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 listening growth demonstrates radio’s strengths in a multi-tasking world

The latest RAJAR ratings data for Q2 2011 demonstrate the continuing strength of the radio medium in recession Britain. Maybe if your TV or mobile subscriptions are having to be pruned, you turn to radio instead. In times of austerity, one of radio’s greatest attributes is that it appears to consumers to be available ‘free’ at the point-of-use.

‘All radio’ listening (1,076m hours per week) is at its highest since 2003. Adult weekly reach is 91.7%. Each listener spends an average 22.6 hours per week with ‘radio.’ These are impressive numbers. In this respect, it is important to remind ourselves that the RAJAR definition of ‘radio’ excludes:
• ‘listen again’ consumption of broadcast radio (online catch-ups of ‘The Archers’, for example)
• all podcasts
• listening to pure online radio stations
• listening to online music streaming services or personalised online radio (Last.fm, Spotify, etc).

If these additional ‘radio’ consumption sources could somehow be added to the RAJAR data, it looks likely that, using a wider definition, ‘radio’ would be performing at an all-time high. This is not at all surprising in our time-precious, multi-tasking world. Radio proves the perfect aural accompaniment to online social activities, whereas it is nigh impossible to watch television or read a newspaper at the same time as you browse the internet. Radio is a secondary medium – it never monopolises your time.

Commercial radio has benefited from this uplift in total radio listening. Total hours listened to commercial radio (470m per week) have risen from what is beginning to look like a nadir in early 2010.

During the last two quarters, commercial radio’s adult weekly reach has jumped above the 65% threshold (65.5% in Q2 2011) that had not been breached since 2003.

In absolute terms, commercial radio’s adult weekly reach has almost caught up with the UK population growth experienced since 1999, rising to 34m in Q2 2011, marginally below its all-time high the previous quarter.

The remaining stumbling block for commercial radio is that its average hours consumed per listener remain stubbornly low (13.8 in Q2 2011). As noted previously, young people are spending less time with radio [see my blog]. Commercial radio’s audience is considerably more youth-orientated than BBC radio, which is why the average length of time for all adults listening to commercial radio remains in the doldrums.

With all this good news for the commercial radio sector, you might imagine that its share of total radio listening had started gaining in leaps and bounds at the expense of the BBC. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The BBC has benefited just as much as commercial radio has from the overall increases in radio listening. As a result, everyone’s volumes are ‘up’ and the share of commercial radio versus BBC radio has remained relatively constant. In Q2 2011, commercial radio’s 43.7% share was certainly an improvement on the situation in 2008, when it had looked as if the 40% barrier might be plumbed for the first time.

In fact, the BBC’s sustained strength in radio is becoming increasingly understated as more and more ‘radio’ listening is attributable to ‘listen again’ on-demand usage and podcasts. The BBC dominates the content available on both these platforms, whilst commercial radio’s offerings remain relatively sparse. At present, neither platform is measured within RAJAR. If they were, commercial radio’s share would undoubtedly be diminished further.

At present, this status quo (using RAJAR’s anachronistic definition of ‘radio’ as purely live and broadcast) suits both parties. The BBC does not wish to be seen to be even more dominant than it already is (54.0% of radio listening in Q2 2011). Commercial radio does not wish to be seen to be weaker than it already is (43.7%) in comparison to the BBC.

And who pays for RAJAR? The BBC and commercial radio. So we are stuck with an old fashioned metric that does not measure radio consumption in the 21st century sense of what we now call ‘radio,’ but which keeps both its paymasters happy … particularly as neither the BBC nor commercial radio would currently wish to demonstrate publicly the increasing popularity of online ‘radio’ consumption – which remains the biggest long-term external threat to them both.

When UK radio listening figures are this good, why does RAJAR need to fib?

It is good to know that radio is still an extremely popular medium in the UK, something borne out by the latest radio audience metrics published by industry body RAJAR for Q1 2011. However, in its determination to make every quarter’s results newsworthy, RAJAR has a track record of bending the truth to achieve press headlines [see my blog May 2010]. This latest quarter was no exception.

According to the RAJAR headline:
• “Total radio listening hours reach 1,058 million per week – new record.”^

RAJAR explained:
• “The total number of radio listening hours broke all previous records to reach 1,058 hours per week …”^

Fantastic news! Except that this is not at all true. RAJAR’s own historical data tell a different story:
• 1,088 million hours per week in Q2 2001
• 1,092 million hours per week in Q3 2001
• 1,092 million hours per week in Q4 2001
• 1,090 million hours per week in Q1 2002
• 1,072 million hours per week in Q4 2002
• 1,094 million hours per week in Q1 2003
• 1,066 million hours per week in Q3 2003
• 1,076 million hours per week in Q4 2003
• 1,086 million hours per week in Q1 2004
• 1,072 million hours per week in Q2 2004
• 1,068 million hours per week in Q3 2004
• 1,059 million hours per week in Q1 2005
• 1,068 million hours per week in Q2 2005
• 1,072 million hours per week in Q3 2005
• 1,060 million hours per week in Q4 2005
• 1,063 million hours per week in Q3 2006

During sixteen quarters between 2001 and 2006, total hours listened to radio were greater than they were last quarter. “New record?” No. “Broke all records”? Er, no.

The reality is that total radio listening has not yet returned to the level it had achieved in 2001. Except that, ten years ago, the UK adult population was 48.1 million, whereas now it is 51.6 million. So the population has increased by 7% over the last decade. Yet total UK radio listening is still less than it was then.

Most statisticians I know would refer to that as a like-for-like 7%+ decline in total hours listened to radio. However, to RAJAR, it is evidently a “new record” that “broke all previous records.”

Why does any of this matter? Because radio broadcasters have been progressively losing usage over most of the last decade. Initially, it was 15 to 24 year olds that were spending less time with radio. Increasingly, it is also 25 to 34 year olds. For a decade, the UK radio industry has desperately needed a coherent strategy to reverse this loss of listening. The decline in young adult listening to broadcast radio does not merely impact the NOW. If these consumers do not find anything in their youth worth listening to on the radio, they will grow old without the radio habit. Their radio listening patterns NOW are likely to influence radio listening for the next half-century.

This is why RAJAR’s continuing efforts to achieve yet another headline in the Daily Mail proclaiming “Radio listening at an all time high” are ultimately redundant. Those headlines do not impact the reality of the data collected from tens of thousands of radio listeners every month. Those data show incontrovertibly that listening is in significant long-term decline amongst younger demographics. And radio will be in mortal danger if it does not re-invent itself for the next generation.

You only have to listen to any pirate radio station in London to understand that the gulf between what young people are actually listening to and what the old fogies who run UK radio are giving them has never been wider. Chris Moyles is as passé as Dave Lee Travis was twenty years ago.

