains for multiplex operators (still predominantly collectives of radio content businesses ) to fund transmission and thereby define the quality of coverage. Obviously now is not a good time for radio companies to be asked to dig into their pockets and shell out more money for DAB transmitter networks.

    Like the Americans, I beleive that the multiplex idea is a real problem for single service radio stations as the ‘bouquet’ concept is rather awkward in business terms. Mux ownership by the groups was useful at the time to kick-start DAB, but sadly, and cynically, it allows exising broadcasters to control who is allowed access to the digital platform.

    So for what it’s worth, if the Government really wants a digital radio Britain and avoid spectrum wastage (DAB + FM simulcasting) I beleive that they must re-think the whole multiplex ‘ownership’ arrangement and the legislation. DAB transmission should be built and managed by a totally separate, non-content businesses somehow. The financing would be challenging, I’m sure, but it feels viable if considered as a ‘long’ game. Then, as with FM, licencees just pay for theirs and – nobodly elses – transmission fees as with an FM, satellite or internet station.

    Yes, the set take-up may well appear dis-heartening but anecdotally, all I can say is that ordinary (non radio) people that I meet think that a DAB Radio is the thing to have – like a big flat widescreen telly or an iPhone. They all say that the quality of reception and choice of channels is vastly superior to FM and I’m really not making it up. I tend to do my radio listening in the car and when I’m in range of a few DAB transmitters, I really appreciate the signal stability of DAB. Mobile listening is what DAB was actually designed for and it wipes the floor with FM and AM.

    I haven’t gone into multi-standard DAB/DAB+/DMB sets, On-channel repeaters (fillers) or satellite radio, but that’s may for another time.

    Regards

    Phil

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