Commercial radio local DAB build-out “not the BBC’s responsibility” says BBC Trust chairman

Culture Media & Sport Select Committee, House of Commons
15 December 2010
BBC Annual Report & Accounts 2009-10 [excerpt]

Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman, BBC Trust
Mark Thompson, Director General, BBC

Damian Collins, MP Folkestone & Hythe (Con): Has the [Licence Fee] settlement affected the amount of support you can give to digital radio switchover and the build-out of digital radio in local services within the regions?

Sir Michael Lyons: What you see in yesterday’s announcement is a clear message that the BBC remains committed to DAB and will continue to build out up to FM equivalents. That is clear. It is involved in discussions with the commercial radio industry and Government about local build-out, for which it is not responsible and for which there are not funds currently identified. They were expected to be undertaken by the commercial operators of those Mux [DAB multiplex] licences.

I don’t think I should add very much to that, other than that, clearly, the Government has determined on a switchover date. Whether that can be achieved is, in our view, whether the audience is ready for it to be.

Damian Collins: I suppose whether it can be achieved ought to be linked to the level of coverage as well. The Government has been clear about that, too. In those negotiations you are having with Government and the commercial stations, is the amount of money you have on the table a smaller amount, as a result of the settlement, than it was before?

Mark Thompson: No.

Sir Michael Lyons: It is clearly another one of the pressures that we have to balance in a tighter envelope; that is the important thing.

Mark Thompson: I think it is fair to say that the underlying commitment that we have made and the focus we have on the building out of our own national multiplex, is unchanged by the settlement.

Sir Michael Lyons: Absolutely. It is a reference to local, I think, that I was …

Mark Thompson: Quite. But the BBC’s focus has always been … the issue about local is that we only have in England, and only intend to have, a single BBC local radio station per region. With each local multiplex that has been opened so far, we have taken a place on that multiplex; we decided that we should do that.

I have no reason to believe we would not continue to do that as they are built out. But whereas the national multiplex, obviously, is a way of getting additional BBC services to the public – the digital services – there is no such increase in BBC services that we can offer if you are taking a single station which is analogue and putting it on digital as well. So our focus is on national build-out, and the broad policy and the commitment over time to absolutely keeping pace with the audience, building out nationally, is unchanged by the settlement.

Damian Collins: Your commitment is clear, and you made that again today, but is it going to take longer to get there now, as a consequence of finding some other issues you have to deal with?

Mark Thompson: I don’t think so. If you say something slightly different, which is, “Would some people have liked some level of additional commitment in the settlement?”, perhaps they would, but it is not there.

Damian Collins: But as far as you are concerned, your commitment is the same?

Mark Thompson: It is exactly the same.

Damian Collins: In the document put to us yesterday, you talk about preparing for any potential radio switchover. That does not sound like it is going to happen within the next five years.

Sir Michael Lyons: That is not a judgment for the BBC; that is a judgment for Government. The BBC is very clear that it is doing its bit in these national investments. There remain unresolved issues about where the investment comes from at a local level. That is not the BBC’s responsibility, but we are part of those discussions. And then, very critically, as the Government has conceded, switchover can only take place … I do take your point that audience preparedness will to some extent depend on coverage, but it also depends on choices made about replacement television sets, investment in cars and a whole series of other things, which are not in our gift.

[This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others. Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.]

DAB radio & switchover: the British public speaks its mind

Q. Who will decide if/when digital radio switchover ever happens? The public. Who says so?

In July 2009, BBC ‘head of radio’ Tim Davie had
“… the idea that we would move to formally engaging [digital radio] switchover without talking to listeners, getting listener satisfaction numbers, all the various things we do, would be not our plan in any way.”

In August 2009, BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons had
“It is an extraordinarily ambitious suggestion, as colleagues have referred to, that by 2015 we will all be ready for [digital radio switchover]. So you can’t move faster than the British public want you to move on any issue.”

In July 2010, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey had
“If, and it is a big if, the consumer is ready, we will support a 2015 switchover date. But, as I have already said, it is the consumer, through their listening habits and purchasing decisions, who will ultimately determine the case for switchover.”

Q. What is the BBC’s strategy for digital radio switchover?

In July 2010, the BBC Trust
told the BBC Executive that it:
“should draw up an overarching strategy for digital radio.”

Q. What is the public’s opinion of DAB radio?

Research published this week by the BBC Trust for the Strategy Review collated opinions voiced in 20 focus groups held in September 2010 in ten locations. Below are excerpts that relate consumers’ experiences with DAB radio and the BBC’s digital radio stations. They make sobering reading ….