So, yes, RAJAR’s fibs and the resulting Daily Mail headline will be another opportunity for champagne corks to pop in radio boardrooms across the land. But if radio doesn’t start making itself exciting and relevant to young people, broadcast radio’s future role will be relegated to a soundtrack in old people’s homes. Complacency such as that propagated by RAJAR will only make many radio businesses redundant in the long run.

^ in a footnote this small, the RAJAR press release admits the caveat “since new methodology was introduced in Q2, 2007.”

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]

DAB Radio Downgrade? The new masterplan to deliver DAB radio reception worse than FM

When something works well, it just works. You do not need to analyse why it works. It just works. And nobody asks questions as to why or how. That is the case with FM radio. During half a century of development, more and more FM transmitters have been built across the UK (2,100 currently in operation) so as to reach the point now where almost the entire population receives an FM signal (maybe not always perfect, but some reception rather than none at all).

DAB radio was intended to replace FM radio. However, it must only be worth replacing FM with DAB if DAB is actually better than FM. Why replace a transmission system that has taken 50 years to perfect with something that is going to be worse? Unfortunately, nobody thought to conduct a cost/benefit analysis during the last two decades to determine what the cost would be of making DAB radio reception as good as FM radio, let alone better. As a result, DAB radio was foisted upon the public in 1999 without a roadmap to ensure that reception was even as good as FM radio for consumers.

Twelve years later, DAB reception remains worse than FM reception in many places, or is non-existent. Whereas poor FM reception gives the consumer a poor quality listening experience, poor DAB reception provides no listening experience whatsoever. With DAB, a poor signal is the same as no signal.

Instead of Ofcom valiantly admitting defeat over DAB radio – which might infer that the regulator and its predecessor, the Radio Authority, had screwed up the implementation of DAB in the UK – Ofcom presses ahead with increasingly desperate attempts to try and salvage this technological and regulatory disaster.

Ofcom’s latest ‘project’ is to try and understand why FM radio, more than half a century after its introduction, gives consumers acceptable radio reception. Intrinsically, the work is redundant. If FM works well, why bother to analyse why it works? The answer is: because DAB radio does not work. In order to make DAB work, an understanding is deemed necessary of why the system it was intended to replace – FM radio – does work.

Belatedly, it has been understood by the bureaucrats that the expense of making DAB as good as FM will prove too costly. It requires too many DAB transmitters, too many DAB power increases, at too great a cost for the radio industry. Might this not be a good time for them to back away from the notion of DAB radio REPLACING FM radio because it is simply too costly, even just to make it AS GOOD?

Not for the bureaucrats involved. Instead, the philosophy within Ofcom and the government is a new plan to deliberately make DAB radio NOT AS GOOD as FM radio. But still to persuade consumers that DAB is intended to replace FM radio for national and large local radio stations. Madness? Yes. Self-defeating? Yes. Contempt for radio listeners? Totally.

Peter Davies, who is responsible for radio at Ofcom, explained part of this 1984-style philosophy to replace ‘good’ FM with ‘worse’ DAB to the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group meeting in the calmest of tones on 3 February 2011. Although his presentation is lengthy, I have included Davies’ words in full below so that you too can try and decipher the logic of a solution for DAB radio that is purposefully sub-par.

Perhaps the Digital Radio UK marketing slogan next winter will be: ‘Buy a DAB radio! Worse reception than FM guaranteed. But better than no radio at all.’

Peter Davies, Ofcom: “The Coverage Planning Working Group is chaired by Ofcom, but we have effectively two groups that are feeding into this. There is the actual Working Group that is doing all the sort of hard grind of doing the planning work, and that consists of Ofcom, Arqiva and the BBC. There is also a Planning Advisory Group which consists of all the [DAB] multiplex operators, with Digital Radio UK and RadioCentre as well. So what I’m going to run you through this afternoon, quite quickly because of the time, is just what we’re doing in terms of FM. What is it we are trying to match? Secondly, how you then do that with DAB. Thirdly, looking at what we need to do to the frequency plan in the UK to achieve that. And then just onto the next steps.

So, FM coverage. I should say we are doing this for national services as well as local. So it’s both BBC and commercial national services, as well as the local. But I’m going to focus this afternoon on the local because that’s, in a way, where some of the more difficult issues are. This is a map of Manchester. I know you won’t be able to see the detail on that, but it gives you an impression, at least. So what we’ve done in each part – in fact, in the whole country – is define a set of ‘editorial areas.’ So that’s shown on this map by that dotted line – you can see around the edge, a sort of dark purple dotted line – so that everywhere in the country is covered by one or more areas – there are some overlaps – but at least everywhere is covered by one area. So the editorial areas are areas that have been agreed by the BBC and by the [DAB] multiplex operator and commercial radio operators as being the sort of area that they would, in an ideal world, like to cover. It’s also based on [DAB] multiplex areas, so it’s a bit of a compromise.

So, if you look at the actual coverage of BBC Radio Manchester [GMR] within this, that’s shown in the sort of standard way of measuring – 54 db – is shown in green but, actually, editorially BBC Radio Manchester would like to cover the bits within the dotted line. So there is coverage beyond the editorial area where people can pick up the service, but it’s not really intended for them. And, equally, there are bits within the existing editorial area which aren’t covered terribly well on FM but which, nevertheless, the station would like to think it serves.

In terms of the actual [FM] coverage, it’s been quite difficult to determine what that is. The ‘54db’ is the standard internationally agreed planning measure. So that’s 54db per μv per metre, but I’m not an engineer so don’t ask me any more detail than that. But it’s a definition that was drawn up back in the 1950s and is really about reception 10m above the ground, using a rooftop aerial and it sort of tells you whether you can get a signal on your radiogram, which is not terribly useful [now]. So we know that people use radios in very different ways, but we sort of know that this works, but it has never actually been tested. So it’s a planning definition, which is very old and slightly messy.

So what we’ve been doing as part of this work is drawing up what’s known as a ‘link budget ‘, which is effectively taking the signal strength as it leaves the transmitter and then adjusting it all the way along until it actually gets to the receiver. So, in other words, you adjust it because it’s a distance from the transmitter going over some hilly ground, going down into buildings, loss within the receiver itself and so on. So that you can work out what signal strength you will need to work to get decent FM coverage. So we’ve looked at three different strengths because we know that the 54db is probably a little bit conservative, so we also looked at 48db and 42db, again because conditions vary between what you can receive on a portable kitchen radio and what you can get in your car. We are also looking at coverage not only of households, but also of major roads as well, so it’s not just an indoor measurement we’re looking at.

