Each of us has dozens of ‘consultations’ every day. You know the sort of thing. ‘I’m going to the corner shop – anything you want?’ ‘A Kit-Kat?’ ‘OK.’ However, if I came back with a cat rather than a chocolate bar, you would understandably be unhappy. That had not really been a consultation at all.
Ofcom’s consultations on radio are increasingly like that. Ofcom pretends it is going to listen. It doesn’t listen. And then it does whatever it wanted to do in the first place. Mmmm. Surely that is not really a consultation at all.
In June 2011, an Ofcom consultation asked six questions about a proposal by Now Digital (owned by radio transmission provider Arqiva) to extend the coverage of its Exeter and Torbay DAB multiplex to North Devon. One of those questions was:
“Q6. Do you consider that there any other grounds on which Ofcom should approve, or not approve, the request from Now Digital? Please explain the reasons for your view.”
However, Ofcom had apparently already decided that its ‘consultation’ was not a genuine consultation at all, when it explained:
“Before deciding whether to agree to Now Digital’s request, Ofcom is legally required to seek representations on the request from any interested parties. … Provided that the request meets the terms of the statute, the decision whether or not to agree to the request is at Ofcom’s discretion.”
So, Ofcom’s 21-page consultation document was really a complete waste of time and money. The decision was already made. And it would be even more of a waste of time and money for anyone to respond. But respond they did.
In July 2011, Ofcom admitted that, out of 234 responses submitted to its consultation, “the vast majority … were opposed to Now Digital’s request.”
Most objected on the grounds that: • “agreement to the extension of the multiplex would enable the holder of an existing FM local commercial radio licence for Barnstaple to secure the renewal of that licence, precluding the advertisement of a new such licence (which otherwise would have been due to take place forthwith); and; • the level of coverage of North Devon proposed by Now Digital was unsatisfactory as it would leave 30% of households in the area with no access to radio services in the event of a digital radio switchover.”
Did Ofcom care about this volume of public opposition? Not at all. Did it investigate why the share of listening to the merged Heart FM Devon had fallen dramatically to an all-time low last quarter (behind BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio Devon) [RAJAR, 2011 Q1]? Apparently not. Ofcom explained:
“The [Ofcom Radio Licensing] Committee [RLC] noted the strong opposition to the fact that approval of Now Digital’s request would allow Lantern Radio Limited, the holder of the local [Heart] FM commercial radio licence for Barnstaple, to apply for a renewal of the licence and thereby preclude advertisement of a new licence. However, the RLC did not consider that this fact should preclude the granting of Now Digital’s request.”
And why not? Because Ofcom’s wholly unrealistic policy objective, for DAB to replace AM/FM radio, is still being doggedly pursued to the exclusion of any wider regulatory issues – consumer choice, market competition or the removal of barriers to sector entry. As well as to the exclusion of the majority of the 234 respondents to this consultation.
To put the same thing in Ofcom’s own weasel words: “What Now Digital Limited sought in its request is provided for in section 54A of the 1996 Act. Agreeing to the request would be consistent with the broad policy aims of that section. Namely, the extension and promotion of local DAB broadcasting with the consumer benefits of greater choice of services.” [emphasis added]
Now Digital promised to launch the first of three new DAB transmitters in North Devon within six months of Ofcom’s approval. And what about the remaining two? Now Digital promised these will be installed “six months after a positive decision in 2013 by Government regarding digital switchover”. Oh, so you mean ‘never.’
The ulterior objective of this proposal was that the promise to build a single new DAB transmitter in North Devon would enable Global Radio to automatically renew its existing FM licence in Barnstaple for a further eight years without a public contest, thus denying any potential new entrants. Ofcom simply rolled over and complied. And what did Ofcom suggest to the complainants who might not have felt that London-based Global Radio was offering them a genuinely local radio station in Heart FM? It stated:
“The RLC recognised the strength of feeling among many respondents to the consultation for there to be an opportunity for an alternative provider of a local radio service in North Devon to apply for a licence … Ofcom is always keen to facilitate new local radio services for listeners where such services are viable and therefore able to offer consumer benefits over the long term. To this end, the RLC noted that, in its response to the consultation, Arqiva stated that there is presently capacity for at least one further new station to be accommodated on the Exeter & Torbay local [DAB] radio multiplex.”
This is patronising rubbish. “Viable”? “Consumer benefits”? Can Ofcom please name any DAB-only radio station that is making an operating profit as a standalone business? No? Because there isn’t one. DAB radio has proven to be one massive financial black hole that has wasted approaching £1bn. Suggesting to consultation respondents that they start their own new local radio station on DAB is akin to Ofcom recommending these correspondents burn down their own houses.
All Ofcom has done is raise two fingers to the people of North Devon in this consultation. If I were Ofcom’s director of radio, Peter Davies, I would not consider booking a holiday in North Devon any time soon.
Unless Global were to return the favour by picking up the tab for his bodyguards?
In October 2007, Ofcom had awarded the DAB local multiplex licence for Northamptonshire to NOWdigital Ltd. and had required “implementation by September 2008” to put it on-air. The multiplex was to carry BBC Radio Northampton along with commercial stations. More than three years after this licence award, the DAB service has still not launched. As a result, BBC Radio Northampton is not yet available on DAB.
