Digital Upgrade: Where do you stand?

So, a couple of posts this week talking about the digital upgrade.

There’s still a significant chunk of radio people who are either ‘on the fence’ about ‘DAB/digital’ or are firmly in the ‘no’ camp.

If that’s you, the one question I ask you to think about is “What will happen to radio industry if digital radio doesn’t happen?”

In the UK, in the analogue world, the news is about consolidation and networking. Less stations, less choice and less jobs. However, crucially, at the same time, no room for new analogue competitors.

I often hear that the internet and mobile is radio’s saviour. Yep – it might well be. It is however a completely unproven hypothesis. Internet listening accounts for just 2.9%. In other words it’s a platform that can reach the most people in the UK, offers unlimited choice, is supported by every radio station and broadcasts at excellent audio quality (all the things that people say DAB needs) but still provides little UK radio listening (DAB provides 15.1%).

Is IP the platform, that on it’s own, is going to be radio’s real saviour? Do you think that by the time that figure gets anyway to be able to support a radio station with actual programming we’ll have any new radio companies left to really take advantage of it?

It does of course make sense that at some point in the future ubiquitous broadband will allow radio to be consumed in volume that way, I just think the slow-take up we’ve seen (and is likely to continue) and the explosion in online choice of things that replace readio consumption means that it will be incredibly difficult for anything other than established players to make the transition from analogue to IP.

Indeed, whilst we’re waiting for this IP-only future the existing analogue broadcasters will continue to dominate the airwaves whilst reducing their local commitments. The BBC will continue to be the excellent broadcaster it is (though always under threat from a licence fee settlement).

Now, in the short-term I don’t imagine this scenario would drastically affect listeners. I imagine what would happen though is what we see in other countries without non-analogue platforms – a slow decline in total listening and a higher decline in the younger demographics (as they look to a variety of sources for music and entertainment – split over many different sources).

Analogue commercial groups will continue to prosper through cutting costs and taking their share of the shrinking radio advertising market. IP and mobile platforms will of course generate new types of services, but the radio listening  hours available means that companies providing radio programming are unlikely to be able to formulate a business plan that can cope with the smaller hours that IP (at least over at least the next five years) will deliver. I’m not aware of any Internet-only stations currently generating signficiant broadcast station-style hours – please leave a comment if you do.

I think UK Radio Player will start to make a difference to internet radio listening. Particularly it will improve the user experience of accessing online audio content – and that’s definitely good news for operators.

I often look at my own radio station, Fun Kids. There’s been periods where we’ve been on DTV, DAB and Online. DTV’s good for reach, DAB provides all the hours (how we make any money) and whilst of course I have an IP stream (with mobile on the way) as a niche service without much format competition we’re still very hard to just come across online. IP is good for people who know us and are out of area etc, but it’s such a small number of people. We really wouldn’t bother running Fun if it was IP only. I might well invest the money instead in an online product but it certainly wouldn’t be a radio-based one.

The reason new entrants like Planet Rock, Absolute 80s, Jazz FM etc are around are because of the combination of DAB, DTV, Online and Mobile – this is ‘digital’ taking the benefits of each of the elements and working together.

I’m always amazed at radio people who are negative about DAB – as at the moment its the one thing that’s giving the hours base for these new entrants to survive and turn themselves into real radio stations and businesses.

All technology is transitory. In telly – Black and White to Colour to Nicam to Widescreen to Freeview to Freeview HD. All requiring replacements. However each one took the platform to the next stage, new benefits, new entrants.

Take a moment to think that 694,000 people listen to Planet Rock every week. That’s amazing. A big push of publicity took 6Music to over 1m listeners. Wow! If you work in radio – the success of these stations means your skills will continue to be in demand. As a radio person i’d rather not have to rely on the analogue operators thank you very much.

People in other countries can’t believe we’re not only growing radio listening, but that a quarter of it isn’t even on AM or FM. They are all truly shocked. Their radio industries are fixed with their analogue platforms and a slow increases in internet listening. They see us as having freed ourselves from the analogue shackles.

A healthy radio industry needs plurality. An analogue and internet only future now will stifle innovation in radio programming and leave us at the mercy of existing operators with the hope that the BBC will be able to continue.

Reading around today the main arguments about the ‘upgrade’ are really about coverage and cars. Thank god. At least that’s something that’s easily fixable. There was the BBC announcement yesterday about 60-odd new transmitters to improve their national coverage and there’s more announcements like that on the way. The people who have a proper in-car receiver rarely moan about coverage (it’s a great user experience). If you’ve got a crap radio or it’s not installed properly then i’m not surprised if it’s not very good.

In-car roll-out though, is of course, a bit more of an issue (though it does only represent 20% of UK listening). I’m less concerned about line-fitting than I once was. Listening to recent announcements from Mini and the like, i’m confident that as we ramp up to 2013 every range will line-fit. The after-market needs more and better products, but with necessity the mother of invention i’m sure we’ll see some developments.