Key Findings

The availability of radio services on the move (especially in-car and for those working outdoors) was felt to be of continued high importance. People expect radio to stay portable – at least the range of stations they currently have available on analogue, including local stations which are critically important in-car for their local travel information. In this context especially there was strong resistance to the idea of analogue radio switch-off, and considerable scepticism as to whether or not this will actually happen.

4.2 The range of services provided by the BBC

“Rather than spending money on Radio 57 or whatever, invest more money on the core main programmes.”
35-44, Male, C2DE, Crowthorne

4.3 Attitudes to DAB radio

Many of the distribution issues we set out to discuss in the groups related to the availability of DAB (or of certain stations on DAB). However, what became clear in the groups was that, although we did speak to some real fans of DAB, most licence fee payers we spoke to do not yet view DAB as an essential service in the way they do Freeview, for example. This certainly coloured their reaction to some of the trade-offs they encountered between funding distribution and content.

“I think they should improve the Freeview signal before they start worrying about the radio. Radio is fine.”
18-24, Female, ABC1, Inverness

These attitudes were coloured by a number of factors:
· Limited awareness of what DAB is and what it offers
· Limited awareness and uptake of the BBC’s digital-only radio stations (most digital radio listeners within the groups were using digital radio as a means of listening to stations they would otherwise be able to receive via analogue)
· Most DAB set owners we spoke to had received them as presents – they hadn’t necessarily had a compelling reason to buy one
· Many trialists of DAB in the groups had been frustrated with their experiences – e.g. intermittent/non-existent signals, limited range of their favourite stations available
· Some doubts as to whether DAB technology will be around in the long term

“I did have a DAB radio but I didn’t notice it being any better”
18-24, Female, C2DE, Cheddar

“I find DAB radio can be quite troublesome although that’s not BBC specific. The signal seems to interrupt quite regularly”
45-59, Female, ABC1, Crowthorne

“I don’t find that DAB radio is achieving a lot for me. It’s supposed to be better quality, but because of the size of the set I’ve got, it doesn’t really make any difference.”
55+, C2DE, Derby

“Aren’t we the only ones to use DAB? Europe uses a different system and America too – I don’t see the point of it now so many people have the internet as it’s as cheap to get an internet radio as it is a DAB radio and you can listen to far more stations on it”
25-44, ABC1, Fort William

“You can’t get much [on DAB in the car] – no Radio 1, no Radio 2, no Radio 5 live, no Radio 4, you just get a message saying ‘no reception’. You need to be on top of a mountain to receive it. It’s a complete waste of time.”
55+, C2DE, Derby

There was real confusion and in some cases concern about the idea of a digital switchover for radio, and some debate as to whether the mooted date of 2015 was realistic or not. Certainly in the current circumstances there would be much resistance among participants in these groups to the idea of switching off analogue radio, especially those for whom in-car listening was an important (or the dominant) part of their radio listening.

“They can’t switch off analogue radio – people are really not going to be happy with that”
18-24, Male, C2DE, Belfast

“The idea of making all radios into digital is just ridiculous… It’s not persuading you – it’s just pushing you”
18-24, Female, C2DE, Cheddar

“What about all the car radios – surely we’re not going to replace all those?”
25-34, Female, ABC1, Caernarfon

“Are you telling me my radios will be totally obsolete if they do this? That’s outrageous”
60+, Female, ABC1, Newry

5.1 Availability of services

“I’m going to sound old fashioned but the core product is BBC One, BBC Two and Radios 1 to 5”
35-44, Male, C2DE, Crowthorne

The digital-only radio stations were considered of significantly lesser importance (awareness of these was limited, and listening to them was quite sporadic through the sample). In fact in several groups it was suggested that one solution to the complex problems of making access to digital radio more easily available to people would be to get rid of the stations altogether!

“I don’t think anyone really cares about the digital channels and they won’t until all the non-digital signals have been turned off”
25-34, Male, C2DE, Newry

“It’s limited because digital radio hasn’t really taken off.. they’re talking about changing over in 2015… if it’s half the hassle of the digital [TV] switchover, it will be a dead loss”
45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil

6.1 Availability of platform choice

There was also a general consensus across the groups that, although the convergence of platforms has started to offer useful additional means of consuming ‘broadcast’ services, as a minimum the BBC’s television services should be available via a television set, and the main radio services via a radio set.

“It’s good enough to be able to get main stations on analogue radio and the others through the TV – I don’t think they need to be able to get all these radio stations on radio only.”
25-34, Female, ABC1, Caernarfon

Lack of availability of BBC Radio Derby on DAB

Local radio was considered to fulfil an important community service, particularly by those in the older group, who remarked that there had been a decline in the range of local media available (local newspapers closing, and the ITV regional television coverage now being focused on Birmingham).

