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?

DAB: actions speak louder than keynote speeches

Giving the commercial keynote speech at the Radio Reborn 2009 conference this week in London, Global Radio chief executive officer Stephen Miron banged the drum for the radio medium, banged the drum for Global Radio, and banged the drum for digital radio.

It was the last of these three exhortations that appeared particularly contradictory, given Global Radio’s track record with the DAB platform. However, nothing could stop Miron from proclaiming:

* “At Global, we believe that the government must set a clear and rightfully ambitious programme for digital migration.”
* “As you would expect from the largest commercial radio broadcaster, we plan to play an active role in helping ensure the successful delivery of that [digital] strategy.”
* “We back digital and we back the [Digital Britain] strategy, but we cannot afford to get this wrong.”
* “Digital Britain has made us focus our minds. Now the government must focus theirs.”
* “We have embarked on a clear path to digital, to DAB, and we need to make serious progress and do it quickly.” [emphasis added]
* “This means naming a date for [digital] migration …. A firm date needs to be set.”
* “The future of our sector is intrinsically linked to the successful implementation of the government’s digital strategy and to the successful migration to DAB.” [emphasis added]
* “We need more of this in the coming weeks and months. Not just words, but action.”
* “We need to get our act together to make the best possible case for consumers to switch to digital.”
* “Global is up for the challenge and, as the largest commercial player, we are prepared to lead this charge.”

Miron’s comments seem particularly difficult to reconcile with Global’s ‘actions’ on DAB, which hardly demonstrate confidence in the platform.

1. Global Radio exits DAB multiplex ownership
On 6 April 2009, it was announced that Global Radio sold its 63% stake in the sole commercial radio national DAB multiplex owner Digital One to transmission provider Arqiva. Global Radio also sold its local DAB multiplex business Now Digital to Arqiva. After almost a decade of operation, these multiplexes were still to generate an operating profit. Global Radio’s involvement in DAB multiplexes was thus reduced, at a stroke, from having been the biggest player to zero, writing off a decade’s worth of massive investment in the process, because the transaction is likely to have happened for a nominal amount.

2. Global Radio/GCap Media closes digital stations
Digital stations Capital Life and TheJazz, both of which had been carried on the national Digital One DAB multiplex, were closed on 31 March 2008, the day that Global Radio acquired GCap. (GCap had already closed another national digital station Core in January 2008).

In a recent interview, Tony Moretta, chief executive of the Digital Radio Development Bureau, tried to explain the closures of these stations: “Well, the main stations that went away – aside from all the Channel 4 stuff, which never launched and was nothing to do with DAB – where the GCap stations, such as The Core and thejazz also had nothing to do with digital.” [sic]

3. Global Radio turns digital station The Arrow into music jukebox
In December 2007, Global Radio dropped live presenters from the digital radio station The Arrow which it had acquired from Chrysalis Radio. The Arrow was removed from DAB in London in May 2008, and is now only available over-the-air on the 5 MXR regional DAB multiplexes. However, Global’s recent sale of its share in these multiplexes to Arqiva puts a question mark over the station’s future. Why would Global Radio pay Arqiva to carry a digital station in which it is has demonstrated no interest to develop?

4. Global Radio does nothing with digital station Chill
Part of Global Radio’s acquisition of GCap Media, Chill is also only available over-the-air on the 5 MXR regional DAB multiplexes (and not in London on DAB). Like The Arrow, Chill’s future looks very precarious. However, it would prove embarrassing to close these two digital stations before Lord Carter’s final Digital Britain report is published.

5. Global Radio cancels deal with Sky for digital news radio station
In October 2007, Global Radio cancelled the contract with Sky inherited from its acquisition of Chrysalis Radio that would have created a national Sky News Radio station on DAB. A spokesperson said then that “Global was not prepared to make the necessary investment in this project”.

6. Global Radio scraps digital-only shows on Galaxy Radio
In January 2008, Global Radio dropped dedicated shows from the digital version of its Galaxy Radio brand, instead simply simulcasting its local FM output on DAB multiplexes that also carry it.

So what is going on here? Miron’s speech is a large part of Global Radio’s public campaign to cosy up to Lord Carter ahead of the publication of his final Digital Britain report. Global needs a big favour from Carter if it is to retain a shred of intrinsic value on its corporate balance sheet – an automatic renewal of its Classic FM national analogue licence (see my earlier blog entry). In return for the favour it seeks, Global is responding to Lord Carter’s insistence that the radio industry speak with one voice on the issue of the transition from analogue to DAB radio.

The important thing here is to be seen to be saying the right things publicly about DAB – it’s great, it’s the future, we are committed to it, we love it. Forget the past. Forget our recent ‘actions’. Conveniently forget that, less than a month ago, we transformed our company from the leading player in DAB infrastructure into less than an also-ran. DAB is the future – we are part of that future. Our commitment is to say all the right things, and probably to do absolutely nothing. The endgame is to persuade government to amend primary legislation so that Global Radio can hang on to Classic FM, as Ashley Tabor explained: “It is one of those times when common sense has to prevail. Classic FM is a national treasure and to lose it would be tragic.”

The consumer and trade press willingly obliged by reprinting chunks of Miron’s speech without any kind of critique. This ensures that the press cuttings, demonstrating Global Radio’s glowing confidence in DAB, will land on Lord Carter’s desk and, Global hopes, convince him of the ‘common sense’ of not bothering to auction the Classic FM licence to the highest bidder (which is required by existing legislation). Here is a selection of that press coverage.

Broadcast magazine reported that “Miron’s comments mark the first time that Global Radio – the largest commercial player in the UK radio sector – has come out so strongly in favour of DAB and migration” under the headline “Global Radio chief demands DAB deadline”.

Radio Today reported that “Global Radio has also called on the government this morning to set a switchover date for DAB” under the headline “Industry unites for a DAB future”.

Marketing Week reported that Miron wanted the government “to name a date for a switchover from analogue” under the headline “Radio industry needs to be bold, says Miron”.

Media Week reported: “Global Radio has made one of its biggest interventions in the debate over the future of digital radio, with chief executive Stephen Miron calling on the Government to set a date for digital radio switchover”. The headline was “Global boss Miron calls on Government to name digital radio switchover date”.

The Guardian, to its credit, published the only report which acknowledged Global had “sold its majority stake in national DAB platform Digital One to transmission business Arqiva earlier this month”, though its headline nevertheless read “Government must be bolder on digital radio, says Global chief Stephen Miron”.

But today’s Sunday Times developed the theme by including this comment from Global Radio’s Ashley Tabor about digital switchover: “I am really confident now that all the right things are happening that will get us where we need to be. We are in favour of switch-off, so can we do it quickly please?” Maybe Lord Carter is tiring of Tabor’s persistent phone calls, so Ashley is now having to turn to weekend press puff pieces to labour his point.

The Sunday Times article’s headline, without a hint of irony, is “Global evangelist for digital radio”. Closing digital stations, selling off DAB infrastructure, baling out of DAB development deals – is this some kind of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ evangelist?