NOWdigital Ltd. had been owned by GCap Media, the UK’s largest commercial radio group, which was acquired by Global Radio in 2008. In 2009, NOWdigital Ltd. was sold to Arqiva, the transmission specialist which owns the lion’s share of DAB commercial infrastructure in the UK. In its application for the Northamptonshire licence in 2007, NOWdigital had boasted:
“GCap … has invested more into digital radio than any other UK operator. This investment has driven the industry forward and is helping build radio’s digital future … Having launched and operated multiplexes since 2001, NOWdigital is in an excellent position to successfully launch and operate the Northamptonshire multiplex.”
So what has Ofcom done to make this licensee comply with the stipulation that the Northampton DAB multiplex had to be launched by September 2008? Nothing. Does the commercial radio industry have a masterplan that includes a specific date for the launch of the Northamptonshire DAB multiplex? No. NOWdigital states disingenuously that its on-air date for Northamptonshire is “awaiting launch”.
Northamptonshire is one of 13 local DAB multiplex licences that Ofcom awarded in 2007 and 2008 that have failed to materialise by their required launch dates. In 2007, Ofcom also awarded a national DAB multiplex licence to a consortium, led by Channel 4 television, that similarly failed to launch (all trace of which has been erased from the Ofcom web site).
Despite three years of broken promises to the people of Northamptonshire by Ofcom, NOWdigital, GCap Media, Global Radio and Arqiva that a local DAB radio multiplex will be launched for their area, they were not excused from this year’s Christmas radio industry campaign to sell more DAB receivers. DAB marketing organisation Digital Radio UK was interviewed by BBC Radio Northampton last week, though it was unable to offer even a vague date when either the local DAB multiplex for Northamptonshire will be launched, or when the signal of the existing DAB national multiplexes will be improved.
Although Digital Radio UK is funded jointly by the BBC, commercial radio and Arqiva, these heavyweight stakeholders could offer nothing more concrete to the people of Northamptonshire than platitudes and more promises about DAB … always in the future tense.
BBC Radio Northampton, lunchtime show 15 December 2010 @ 1223 [excerpts]
Stuart Linnell, presenter [SL] Jane Ostler, director of communications, Digital Radio UK [JO]
SL:You said, Jane, that the coverage and the reception is pretty good in most parts of the country. From my experience, and from what I hear people saying, where it’s good, it’s great. Where it’s not so good, it’s blooming awful.
JO:Yes. That is absolutely right, and we know that organisations like the BBC actually have a plan in place to make sure that coverage improves. And that’s not only building more transmitters, but it’s also increasing the power on transmitters, so that you don’t get the drop-out of signal that you will get in some areas. However, we know that when people do have a good signal, they absolutely love digital radio and everything that it brings …
SL:Rod in Daventry has got a question about the DAB signal in Northampton. It’s not specific to any one radio station, this question, I don’t think. It’s come in on a text. He just says: why is the DAB signal in Northampton so weak?
JO:Yeah, there are variances around the country in the signal. And, as I say, you know, there are plans in place, over the course of the next few years, to improve coverage for national radio stations and local radio stations as well. It’s one of these things that we are used to with other electronic devices like mobile phones and even Freeview signals. You know, there’s a course – an engineering programme – that’s taking place over time that will allow the signal to improve. So, if it is weak at the moment, it will get better.
JO:We believe that DAB will … is the broadcast backbone for the country. It’s free to air, it’s becoming increasingly available, and the signal is getting better all the time…
John in Corby [caller]:My question is that I watch this, I’ve been doing radio for sixty years, I’ve watched this very, very carefully, and the thing is that there are some very attractive radios which carry DAB which are available now. I take all the magazines, every magazine that’s related to radio and high fidelity in this country. And the point is this. What the $64,000 question is, dear Stuart, is: when shall DAB radio be available on Radio Northampton? Can the lady guesstimate that? That’s what’s important – all the things that have been broadcast about it – I won’t buy a DAB radio until I can get it in my locality, my local station, which makes commonsense to me.
SL:Okay. We get the point. Jane, do you know the answer to that?
JO:That is a very good question from John because I know that BBC Radio Northampton is not available on a local digital multiplex. Obviously, around the Northampton area, you can get – and Corby, you can get – the national stations but not the local ones. There are plans in place to build local coverage, and that includes BBC services by the time …
John [interrupts]:This is what will be needed and this is what will sell the radio … this is what will sell the radios, in my view. [When] this fine station in this fine county has its own DAB service.
JO:Yeah, we completely support that and we understand that. What’s happening is: there is a plan in place to develop local coverage in time for the digital radio switchover, and these plans are being worked on right now. So I can’t give you an exact date, but it will be over the next few years that local radio will be more available on digital.
SL:Because we must make it clear that John’s question is a valid one, but it’s not just BBC Radio Northampton that’s not on DAB. There are other stations as well who have not yet migrated to that platform.