As such, BBC Radio Derby was felt to be important to giving the city a sense of identity. Sports coverage was an integral part of this (for the men especially), and Derby-specific coverage was felt to help ensure that they don’t live in the shadow of nearby Nottingham. Frequently, they felt, Derby is treated like a poor relation next to Nottingham; the availability of BBC Radio Nottingham (but not BBC Radio Derby) on DAB was yet another manifestation of this, they believed.

A number of them had bought DAB radio specifically with the intention of listening to BBC Radio Derby and had thus been extremely disappointed not to be able to find it.

“I asked for a DAB set for Christmas, specifically so I would be able to listen to Radio Derby, nice and clear, around the house – not realising that you can’t get Radio Derby on DAB at all… I only found out when I pressed the ‘auto-scan’ button… Leicester, Nottingham, loud and clear, but no Derby… I felt really let down.”
55+, C2DE, Derby

“My wife bought me one for Christmas. It wouldn’t work next to the bed – we thought it was broken. We ended up just using it as an alarm clock. It never occurred to me that it might not work depending on where you live.”
40-54, ABC1, Derby

There was little awareness or understanding of the reasons why this is the case (the lack of a local commercial multiplex operator), so some participants were upset that the BBC appeared to be viewing Derby as a lower priority than neighbouring areas. Others had assumed that this was a technical issue (reception problems), rather than the station not being broadcast on DAB. (There was some awareness of a promised launch date of July 2010, but they claimed that this date had been and gone with no further update on what was happening.)

“What makes me angry is that Radio Derby comes out as one of the best local news stations in the country, but it’s not available on the latest technology.”
55+, C2DE, Derby

“If you can get the others, you’d just assume that you can get Radio Derby as well. Whose decision is it not to have it?”
40-54, ABC1, Derby

Some of the participants had experimented with some of the BBC’s digital-only stations on DAB. Radio 7 in particular was well-liked by some of the participants in the older group, and some of the younger men had used 5 live Sports Extra, but their overall impression with DAB was one of disappointment. The absence of BBC Radio Derby was a significant contributor to this, along with poor reception quality.

“The way they sell DAB it was going to be the be-all-and-end-all of radio listening, but it’s just been a great disappointment.”
55+, C2DE, Derby

Although many were disappointed with DAB in general, the absence of BBC Radio Derby from DAB was not felt to be a major problem for them as long as the station remains available on analogue (many were listening out of home in any case – traffic reports in the car, or match commentary when out and about at the weekend).

However, in line with most other groups, these participants would be extremely upset if the analogue signal were switched off and BBC Derby only then available online.

Radio Foyle on DAB

Many participants felt that they get a better reception with DAB than on analogue (in the home). Many of the older group in particular claimed to have experienced reception problems with Radio Foyle in particular on analogue, especially in bad weather. However it was not a case of a having had a desperate need to get a digital radio because they got no analogue signal previously, more that the sound was not always great and they sometimes experienced reception problems.

“DAB radio… I got it out of curiosity… everybody said it was better than analogue… the analogue sometimes you can’t tune in because you have got high pressure or rain or wind. The DAB you can pick it up.”
50+, ABC1, Londonderry

Most assumed that Radio Foyle was already on DAB, as they insisted they were listening to it on their DAB radios – it is not entirely clear whether this is confusion between DAB and analogue signals on the same set, or they have been experiencing the ‘dynamuxing’ test.

“No I didn’t know that because when I press it comes up on my DAB radio so I thought it was. I just took it that all the stations I can pick up on my DAB are digital.”
50+, ABC1, Londonderry

“Foyle on an ordinary radio is still poor I think. I am right in Derry. On the digital they do both seem clear to me.”
30-49, C2DE, Londonderry

When it was explained to them that ‘dynamuxing’ the two stations would result in two mono (as opposed to one stereo) stations, reactions were somewhat mixed. Although some participants were adamant that going from stereo to mono would compromise their listening experience, particularly when listening to music, others admitted that they were not sure what mono sound is, and probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference! It is also worth noting that, from the description they gave of their DAB sets, the majority of participants in the groups were listening to DAB on mono-only sets anyway.

On balance, all participants would prefer both stations to be available, even if this meant mono-only broadcasting. The younger group, who were more loyal Foyle listeners, were happy enough with the availability of Foyle on analogue only, but would be concerned by the prospect of an analogue radio switch-off, in which case continued availability of Foyle would be vital.

