You Don’t Know, Jack.

I have a new way to procrastinate before getting out of bed on a cold morning. First it started with reading my emails. Not on my computer, that would be crazy. Obviously the phone’s the place to do that at 7am. And anyway my computer’s away from bed so I’d have to get up to get it, completely defeating the point. Now though that’s becoming quite passé. I’ve evolved to doing a quick scan of my RSS feeds, on my phone. It’s the perfect enhancement to listening to Moyles on my Pure Evoke. A bit like reading the emails though, scanning the RSS can put me in a bad mood straight away. This morning I caught a blog post by Nick Piggott mentioning that yet again Jack Schofield has had another go at DAB Digital Radio in the Guardian this morning.

I think he must of set his computer calendar, probably on some forked Linux distro, to remind him on a monthly basis to write something dissing DAB. I suppose it makes the job of columnist eaiser if you just rehash old material every month or so.

Indeed there was very little new in his rant. His view – audio quality poor, choice poor, and that the system will be replaced by newer technologies, probably internet based. Now, Jack’s entitled to his opinion, I’m not a big fan of much of the reporting on his blog as he mainly surfs the blogosphere quoting stuff that I’ve already read in the past 24 hours. For me it’s just that the quality of what he writes isn’t very good and the content’s nothing special You see, for me, he’s been replaced by new technology – that of RSS.

However, I’ve decided (and I’m sure he’ll be pleased to hear this) not to campaign for his removal from the Guardian. I’ve assumed that there are some people who do like what he writes and that the Guardian have done some research with the readers to say he’s better off in the paper that not. I tend to trust the Guardian, partly because it’s read by a lot of people and partly because I enjoy some of what it does.

I guess part of the problem is that I’m a little biased in favour of DAB. I helped to develop GCap’s DAB strategy, built its multiplexes and launched a number of radio stations with them. Over the years I’ve also commissioned thousands and thousands of pounds worth of DAB research. In fact I’m so biased in favour of DAB I left GCap and now seem to have invested my own money in company that owns DAB multiplexes. Whoops! Which means, I guess, it’s somewhat important for DAB to successful or I’ll have to return to toil in some other radio mines to make my fortune.

However the reason I put my money where my mouth is, is because of the overwhelming evidence of DAB’s success with listeners. My god it’s been a long time coming, but it’s now in a great position. By Christmas they’ll be six and a half million sets in homes, which means about 30% of the population will be in ear of a DAB radio. That’s more radios sold than all iPods, by the way. In most areas this means listeners get double the number of stations they can receive in analogue. DAB is also by far the most listened to digital platform, with double the amount of listening to radio on digital television and something like eight times the volume of listening on the internet (and let’s remember broadband has much higher penetration at home and work). And that’s if you add up all of the listening to all of those millions of internet stations available right now. Even if you discount in-car listening, where currently through the air radio has a great advantage, internet still does very poorly.

Will this change? Well, I would of thought so. The internet’s colonised most spaces, so surely it will probably make a better job at targeting radio soon. Indeed, i’m a general believer in that quality content wins through whatever platform. AM radio is rubbish but still Five Live has five and a half million listeners (though now over 15% of its listening is through DAB). If what you make is good – people will come, whatever platform.

So why, in this brave new world, does DAB work then? Wooden boxes in the corner of room’s probably should be obsolete. They shouldn’t be increasing sales and listening share, should they? The reason is that people like listening to the radio, though a radio. That’s not to say it’s exclusively so, a huge number of people use different platforms to suit their needs too. DAB’s just very strong. Why? For most people it replicates, then improves their radio experience.

Listeners, generally, get the stations they like at the moment, but with DAB are able to find them more easily, in better reception quality and with helpful information like showing what song is playing. It also gives them the chance to hear extra stations that supplement their existing listening by providing something more focused to their individual taste. And all of this is on a device that they are super-comfortable in using – a radio.

I’m as geeky as the next blogger, so I’m really sorry that’s it not cooler or any more complicated.

In focus groups I’ve commissioned I’ve always been very keen to have a strong proportion of the groups focusing on ‘mainstream’ users. They provide the bulk of listening and so their views are very important. Recently I did some groups with mainstream existing DAB listeners. They’d had their radio for at least six months and we asked them about it. Reception quality and ease of tuning were the most important things. A large number of respondents said that DAB ‘fixed’ regular radio and that they had no great desire to go back to analogue. They also wondered why you couldn’t get it in your car. At least half of the respondents also had some anecdote about something extra that they’ve discovered from a digital-only station. Their biggest complaint? That ‘we’ didn’t tell them what was on and why can’t there be more cross-promotion like there is on the telly.

The commercial radio industry often goes on about all the money it has spent on DAB (probably about £35m), I think it’s had a bargain. Radio listening is pretty strong, on average 91% of the country listen to the radio for 24 hours a week. There is some decline in different demos, but it is nowhere near as bad as many other countries in the world.

UK radio is fortunate that it has created a platform that it itself owns, that listeners like (DAB listeners listen to more radio than their analogue counterparts) and allows the industry to introduce more choice to ensure that it can top up listening for different audience segments. It has also managed to keep the content on the platform relatively high quality. There is a limited amount of available capacity and a cost in being involved which does keep the quality up. Radio has always been great at curating content, in the past that’s because of the music it chooses. Now it’s also because of the stations it provides.

I’m not naïve enough to say that DAB will always be successful. It’s the job of the industry to maintain the high satisfaction with the product by constantly innovating and developing it and making sure that it continues to satisfy listeners.

To be honest I don’t know whether to laugh or despair about Jack’s rants. He’s more than entitled to his opinion and he doesn’t have to listen to DAB if he doesn’t want to. What he refuses to understand is that a massive number of people truly love their digital radio and that of all the different ways of executing digital radio, the UK leads the world in its successful implementation. Perhaps he also believes that he can ‘turn’ the UK away from this medium if they only listened to what he has to say. Unfortunately they don’t because they’re too happy listening to their DAB Digital Radio.