What we have seen so far is actually that the link budget we have developed is that these numbers are probably about right. So 42db is probably about right for cars. But you can see that there’s not actually very much yellow on that map, so that most places either get a good solid indoor signal, or the signal’s not good at all, basically. So, for each area, we have looked at both the BBC local service – so that’s BBC Manchester – and also the commercial coverage, and we’ve taken the largest commercial station in each area. So, for Manchester, this is ‘Key 103.’ As you can see, the coverage is very different, mainly because they are using different transmitter sites and different powers on FM. But, of course, both of those services and others are on the same multiplex for DAB, so you have to think ‘what exactly is it on FM that we are trying to match?’ It’s no good just matching Key 103, you can’t just match to Key 103 because then you would be missing out BBC Manchester and other services. In this case, commercial [radio coverage] is smaller. In other cases that we have looked at, the commercial [stations] cover one part of the county but not another, but the BBC [station] will do the opposite.

So, what we’ve then done is to look at the composite coverage of both BBC local [radio] and the largest commercial station. So this is what we think people in the area would expect to be able to hear as a local service on FM. So you get either the BBC or the commercial radio [station] or both. So that’s the basis of what we think we should be trying to match. So it would be sort of green or blue for indoor, and the yellow bits for road coverage. As I say, we’ve done that for basically every area in the country, including the Nations services – so Radio Scotland, Radio Wales, etc for the BBC – and for the national services as well.

The question then is ‘how do we match DAB [to FM]?’ So the approach to that again has been to build up a link budget for DAB, starting with the transmitter and going right the way through to the receiver. And we’ve been doing receiver tests as part of that. And what we tried to do – because that sort of coverage is slightly debatable on FM – is [identify] where exactly is that band, and where exactly is that field strength? The approach we have taken is, first of all, to say that, within the editorial area, let’s plan for absolutely universal coverage. So how many transmitters – if you wanted to cover it as near as possible to 100% – how many transmitters would you need, both to get indoor coverage and road coverage as well? And we’ve tried to do that in a sort of commonsense way by starting with where the existing FM transmitters are. So rather than just look for new sites, because actually if coverage from FM is good from that site, so you should get decent coverage from DAB from that site as well. And then we’ve added on transmitters at decreasing levels of coverage until you get as close as we can to 100%.

Then, once we’ve done that, we’ve said ‘okay, actually some of those are now covering areas which aren’t covered by FM’ so actually you might not need them. So then you can then sort of roll back from that full universal coverage. The question then is ‘where do you draw the line?’ So, if you look at Manchester. Again, you’ve got the editorial area, which is a bit hard to see on this, but is the solid purple line around the edge. That is the existing local DAB coverage in Manchester, so you see 66.4% of households at the moment. In terms of households [for FM coverage], we have got 96.2% indoor at the moment, 98.2% (that’s a slightly sort of spurious measurement because it’s not actually a road measurement, but it’s households), so 96.2% for FM. So 66.4% existing [DAB] coverage from the two transmitters which are currently operating from the Manchester multiplex. It is one in central Manchester – sort of there – and there is one at Winter Hill at the top in the northwest corner.

We then looked at ‘okay, what would you do if you just increased the power of the existing transmitters and moved them up the mast a bit?’ And, actually, that gets you, as you can see, quite significantly increased coverage. In order to do that, we need to change the frequency plan, and I’ll come back to that in a minute. So that gets you up to 82% [DAB coverage] and then we keep adding on transmitters until we get as close as we can to 100%. This goes to 99% and that means 15 transmitters which are shown by the crosses dotted all over that map.

But then, as I say, you look at it and you say ‘well, actually, the two smallest of these – which are these two up here – actually have no household coverage at all, and the smallest one only adds 8km of road coverage.’ Now, obviously, if you’re driving and you lose your radio reception, then that’s a problem. But there’s a question as to whether that is essential for local coverage – it might be for national, but is it for local? So the question is ‘where do you draw that line in terms of a sort of cost/benefit analysis,’ if you like? You might decide, actually, you wouldn’t bother with those, but the question is ‘how far down the list of 15 [transmitters] do you go,’ as to what’s commercial viable and what provides an acceptable level of service to consumers?

So that’s the approach that we’ve taken. As I say, in order to do that, we need to change the frequency plan. Those are the big [frequency] blocks we use for DAB at the moment, dotted around the country. And you can see that they – the colours represent frequencies – so you can see that we have to reuse the same frequencies over and over again around the country. And that does cause interference so, at the moment, Manchester uses the same frequency as Birmingham. And, because of that, we can’t increase the power of the Manchester transmitters to get beyond that 66% to the 82% [coverage]. And that problem is repeated around the country. So what we’d like to do is re-draw the frequency map, which means that, as far as consumers are concerned, means doing a re-scan of their radio but does then allow us to boost the coverage quite significantly from existing transmitters and reduces that problem of interference which, in same places, can be quite significant. In order to that, it’s quite a long process – we need international co-ordination – but that part of the planning process we are going through at the moment.

So, the next steps are to finalise that frequency plan and begin the international co-ordination. We’ve got to complete the FM coverage maps and just check that link budget for FM, both for local and national [stations]. And then, for each of the local DAB areas and for the BBC national multiplex and for Digital One, the commercial multiplex, to produce the coverage maps and the household count and the road count as well for all of these existing multiplexes. Once we have done all of that, we plan to publish the whole thing later in the spring or early summer in a consultation so that we can then begin a debate as to whether this approach is actually right or not, and where it gets us.

Obviously, one of the big questions in all of that is actually ‘how much does it cost the broadcasters?’ I should say that that’s not something the Coverage Planning Group is looking at. It’s not something that we’ve been asked to look at, so it’s purely a technical approach at this stage but we think, sort of by the end of April, we should have the answers of how many extra transmitters you would need in order to achieve switchover.”

So the overarching question posed by the forthcoming Ofcom consultation seems to be: how poor can DAB coverage be made but still be accepted by consumers? If Peter Davies’ workplan, as explained here in February 2011, sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because he had addressed the Radio Festival in July 2008 and promised:

“Once we have defined what existing DAB coverage is, we then have to work out what it would take to get existing DAB coverage up to the level of existing FM coverage. Now, we have already done a lot of work on this, and certainly enough to inform the interim report, and the whole thing will be finalised in time for the Digital Radio Working Group final report later this year.” [see my Dec 2008 blog]

Incredibly, three years late[r], the promised work is only just being completed. An amazing lack of urgency has been demonstrated by Ofcom, despite DAB radio resulting in more correspondence from angry consumers to the broadcasting minister Ed Vaizey than any other issue.

What most astonishes me is that the digital radio sector is still trying to persuade people living in Manchester to purchase a DAB radio, just as it has for the last twelve years, when it knows that there is a one-in-three chance that a Manchester household will be unable to receive ANY local stations via DAB, according to Davies. I assume a similar situation prevails in other cities.

Time for a class action by disappointed DAB radio receiver buyers?

[no accompanying graphics because DCMS explained: “Peter Davies’ Ofcom presentation is not attached as the content is still work in progress. Ofcom plan to publish all of the data later in the year.”]

