DAB Radio Switchover: Dead As The Dodo

In 2004, I wrote my first article predicting that the UK’s implementation of DAB digital radio was headed for failure. It was not guesswork. I had analysed radio industry data since 1980. I had worked  at The Radio Authority when it implemented DAB. I had worked  in Ofcom’s radio division. I had seen DAB from inside and outside the regulator and the commercial radio industry. Only five years after its launch, the available evidence demonstrated that DAB was headed for disaster in the UK.

I continued to write about DAB  –  in press articles, in analyst reports, in my blog, in my book ‘DAB Digital Radio: Licensed To Fail’  –  and to talk about DAB in radio and TV interviews. I did this not because I was ‘anti-DAB’ or a ‘campaigner’ (as some described me), but because my work as a media analyst requires me to carefully examine the facts and figures and to document their consequences. I had nothing to gain personally from stating evident truths.

Between 2004 and today, the UK radio industry could have scrutinised the growing collection of analyses that demonstrated DAB consumer take-up was failing. It could have taken firm, decisive action to transform DAB radio from failure to success. It chose not to. Instead, I found myself on the receiving end of abuse, slander and libel.

Two years ago, I stopped writing about UK radio in this blog because ‘Jimmy’s and ‘John’s were pasting my analyses into their press articles, blogs and corporate statements, uncredited and without permission. Those same people then e-mailed me to ask why I was no longer updating my blog!

I write today only to bookend this blog. In recent months, it has been interesting to witness some of my ‘critics’ make a 180-degree turn and suddenly herald the imminent non-event of DAB radio switchover, whilst citing my analyses (uncredited) in support of their newly adopted viewpoint.

I wrote about DAB because I consider that this single issue has contributed more to the decline of the UK radio industry than all other sector issues combined. Thousands of experienced radio professionals have lost their jobs. Hundreds of genuinely local radio stations have disappeared. Much radio in the UK has become a shadow of its former self. The medium is suffering rapidly declining appeal to those aged under 30. The industry that I have worked in since 1972 is on the rocks. Most of the blame for this sorry state of affairs can be laid directly at the UK radio industry’s single-minded pursuit of DAB since the 1990s, at the expense of all other objectives and at a cost of more than £1bn.

 

In 2011, I had been invited by the government’s Department of Culture, Media & Sport [DCMS] to participate in a consumer panel as part of its consultations about DAB switchover. Addressing an audience of industry stakeholders, I predicted that the government would kick the DAB radio switchover decision into the long grass in 2013. I made the same prediction in my presentation to the board of one of the UK’s largest commercial radio companies [see above].

After the close of the DCMS stakeholder session, its chairperson, a civil servant in the DAB radio switchover section, leaned over to me and said something along the lines of: “You really shouldn’t be writing the things you do. People don’t like it, you know, and it is making them angry.”

She is one of a select group of people in DCMS, Ofcom, Digital Radio UK, the BBC and RadioCentre who have earned their livings by pumping out factually incorrect reports supporting their fiction that DAB radio is a massive UK success story and that DAB switchover is inevitable. Public money and BBC Licence Fees have paid many of these people for years to mislead the public and the media about DAB radio.

Anyone with knowledge of the UK radio industry and training in statistics could have concluded from available data during the last decade that the implementation of DAB radio in the UK was headed for disaster. My analyses were not ‘rocket science’. What riled the army of DAB propagandists was that my published analyses directly contradicted their bullshit. The final e-mail sent to me by the chief executive of the Digital Radio Development Bureau (forerunner of Digital Radio UK) said:

“If you are going to deliberately mis-use the information we provide to you to construct as negative a view as possible with cheap shots like those below then we just won’t co-operate with you in the future.”

He saw only “cheap shots”, rather than evidential analysis, in my 2008 Q2 commercial radio sector report published by Enders Analysis, which had said:

“Although it remains the most popular platform for digital radio, ‘DAB’ usage seems to be steadfastly stuck at 9.0% of total commercial radio listening, dwarfed by the continued dominance of analogue radio (69.2%). Whilst 87% of households now have access to digital TV, and 67% have access to the internet, DAB penetration remained static at 27.3% in Q2 2008. Sales of DAB receivers have failed to continue the momentum demonstrated in Q1 2008, unit sales having slowed to 108,000 in June 2008, their lowest monthly level since June 2007. With sales of DAB receivers still concentrated mainly in the Christmas period, the imminent danger is that the hardware’s relatively high average ticket price, combined with the effects of the consumer ‘squeeze’, could impact the much needed winter 2008 sales peak (552,000 units sold in December 2007).

Despite the sterling efforts of the Digital Radio Working Group (convened by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport) over the past eight months, the radio industry, as yet, seems no closer to finding an immediate solution to the problem of slow DAB take-up than it was a year ago. Although all parties agree that it is ’content’ that will drive consumers to purchase DAB radios, the major radio groups have still not unveiled any plans to stimulate the consumer market with new digital radio brands.”

Five years on, the numbers may have changed but the unresolved problems with DAB radio remain exactly the same. My analyses and predictions during the last decade have proven correct … while a small army of DAB propagandists have been paid handsomely during that time to produce a massive volume of ‘South Sea bubble’ hot air about DAB radio, partly paid for from public funds. Doubtless they will be rewarded for their failure.