Do we need to wait or reset to use a different digital radio broadcast platform? No. It’s been a hard old slog to get where we are now, I don’t think a change would be good for listeners or any of the people creating a business. Listeners will judge the digital platforms on what they deliver now, not what they could, potentially, deliver in the future. This will be the true test, not just for DAB, but for radio if we want to make a leap forward, or stay where we are today forever.

Collectively, us in radio, should support all the digital platforms. DAB, DTV, IP and Mobile all work together to provide a future for the industry – lets not try and sabotage our future by in fighting over platforms, lets celebrate the best of each of them. If one particularly suits you – that’s great, but don’t assume that everyone feels the same way. Every digital listener is a radio listener after all.

I expect over the years that the relative importance of each of the different platforms will change and ebb and flow – what’s important is that by building  a strong future together now – that a broad selection of radio stations will still be around to survive and evolve!

So next time someone slags off something that allows our listeners to hear us, that’s meant a new entrant can justify investing in their business, or has allowed someone to be employed who’s been laid off from a co-located analogue station, remember to have a word and say digital radio means (through a number of methods) means we’re able to build the future of our industry.

14 thoughts on “Digital Upgrade: Where do you stand?”

  1. In a universe full of utterly lousy arguments in favour of DAB, this one doesn’t suck.

    The major remaining problem, though, is the *enormous* cost of transmission, which you’re not really addressing. Yet. While it’s an order of magnitude cheaper to send the signal to homes from space (ffs), something remains seriously wrong with the economics.

    I suspect it has more to do with the licensing of multiplexes than almost anything else, but there’d clearly be more and better programming on DAB stations if it were improved. You know it’s true of yours, regardless of how good yours might be today.

  2. “What will happen to radio industry if digital radio doesn’t happen?”

    Why does the UK need to sprint towards digital radio switchover before 99% of the developed countries in the world have even launched a terrestrial digital radio system??

    We’re no different to the rest of the developed countries, so the only reasons why this sprint to switch off FM is happening is to allow the commercial radio groups to save on the dual transmission costs and because the BBC is paranoid about losing listeners if Internet radio replaced FM.

  3. Clearly it’s worth mentioning that some of the arguments against DAB are brainless or content-free as well. Because that one was squarely in Royal-Family-Are-Lizards territory.

  4. Very well written and I agree, despite all the moaning you see (normally from listeners) that we should rip out DAB and go to DAB+ or something.. Well we cant, the costs and implications are just to high to consider it, we have DAB and we are stuck with it, but what we really need is the whole radio industry pulling together for DAB, with the infighting between groups its just going to make the whole process harder.

    The other thing we need with DAB is extra features and more stations, people wont swap from FM to DAB if its just the same, there is no incentive, however with more stations (like the BBC, Absolute) and certainly stations like Fun Kids and Planet Rock are the reasons people will swap, the other thing we can do is embrace other technology, i am a big supporter of RadioDNS/RadioVIS bolting on additional features on to DAB (and FM) that you otherwise couldnt get, I see it bridging the gap between DAB and DAB+ and we need more stations to get involved (and more importantly more manufacturers to get on board with that).

    Lastly and (finally its starting to be done) people need to be made more and more aware that its not a FM switch off but a migration of the BIGGER players on to digital, to free up FM for local community and commercial stations (If the markets can support them), again this is a great opportunity for the listening public and it will provide more and more stations (and I know people say listeners are happy with the choice they have, but I was happy with BBC 1 and 2, ITV, Channel 4 and a dodgy 5 signal until I got cable and freeview) plus there are hundreds of community radio groups up and down the country who still dont have a license and feel that they have community demand to support them.

    Only time will tell, digital will happen, but we need to all work together to make it work well..

  5. Martin,

    Could you explain why it’s acceptable to make 130 million FM radios obsolete but it’s not acceptable to make 10 million DAB radios obsolete?

    But anyway, you can run DAB and DAB+ stations on the same multiplex, so you actually wouldn’t need to make any DAB radio obsolete, or at least not for a number of years. For example, you could launch DAB+ versions of BBC stereo stations and reduce the same station to mono, which would provide higher audio quality on the DAB+ version and provide a backward compatible DAB version for DAB-only receivers. I don’t see how anybody could complain about that.

    Anyway, switchover to DAB+ is bound to happen on the day that FM stations are switched off, because it’s the obvious time to fully make the switch. By the time switchover is possible in around 2020, DAB+ receivers will account for 95%+ of all the digital receivers in the UK, so there’ll be no reason not to switch off DAB.

    Also, you say that you need to provide extra stations to attract listeners to DAB, but the 4 DAB multiplexes that a typical listener can receive can only carry about 40 stations. DAB+ is the obvious technology to use to deliver more choice.

    There’s also 100 smaller analogue commercial stations can’t transmit on DAB, either because they can’t afford the ultra-expensive transmission costs on DAB (using DAB+ is a fraction of the cost) or because there’s no capacity on their local DAB multiplex. The owners of those stations have said they want to use DAB+, and they shouldn’t be stopped from using DAB+.

  6. John,

    Your suggestion that \it’s an order of magnitude cheaper to send the signal to homes from space\ is wrong, I’m afraid. Satellite digital radio systems like Sirius XM in the States don’t provide indoor coverage unless a terrestrial transmitter network is built as well – satellite digital radio is good for providing very large area outdoor coverage, which is why Sirius uses it because they target car users.