JO:That’s right. The local stations in your area aren’t available. They are in some, but not in your particular area. But you can, subject to doing a postcode check, you can still get all the national services that are available …
Peter [caller]:What exactly is going to happen to existing car radios and also hi-fi stereos at home and also alarm clock radios? Is there going to be an adapter?
JO:If I deal with the car question first. That is also a very good question. There are lots of cars, there are lots of lorries and vehicles on the road, and only a small percentage of them today can actually receive digital radio. But you will start to see – and it’s starting already, and over the next few years – an increasing number of adapters coming onto the market, which you can either fit yourself or which you can get fitted by stores such as Halfords, for example. And then that’s with existing vehicles. With new cars, the motor manufacturers who import and make vehicles in the UK have committed that all new cars will have digital radio as standard by the end of the year 2013. So more and more adapters will come onto the market that are available …
SL [interrupts]:Can I just push you on that a little bit, Jane, because I heard – this is going back probably about 18 months now – that one of the largest motor manufacturers in the world, manufacturing two major brands – luxury brands – in this country, had actually withdrawn their DAB digital radios from their cars, as an optional extra even, because they said it just wasn’t working – the technology wasn’t good enough. Have all the manufacturers now signed up?
JO:They have, into the UK, of getting DAB as standard in cars – in new cars – by the end of 2013. And part of this target date that we talked about earlier on has got the motor manufacturers moving, and it’s also got other manufacturers coming up with new devices which you can fit into your existing car alongside your FM radio.
SL:And that really answers Peter’s point that, whether he has got his clock radio, his hi-fi in his lounge or the car radio, there are going to be adapters that will covert them to take DAB as well.
JO:Not, not the alarm clock. No, the alarm clock example is one where … I think, if you did want an alarm clock that had DAB radio built in, you’d have to get a new alarm clock.
SL:Buy a specific one, okay?
JO:Exactly, exactly. They are increasingly available in stores and they are becoming more affordable all the time.
SL:But for the hi-fi and for the car radio, there should be an adaptor at some stage.
JO:The hi-fi is an interesting question actually because obviously you can get digital radio tuners for hi-fi’s now which can plug in as a separate device. Quite often, a radio might be built into something like a large amplifier where the primary use is actually the amplifier rather than the radio. Ultimately, it would be down to the listener. But these devices are becoming available all the time and, if you go into any electrical store, you’ll start to see more digital radio devices.
SL:Okay, does that answer your question, Peter?
Peter:Yes, it does. I just hope that … I think it’s going to be a big sledgehammer to get a DAB adapter to fit in an existing car. There’s not a lot of room underneath dashboards.
JO:That’s absolutely fair. You can get some now which actually fit onto your windscreen and plug in around the dashboard. But soon, towards the end pf next year, when we anticipate that digital radios in cars will double during the course of next year, you will start to see these devices more hidden away in the glove compartment and that sort of thing.
SL:It’s Mike in Northants who says: digital reception on Radio Five Live for me, he says, was dreadful, so I just switched back to AM and FM and rejected DAB. No more problems.
JO:Right, well that’s … I don’t know precisely where he lives but, obviously, doing a postcode check would tell him whether he should be able to receive a good signal or not. And there are currently … until the transmitter improvements happen, there are other ways of listening to Radio Five Live, for example on the internet, and on digital television platforms as well, in fact. But, as I say, these coverage improvements are happening all the time. He should check his postcode at our web site.
Graham from Whitehills [caller]: I’m a communications buff so, as soon as DAB came out, I went and bought myself a mains portable one before I found out I couldn’t get Radio Northampton on it. The big, big problem is that it roars through batteries. It uses batteries at twice the rate of anything else I’ve ever owned.
SL:And I had a letter about this from somebody a while ago, Jane, asking why … is digital radio really environmentally friendly, because it uses up so much power?
JO:Yeah, you will find this is absolutely true for older radio sets that, you know, have been bought a few years ago, that they were quite power hungry and used a lot of batteries all the time and many people chose to operate them from the mains. But there’s been a report out in the last few months that government’s done about the battery consumption and the energy consumption of digital radios. And you’ll find that all the main manufacturers now are making really amazing claims about the battery life of the radios, that they will last for, you know, in some cases, hundreds of hours and use less power than an energy efficient lightbulb and that sort of thing. So, as technology progresses, the energy consumption gets better as well. So I’m afraid that some of those older radios do use quite a lot of energy and the new ones don’t.
SL:You need a new one for Christmas, Graham.
Graham:Yeah, eighty quid down the drain, that was. Thank you.
JO [laughs]:You can get them … you can get them from around £25 now, so you needn’t spend that much.
Graham:Yeah, but I paid eighty. Bye.
SL:Somebody’s asking: why is it that, when you’re listening to DAB, sometimes it can suddenly cut out altogether or just go to an absolutely garbled signal that sounds like it is underwater?
JO:Yeah, that’s … that’s something that happens when you’re on the edges – or on the fringes – of a reception area and, like other digital media, it can also happen during periods of high weather pressure. So you will find that, if you’re on the edges of a reception area, the signal does cut out rather than degrade gently, which is what it does with FM. So, again, as the coverage improves and the signal strength improves, that should stop happening.