Digital Upgrade: Report Card Part 2

So yesterday we looked at how we’re doing on the journey towards a digital radio future. Today we’re going to look at how different sectors of the radio industry are tackling the challenges of digital…

As mentioned, there’s four seperate groupings in radio. Below looks at the digital hours by each group:

  • National Commercial’s hours are already around half digital
  • National BBC’s a bit over a quarter
  • Local Commercial and Local BBC is around 15%

Now, it’s important to remember that all of these groups don’t provide an equal share of radio – the BBC nationals make up nearly half of UK hours, so if they increase their share of digital agressively above 50% they’ll drag everyone else up and over the line.

I think, though, that it shows that to hit digital upgrade there are a number of different things that need to happen to the different sectors. And it’s the speed or success of this that will really show how fast we can hit the total 50% figure, but also give the momentum to ensure that by the upgrade date, two years later, so that very few people will ‘mind’ that the bigger stations will no longer be on analogue. TV’s already managed that (there were no analogue TVs sold last month).

National commercial
National commercial is doing alright. This is primarily being driven by new stations (compared to the three that exist on analogue) and also the higher digital share the AM stations have as people move to get a better experience of Absolute/talkSPORT etc.

National BBC
Also doing okay, slightly ahead of the digital ‘average’. Again driven by good new content in 6Music, 1xtra etc, the AM upgrade of 5Live and the extra coverage that channel can provide on digital. Part of the reason it lags behind National commercial is how universally receiveable Radios 1-4 are. These are big radio stations on loads of FM frequencies. If you really like these stations and don’t listen to much else outside of them, then there isn’t an instant desire to upgrade for the practical reasons that affect other listeners – ie that you live in an area that has poor analogue reception, your fave station is on AM, your analogue radio choice is poor etc.

The BBC’s annoucement that they’re partnering up stations more in the future – Radio 1 and 1Xtra, Five Live and Five Live Sports Extra, the revamped BBC7 as 4Xtra (and maybe the saved 6Music as 2Xtra?) – are to try and give some good reasons to the ‘happily analogue’ brigade to make the switch.

Local commercial
Local commercial is at 15% for a number of reasons. Firstly not all local areas have digital multiplexes (yes, I know, this is partly my fault) this means the bigger stations that exist in these ‘whitespace’ areas don’t have much of an opportunity to move more of their hours from analogue to digital. If these all appeared tomorrow and reflected the existing stations’ digital position, the figure would probably increase to around 20% straight away – just from people in those areas who already get national DAB but not their local stations.

We also haven’t yet seen the benefit of more local digital stations (in the same way we’ve seen nationally). This is beginning to change though. Fire across Dorset and South Hampshire, The Coast on South Hampshire, Nation on South Wales have started to replace their smaller analogue TSAs with larger digital TSAs. This is going to generate more digital hours and, from what I hear, a trend that quite a few other local stations will be adopting.

I think existing ILRs could also take a leaf out of the National BBC’s book of using Xtra stations. Replicating an ILR on digital (unless it fixes historical coverage issues) doesn’t really do much for an operator. It’s good for listeners who’ve got a digital radio as it means their full compliment of stations are on one band, and indeed stops hours reduction by those digital listeners listening less to analogue-only stations, but it’s not life-changing and probably doesn’t quite balance out the signficant additional cost in being digital.

To truly benefit these stations need to grow their hours at the expense of their competitors. It’s something that Absolute are doing by adding to their main station Absolute 80s, Absolute Radio 90s and Absolute Classic Rock.

How does this work? Well, lets take a listener with 20 hours of listening a week which they split equally – ten to Absolute and ten to Radio 2. They also however like 80s music and they hear on Absolute Radio that there’s a new station – Absolute 80s. They like it and decide to move 20% of their listening hours to it – which equally come off Absolute Radio and Radio 2.

The new scores are therefore Absolute Radio – 8 hours, Radio 2 – 8 hours and Absolute 80s – 4 hours. Absolute as a group now has 12 hours of listening vs Radio 2’s 8 hours.

Now they need to sell advertising at the same rate etc (or as a network) but generally Absolute should be better off. It’s also probably a sensible thing to do for heritage radio stations who are going to find it difficult to grow their hours naturally

I really think local commercial radio should do the same. Listeners are going to get used to 4Xtra and 1Xtra, so maybe now’s the time to plan Wyvern90s or Radio Aire Rock.

James writes more about this here.

Local BBC
A similarly low number. Again suffering from not all their stations being on DAB and also suffering from only having one station in each market.

Other Issues
The other thing that the digital numbers don’t take into account are the stations that aren’t surveyed by RAJAR. There’s also a signficant number of digital onlys both nationally (BFBS, UCB, Premier etc) and locally (Masti, Passion, Pubjabi) that aren’t RAJAR’d at all at the moment. If all these were added in, i’m sure we’d see that the digital percentage is already higher than the headline figure.

Whilst RAJAR splits have served us well so far, with so much resting on the numbers it’s perhaps time to have a seperate survey that’s measuring the entire UK radio universe. I believe this is something that’s been happening with digital television as they approach switchover and perhaps something we should adopt for radio.

One other thing – small local stations.

Should small stations have a route to digital – absolutely. However, for the purpose of these calculations, the total hours that these local stations generate mean that even if they all stayed analogue (which they won’t) it wouldn’t drastically hold back hitting the digital targets. Sorry little fellas!

So in conclusion, there are four different games that we’re playing with for digital switchover. Each subtly different.

For me it’s interesting to look back at National Commercial. That, in some way, has just about hit the target already. It’s done this through solid coverage, signifcant advantages for existing analogue broadcasters and lots more stations. It’s what the other segments will have to do too.

The BBC are on their way to replicating this success, by providing good digital radio stations and upgrading Five Live –  they’re over half way there. The new plans for better intergrated partner stations will give it even more momentum over the coming 12 months. However, it has the resources, both cash and promotional to really drive this forward at speed. It should this as an opportunity to fortify its own services and use the spectrum cleverly to provide pop-up stations for things like Glasto and Wimbledon – giving licence fee payers extra value and making the platform look even more attractive.

For the local commercials – actually, the local coverage is realtively easy to fix (more multipelxes and transmitters). This will make a startling difference on its own and there’s been lots of work happening behind the scenes to get this going quite soon. They key question for local commercial is whether existing operators can adjust their offer to do better out of listeners making the switch and how quickly new local stations will appear on digital radio – and lso have their hours measured!

That’s a natural finish to the blog post, but as I endorse launching an ‘Extra’ station, i’ll provide an ‘extra’ post. Tomorrow, i’ll ask a question to the people who are on the fence about DAB or firmly in the ‘no’ camp

One thought on “Digital Upgrade: Report Card Part 2”

  1. The key is still the switchover. The TV switchover can be seen as a success, so they really do need to translate the same process to radio.

    Whilst the coverage can be increased, personally, I feel that stations not on DAB and the car radios are the key to getting things kick started. Those small stations, however small, need to have a defined way to move across to DAB without the huge cost. Ideally, phased changeover for a period of a few months whilst all local stations broadcast on both DAB and FM and then the FM is simply switched off. For the car radio, the manufacturers need to get their new models having DAB as standard and more products like Pure’s Highway need to be created to make the transition as easy as possible.

    Obviously, there is a reluctance to the changeover. Therefore, do a trial in a defined location (somewhere like the Isle of Wight) – pick a location, do a phased switchoff of the FM stations in the area and look at the problems.

Comments are closed.