Footnote: find out more in these selected writings on DAB radio:
Channel 4: Radio Ambitions Aim Too HighEnders Analysis, July 2007
The Future Of Digital Radio: Is It DAB?Enders Analysis, January 2008 
Tuned Into The Future Of Radio, Broadcast, June 2008
Channel 4 Radio: Six Feet UnderEnders Analysis, October 2008 
In The Ditch With DAB Radio, The Register, December 2008
Digital Radio In The UK: Progress And ChallengesEBU 3rd Digital Radio Conference, June 2009
Germans And Swiss Snub DAB, The Register, London, July 2009
‘Digital Britain’ And The Radio Sectoregta Radio Newsletter no.16, November 2009
DAB Is Dead, Index On Censorship, June 2010
DAB Digital Radio: Licensed To Fail, Radio Books, October 2010

Growing DAB radio usage in the UK. Confused? You should be!

“Digital listening at an all-time high,” shouted the headline of one online news story. Yes, it was the quarterly RAJAR radio ratings, offering opportunities for some journalists to pitch their stories just about any which way they wanted. The opening sentence of this particular report said:

“The digital revolution shows no signs of slowing down, and not even the radio airwaves are set to maintain their analogue tradition, as a new [RAJAR] study suggests.”

Hardly. This news story was interesting because it achieved two simultaneous feats of confusion:
• ‘DAB radio’ and ‘digital radio’ are two different things. ‘DAB’ is the platform on which the UK radio industry bet the farm in the 1990s. ‘Digital radio’ is radio received on any platform that is not analogue (AM/FM) and includes the internet, smartphones, digital TV … and DAB
• The fact that DAB listening is growing does not necessarily mean that it is replacing analogue listening at a rapid rate of attrition. Why? Because DAB listening, even after 12 years, is still at a remarkably low level.

These confusions are not accidental. At every opportunity, statements made by Digital Radio UK have sought to confuse the public by referring to ‘digital radio’ as if it means precisely the same as ‘DAB radio.’

A look at the graphs below of the latest RAJAR data illustrate clearly that the “analogue tradition” in radio remains so dominant that the real question to be asked is: how come DAB usage is still so low after so many years and after so much money has been invested in content, transmission systems and marketing?

The adage ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ has never been more true than with DAB/digital radio usage. The four graphs above – all taken from the industry’s latest RAJAR data – say it all by showing:
• how little impact DAB radio has had on analogue radio usage in the UK
• how slow the rate of growth is of DAB receiver take-up and of digital radio station listening.

Far from radio losing its “analogue tradition,” as the news article asserted, the old FM/AM platforms look, from these data, to be as strong as ever in the market.

One hint that some digital radio stations on the DAB platform could be on their way out is the BBC’s latest decision to aggregate listening for Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra in RAJAR. It had been doing this from the outset for Five Live and Five Live Sports Extra, on the premise that ‘Sports Extra’ was only a part-time broadcast station.

I would not be at all surprised to see the BBC:
• similarly aggregate Radio 2 listening with 6 Music
• similarly aggregate Radio 1 listening with 1Xtra
• downgrade its digital radio stations from full-time DAB broadcast stations to online, on-demand ‘extra content’ available via RadioPlayer, iPlayer and applications.

The problem with national broadcast BBC radio stations, whether analogue or DAB, is that the BBC Charter insists they must be made available universally to all Licence Fee payers. Given the huge cost of extending the BBC’s national DAB transmission multiplex to near-universal coverage equivalent to FM radio, particularly at a time when the BBC is having to cut budgets massively, it would be more sensible to downgrade ‘1Xtra’, ‘2Xtra’ and ‘4Xtra’ to ‘red button’ status whereby they offer additional content on a part-time basis. The consumer would access these Extra ‘stations’ via a complementary platform (IP) rather than the BBC having to shoulder the financial burden of programming them as 24-hour broadcast entities.

It would prove a convenient solution for the BBC. As it found with 6 Music last year, public controversy surrounds any decision to close a radio station, however small its audience in absolute terms. Alternatively, by pursuing the ‘Extra’ route, the digital stations can be re-branded, re-purposed and re-platformed away from expensive, fixed-cost DAB and towards IP, where the cost of delivery varies proportionately with the number of people using it. What better way to deliver value for money to Licence Fee payers? And what better way not to face public wrath for ‘closing’ a digital radio station.

As BBC Radio 2 DJ Steve Wright said on today’s Broadcasting House show:
“Maybe full digitisation [of radio from FM/AM to DAB] may well take thirty years …”

As the graphs above demonstrate, there IS slow growth in DAB usage, but the rate is insufficient to replace analogue radio as the dominant consumer platform any time soon. It’s time for BBC strategy to catch up with that reality.

UK DAB radio receiver sales fell in 2009 and 2010, but “digital radio sales have held up – they are flat” insists Mr Switchover

For an organisation that has been charged with marketing DAB radio to the British public, Digital Radio UK has managed to remain remarkably invisible during 2011. This alone made the appearance of Digital Radio UK’s chief executive on BBC Radio 4’s ‘You & Yours’ show notable. The fact that nothing new was said was hardly surprising – there is nothing new to say about DAB.

Out in the real world, as opposed to the imaginary world inhabited by Digital Radio UK, the notion that ‘DAB radio’ will replace AM/FM radio is already a dead duck. The only believers still worshipping ‘DAB’ seem to be Digital Radio UK, RadioCentre, Ofcom and government civil servants.

The evidence is transparent. The number of DAB radio receivers sold in the UK fell year-on-year in both 2009 and 2010 (by 6% and 2% respectively). These data are collected by GfK and supplied to Digital Radio UK. These numbers, together with a nice colour graph, were distributed at last month’s RadioCentre members’ get-together. These are industry data of which Digital Radio UK is perfectly aware.

Yet, Digital Radio UK’s chief executive insisted in this interview on national radio that “digital radio sales have actually held up – they are flat year-on-year.” This is untrue. ‘Down’ is not ‘flat.’ ‘Down’ is ‘down.’ DAB radio receiver sales peaked in 2008 and have been falling since. DAB receiver sales in 2010 were 8% below that 2008 peak. That is clearly not ‘flat.’