AM/FM switch-off of national radio stations? An empty threat whose expiry date has long passed

Some of Digital Britain’s radio recommendations were unworkable. However, the notion has remained that FM and AM analogue transmitters of the UK’s national radio stations will be switched off once digital radio listening passes the 50% threshold. This was never practical. It was a ‘threat’ propagated by government to the public in the hope of forcing them into buying more DAB radios, instilling fear that they would otherwise lose their favourite stations. The threat failed.

The problem with any threat is that, once it has failed, it remains difficult for the protagonist to climb down. So the threat continues to be propagated. For what reason now? So as not to make those who issued the threat look completely foolish. The need to save face has locked the government apparatus into a fiction that BBC and commercial radio will willingly throw away half their audiences by closing their FM/AM transmitters. This was never true.

THE BBC

‘Universal’ reception of the BBC’s core public services is mandatory. It would prove impossible to levy the BBC Licence Fee on every UK household if (almost) the entire population could not receive the BBC services for which they pay.

The BBC Charter & Agreement requires:

“12. Making the UK Public Services widely available
(1) The BBC must do all that is reasonably practicable to ensure that viewers, listeners and other users (as the case may be) are able to access the UK Public Services that are intended for them, or elements of their content, in a range of convenient and cost effective ways which are available or might become available in the future.”

Would the BBC switch off analogue transmissions of its national networks once more than 50% of listening was attributed to digital platforms? Of course not. You would be a complete fool to slash your radio audience by half, particularly as such an action would contradict the BBC Charter & Agreement.

Could the government insist that the BBC switched off the analogue transmissions of its national networks? Only if it wanted a revolution on its hands. It would be difficult to think of a policy more likely to lose it the next General Election.

COMMERCIAL RADIO

The revenues of commercial radio are directly related to the sector’s volume of listening. If commercial radio switched off its analogue transmitters once digital listening had passed the 50% threshold, at a stroke it would risk losing 50% of its volume of listening and, subsequently, 50% of its revenues. Would it do that? No, of course not.

RadioCentre’s self-interested ‘policy’ has been to argue that the BBC national networks should turn off their analogue transmitters first, years in advance of commercial radio stations. Radio Chicken, anyone? Naturally, RadioCentre failed to mention that the outcome of this proposal would be likely to significantly increase its member commercial radio stations’ analogue audiences and revenues. There is nothing quite like trying to persuade your competitor to commit joint suicide … first.

Additionally, the value of commercial radio companies is vested in the scarcity of their analogue FM/AM licences. Because no new analogue licences are awarded by the regulator, each existing licence has a significant intrinsic value, even if the business using it is not profitable. The same is not true of DAB licences. Anybody can apply to Ofcom for a DAB licence by filling in a form and paying a relatively small fee.

An example of the value of analogue licences to commercial radio owners is Absolute Radio. In 2008, Times of India paid £53.2m for Virgin Radio, comprising one national AM licence and one London FM licence. Having re-launched the station as Absolute Radio, the company lost £4.3m in 2009, but its balance sheet still retains considerable value because of the scarcity of its two analogue radio licences. If Absolute Radio were put up for sale, someone would be interested in buying it because of that scarcity.

By contrast, when DAB commercial radio services such as Zee Radio, Islam Radio, Muslim Radio, Flaunt and Eurolatina no longer wanted their digital radio licences in 2010, there was no queue of potential buyers. They simply handed their licences back to Ofcom because those licences were not scarce.

This is why it would prove financially suicidal for commercial radio to switch off its FM/AM transmitters. It would have to write down the value of those scarce analogue licences to zero in its balance sheets which, at a stroke, would negate almost the entire value of the licence owners. Not a good company strategy.

So, when headlines such as ‘Absolute Radio mulls AM switch-off’ appear in the trade press, they should be read with a bucket of salt. The headline might as well say: ’Absolute Radio mulls destruction of shareholder value.’

And, when yet another DAB proponent appears on radio or television to persuade you, in all seriousness, that the UK’s most listened to national radio services – both BBC and commercial – will imminently be switching off their AM/FM transmitters, please feel justified to laugh in their face.

This is about as likely to happen as Tesco putting security guards at their store entrances to tell the public to shop elsewhere because they want fewer customers.

FOOTNOTE:

It emerged last week that, after the Norwegian state classical music station ‘Alltid Klassisk’ abandoned FM transmission on 1 July 2009 for DAB transmission, its audience contracted from 25,000 to 10,000 per day.

Now, consider that only 20% of listening to BBC Radio 2 is via digital platforms (in Q1 2010), lower than the 24% average for all stations [see Sep 2010 blog]. If that average ever managed to reach the 50% threshold, it might leave 60% of Radio 2’s audience still listening via analogue. That’s 8m listeners that Radio 2 would have to turn its back on as a result of FM switch-off. Time for the BBC to start erecting barricades outside Broadcasting House.

[thanks to Eivind Engberg]

UK commercial radio revenues underperform the 2010 media market

Marketing magazine’s annual survey of the top 100 advertisers announced some good news:

“More than three-quarters of the UK’s top 100 advertisers increased their adspend in 2010, defying predictions that the year would mark a steep decline in marketing budgets. By channel, the biggest year-on-year increase was in TV advertising, with a 17% rise, according to Nielsen; print, outdoor and cinema spend also rose.”

So, good news for radio too? Marketing continued: “The only medium in which spending fell was radio, falling 6% on 2009 levels.” Oh dear.

Why was radio so badly hit in 2010? Partly because of commercial radio’s greater dependency than other media on public expenditure which, as Marketing explained, was cut drastically in 2010:

“The government’s commitment to slashing public-sector spending was reflected in the 50% year-on-year decline in the COI’s [Central Office of Information] adspend to £105.4m.”

And partly because the volume of commercial radio listening has been in decline for the last decade, and sector revenues are a product of listening.


Encouragingly, 2010 witnessed a 3% year-on-year increase in the total volume of commercial radio listening, the first increase since 2001. However, total radio listening (commercial + BBC) had increased in 2010 by 2%, making commercial radio’s gain only marginally greater than the total market.

As for the other issue of slashed public expenditure on commercial radio, although 2010’s loss of £24m seemed bad [see my blog], 2011 could prove to be worse. On Friday, the Cabinet Office recommended the scrapping of the 60-year old Central Office of Information:

“As part of the changes, the COI will be replaced with a new body, the Government Communications Centre, with a wider remit and responsibility for keeping a tight reign on advertising and marketing spend. … The report does not say how much the government might cut from its £1bn annual communications bill, or how much of the £540m spent on everything from TV, radio and posters to sponsorship might be reduced.”

This would prove a further financial blow for commercial radio, since COI expenditure on radio of £30m in 2010 still contributed as much as 11% to the sector’s national advertising revenues, even after having been slashed by the coalition government.