    As satellite digital radio systems would also need a terrestrial transmitter network to be built to provide the 99% indoor coverage required to replace FM, the satellite itself would actually be superfluous, and therefore a waste of money.

    The best you can do when replacing FM is to use as efficient a mobile terrestrial system as possible, and the best bet for that is DVB-T2 or the forthcoming DVB-NGH system. Efficiency translates directly into lower transmission costs per station, so as DVB-T2 is 10.5 times as efficient as DAB it’s 10.5 times cheaper to transmit as well.

  7. @steve All the muxes can broadcast DAB+ and i’m sure at the point where there’s enough radios that have it, stations can make the decisions about whether to broadcast using it.

    It’s good that most radios being released now are DAB+ capable. It’s not entirely dis-similar to the upgrade path that’s happening with Freeview and Freeview HD.

    Personally, the business planning we’ve done has shown that the affect of even halving carriage costs (though everyone likes to save ££s) does not really increase the number of stations by many that would choose to broadcast digitally (as the other costs to run a radio station are still the same).

  8. There is no point in a station simulcasting on both FM and DAB once the 50% figure has been reached. Radio is certainly going to be multi-plarform with national and larger stations on DAB and smaller local stations staying on FM as was said by the Bishop of Manchester when the Digital Economy Act was being discussed in the House of Lords (see press release by Christian Broadcasting Council

    Back in the 70s BBC national networks stopped simulcasting on both AM and FM as four of the BBC’s five radio networks went FM only and the fifth was only on AM (that is if you exclude Radio 4′s LW transmissions). It also happened that ‘heritage’ commercial pop music stations stopped simulcasting and so the ‘gold’ station appeared on local AM and the ‘Top 40′ station continued on FM.

    I remember at that time that my car only had a LW/MW radio (which had been fine for listening to Radio 270, Radio Caroline and the other off-shore stations) but in order to listen to Viking, Tees or Aire I had to go and buy a car radio with FM on it.

    There was then an official date when the BBC switch happened and there was plenty of advanced publicity about the change. Some of the newpapers ran stories that people with only LW/MW radios would not be able to listen to their favourite station. Somethings don’t change!! However the change increased listener choice.

    Yes I agree we need an official DAB switch date. That will clarify for listeners which stations are going DAB only and which local stations are FM only.

  9. J P Wilson,

    The Government said on Thursday that it wasn’t going to set a digital radio switchover date. So I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

    And re not simulcasting on FM once 50% of listening is digital, I’m sorry, but the radio industry can’t afford to massively piss off 50% of its listeners by switching off their FM stations before the public is ready – think about how many people would simply refuse to ever listen to that station again. 50% of radio stations are loss making, so what you’re advocating would IMO send the majority of commercial radio stations to the wall.

  10. Your suggestion that \it’s an order of magnitude cheaper to send the signal to homes from space\ is wrong, I’m afraid. Satellite digital radio systems like Sirius XM in the States

    What? It costs about forty grand a year to put FM-quality sound down anywhere in the British Isles on Astra2, and the same geographic reach on DAB is a) one or two orders of magnitude more expensive, depending on who you ask and whether there’s an R in the month, and b) the total possible audience is about the same. If DAB had that much coverage across the UK and Ireland, which it doesn’t.

    Let’s say Steve’s right about nearly half the radio audience staying on FM after switch-off. So the BBC and the CRCA want to move to DAB and hand that audience over to noncommercial and community stations?

    I say: Let ’em. If it happens it’ll be great for diversity in broadcasting and plurality of listener choice. Heart sure as hell doesn’t deserve 15 frequencies with an 800kHz band of wide-area clearance around each one if it’s only putting out one station, and neither does Radio 1. I doubt that bonanza will be nearly as big as Steve thinks, but I’m all in favour of finding out.

  11. John,

    I agree with the £40k Astra 2 cost, but satellite signals from Astra 2 can’t be received in cars or indoors, which rules that out from being a solution to replace FM, because they need to replicate FM’s 99% indoor coverage.

    I don’t think that 50% of people would stay on FM, but I do think that the BBC and Global will lose a big chunk (difficult to say how big) of their listening when the FM off switch is flicked, and it’ll be the worst thing the commercial radio industry’s ever done financially.

  12. In its current UK form DAB is a downgrade, not an upgrade. I would be happy to transfer to DAB for my main receiver in the lounge if and only if it provided better sound quality than FM. Unlikely unless there is a change of heart from the BBC and Ofcom.
    For the rest of the house I will stick to FM.
    I really don’t care about the ‘radio industry’, as I only listen to Radio 3 and 4. The ‘radio industry’ doesn’t care about me, as it is trying to force me to spend my own money to downgrade to DAB in order to save them money.

  13. From a tech. perspective your thoughts are bang on the money. However, I would say that we need to have substantially greater plurality than we currently do; taken as a whole, the content from mainstream radio is stifling creativity and originality, not encouraging it.

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