I wonder how it is that:
• The chief executive of a high-profile marketing organisation can appear on Radio 4 (audience: 11m adults per week) and flatly state something that he must know not to be true?
• The board of Digital Radio UK does not haul him in and remind him that his job description is to ‘persuade’ consumers of the value of DAB, not deceive them?
• A substantial proportion of this organisation’s funding is derived from the BBC Licence Fee, so the public is effectively paying for an executive to tell them untruths about consumer take-up of DAB radio?

You & Yours
BBC Radio 4
29 July 2011 @ 1200

Ford Ennals, chief executive, Digital Radio UK [FE]
Wiiliam Rogers, chief executive, UKRD [WR]

Q: Are you not disappointed with the lack of a rise in [DAB] radio sales?

FE: No, I think what the Ofcom report confirms is the solid progress that is being made. We see growth in overall digital listening, we see growth in terms of the number of homes that have a digital radio receiver in there. So, 40% of all homes now have a DAB receiver in them, we know that 47% of all listeners are listening to digital radio every week, and we have seen growth in digital listening. So I think progress is being made. I think we are in a difficult sales period for overall retailers and we have seen a decline in overall consumer electronics sales. Digital radio sales have actually held up – they are flat year-on-year. We have now sold 13 million DAB digital radios, but the key thing, just lastly, to remember is that you can receive digital radio via digital television, via a computer or, indeed, via a smartphone and many, many households and consumers have those.

Q: William Rogers, are you surprised by the lack of increase in interest in digital radio?

WR: No, not in the least. And I think we have to remember that Ford, with respect to him, is being a little disingenuous because, of course, the switchover is about people being forced to move way from analogue and onto DAB. So that’s the issue we need to focus on. And what this report highlights, and I’m personally delighted to see it, is it really does shine a light on the shambles that is this proposed DAB migration.

Q: But things aren’t that bad. There are increases in radio usage, as Ford has just indicated.

WR: Well, hang on a minute. The whole premise behind the switchover is that it will be, quote, consumer led. And the one thing we know from these statistics is that, whatever else it is, it’s not being consumer led. As your reporter quite rightly said earlier, of the eight-and-half million radio devices sold in the twelve-month period we are talking about, four out of five of them did not have a DAB receiver capacity. And, more interestingly, of those people who were asked whether they were likely to buy a DAB set at any time in the next twelve months, four out of five of them said they were not likely to. So the consumer is making it very clear what they want and, after eleven years, it’s time this thing was put to bed.

Q: Ford Ennals, one of the things that we constantly hear from listeners is the whole issue of reception. That’s really what, I think, the message is that we get from people. That is what they are worried about. Whether they approve or not [of DAB], what they say is an awful lot of people can’t get them [DAB radio signals] and, if they can get them, they can’t get them consistently.

FE: Well, I think, where the industry and the broadcasters are absolutely unified and agreed is that digital is the future of radio in the UK. And I think it’s just a matter of the timetable and the transition path for that. One of the big issues is, as you have said, is about coverage and about the ability of everyone to get a strong [DAB] signal. Now, what Ofcom have done is developed a plan to extend coverage, both of the local services and the national services, so that people can receive those services and get more confidence. But there is a direct parallel here with TV and digital television – I ran the TV switchover programme – and, back in 2006, the majority of TV sales were analogue and only 75% of the population could get digital television. Now, what happened over the next few years is we saw a very swift transition and we saw transmitters built out that so everyone could get digital TV. We’ll see the same on radio.

Q: What about that, William? We don’t jump ‘til we have to. We don’t buy ‘til we have to.

WR: Look, look. Let’s be clear about this. Ford Ennals is paid to market the DAB switchover, so I understand why he has to say what he has to say, because the message from this report is clearly embarrassing for him to make a case which clearly doesn’t exist. There are a number of points we have to remember. First of all, the comparison with TV switchover is plainly an absurd point to make. They are not remotely, in any way shape or form, similar. And people are choosing not to endorse DAB as an alternative [to FM/AM]. The critical thing we have to understand here is three elements. First of all, ….

Q: You’ll have to confine yourself to one because we are really tight for time.

WR: Okay, the fundamental problem with this whole process is that you cannot migrate an entire sector if the [DAB] platform you have chosen does not have the capacity to allow you to do so. And there are scores of radio stations in this country who will be denied the opportunity to move to a DAB platform, because the choice was wrong in the first place.

Q: A ten-second response.

FE: Just finally. People love digital radio. We’ve seen it with [BBC] 6 Music and we saw the campaign to save 6 Music. We’ve seen it with the response to Radio 4 Extra. And they’ll continue to enjoy it in the future.

Q: I’m sure our postbag and our e-mails will be as big as usual. William Rogers and Ford Ennals, thank you both very much indeed.

……………………………..
Point of information:
Ford Ennals was chief executive of Digital UK, the TV switchover marketing organisation, from April 2005. He announced his departure in November 2007, the same month that the first UK region entirely switched off analogue television broadcasts.

When is a consultation not a consultation? When Ofcom consults about radio

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?

SPAIN: DAB digital radio switched off in most of country

A new law in Spain has reduced the coverage requirement of the country’s DAB radio transmissions from 50% to 20% of the population.

From 10 June 2011, a new Royal Decree required that DAB broadcasts “must ensure a minimum coverage of 20% of the population,” replacing the 50% requirement that had been stipulated in legislation since 1999.

Within the next three years, the government will be able to change this coverage requirement once again if digital radio does not grow its audience share to more than 10% of total radio listening. In the unlikely event that digital radio’s audience share ever exceeds 10%, DAB radio coverage will be required to increase from 20% back to 50% of the population.