Poor DAB coverage (in Fort William)

Most of the participants in the groups are used to struggling with coverage issues. Lack of DAB coverage is just the latest manifestation of issues they have experienced historically with analogue television and radio signals.

“I live over in a rural area completely surrounded by hills so there is no radio reception at all so all our radio listening is done through the TV box or the internet”
25-44, ABC1, Fort William

“I tried a DAB radio but it wasn’t very good – it would go for a bit then completely cut out and we have no FM signal at all out in the glens where I am”
45-64, C2DE, Fort William

As a result, satellite (by which most really meant Sky, as awareness of Freesat was very low) had become the default standard for most to receive television, especially for those outside the main town of Fort William itself, and many were increasingly using the good broadband services that are now available to them as a more reliable means of accessing media content.

“We’ve been up there seven years now and when we first moved we had a reasonable medium wave signal for Radio Scotland but then that tailed off but we get no FM and there was no TV until satellite came on stream… We had very young children at the time and they were happy just watching DVDs… There are about 250 people in our village and many of the surrounding communities have the same issues… There used to be a mast for the TV but that was turned off and now everyone has a satellite dish… satellite has been a godsend for us – especially for the radio – but we are now even more likely to be listening online. Our broadband is excellent – 8Meg – and now we even have wi-fi radios in the house.”
25-44, ABC1, Fort William

Some participants in the groups had been drawn to DAB, but left frustrated by the experience.

“I won a DAB in a Radio Scotland competition and I was really excited about being able to listen to 6 Music but there was absolutely no signal so I gave it to my dad down in Glasgow and he’s really happy with it”
25-44, ABC1, Fort William

Limited availability of Radio Wales and Radio Cymru on DAB

In common with many of the research locations across the country, issues surrounding the lack of availability of Radio Wales and Radio Cymru were caught up in other issues around the quality of DAB signal in general.

While some participants (for example, one lived near a mast) were experiencing extremely good reception via digital, others were having problems based on their location and even the prevailing weather conditions.

“If you get a rain cloud overhead, or worse than that the snow, you might as well chuck it in the bin.”
45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil

“People who live in the dips – they can’t get any kind of digital radio reception at all… they’ve got to do something to help them.”
25-44, C2DE, Merthyr Tydfil

This frustration was a manifestation of a broader dissatisfaction with digital reception in general. Many were experiencing problems with their television reception (especially, but not exclusively through Freeview). Lack of a reliable television signal was seen by most as a more significant problem than lack of a reliable radio signal.

“They said the digital signal was going to be better – that you’d be able to get S4C and Channel 4 – but it’s actually worse.”
25-44, C2DE, Merthyr Tydfil

“Wales has always got problems, we get worse service with the digital, the broadband, the post… We pay the same, we have a right to the same service.”
25-44, C2DE, Merthyr Tydfil

As a result many in the groups considered themselves to be disgruntled licence fee payers.

Most could understand that there are diminishing returns in terms of building out the transmitter network, and that those in the more mountainous parts of central Wales (for example) might not be able to have access to the same choices as people in more densely populated areas. However, in these groups the argument was most strongly made that people in these areas should have some kind of discount from their licence fee in recognition of the reduced service they receive.

“They [the BBC] can’t please everyone, they’re doing the best they can, but If people can’t get the service, why should they pay the full money.”
45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil

“You shouldn’t be penalised for living in an area where they can’t provide these services, because we have to pay extra to get Sky, for example, to be able to receive it.”
45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil

Digital Radio Upgrade? More like Digital Radio Groundhog Day

It was the Radio Festival, the industry’s annual get together. Everyone wanted to talk about how wonderful the DAB future of radio would be. But nobody wanted to explain how ‘Digital Radio Upgrade’, the government policy to make the UK’s DAB transmission system fit for purpose, will be paid for. It is the radio sector’s favourite parlour game: pass the DAB Upgrade parcel.

The first player is the BBC:

Q: “Very briefly, a one-word answer. Do you have any money set aside now to spend on [Digital Radio Upgrade]?”

Tim Davie, director of BBC Audio & Music: “No.”

Second is commercial radio:

Q: “Does commercial radio have any money to spend on [Digital Radio Upgrade]? […] What’s your guess?”

Phil Riley, chief executive of Orion Media: “‘No’ is the answer at the moment.”

Third are the politicians:

Jeremy Hunt MP: “I think the most important thing is not something the government can do, but something the industry can do …”

But hold on. This dialogue came from the Radio Festival in 2009…. We need to fast forward one year.