Although Marketing’s (Nielsen) data reported that radio’s national revenues fell by 6% in 2010, the commercial radio sector’s own numbers showed a 6% increase. This discrepancy is puzzling. Nevertheless, analysis of the industry’s dataset tells us:


TOTAL UK COMMERCIAL RADIO REVENUES:
2010: £522.6m (£505.5m in 2009)
Up 3% in absolute terms
First year-on-year increase since 2007
Down 1% at constant prices [RPI]

UK COMMERCIAL RADIO NATIONAL REVENUES:
2010: £276.2m (£259.4m in 2009)
Up 6% in absolute terms
First year-on-year increase since 2007
Up 2% at constant prices [RPI]

UK COMMERCIAL RADIO LOCAL REVENUES:
2010: £144.3m (£144.7m in 2009)
Down less than 1% in absolute terms
Lowest value in absolute terms since 2001
Down 5% at constant prices [RPI]
Lowest value at constant prices since 1992

This apparent collapse in local advertising revenues would appear to mask a dichotomy that is taking place in the radio sales market. For those stations in small groups or independently owned that rely almost entirely on local revenues, the market for local advertising has already rebounded from the recession. The closure of many local newspapers, the cuts to local council freesheets and the closure of many local radio station offices owned by large radio groups have left these genuinely local stations in an opportune position to hoover up more local advertisers.

On the other hand, local radio stations that have been transformed recently by Global Radio into ‘national brands’ (Heart, Capital) seem to be abandoning their interest in local advertising markets. If I owned a local business in Eastbourne, I would like to know how effective an advertisement would be on the local Heart FM station in my immediate area of Eastbourne & Hastings. This is no longer possible because Global Radio has done away with RAJAR audience data for many local markets. The smallest market that RAJAR can tell me about now is “Sussex” comprising 1.3m adults – much too big a coverage area for an advert for my one local shop in Eastbourne.

This new strategy seems inconsistent with the Heart FM licence for Eastbourne & Hastings which Ofcom insists is “A LOCALLY ORIENTED CONTEMPORARY AND CHART MUSIC AND INFORMATION STATION…” So, please will Ofcom explain how Heart FM can be a “locally orientated” station if, as a potential advertiser in Eastbourne, I can no longer determine how many people would hear an advertisement broadcast on the station?

RAJAR explained the changes to its data: “Campaigns transferred from Q3 2010 to Q4 2010 will contain the old station definitions and they will be visible Q4, however the data will not be accurate. Please re-plan the campaign using the new regional definitions available in Q4.” In plain English – audience data for local stations have been removed and merged into regional groupings from last quarter.

So, it would seem that the ‘nationalisation’ of the content on Global Radio’s Heart and Capital brands has been accompanied by ‘nationalisation’ of advertising sales. If ever there seemed like a wrong time to be pursuing national advertisers for commercial radio, surely it must be now [see my blog]. In real terms, national advertisers spent no more on commercial radio in 2010 than they had in 1997. However, in 1997, there were only 200 commercial radio stations, whereas now there are 300.

I am reminded of a meeting in 2007, just weeks before EMAP was sold, with its chief executive when I asked him if he felt there was anything that the group’s radio division should have done differently. Local advertisers, he told me. We neglected local advertisers in pursuit of the larger amounts we could earn from potential national advertisers. But we turned our backs on previously loyal local advertisers who quickly lost interest in our stations without regular contact from our salespersons.

Here is a lesson to be learnt from the UK’s second largest commercial radio group. Don’t look your local cash cow in the mouth.

Does the nation love its digital radio stations? 86% of UK adults say ‘no’

In his perceptive commentary on last quarter’s RAJAR radio audience figures, IPSOS’ research manager Andy Haylett noted:

“18.5 million adults are DAB owners, yet only an estimated 12.6 million are confirmed listeners. What are the other 6 million doing with their DAB sets? Further investigation shows that there are only 7.4 million listeners to digital-only stations, of which under half (3.3m) comes from DAB listening. This suggests that around three quarters of all DAB listeners are tuning to stations readily available on a traditional analogue transistor.”

This reiterates a point I have made previously in this blog [Feb 2009, Aug 2009, Feb 2010]. After more than a decade, it is a sad fact of life that digital radio stations on broadcast platforms have not succeeded in setting listeners’ hearts on fire:
* Only 4.6% of all radio listening is to digital radio stations
* 18.2% of all radio listening via digital platforms is to digital radio stations
* 7.4m adults per week listen to digital radio stations (14.3% of adults)
* 3.3m adults per week listen to digital radio stations via DAB (6.4% of adults).

Of course, the corollary is that digital platforms are being used predominantly for listening to radio stations that are already available to consumers on the analogue platform:
* 95.4% of all radio listening is to analogue radio stations
* 81.8% of all radio listening via digital platforms is to analogue radio stations
* 44.2m adults per week do NOT listen to digital radio stations (85.7% of adults).

These figures might have been understandable during the early years of DAB radio. But now? After more than a decade? Planet Rock launched in 1999; the BBC digital stations in 2002. Compared to the influence that digital terrestrial television stations have had in the UK over a shorter period, digital radio stations have had very little impact on radio listening patterns to date.

The overwhelming use of digital platforms to listen to analogue radio stations begs the question: so what is the point of DAB? There was never anything wrong with FM radio anyway, and there is no proposed alternate use for FM spectrum, so why is the government insisting that consumers and the radio industry both spend huge sums of money to enable the public to listen (on DAB) to exactly what is available already (on FM/AM)?


In the graph above, the listening to digital radio stations is shown in red (analogue stations in grey). It remains tiny. Despite BBC Radio 6 Music’s uplift after last year’s consumer campaign, it still languishes as the UK’s 18th most listened to national radio station. Fortunately for the BBC, the funding for its digital radio stations continues to come (for now) from the public purse.

For commercial radio, the funding for digital radio stations has to come from deep pockets. Not one digital radio station has yet made an operating profit. History is littered with commercial digital radio stations that used to be on the national DAB platform: ITN News, Talkmoney, The Storm, PrimeTime Radio, 3C, Capital Disney, Core, Virgin Radio Groove, Oneword, Capital Life, TheJazz, Fun Radio, Virgin Radio Xtreme and Panjab Radio.

Some of these digital radio stations had offered fantastic content unavailable elsewhere (PrimeTime, OneWord). Other digital stations had had very little thought put into their creation. Former GWR staffer Steve Orchard boasted that his company’s strategy for Planet Rock had been conceived in The Lamb Inn, Marlborough: “Going into a pub with Ralph Bernard, my boss, listening to the classic rock jukebox and coming out, several pints later, with Planet Rock sketched out on the back of an envelope.”