As reported here in 2010 [see blog], commercial radio in Spain has found no incentive to broadcast on DAB because “the audience is zero.” This new legislation relieves broadcasters from having to underwrite an expensive DAB radio transmission system that, to date, had generated no incremental listeners or revenues.

The Decree noted that:

“The development of terrestrial sound broadcasting has been hampered in recent years by, amongst other things, a lack of digital radio receivers which has significantly reduced the audience share initially anticipated and, thus, has jeopardised the possibility for station owners to achieve a return on their investment.”

The web site marketing DAB radio in Spain has not been updated since April 2008. The web page for state radio’s DAB transmissions no longer exists. It has been reported that DAB radio broadcasts will now be limited to only two metropolitan areas.

[thanks to Eivind Engberg and Wohnort]

PORTUGAL: DAB digital radio switched off

On 1 June 2011, Rádio e Televisão de Portugal [RTP], the state broadcaster in Portugal, instructed Anacom, the national transmission provider, to switch off all DAB radio transmitters.

RTP explained in a press statement that its decision was the outcome of budgetary constraints and the fact that no commercial broadcasters had agreed to broadcast on DAB. Additionally, it said that “high priced radio receivers had prevented many people acquiring them.”

According to one Portuguese newspaper:

“The DAB terrestrial digital radio system was launched in August 1998 by RTP and by Anacom, which manages the national transmission system. Despite having national coverage, which was decreed by law in July 1998 that permitted broadcasts by all radio stations interested in the platform, DAB never took off in Portugal. Until now, the platform has been limited to relays of existing FM broadcasts by state radio because no commercial radio station signed up. The implementation of DAB also struggled with the fact that there was insufficient supply in the Portuguese market of DAB radio receivers, according to sources consulted by this publication. Apparently, the DAB system was costing €250,000 per annum over more than a decade. The need for RTP to invest in replacing this transmitter network may have weighed heavily on the decision to suspend the service.”

GMCS, the Portuguese media regulator, explained in April 2011:

“RTP claims that, despite the significant investment totalling €6.3m to date, the reality is that few Portuguese used the [DAB] system, which leads us to conclude that the allocation of resources to this project does not meet the efficiency requirement and good practice required for public funds.”

[thanks to Eivind Engberg and Wohnort]

DAB in cars: the straw that will break digital radio switchover’s back

Speaking today at the Intellect conference in London, broadcasting Minister Ed Vaizey tried to assure us that digital radio switchover was still “on course” to happen in the year twenty something or other:

“On cars, the move to include digital radio as standard in new vehicles has continued over the last year. Around 14% of new vehicles have DAB as standard, up from 4% a year ago.”

Within hours, this news was misinterpreted by one online news source as Vaizey having said:

Forty per cent of cars have DAB [Digital Audio Broadcasting] radios as standard now, up from just four per cent a year ago.”

From ‘14% of new cars’ to ‘40% of all cars’ in a stroke of a keyboard! No wonder the article went on to assert that “the key driver to the take-up of the [DAB] technology looks like it will come from the car industry as manufacturers start to fit digital radios as standard.”

How wrong can this statement be? Fewer than 1% of vehicles on the road currently have a DAB radio. That proportion is not going to increase quickly, even by 2013 or 2015, as the government wants it to. Rather than being “the key driver” for DAB radio take-up, cars will become THE major sticking point for digital radio switchover.

The UK car industry appears to be nearing the end of its tether over the confused information that has been fed to consumers in recent years about the so-called DAB ‘switchover’ and FM ‘switch-off’ date(s). This frustration boiled over at the last government Digital Radio Stakeholders Group meeting on 17 May 2011, when Bob Davis, who heads the Digital Radio Committee of the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders [SMMT], stood up to offer what he referred to as a “naughty” comment:

“Jane [Humphreys, Department for Culture, Media & Sport] said earlier ‘around 2015’ for a digital radio switchover. The automotive industry has made it very, very clear, since the process began, that it needs certainty. We’ve got 2013 [as the date for a government decision on switchover] and we think we’re working towards a 2015 switchover date. With respect, Jane, I can already see tomorrow’s headlines that DCMS says ‘digital switchover delayed from 2015’ because you used the phrase ‘around 2015’. That implies a delay. It may be what potentially happens in the market – it may be 2016, it might be a bit later than that – but, for the moment, from an automotive industry perspective, every time there’s a suggestion that 2015 has stopped being the aspirational date – or might stop being an aspirational date – all that happens is [that] the automotive industry, or parts of it, is given another opportunity to say ‘it ain’t going to happen, forget all about it’ and we will end up with the bigger problem of converting vehicles already in the parc to digital, because people will just say ‘if DCMS can’t give us certainty’ – and I accept that, at the moment, you can’t – but if DCMS are saying ‘around 2015’ instead of ‘in 2015’, it reduces the opportunity for SMMT to keep telling its members there’s a deadline, and it’s ‘this’. So please could we have a little bit of caution, from an automotive industry perspective, in (particularly) government references to switchover dates.”

Jane Humphreys: “Thank you, Bob, though I think I’m right in saying that the Minister has never said ‘it will be in 2015’. He too has said that it will be in terms of … that is the target to which we are working, but what is the principal objective is that we have to meet the criteria that have been set out and we have a piece of legislation – unless I’m much mistaken – that says there will be a minimum of two years’ notice. So….”