It was the Radio Festival, the industry’s annual get together. Everyone wanted to talk about how wonderful the DAB future of radio would be. But nobody wanted to explain how ‘Digital Radio Upgrade’, the government policy to make the UK’s DAB transmission system fit for purpose, will be paid for. It is still the radio sector’s favourite parlour game: pass the DAB Upgrade parcel.

The first player is the BBC:

“It remains to be seen who will pick up the £100m tab [for Digital Radio Upgrade], with [Tim] Davie saying he did not have the necessary funds.” [from The Guardian]

Second is commercial radio:

“[Global Group chief executive Ashley] Tabor said the commercial [radio] sector will only pay for the rollout of those local DAB multiplexes that are commercially viable.” [from The Guardian]

Third are the politicians:

Ed Vaizey, Minister for culture, communications & creative industries: “The BBC has to work with me on coverage. I am talking to the BBC and I hope to accelerate the pace of digital radio coverage.”

Déjà vu, anyone? Delegates paid £899 to witness this repeat performance. I have already placed my bet on precisely the same sentiments being made at the Radio Festival in 2011, though the odds offered by the bookie were not at all good. On the coach home from the Festival, everyone must have joined in the usual radio industry singsong:

“When do we want digital radio switchover? Now!
Who do we want to pay for DAB Upgrade?
Somebody else!”

And while we are on the topic of déjà vu, I am reminded of an analyst report about DAB from June 2008, in which I had written:

“The digital switchover of radio is so far into the future as to be intangible.”

I was swiftly rebuked for this viewpoint in an e-mail from a radio sector CEO.

Now fast forward to the 2010 Radio Festival. Andrew Harrison, chief executive of commercial radio trade body Radio Centre, said:

“There is no doubt if [digital take-up] carries on at its current projectory we will never get there.” [sic]

The current RadioCentre strategy remains inexplicably that the BBC should pay not only for improvements to the BBC’s DAB radio transmitters, but also for the commercial radio sector’s (see my earlier blogs here and here). The nails seem to have been hammered firmly into that coffin by this week’s speed-axing session between the government and the BBC.

Although subsequent press reports have implied that the cost of the (previous) government’s Digital Radio Upgrade policy will now be underwritten wholly by the BBC, the available evidence says otherwise. The resulting four-page letter from the government to the BBC Trust set out in detail all the new items to which the BBC’s funds will have to be applied in future. The World Service? Yes. BBC Monitoring? Yes. S4C TV? Yes. Local television? Yes. DAB radio? No….

Oh, hold on. In the penultimate paragraph on the final page there is a single sentence about DAB penned by Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt:

“I also welcome the BBC’s plans to enhance its national DAB coverage in the period of this agreement, and to match its national FM coverage as a switchover date draws near.”

But while the rest of the letter is littered with the oft repeated phrase “The BBC will …”, this solitary mention of DAB radio is couched only in terms of “BBC plans” without a hint of compulsion. DAB is an obvious afterthought here and, much to RadioCentre’s chagrin, it refers only to the BBC improving its own DAB transmitter coverage and not to improving commercial radio’s.

In the coming months, when the inevitable axe falls sharply across BBC budgets as a result of this week’s gobsmacking (© Ray Snoddy) agreement between the BBC and the government, DAB radio must be an obvious short straw. Lose BBC local radio, or lose DAB? BBC local/regional radio accounts for 15% of BBC radio listening. BBC digital radio stations account for 4%. Here comes the chopper ….

BBC Trust chair notes “the absence of a coherent digital [radio] strategy”

On 8 September 2010, Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the BBC Trust, and Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, appeared before the government’s Culture, Media & Sport Committee. They were asked about BBC radio policy by a committee member:

David Cairns: It will be brief because it is about radio. Clearly the [BBC Radio] 6 decision has come and gone. Where does this leave you? There seems to be a slight divergence between the Trust and the executive on the vibrancy and distinctiveness of the offer. You wanted to close Radio 6 to make [Radios] 1 and 2 more distinctive. Now 6 is staying open, so a couple of headlines on where we are in terms of the strategy in radio, with particular reference to 1 and 2?

Sir Michael Lyons: It isn’t part of the Government’s structure that the Trust and the Director General have to agree on everything and indeed we’ve had some criticism for not more frequently exposing to public scrutiny the debates which do take place, which are often challenging. I think getting the balance of that right between how much of that discussion is open is I think a matter for reflection.

Now let’s turn to the strategic review: the Trust rejected the proposal to close BBC 6 in its current form believing that the arguments didn’t stand up as a result of the consultation analysis we’ve done. But what that proposal did do was to bring into really quite sharp relief the two big strategic issues sitting behind it. The first of those – the greater distinctiveness of Radio 1 and Radio 2 – very much the subject of the service reviews that the Trust had undertaken earlier in the year, requiring both stations to work more energetically to distinguish themselves from each other and to serve a rather different audience demographic.