GCap Media sold Planet Rock in 2008 to an ‘outsider’ and it has been the commercial radio industry’s most listened to digital radio station since 2009. It speaks volumes that the entire UK commercial radio sector’s efforts at digital radio stations over more than a decade have been trumped by a music enthusiast with no previous radio sector experience.

However excellent it is, Planet Rock alone cannot save the DAB platform from continuing consumer disinterest. It would require a dozen stations of this calibre to create a portfolio of sufficient interest to stir consumers. Worse, for those consumers who have tried DAB and given up due to the platform’s other issues (poor reception, lack of mobility, lo-fi audio, expensive hardware), even a dozen stations might not tempt them back.

It is understandable, therefore, that Planet Rock’s owner, Malcolm Bluemel, should be frustrated with the rest of the radio industry for not following in his wake. This month, he said:

“I’ve only been in the radio industry about two and a half years now and I’ve never actually come across an industry that has such a collection of self-interest in discussing this matter [digital switchover]. I’m quite amazed at this need for certainty around the future of business. I came from an era where, to get a decent radio [station], I had to stick my AM transistor under the bedclothes and listen to Kid Jensen from Luxembourg at night. Well, now we’ve got people saying ‘Well, I want to know this, I want to know that, I want to know that my radio stations will be this, and I can have that, and I want it all, and I want it all now.’

It’s fairly obvious to me that, as an industry, we should be all sticking together. Digital is here. It’s not a question of a switchover date. Digital is out there. It’s being listened to. There’s 1.1 million people listening to 6 Music, there’s 827,000 people listening to Planet Rock on digital radio NOW. So why don’t we just accept the fact that digital is here and all get together and say ‘Right, how are we going to make this work for the industry?’ For all those people with their self-interest and their stupid press statements over ‘20 years [until digital switchover]’ or whatever it is (how ridiculous is that?), and just get together and have a consensus of opinion about how we are best going to do this, but collectively for the radio industry, and stop fighting amongst ourselves because of our own petty little grievances.”


Planet Rock’s 827,000 weekly reach last quarter is a remarkable achievement. Compare this to the dismal performances of some analogue commercial radio stations. Absolute Radio, with the benefit of a national AM licence and a London FM licence, reached only 1,375,000 adults per week. Xfm reached 938,000 adults nationally with the benefit of a London FM licence. Choice FM reached 734,000 adults nationally with the benefit of a London FM licence.

By comparison, Planet Rock has performed miracles, given that the only broadcast platform it has access to is DAB. As Bluemel identified, paradoxically, the thing that is stopping him from turning Planet Rock into the profitable radio station that it should be is the very industry in which he is working. Whilst (post-GCap Media) Planet Rock is doing all the right things for all the right reasons, the rest of the industry, where DAB is concerned, continues to do all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons.

Unfortunately, the barriers to Planet Rock’s commercial success are the outcomes of the sad history of the DAB platform:
* The commercial radio sector initially invested in DAB to control the platform, not to create successful digital radio stations
* The BBC decided to launch minority interest digital radio stations that would not cannibalise its existing national analogue networks
* The commercial DAB multiplex owners (aka the largest commercial radio groups) did not want upstart independents creating successful digital radio stations on their DAB platform
* The industry’s ‘build it and they will come’ strategy for DAB failed because consumers are driven by content, not by platforms
* If you wanted to persuade consumers to buy relatively expensive DAB radios, you should have inspired them with new content rather than have threatened them with FM switch-off
* Radio listeners are loyal and do not like losing access to content they once enjoyed (the closure of digital radio stations)
* DAB radio reception, for many, is still not as robust as FM or AM.

The best solution for Planet Rock would be a national analogue licence. Or, at least, a London FM licence. However, the radio regulatory system we have in the UK militates against that possibility. Why? Because politicians, civil servants and regulators have ensured that those who already own (what were once) commercial radio ‘licences to print money’ get to keep them, seemingly in perpetuity.

It is the existing radio industry itself which is limiting Planet Rock’s opportunities for greater success. We do not enjoy an openly competitive radio market that allows new entrants such as Bluemel to shake up our stagnant radio industry with new, exciting ideas. Instead, ‘outsiders’ have to stand around on the sidelines while the owners of stations such as Absolute Radio, Xfm and Choice FM continue to run them into the ground. So why don’t they just sell them?

Sell their stations? Of course not! When you are part of a commercial radio oligopoly, why would you want to encourage an insurgent, who might actually understand how to create a successful radio station, to camp right on your analogue doorstep? Not only might he show you up, but he might even steal listeners from your other stations. Instead, the current philosophy is to let ‘outsiders’ bleed to death financially on the DAB platform, while the incumbents continue to divide up (what is left of) the spoils of FM/AM radio between them.

So we listeners get the (analogue) mediocrity they think we deserve.

[blog headline adapted from Andy Haylett’s of IPSOS]

DAB radio switchover: the view from the government bunker

The government’s second stakeholder consultation on DAB radio switchover happened this afternoon. It was held in what felt like an underground government bunker in Victoria. No windows, long corridors, and lots of seemingly identical numbered rooms hidden by massive doors that had no viewing windows. When I tried to go up a staircase to ground level, a man appeared from nowhere and told me not to.

Even if the bomb had dropped, down there, you might not have known it. The cityscape outside could have transformed into a wasteland but, down there, you can be certain that our civil servants would continue planning digital radio switchover regardless, even if the precise date had to be postponed until the contamination had receded. I imagine that the government staff working there hardly need to go out, even at lunchtime, because a little lady with a trolley probably comes around with salmon sandwiches.

In this cosseted environment, it is easier to understand how you might spend your days (or months or years) of servitude, devising schemes that have so little relevance to the real world above your bunker office. Perhaps this is why the afternoon was filled with PowerPoint presentations that all looked great, slides that had lots of action words, and monologues from grey men that were filled with the current jargon. It was a perfectly unreal world.

What the afternoon lacked was realism. Occasionally I had to pinch myself to make sure that this was not a Lemsip-induced slumber. It wasn’t. However, I did witness the Civil Service suggest that asking consumers their opinion about DAB radio switchover would be a good idea, as if it was a novel thought that had just come to them. Not withstanding that the government has been pursuing the notion of the DAB platform since the 1980s but, in all those decades, somehow omitted the ‘consumer’ (or ‘listener’) from its plans.