John Mottram, DCMS: “That’s right. I’m aware of three Daily Mail articles that suggest it’s seven years, two years, five years’ delay depending upon the date, so I think in terms of coverage and it being delayed, I think that delay is already out there. But to Jane’s point, I think the Action Plan and Ed [Vaizey]’s words make it clear that it’s a consumer-led approach. The industry target date is 2015 – we’ve never shifted from that – but that decision is based on the criteria….”

At that point, the meeting was abruptly closed. What had been scheduled to be merely another ‘tick the government box’ faux consultation meeting had suddenly started to spin out of control. The natives had started to get restless. It was time to turn them out onto the street again.

GERMANY: “DAB [radio] remains a problem child”

On 2 May 2011, a panel convened at the Central Germany Media Conference in Leipzig to discuss the future of digital radio. The panellists were: Gerd Bauer from LMS, Erwin Linnenbach from Regiocast, Christophe Montague from NRJ International Operations and Willi Steul from Deutschlandradio.
The panel felt that one of the main problems around the planned (re-)launch of digital radio in Germany on 1 August 2011 was the lack of DAB+ capable radio receivers in the market. “The left shoe is there, but not the right one,” commented Erwin Linnenbach, who was concerned that it would be difficult to persuade consumers to buy a digital radio if they did not know what they would be able to receive on it.
Willi Steul said that he had had to visit three shops before he had found one that stocked a DAB+ radio. “An ordinary customer would not make that effort, but would have bought an FM radio from the first place,” he suggested. Deutschlandradio would save €12m per annum from being able to shut down its Long Wave and Medium Wave transmitters, said Steul. However, even if DAB+ were available nationwide, he did not believe that FM switch-off was an issue.
Christophe Montague suggested that, where there were already a wide range of FM radio stations, there was no need for new channels. This was the reason why it would prove so hard to launch digital radio in France. Whereas, in many parts of Germany, Montague said that it was a “radio desert.”
The panellists agreed that the biggest problem was the lack of DAB+ radios in shops. Linnenbach did not believe that this issue could be fixed by 1 August because there was not enough time. The objective had to be to make radio listeners understand the benefits offered by DAB+. If that succeeded, he believed the chances were good for a successful launch.
The panel proceedings were reported in the German press under sceptical headlines:
“DAB Plus before launch – an uncertain outlook for success,” said Business-on
“Media conference – success of DAB Plus not guaranteed,” said Digitalfernsehen
“Media conference – DAB remains a problem child,” said Rein-Hoeren
According to the latter publication, Erwin Linnenbach had said that the monopoly of transmission company Media Broadcast was the major obstacle to nationwide digital radio in Germany. He felt that Media Broadcast’s requirements did not offer a sensible business model to potential DAB+ broadcasters [see my blog Dec 2010]. Christophe Montague agreed and said he had the impression that Media Broadcast would make the most out of the DAB tender process.
Heinz-Dieter Sommer, director of radio at Hessischen Rundfunks, said that economically viable conditions had to be created to enable commercial radio companies to participate in DAB+ alongside the public service broadcasters. “Otherwise,” he said, “in ten years time, FM will still not be switched off.”
Two British digital radio companies have committed financial support to the roll-out of national DAB+ in Germany in August 2011. This follows the slow-down of DAB radio receiver sales in the UK in 2009 and 2010 [see my blog].
In December 2010, Frontier Silicon announced that, in order to persuade four commercial radio broadcasters in Germany to persevere with DAB+, it had promised them it would purchase an unspecified amount of their advertising airtime over the next four years [see my blog].
Then, in March 2011, Pure Digital announced that it had forged “a strategic marketing partnership with Germany’s commercial radio stations in advance of the launch of the first nationwide digital radio multiplex.” It said that “the partnership and financial investment” it was providing would ensure that its digital radios would be “heavily promoted in various German media.”
Germany could be under the mistaken impression that DAB radio is already a roaring success in the UK market. It was reported in the German press last week:
“While listening in Germany is still dominated by analogue radio, the British have long joined the digital age. Figures from RAJAR have shown that, in Q1 2011, nearly 92% of the population have listened to digital radio, on average for more than 22 hours per week.” [source]
“Britain remains a pioneer in listening to digital radio via DAB. On Thursday, new RAJAR record figures were recorded. 47.3m listeners (91.6%) in the first quarter listened at least once a week to digital radio.” [source]
In fact, the most recent RAJAR research found that 43% of the UK adult population listened to digital radio in a week, and only 27% listened to DAB radio. The high percentages quoted in the German press are for listening to ALL radio via ALL platforms, not for digital radio or DAB radio alone.
I recall Frontier Silicon chief executive Anthony Sethill having been quoted in his company’s press release in 2008 saying: “Digital radio is here to stay, with DAB sets outselling analogue models by six to one.”
In fact, in the UK, analogue radios outsell DAB radios by four-to-one. Mmmm. It looks as if the DAB propaganda war in Germany has only just begun.

FRANCE: government report recommends 2-3 year “moratorium” before launch of digital radio

A new report on the introduction of digital terrestrial radio (‘DAB radio’ in the UK) in France has recommended to the government that the launch should be delayed by two to three years. In the interim, the French media regulator CSA would be asked to establish a project to investigate the “overseas experiences” of digital radio, according to the government press release.

David Kessler, former head of state radio station France Culture, was commissioned in June 2010 by the government to produce a strategic analysis of the launch of digital radio in France. His interim report, published in November 2010 [see blog], identified the “paradox of DAB radio – it is a sufficiently attractive technology to be launched successfully, but it is insufficiently attractive to successfully allow FM broadcasts to cease.”