The second issue, of course, is the absence of a coherent digital strategy – not an issue for the BBC alone because it immediately brings in the issue of where the Government stands on DAB radio for the future. So where we are at the moment is the Director General is now working on both of those issues, recognising those are the big issues, the big strategic issues, and 6 continues perhaps for ever but certainly until both of those big issues are clear to us.

Mark Thompson: I think Michael answered that very clearly. We have had, I believe, a real success with our television portfolio, including our digital channels, in helping encourage the public to move from analogue to digital television. We are not alone in that, Sky has done a great deal to help with that and so have others. But we know that our digital television channels have made a significant difference in people wanting to take digital television up. We have yet to see the same level of success with digital radio. We are very committed to digital radio. We support the Government’s and indeed the previous Government’s ambitions around moving towards analogue-to-digital switchover in radio as well. The challenge for the BBC is coming up with a portfolio of services which firstly encourages people to sign up on digital radio, but in ways which support the rest of the radio market rather than producing adverse competition.

We need to make sure that the core mainstream channels, like Radio 1 and Radio 2, are sufficiently distinctive, are really doing something different from their commercial counterparts, but also that we have a range of attractive but also distinctive new digital services.

So I think this is a hard Sudoku. It’s not absolutely straightforward because there are a number of different things going on, and I take the BBC Trust’s response on 6 Music I think in the way it is intended which is there are bigger things at stake here. Go back and look at the broad radio strategy and that’s what we’re doing at the moment.


On 14 September 2010, Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, appeared before the government’s Culture, Media & Sport Committee. He was asked by a committee member about progress with digital radio switchover:

Damian Collins: There was a report in the press this morning claiming that a report to your Department has been published today by the Consumer Expert Group, saying that 2015 is too early as a target date for digital radio switchover, and even questioning the consumer demand for it. I wonder what your views are on that?

Mr Hunt: On 8 July Ed Vaizey published a digital radio action plan. We made it very clear that we think when it comes to radio, the future is digital. We aspire to the 2015 date but there need to be some changes in consumer patterns of radio consumption before we would agree to a switch-off of the analogue spectrum. Those include a greater-than-50% market share for digital radio listening. At the moment it is about 25% and DAB is only 16%. It includes, for national radio stations, coverage that is as good as FM and, for local stations, 90% coverage and coverage on all major roads. So until we are confident that those conditions are met, we won’t be signing the bit of paper that says there will be switchover in 2015.

Damian Collins: But do you still see 2015 as a date the industry should be aiming for?

Mr Hunt: I hope that we can deliver it by then but they need to work much harder to persuade consumers of the benefits of digital radio. I would much rather this was a process similar to the transition from records to CDs and from CDs to iPods, which was driven by changes in consumer behaviour, rather than something that we change as a sort top-down mechanism.

[these transcripts are uncorrected and are not yet an approved formal record of proceedings]

BBC radio: endangering commercial radio’s ‘heartland audience’

Dear David Liddiment

I was interested to see your article in The Guardian, on behalf of the BBC Trust, defending Radio Two from accusations made by the commercial radio sector that the station has deliberately sought a younger audience. You say:

“What about the challenge that Radio 2 is getting younger? We found that Radio 2’s under-35 audience did grow significantly between 1999/00 and 2004/5 (albeit from a low base). However, over the past five years, the age profile of the station has remained stable and there’s been no increase in reach to under-35s.”

Your analysis here focuses on two specific metrics – under 35’s and Radio 2’s ‘reach’ – whereas the important issues raised by commercial radio rightly concentrate on:
• Commercial radio’s ‘heartland audience’ of 15 to 44 year olds, which it has pursued for many years as a result of advertiser demand to reach this segment of the population;
• ‘Share of listening’ as the appropriate metric because there is a direct correlation between this figure (how many hours are listened to commercial radio) and how much revenue the sector generates.

The graph below, taken from RAJAR data, shows the ‘share of listening’ attracted by BBC radio stations amongst 15-44 year olds since 1999.

It is evident that the listening share of most BBC stations has remained relatively static over this period. The exception is Radio Two, whose share of listening amongst 15-44 year olds has more than doubled from 4.9% to 10.5% over the last decade. It is true that this growth has started to level out in recent years, as your article asserts, but there is no denying that the damage has already been done.

The graph shows clearly that this significant increase in listening has not been achieved by migration from competing BBC radio services to Radio 2. On the contrary, the BBC’s overall share of listening amongst 15-44 year olds has increased from 36.5% to 44.7% during the last decade and, most importantly for commercial radio, is continuing to grow year-on-year.

