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.