In the final report, published this week, Kessler said that not all the conditions had been met from an economic standpoint to permit the widespread launch of digital terrestrial radio. His report identified the significantly different challenges between digital radio switchover and digital television switchover:

“An error in logic has probably contributed greatly to making the debate [about digital radio] opaque rather than transparent. The error came from having planned digital radio switchover with reference to digital television switchover, which started in 2005 and the success of which has been staggering and immediate, so that the changeover from analogue to digital TV will be completed throughout the land by 2012. Many parties imagined that the route to digital opened up by television would be followed by radio. But this plan was wrong for three reasons.

Firstly, the television market was dominated in 2005 by five channels (TF1, France 2, France 3, France 5/Arte and M6) that attracted 75% of television viewing. The transition to a score of free channels was obviously very attractive. However, as will be discussed later, the situation in radio is quite different – the current choice of stations is one of the richest that exists in the world, after the landscape opened up in the 80s. Even if the choice is not the same in every region, none of them – some near – are in a situation where only five major stations dominate the choice.

Second is the difference in receivers. Even if digital radio switchover had been launched simultaneously with that of television, where the evolution of televisions (flat screen, HD and now 3D) resulted in a faster replacement of equipment than anticipated, digital television was accessible without changing the set through the purchase of a single adaptor at a moderate price. Digital radio switchover requires the replacement of all receivers, and households have multiple radios and the market is sluggish. Without doubt, digital radio switchover could re-invigorate the market with a simple, inexpensive high-end (with screen) radio. At this point, no one can say how quickly take-up of replacement receivers will happen. Examples overseas – particularly Britain – demonstrate a relatively slow rate of replacement, and the different situation in countries where take-up is faster – Korea, Australia – make comparisons difficult.

The third reason is that the history of television demonstrates that it works through ‘exclusive changes’ where one technology replaces another quickly. Colour television pushed out black and white television. Digital television is about to push out analogue television. But experience shows that far from all media work this way. On the contrary, some go through ‘cumulative change’. Over a short or long period of time, different technologies co-exist and content is distributed through several technologies. As Robert Darnton noted about the book, we often forget that the printed word has long co-existed with the manuscript. From this perspective, the history of radio is the opposite of television: different transmission systems are cumulative rather than exclusive. This does not exclude the possibility that, in the long run, some transmission systems will decline and no longer be used, just as printing marginalised the manuscript. But what it means is that one cannot plan the launch of digital radio by imagining that all other transmission systems will be switched off, particularly FM. Even today, despite the success of FM, Long Wave and Medium Wave transmissions are still used because they reach a sufficient number of listeners not be switched off by broadcasters.

In fact, a careful examination of the launch of digital radio in other European countries shows that a ‘cumulative change’ scenario exists that we must anticipate in France too. Indeed, the launch of digital radio in other European countries had been presented as a quick substitute for analogue radio, even though the existing choice of analogue stations was less than in France, and the choice of digital stations seemed more attractive and content-rich than offered by analogue. Even if a proportion of listeners are quickly adopting digital radio, a greater proportion are still sticking with their traditional radios, with the possible exception of Norway, where analogue switch-off seems to be seriously considered at present. This leads to a situation in which the government initially adopts a goal of analogue switch-off but then, given the impossibility of switch-off, drops or postpones the switch-off date by several years. As the choice of existing radio stations is particularly substantial in France, it would appear that this situation is most likely to be repeated if digital radio were to be launched. Radio station owners are not mistaken. Very few want a quick switch-off of FM, and some do not want any switch-off.”

These points echo evidence on digital radio switchover in the UK that I had presented to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications in January 2010:

“With television, there existed consumer dissatisfaction with the limited choice of content available from the four or five available analogue terrestrial channels. This was evidenced by consumer willingness to pay subscriptions for exclusive content delivered by satellite. Consumer choice has been extended greatly by the Freeview digital terrestrial channels, many of which are available free, and the required hardware is low-cost.

Ofcom research demonstrates that there is little dissatisfaction with the choice of radio content available from analogue terrestrial channels, and there is no evidence of consumer willingness to pay for exclusive radio content. Consequently, the radio industry has proven unable to offer content on DAB of sufficient appeal to persuade consumers to purchase relatively high-cost DAB hardware in anywhere near as substantial numbers as they have purchased Freeview digital television boxes.”

The Kessler document should offer significant food for thought to the British government for its unworkable plans for DAB radio switchover. Whereas Kessler correctly identified that TV and radio digital switchover are two very different undertakings, our public servants working on digital radio policy in the government and in Ofcom have long failed to understand these differences. The appointment of Ford Ennals as chief executive of Digital Radio UK in 2009, on the back of his work between 2005 and 2008 managing digital television switchover, should have been viewed as barely relevant experience to achieve successful digital radio switchover.

Have any of the people managing digital radio switchover for the UK ever actually worked in the radio industry? At DCMS? No. At Ofcom? No. At Digital Radio UK? No. If, like Kessler, they had radio sector experience, they would realise that all their speeches and presentations that repeatedly cite digital TV switchover as the precedent for radio are completely off-target.

Is there any wonder that failure of DAB public policy was inevitable?

DAB Radio Downgrade: how is ‘90% of FM coverage’ a sensible target for DAB to replace FM?

“Makin’ a good t’ing bad!”

Moving the goalposts. Governments are adept at doing just that to help them achieve their targets or to make figures look better than they really are. Digital radio switchover is no exception. Given the technical and financial impossibility of the task plotted twenty years ago to completely replace analogue radio broadcasting with DAB radio, it has became necessary in recent months for the civil servants and digital radio lobbyists to move the goalposts.

In a blog in April 2011, I had outlined Ofcom’s latest ruse to deliberately plan to make DAB reception worse than existing FM reception for many radio listeners. Nevertheless, Ofcom will still declare this a victory for the technical superiority of the DAB platform.