The graph below demonstrates clearly that it is commercial radio which has lost listening share, from both its local and national stations, that has migrated to the BBC. As a result, commercial radio’s listening share amongst 15-44 year olds has fallen from 61.7% to 52.1% over the last decade.

The danger for the commercial radio sector is that, if its market share falls below 50%, potential advertisers might no longer consider radio to be the ‘powerhouse’ delivery platform amongst 15-44 year olds that it used to be. The impact will not simply be a proportional loss in advertising revenues, but a significant loss of confidence in radio as an advertising medium to reach 15-44 year olds.

This is why, inside the BBC and Radio Two, a change in strategic policy might look as if it only results in an increase in BBC market share of a percentage point or two. For the commercial sector, not only does that single percentage point lead directly to a proportional loss of revenue but, sustained in the longer term, it can potentially undermine the medium’s ability to convince advertisers to use radio rather than, say, digital TV or the internet.

This is why the promise you make that “Radio 2 listeners won’t get any younger” is little comfort to a sector that has already been damaged by BBC strategic policies and which is continuing to lose market share year-on-year amongst its ‘heartland audience’ to BBC radio as a whole.

Of course, some of this listening loss can be attributed to commercial radio’s own competitive (in)ability to compete with the BBC – I would be first in line to argue that case – but unless its downward spiral of diminishing listening and diminishing revenues can be reversed, commercial radio could be decimated to the point where it can no longer be a financially viable business.

I write to you not to criticise Radio Two, which is a remarkable station, nor to apologise for the commercial radio sector, which has to shoulder considerable blame for losing touch with its audience. I write to illustrate that the industry’s own data clearly shows the BBC continuing to eat away at commercial radio’s ‘heartland audience’, and I write so that the BBC Trust might understand the consequences if the migration of radio listening to the BBC continues at its current rate.

Grant Goddard

30 November 2009

Digital radio stations: one step forward, two steps backward

The RAJAR radio audience data for Q4 2008 were published on 29 January 2009. The day’s news headlines heralded the success of the digital radio platform. “Radio surges in popularity thanks to digital”, said The Independent; “Digital Enjoys RAJAR Boost”, said Radio Today; Music Week said:the latest Rajars survey revealed that digital broadcasting is growing apace in the UK……”; and The Times said: “Digital audio broadcasting (DAB) is clearer, truer, purer. Every year its coverage widens. Every year more stations are added to its almost infinite capacity……FM has had its day.”

Bauer Radio’s managing director of national brands Mark Story told Music Week: “The audience love [digital].”

The audience must have a strange way of showing their appreciation for digital radio. In Q4 2008, listening to digital-only radio stations fell precipitously, both for the BBC and for commercial radio.

This graph illustrates just how sharp was the decline in listening to digital-only radio stations during Q4 2008:

  • total digital-only radio station hours listened are down 14% quarter-on-quarter, and down 5% year-on-year to 34m hours/wk, to their lowest level since Q1 2007
  • hours listened to commercial digital-only stations are down 12% quarter-on-quarter, and down 11% year-on-year to 20m hours/wk, to their lowest level since Q1 2007
  • hours listened to BBC digital-only station are down 17% quarter-on-quarter to 14m hours/wk, their lowest level since Q4 2007.

For the commercial radio sector, 2008 had been the year it finally faced up to the realisation that its digital-only radio stations were not going to break even in the short- or medium-term. This resulted in the closure of digital stations Mojo Radio, Yarr Radio, TheJazz, Capital Life, Oneword Radio, Virgin Radio Groove and Core during the year. Inevitably, with fewer offerings for consumers, listening to commercial digital-only stations was likely to be impacted.

The surprise result from Q4 2008 RAJAR data is that the sector’s remaining digital radio stations have suffered terrible declines. The graph above tracks the largest digital stations, of which only Planet Rock achieves a relatively stable performance (and now becomes the sector’s most listened to digital station). Otherwise:

  • hours listened to Smash Hits Radio are down 26% quarter-on-quarter and down 17% year-on-year
  • hours listened to The Hits are down 21% quarter-on-quarter and down 20% year-on-year
  • hours listened to Q Radio are down 34% quarter-on-quarter and down 16% year-on-year
  • hours listened to Heat Radio are down 9% year-on-year

Although, as the graph shows, the data has always been ‘bumpy’, the simultaneous decline of listening to all these Bauer-owned stations is a very worrying trend. Bauer is now left carrying the torch for digital commercial radio in the UK, following rival GCap Media/Global Radio’s decision last year to close/divest almost all of its digital stations (only The Arrow and Chill remain).

