Lobby the EU to mandate Europe-wide digital radio switchover? No chance!

The European Union [EU] has always made its position perfectly clear on radio broadcasting policy for its member states. It will not adopt an EU-wide digital radio strategy. A year ago, Viviane Reding, then EU commissioner for information society & media, reiterated the policy in an interview:

“This issue of EU-wide radio standardisation is still in its infancy. The main reason is that radio, from a political, business and consumer standpoint, is organised primarily as a regional or even local product. This is, in principle, rightly so. The reason the radio landscape in Europe is so fascinating is because it is so diverse and highly innovative. Therefore, EU-wide radio legislation is not advocated.”

“I believe the time is not ripe for a single EU-wide radio FM switch-off, such as we are doing for analogue TV in 2012. I can also well imagine that the 27 EU Member States, given their different levels of development, will want to take their own innovative approaches to digital radio switchover.”

Given this clearly stated EU policy, it was a surprise when World DMB, the lobbying organisation for DAB radio,
announced on 10 November 2010 that one of its three objectives for the coming year was:

“To persuade the European Union to champion switch-over policies at European level …”

Using the forum of the European Broadcasting Union [EBU] Digital Radio Conference 2010 held in Belfast the previous week, World DMB seemed to have persuaded the EBU to endorse a no-hope strategy of challenging existing EU strategy in order that digital switchover be mandated through diktat. This follows the evident failure of World DMB’s bottom-up approach to convince consumers in many EU countries to replace their satisfactorily working FM/AM radios with DAB receivers.

World DMB president Jørn Jensen said in the press release:

“If digital radio is to succeed, then the EBU must show their support for the DAB family, the only technology platform chosen by Germany, UK, France, Italy, Spain and the Nordic countries as the future of digital radio.”

The EBU obliged by issuing its own statement which stressed that its conference had “achieved a significant breakthrough in efforts to accelerate moves towards securing a digital future for radio.” The EBU wording is significant – its public statement talked about ‘digital’ radio but never mentioned the ‘DAB’ platform specifically. Whereas, the World DMB press release went out of its way to interpret ‘digital’ radio narrowly as ‘DAB’, almost to the point of obsession, when Jensen said:

“It’s time to stop talking about less mature standards, EBU needs to promote the Eureka 147 [DAB] family of standards.”

And what exactly did Jensen mean by “less mature standards”? Could he be referring to the platform whose name dare not be spoken amongst DAB lobbyists – THE INTERNET? Coincidentally, five days prior to the World DMB press release, Neelie Kroes, the current EU commissioner for the digital agenda, had admonished content producers who do not adapt their businesses to the internet age in a speech:

“Like it or not, content gatekeepers risk being sidelined if they do not adapt to the needs of both creators and consumers of cultural goods. So who will win the heart of the creators and of the public? It is still too soon to say. Of course, some of the new giants of internet come from another continent. I would wish that more of them were European, but when I see the wealth of creativity gathered in this room, I am optimistic for the future.

I believe that those who will prosper in the digital age are those who understand that convergence is one of the keys. The convergence of media provides an incredible opportunity for the artists and creators of our times, and also for their public – you and me. Just like cinema did not kill theatre, nor did television kill radio. The internet won’t kill any other media either.”

Despite the EU’s enthusiasm for convergence, the internet is still perceived as a competitive threat by some European radio broadcasters, who fear attrition to their audiences from an influx of online audio content from beyond their borders. To them, Last.fm, Spotify and We7 are the antichrists, and they hope that DAB’s walled garden will banish these insurgents from their kingdom. But, although Jensen wants to paint the internet as a “less mature standard”, history books show that it was around long before DAB (I was sending e-mails, before they had that name, across the Atlantic in 1978).

Also, when World DMB promised in its 10 November press release that it would “foster effective partnerships between broadcasters and the automotive sector” over the next year to get DAB radio into cars, it was advocating actions it could and should have taken more than a decade ago. It has long missed the boat. EU commissioner Neelie Kroes had announced on 8 November that IP-connected cars were the current European policy objective:

“Europe leads in wireless communication to and from vehicles. That is critical to improve both safety and efficiency. And to convert this into global market success global cooperation and standardisation will be required. This is where the EU’s Future Internet Public Private Partnership comes in. We need the automotive and ICT communities side-by-side. That way we can seize the opportunities of the next generation of wireless broadband, beyond 3G, to meet the growing demand for connectivity in cars.”

So what chance does World DMB have of achieving these two stated objectives for EU policy during the next year (compulsory digital radio switchover, DAB in cars)? None whatsoever. So why would it set itself objectives that are bound to fail? It can only be sheer desperation at this rapidly deteriorating stage in DAB’s lifecycle.

The third of World DMB’s stated objectives for the next year – “to advance partnerships between public and broadcasters” to make DAB happen – must have been drafted by someone with a wry sense of irony. Such ‘partnerships’ appear to be going nowhere in DAB:
* In the UK, RadioCentre, the commercial radio trade body, has failed in its insistence that publicly funded BBC should pay for the upgrade of commercial radio’s local DAB transmitters;
* In Germany, commercial radio has failed to agree with public radio to a new plan to re-launch national DAB radio;
* In Spain, commercial radio called DAB “a road to nowhere” despite public radio’s insistence on persevering;
* In France, national commercial radio networks have refused to support public radio’s plan to launch digital terrestrial radio;
* In Denmark, only one commercial station is broadcasting on DAB, alongside 17 state radio stations (many of which are about to be axed);
* In the Netherlands, national commercial radio stations have had to be forced to broadcast on DAB by the government inserting new clauses in their licence renewals.

World DMB’s rallying call of “let’s just get on with it!” might make more sense if its proposed solutions were practical in any way. Its press release was headlined ‘European Broadcasting Union backs digital radio switch over across Europe.’ Given that all three of its objectives for the next 12 months fly in the face of realpolitik, it would have been more accurate to entitle the press release ‘Three impossible European things before breakfast.’

[with thanks to Michael Hedges at Follow The Media]