The latest proposal under consideration is to make coverage of local DAB transmitters equivalent to 90% of existing FM coverage. On the one hand, this represents a belated admission that DAB radio cannot realistically achieve the same robust coverage as FM. On the other, it is a massive kick in the teeth to radio listeners – an attempt to purposefully replace something good (FM) with something worse (DAB). Madness!

A recent presentation by DAB lobbyist organisation Digital Radio UK invoked a new, vague “local digital coverage equivalent to 90%” criterion [see below]:

“90%” of what? The government’s Digital Britain report in June 2009 had fixed the digital radio switchover criteria as:
• “When 50% of listening is to digital; and
• When national DAB coverage is comparable to FM coverage, and local DAB reaches 90% of the population and all major roads.” [emphasis added]

There was never anything in Digital Britain about achieving “90% of existing FM coverage.” It was always “90% of the population.” The goalposts are being moved to make it easier for the government and DAB lobbyists to declare that DAB has achieved the criteria. Despite this outcome making the consumer experience of radio evidently worse.

We were told that one result of the Digital Radio Summit meeting on 31 March 2011 between government, regulator and the radio industry was:

“It is understood that it will cost around £20-30m to extend the local DAB signal to 90% of the FM signal in the UK…”

At a Westminster Media Forum conference on 5 April 2011, the topic of this newly created “90% of FM” criterion was raised by several speakers:

Jimmy Buckland, director of strategy, UTV Media: “There’s a DCMS [Department for Culture, Media & Sport] plan that’s been referred to today that’s currently on the table that would take local multiplexes to just 90% of what FM already delivers, with no commitment on major roads. If that plan’s agreed, it just about gets us to base camp.”

[…]

Neil Midgley, assistant media editor, The Daily Telegraph: “Now the briefing that we were getting last week was somewhere below £30 million for a build out to about 90% of current FM coverage. “

[…]

Daniel Nathan, director, Brighton & Hove Radio: “Just leading on from that, in Jimmy’s slide we saw the figure being an aspiration of ‘90% of the population’ and I was quite disturbed to hear that now that they are kind of moving away from ‘90% of the population’ to ‘90% FM coverage.’ When was that decided and by whom?”

[…]

Jimmy Buckland: “There were two different figures, there was originally a figure which was the criterion, at which point you would make a decision about switchover which was that the Government said that once we had ‘90% population coverage’ and ‘coverage of all major roads,’ you could make a decision and there were a couple of other criteria that go with that. The second figure which was ‘90% coverage of current FM’ for local DAB concerns what would be delivered by a proposal which is currently on the table. So to tie in with the previous point, what that £30 million delivers is a little bit more coverage at the local level, aggregated to 90% on a UK wide basis, so in some local markets it could be comfortably less than 90%, in other markets it could be higher and it doesn’t get you to the universality that you need for switchover.”

So, two questions remain unanswered:
• Who came up with the idea of ‘90% of FM coverage’ to be sneaked in as an easier criterion?
• Why are large parts of the radio industry (including RadioCentre and the BBC) not publicly campaigning against this ridiculous proposal intended to make reception of their radio stations on DAB WORSE for listeners than existing reception on FM?

It is hard not to conclude that the parties involved in this latest wheeze seem happy to treat the UK’s 46,727,000 radio listeners with utter contempt.

Digital Radio UK on DAB radio switchover: talkin’ loud and saying nothin’

DAB radio receiver sales

“Ford Ennals, Digital Radio UK’s chief executive, remains optimistic and says that the DAB [receiver] market will grow by 8-10% this year [2011].” [source]

FACTS: DAB/digital radio receiver sales volumes in 2010 were down on 2009, and in 2009 were down on 2008, although stakeholders disagree about the precise volumes and the percentage change:
“2010 was slightly down in digital radio sales volumes (-2.3%) compared to 2009” [Digital Radio UK update]
“’[DAB] volume sales were only marginally lower than the previous year (-0.7%) at 1.92 million units,’ explains Simon Foy, GfK senior account manager, CE.” [source]
• “DAB sales for 2010 were 1.91 million pieces” [source]

Digital radio listening reaching the 50% criterion

Ford Ennals: “I think you can see the listening criteria’s certainly being met in the next five years.” [WMF]

“Despite two thirds of listeners still using analogue radio, Ennals believes that, if you extrapolate digital radio’s recent growth pattern, the 50% target could be achieved by the end of 2014.” [source]

Ford Ennals: “We are likely to hit 50%, you know, in the next five years, I would say.” [DRS]

FACTS: When you extrapolate the radio industry’s RAJAR dataset, the 50% criterion is reached:
• Not by the government’s target of year-end 2013
• Not by Ford Ennals’ new, seemingly variable, targets of “the end of 2014” or “in the next five years”
• By year-end 2018, IF growth in digital listening is maintained at the current rate

Growth in DAB/digital radio listening

Ford Ennals: “We’ve seen overall in this year, in the last 12 months, each quarter, we’ve seen a 20% year-on-year growth of digital listening.” [WMF]

Ford Ennals: “We’ve seen 19 to 20 per cent listening growth in the year [2010].” [DRS]

Ford Ennals: “We see about 20% growth in 19 … sorry, in 2010, it was 14% growth in 2009 and there was about 10% growth the previous year. So, you know, we see solid growth.” [WMF]

FACTS: According to the radio industry’s RAJAR dataset:
• 20%+ growth in digital listening was only evident in the last two quarters of 2010, not in “each quarter”
• Part of this apparent growth spurt in digital listening was the result of a sudden 5% to 6% increase in TOTAL radio listening recorded in the last two quarters of 2010

Consumer satisfaction with analogue radio

“DRUK’s Ennals is not convinced by the argument that most consumers are more than satisfied with analogue radio.” [source]