Planet Rock’s owner Malcolm Bluemel said this month that his aim is to make the station profitable by Christmas. The question is: if the UK’s most listened to digital commercial radio station is still struggling to break even, what hope is there for the rest of the pack?

It is all very well for Lord Carter’s Digital Britain Interim Report to “expect the radio industry to strengthen its consumer proposition [..] in terms of new and innovative content….” but, at present, the economics of digital-only radio stations simply do not add up. Not a single digital-only radio station has yet reached break even. How can realistic business plans for new commercial digital services be forged, when nine-year old Planet Rock has yet to make an operating profit, let alone recoup its accumulated losses?

If the commercial sector’s digital radio audiences offer cause for concern, the BBC’s comparable audiences are downright scary. With the exception of BBC7 (which remains the UK’s most listened to digital radio station), audiences for the BBC digital services are down substantially.

BBC Five Live Sports Extra can be excused because it is a part-time station whose listening fluctuates with the sporting seasons, but elsewhere:

  • hours listened to 1Xtra are down 18% quarter-on-quarter and down 3% year-on-year
  • hours listened to 6 Music are down 17% quarter-on-quarter
  • hours listened to Asian Network are down 29% quarter-on-quarter and down 23% year-on-year

Despite the BBC having launched its digital radio stations in 2002 and then having promoted them extensively on TV, radio and online, their growth of listening remains stubbornly linear. One quarter’s RAJAR results alone do not a trend make, but the worry must be that the volume of listening to these stations might have already plateau-ed. In other words, if everyone who would be interested in listening to, say 1Xtra, is already listening to the station after seven years of promotion, then there would be little headroom for further audience growth.

Planet Rock’s Malcolm Bluemel pointed out: “[The BBC] spend £7m a year on 6 Music and another £1m on marketing it. Our annual budget is £1m, plus £20,000 on marketing.” At some point in time, and sooner rather than later if the audiences of the BBC digital stations show further signs of having plateau-ed, the BBC Trust is likely to want to conduct a cost/benefit analysis to determine if its digital radio stations really offer the Licence Fee payer value for money. In Q4 2008, the peak half-hour audience of Asian Network was 29,000 adults, of 1Xtra 36,000 adults, of BBC7 68,000 adults, and of 6 Music 69,000 adults. The 2008 service budgets for these stations were £8.7m, £7.2m, £5.4m and £6.0m respectively.

Between the BBC and commercial radio, huge sums of money have been spent over the last decade on launching and running digital radio stations that have attracted relatively small audiences. In the meantime, new technologies (on-demand, downloads) have overtaken us. If the radio industry’s response to Lord Carter’s Digital Britain is simply to launch more new digital stations that will inevitably lose more money, the industry has missed the point.

We now live in an on-demand world where ‘content’, not ‘radio stations’, is what consumers increasingly demand. Perhaps we do not need more new radio stations, or even existing local commercial radio brands rolled out nationally as faux new digital brands. What we need is the ability for consumers to access engaging radio content, when, where and how they want it. The days of listener loyalty to one radio station are fading fast.

In these financially hard pressed times, it seems ridiculous to be creating more expensive, new broadcast ‘stations’, each of which are unlikely to attract significant amounts of listening, but each of which will use a huge amount of scarce radio spectrum. Today, I wanted to listen to the Northern Soul show from BBC Radio Stoke, followed by David Rodigan’s reggae show on Kiss, followed by WMPR’s breakfast show. What I need is not a new digital radio brand, but a ‘pick’n’mix’ menu system where I can easily create my own personal radio station – a bit like a Pandora or, but populated with radio programmes rather than just songs.

This will be the future………. and it will probably arrive as soon as the BBC has finished inventing it. Broadcast radio will continue to be an important medium for mass audience shows like Today, Terry Wogan and sports coverage. But, for any content that is remotely specialist, on-demand delivery will have to be the way forward, the result of economic necessity. In 2009, the idea of creating more radio stations, more radio brands, more costly 24-hour broadcast operations has to be wholly redundant. This is an issue that the BBC Trust will have to face up to much earlier than the commercial radio sector. Next quarter’s RAJAR could be that touchpaper.

In the meantime, the future of digital-only radio stations hangs in the balance. As Bauer Radio’s Mark Story had told Media Week: “It’s going to be a long road for digital radio”. Then, twelve days after the latest RAJAR results were released, Mark announced he was leaving Bauer after eleven years’ service. He said: “To be brutally honest, it’s not the most fantastic time to be in radio…..”