The following quotes came from our civil servants this very afternoon. I wrote them down. Reading them now, these lines could have been extracted from the script of a lost episode of ‘Yes Minister’ in which the cast cleverly parody government plans for digital radio switchover. Sadly, they did not. This is what stakeholders were told today (amongst many other things):

“We genuinely have seen more progress [on digital radio switchover] in the last eighteen months than we have in the last six or seven years I’ve worked on this issue. But, as far as the consumer is concerned, we’ve never certainly in any way advocated or used 2015 [switchover date] as a ‘stick.’ It’s always been the industry target. And, certainly, when this government came in, it was adamant and clear that the consumer would make the case for switchover by purchasing habits, by the percentage of listening [on digital platforms], the way it absorbs and consumes radio. Now, will I, at this point, say that there has been a cross-pollination of those two things? Has the 2015 [date], which was an industry date, started to creep into the public consensus and been used by the media as a scare tactic? Yes, of course it has. And do we, as an industry, need to look at that? Yes, I think we do. I would say that I don’t think anyone – I think very few people – in this room would welcome the government standing up tomorrow and saying that the [switchover] date is the 31st December 2015. And I don’t think we have any answers to the questions that we need to have the answers to before any such decision can be made, and whether the consumer genuinely believes that this is something they want to do.”

“I don’t think we know what listeners want. I think part of this [Digital Radio] Action Plan process is absolutely understanding the value people put on various parameters of radio – what they want, how they want to consume it. I think that part of understanding this decision is understanding the listener better. And I think, whilst we all have our own views on that, I don’t think there’s enough evidence based [data] for us to make those assumptions about what listeners want.”

“I don’t think the government has never ever said ‘digital radio switchover will happen in 2015’ but we think we need to go away and look at the messaging around the cross-pollination. The one thing I would say is: 2013 and 2015 is used by both sides of people in the debate, those who like to frighten people into the fear of losing their analogue services, and those who like to sell digital radios. For all of us who believe that certainty and clarity and the consumer is important, I think we all need to look at how we use the threat of 2013 and 2015 and have some consistency ourselves about how we talk to the consumer about it.”

Threat? Are radio listeners so malleable that they must be viewed by government like cattle to be herded to slaughter? Maybe I imagined mistakenly that government was FOR the people. Anyway, I suppose we should be grateful at all that the ‘consumer’ has suddenly been pushed centre stage in the long running DAB drama, even it is so late in the show [see my 2009 blog and 2010 blog where I predicted it would be ideal for bureaucrats to eventually blame DAB’s failure on the consumer rather than themselves].

Is there any difference between the government forcing the population to buy a DAB radio just to listen to ‘The Archers’, and Sky persuading them to buy ‘Sky Atlantic’ to watch their favourite HBO shows that used to be free? Is the government’s DAB switchover drive really a policy for public regulation, or simply ‘capitalist radio’ (© LBC radio poster campaign in 1989)?

This afternoon, while DAB was being discussed in the government bunker, could anyone have actually achieved satisfactory DAB radio reception down there? I think not. Are those government people listening to DAB in their cubicles? They can design as many PowerPoint presentations as they want but, at the end of the day, if DAB radio don’t work properly now, then it don’t work for the consumer.

GERMANY: DAB “is not financially viable”, internet radio on the rise

“DAB or DAB+, in its current form, is not financially viable for commercial radio stations,” said Stefan Schmitt, managing director of RTL’s Berlin radio stations, in Promedia magazine. He pointed out that user numbers were increasing steadily for the internet, wireless via PC, laptops and smartphones. “Under these circumstances, I do not know where exactly the added value is for DAB,” he said.

Schmitt argued that the whole radio business model is still based on FM broadcasting and will remain so “for the foreseeable future.” He believes that the best alternative to broadcasting is currently ‘online radio’: “We are achieving market penetration [with online] much more rapidly than with DAB, which is not market driven.”

In Germany, a dispute continues to rage over the funding of DAB radio. The CDU party’s media expert Thomas Jarzombek has argued that “more than €200m of public funds were wasted on DAB” and that “these resources should be used for technologies that are well received by the public.”

Negotiations have been proceeding for months over a further €42m of public funds earmarked to be released to re-launch DAB radio nationally using the DAB+ codec, following the failure of the earlier launch using the older DAB codec. Initially, the contracts between transmission provider Media Broadcast and the station owners were meant to have been signed on 22 July 2010. Then, the subsequent 22 September 2010 deadline for negotiations passed without agreement, as a result of commercial radio’s unwillingness to commit financially to broadcasting on DAB+. This deadline has been extended again to 15 December, which experts in Germany
now suspect is “the last chance for DAB+.”

At its annual conference on 12 November 2010, the German association of commercial broadcasters, VPRT, reiterated its opposition to the government forcing the introduction of DAB+ radio upon the German market. Outgoing VPRT vice president Hans-Dieter Hillmoth
said: “The current draft of the new Federal Telecommunications Act ignores the existing interests of commercial radio in the functioning infrastructure, whose core business is FM radio.”

New
research in Germany by the Frankfurt Link Market & Social Research Institute has demonstrated the increasing popularity of listening to radio via the internet platform. Consumers’ preference for radio delivered to a PC or laptop increased 84% year-on-year, and is now exceeded only by traditional radio hardware – car radios, kitchen radios and stereo systems. Amongst 14-29 year olds, radio via a PC/laptop scored second only to the car radio.

The question put to respondents was: “Radio can now be received on many different types of appliances. Please indicate which appliances you particularly appreciate, regardless of duration of usage.”

BBC head of radio: “I’m not going to give you a date” for digital radio switchover

Feedback, BBC Radio 4, 26 November 2010 @ 1330 [excerpt]

Roger Bolton, interviewer [RB]
Tim Davie, director of BBC audio & music [TD]

RB: Tim Davie is the BBC’s director of audio and music. I asked him if the campaign to get decent DAB coverage in 90% of the country by 2015 is still realistic.

TD: I think 2015, and I’ve said it before, is highly ambitious. The BBC would not want to see any [digital radio] switchover unless you had clear evidence of mass listening to digital, and good penetration of digital devices. I think the idea that we force a lot of listeners to a situation where they have to get rid of FM devices and not have something to listen to on digital is clearly not in the interests of the head of BBC radio [laughs].

RB: When would you say, without doubt, we will have digital switchover …

TD: [interrupts] I’m not going to give you a date. I’m not going to give you a date. I’m …

RB: … not ten years, not fifteen years, not twenty years?

TD: I think there will be a switchover. I think it’s been extremely helpful to put a stake in the ground and say ‘could we get to 2015?’ I say that’s ambitious. I quite like ambitious targets. We’ll see how we go.

RB: And there’s concern about coverage. What about quality? Because there are still a lot of our listeners who are not persuaded that the quality [of DAB] is superior, in that digital is actually sometimes worse than FM.

TD: In terms of the areas that are covered by a digital signal, I would be the first to say that we’re not there yet. So, you know, I know some of the listeners out there will say ‘well, I just can’t get a good signal’. Let’s be clear. Before the radio industry would say to people ‘we’re moving away from FM’, we must have full coverage of a DAB signal …

RB: And yet, despite this, you are running a campaign, or rather supporting a campaign, which says ‘digital radio: more to love’ [and] pushing it hard. You’re pushing something …

TD: [interrupts] Absolutely.