Ford Ennals: “FM is full and I think almost half of the FM spectrum is taken by 5 national services, there’s only 1 national commercial service, so it’s, you know, in terms of the ability to give consumers more choice, it is somewhat limited …” [WMF]

FACTS: Ofcom research has consistently demonstrated the high level of consumer satisfaction with existing radio services:
• Around 90% of consumers were ‘satisfied’ with the choice of radio stations in their area in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009

The 2015 digital radio switchover date

Ford Ennals: “I’m confident [digital radio switchover] is going to happen in the near future but I don’t think there’s a need to have a date and certainly we won’t be communicating a date.” [WMF]

FACTS: Ennals and Digital Radio UK have been busy “communicating a date” for digital radio switchover to anyone who would listen. Just a few of many examples:
• Ford Ennals: “We are confident digital listening can reach 50 per cent by 2013.” [source]
• Ford Ennals: “We have set a course to double listening and expand coverage by 2013, and to switchover by the end of 2015.” [source]
• Ennals stressed that a target date of 2015 was “challenging but achievable” [source]
“Ford Ennals CEO of Digital Radio UK had positive comments for the 2015 switchover date set by government and told guests to Radio Festival that plans were already in motion to meet the ambitious date.” [source]
• Ford Ennals: “The radio industry believes that these two criteria can be met at the end of 2013, for a proposed switchover to take place in 2015.” [source]
“2015 is ‘achievable’ for an analogue-to-digital switchover, according to industry body Digital Radio UK.” [source]

[sources: WMF = Westminster Media Forum, 11 April 2011; DRS = Digital Radio Stakeholders, 3 February 2011] [thanks to Darryl Pomicter]

Which? says: DAB radio switchover must be “consumer led or not at all”

What would have to be done to make DAB radio successful?

“What there does need to be, as Freeview and digital satellite has shown in television, is simply a sufficient combination of services, technology, simplicity and price or discount to provide a value proposition for the consumer,” suggested Stephen Carter in 2004, when he was chief executive of Ofcom.

“….. for the consumer” were the key words. They were also the words that became forgotten. The consumer was ignored in the radio industry’s pursuit of the radio industry’s own agenda for DAB radio. As a consequence, DAB radio has still not succeeded … with consumers. The failings were acknowledged by Quentin Howard, one of the architects of DAB radio in the UK:

“The mistake by broadcasters was in not understanding that ‘build it and they will come’ is no longer practical in this integrated technological age.”

Which?, the UK consumer advocacy, noted the radio industry’s lack of attention to the consumer in a February 2011 briefing paper entitled ‘Digital Radio Switchover in 2015? Consumer Led Or Not At All’:

“The transition to digital radio is currently industry led. The benefits of a transition to digital radio over the current analogue service are not clear to consumers, and the uptake of the technology over the past 10 years reflects this.”

Which? suggested that, before the government can announce a date for digital radio switchover, the following criteria should be met:

• “Uptake should be a minimum of 70% of all FM radio listening transferred to digital, leaving 30% still listening on analogue (FM/LW/MW/SW) (the Government’s Digital Radio Action Plan suggests 50%)
• The transition to digital must not be announced until coverage, including a measure of signal quality, is better than that of FM radio
• DAB must have been fitted as standard in all new cars for at least two years and an effective and affordable solution to in-car conversion must be available prior to the announcement of a switchover (which costs no more than for in-home conversion)
• Government must conduct a full cost-benefit analysis from a consumer perspective as a priority because increasing consumer desire for DAB should not focus on cost alone
• Minimum standards associated with a kite mark must be ambitious and future-proofed and any incentive scheme to switch to DAB should offer only kite marked receivers
• Consumer group representatives must be involved in the development of an information campaign independent from industry to raise awareness of the digital switchover by consumers and ensure guidance and training tools are available to retailers. In this regard, any lessons from the Digital TV switchover should be acted upon
• In its assessment of the environmental impact of a switchover to digital radio, the Government must tackle the full range of issues around recycling of analogue sets and the energy impacts of DAB”

However, in some of these areas of concern, current policy on DAB radio appears to be moving in the opposite direction to that advocated by Which?:

• The 50% criterion (50% of radio listening via digital platforms before switchover can be announced) is not mandatory because it was never included in the Digital Economy Act [see my Jan 2010 blog]
• The latest plan for DAB is not to deliver reception even as good as FM, but to make it worse than FM [see my recent blog]
• Only 1% of cars have DAB radios fitted and future take-up will inevitably be slow [see my recent blog]
• Roberts Radio reported a 35-40% customer return rate for its in-car DAB radio adaptors [see my Nov 2010 blog]
• The cost benefit analysis of DAB radio to be considered by the government will also be authored by the government, rather than commissioned independently [see my Jan 2011 blog]
• Roberts Radio admitted having had to pull the plug on several DAB receiver projects, including the industry’s promised ‘£25 DAB radio’, because they could not meet Roberts’ minimum quality standards

In July 2010, after the formation of the new coalition government, culture minister Ed Vaizey had said:

“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.” [see my Sep 2010 blog]

So, it might appear that the Minister and Which? are, in fact, both lined up in agreement that digital radio switchover can only happen if it is supported by consumers. So why has the government not yet recognised that consumers already seem to have given the thumbs down to DAB?

Because there are middle men (Ofcom, DCMS, Digital Radio UK, Arqiva, DAB multiplex licence owners) who persist in keeping the DAB dream alive in Whitehall. Yet again, consumers are being drowned out by the clamour of agencies eager to pursue their own narrow objectives. And the mantra of the middle men is: ‘DAB crisis, what crisis’?