RB: … which you have reservations about.
TD: When you say ‘reservations’, I don’t think it’s quite the right word. I’m saying we’re building out coverage. I would not endorse a switchover unless coverage were as good as FM. At this point, I think it is utterly appropriate for me, as the BBC head of radio, to say: those people in areas of coverage – and it is important, by the way, when people buy radios, they check that they are in an area of coverage, we absolutely say that repeatedly – but, if they are in an area of coverage, I would absolutely say ‘buy a digital radio’ because you can get Radio 7, the joys of 6 Music, etcetera.

RB: But, in terms of this campaign, let me quote something said by William Rogers, the UKRD chief executive – part of the commercial radio network. He says it was ‘fundamentally immoral and dishonest to run the campaign, knowing that DAB infrastructure is not good enough, and knowing full well that when people buy a DAB radio, it may not work when they get it home. The BBC should be ashamed of themselves for running this ad. They are telling their listeners to buy something which they know isn’t ready for us yet.’

TD: Well, I mean, it is one voice, and I say ‘one voice’ among many in commercial radio and …

RB: [interrupts] And there are quite a few others who, again, refuse to run the ad.

TD: Absolutely. And, well, I think their beef is, by the way, slightly different to that articulated by William, but it’s really straightforward. 88% of the people in the country can get a signal. If you can’t get a good signal, I wouldn’t recommend digital radio. If you get that coverage, we would absolutely recommend – I think it’s utterly appropriate – to say to people: ‘go and get a digital radio to enjoy the full range of services.’

RB: But the commercial radio sector, or some of it anyway, is saying ‘this is precisely the thing the BBC should be doing. It should be investing and spending so that everybody can get digital coverage.’

TD: Mmm. We’ve said, in the last few weeks, and part of the BBC [Licence Fee] Agreement with the government was to build out national coverage of DAB services. The debate with local radio – just to be clear, and this is a bit complex, so apologies, but – is around the local layer of DAB. And we are negotiating out those costs at the moment. While that negotiation goes on in pretty tough financial circumstances for the BBC, it’s understandable that people say ‘well, we need a bit more clarity.’ I agree with them.

RB: Can I ask you, though, whether the BBC’s enthusiasm for the potential of digital, in terms of stations, is waning. For example, you did propose the closure of 6 Music and the end of the Asian Network, at least as a national station. Are you still in love with digital?

TD: It’s a fair point. The idea around looking at the line-up of stations was never about taking money off the table for digital. We want to keep investing in digital and, I think, in terms of our commitment to digital, this not just about DAB, this is about internet services. We’ve just said, on Radio 3, we’re launching HD sound, which will be a wider signal through internet radio. I think, as the head of BBC radio, I really want to see radio develop into a more competitive marketplace so that it can grow. The idea that the BBC just sits on FM spectrum, and there’s no growth in radio, to me, seems a pretty limited vision of the future for the industry.

RB: So there’s no doubt about the destination, only the amount of time, the speed of getting there?

TD: Radio’s going digital.

DAB radio lies: lobbyist claims 40% of listening to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ show is via DAB

The Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 22 November 2010 @ 0735
Ford Ennals, chief executive, Digital Radio UK [FE]

Q: Doubts persist over this particular digital standard [DAB], don’t they? Let’s just go through some. First of all: that it’s a stop-gap and that we’d all be better off with internet radio, which will become possible in cars and all over the place, and that there will really be no need for DAB at all.

FE: Well, look, what is certain is that the future of radio in the UK, and right across Europe, is digital. And what that’s going to bring is more choice, more competition, and more innovation …

Q: [interrupts] But your particular ‘digital’ is DAB digital, isn’t it …

FE: [interrupts] Well, no. It’s …

Q: … and there are other technologies available?

FE: No, not at all. We’re here to support and promote the transition to digital radio in all its forms, whether it be online, whether it be on TV, or whether it be DAB. DAB is one of those platforms. But, what we do see is great certainty that DAB is, if you like, the broadcast transmission backbone of radio, not just in the UK, but in Europe. There are 40% of all your listeners this morning listen to this programme, are listening on a DAB radio. And, I think, the simple fact is that, if they were all listening online, it couldn’t be supported and the internet would crash. So, right now, IP, as you call it, or online, just isn’t the right technology. It can’t sustain broadcast transmission of radio, and it’s not cost-effective, and it isn’t an option in the short or medium term.

Q: [incredulous] 40% of our listeners are listening on digital? Does that include listeners in cars, because I don’t know a single person who has got a digital radio in their car, I don’t think?

FE: Well, I think you have highlighted the real opportunity here. Car manufacturers have been slow to put digital radios in cars but, since the passage of the Digital Economy Act and the launch of the Digital Radio Action Programme [sic], they’ve now committed to having all new cars with digital radios in by 2013, and we’ve started to see Ford and Vauxhall and Mini putting them in. And I think that’s very important because …

Q: [interrupts] The ‘40%.’ Sorry, though. The ‘40%’ figure – did that include people in cars?

FE: Yes, urm. The 40% does include people in cars …

Q: Really?

FE: … and the targets that government have set also includes people in cars. So, what government is saying is, and I think supported by industry, is that we want to see 50% of listening to a digital platform, including DAB, before we take a firm decision about a switchover date.

Q: Mmm. Last quarter, digital listening was actually down, wasn’t it? It sort of implies that the message isn’t getting through.

FE: Well, actually, as I said, 40% of listeners are listening on digital. That’s over 20 million people every week listening to digital. This year, we’ve seen it grow by 20%. So, typically, what we see is growth in the first half-year, it slows down in the second half, and then steps up again in the second half [sic]. So, actually, quarter-on-quarter, we’ve seen moderate growth, but 20% growth year-on-year, and we’re looking for a major step at the beginning of next year. And, what I would say to people, if you’re buying a radio for a present this Christmas, make sure it’s a digital radio.


…………………………………………………..

Dear ‘Today’

I was shocked to hear Ford Ennals, chief executive of lobby group Digital Radio UK, proclaim on your programme that:

“there are 40% of all your listeners this morning listen to this programme, are listening on a DAB radio.”

This statement is not merely an exaggeration, it is wholly untrue. The radio industry’s audience data (produced by RAJAR, published by Ofcom for Q1 2010) show that 27% of listening to Radio 4 is via all digital platforms, which include digital television, the internet … and DAB. See graph below.


In-car listening accounts for 19% of total radio usage, but this proportion is likely to be considerably higher during the morning commute period. Because DAB radios are installed in less than 1% of cars, it is probable that much, much less than 27% of listening to the ‘Today’ programme is via DAB.

Ford Ennals’ untruthful statement is only the latest in a long line of disinformation perpetuated by commercial forces that will gain financially from DAB take-up, and which are designed to mislead the public into buying DAB radios.

Yours

Grant Goddard