All of us would like to invent a ‘killer application’ that could captivate consumers with its usefulness, change the future direction of technology, and make millions. But there is a big difference between inventing one in our heads and turning it into a technical reality in the marketplace.
The converter/adapter that is able to magically transform a portable analogue radio into a DAB radio is one such invention. It exists in the heads of the DAB radio lobby as a means to persuade politicians that mass consumer conversion to DAB is a possibility rather than a pipedream. Unfortunately, it does not exist in reality.
When the notion of such a converter was mentioned last year, I examined the analogue portable radios scattered in almost every room of our home. The only access to their internal electronics that some of them allow is via a headphone socket – and when you insert anything into that, the loudspeaker cuts out. So how exactly could any kind of gizmo be ‘added’ to such radios to transform them into DAB?
My doubts were confirmed when Intellect, the trade organisation that represents UK radio receiver manufacturers, wrote to Parliament in February 2010 and stated: “Whilst it is technically feasible, there are currently no products on the market that can adapt an analogue radio to receive DAB signals.”
Subsequently, Laurence Harrison of Intellect presented evidence in person on this issue to the Lords’ Communications Committee: “A converter would have to include within it pretty much all the components, bar the speakers, of a standard digital radio anyway. Therefore, the cost differential for a converter will be minimal between that and just buying a new digital radio.”
The converter is a prime example of the radio industry’s current pre-occupation with technology being the answer to its problems. Last week, Steve Orchard (former group programme director of GWR, former operations director of GCap) wrote an opinion piece which proclaimed: “DAB is vital to commercial radio’s future.” What?? Sorry?? Surely, it is ‘content’ which is vital to the future of commercial radio, just as it always has been, and just as it always will be. Content = listening = advertising = revenues = profit. Whereas: DAB = platform = infrastructure = investment = risk.
The radio industry desperately needs a strategy that focuses on producing content, rather than focusing on DAB. We already have platform businesses such as Arqiva whose function is transmission infrastructure such as DAB and FM; and we already have consumer electronics companies that produce radio receiver hardware. I don’t see Arqiva or Roberts trying to produce radio shows, so why does the radio industry so desperately want to control platforms and invent hardware?
As ever, the challenge for the radio industry is to create content that is sufficiently compelling, regardless of the platform. Consumers gravitate to content, whatever platform that content is on. The history of radio has demonstrated this time and time again. For example:
• 90% of the population listen to analogue radio for around 20 hours per week (on FM and AM platforms that the radio industry has lobbied to have shut down)
• BBC Five Live and TalkSport attract 5% and 2% shares respectively of all radio listening, despite being broadcast on AM (a platform that commercial radio lobbied the regulator in the 2000s to write off for mainstream formats)
• Pirate radio with poor FM reception continues to attract significant audiences in cities (stations which the radio industry has long lobbied to be shut down, despite itself not offering consumers any comparable content)
• Atlantic 252 attracted a 4% share of all UK radio listening in 1994, despite broadcasting from Ireland on Long Wave (a platform the BBC tried to shut down in 1992)
• Ricky Gervais’ radio show remains the most downloaded podcast ever, despite never having been broadcast and only ever having been made available as an online download (a platform largely ignored by commercial radio).
Sometimes, it seems that parts of the radio industry have stumbled so far away from their core product, content, that the eventual outcome might even be (to adapt Steve Orchard’s comment): ‘DAB is a vital part of commercial radio’s death’. The sector’s profitability is already zero. This is no time for distractions that will not directly put bums on seats.
The quotes below offer more detail on recent dialogue concerning the mythical DAB adapter.
“For customers who don’t want to buy a new radio set, it will be possible to convert existing sets to digital instead. An adaptor device will come onto the market soon that will cost around £50 and, in time, conversion may cost less than a new radio set.”
Digital Radio UK
2 December 2009
House of Lords
Select Committee on Communications
20 January 2010
Ford Ennals, Chief Executive, Digital Radio UK
Barry Cox, Chairman, Digital Radio Working Group
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: There is, I might suggest, a vital difference. It is comparatively easy and cheap to convert a television set to digital with a set-top box that you can buy from Tesco for £20. Can you do that to an analogue radio set?
Mr Ennals: I fully expect that there will be low-cost converters available. We were talking to companies which were making these last week, and they are talking about DAB adaptors for about £20 or £25. When the DTT Freeview development started, those products were costing over £100. The market will become more competitive, prices will come down. You can replace your radio for £25 with a digital radio. There will be a burden of cost on the consumer, but it is significantly more affordable than it would have been in the past.
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: If it is as cheap to buy a new digital set as it is to buy a converter, there is a fair disposal problem involved in 50 to 100 million radio sets that are good to go to the rubbish dump.
Mr Cox: There is undoubtedly a difference with television because you can keep your old set and put the adaptor on it. I heard what Ford was saying, and it would be useful if some adaptors come on the market, but the likelihood is that many of those analogue sets will have to be disposed of.
Intellect [UK trade association for the electronics industries]
Written evidence to the House of Lords Communications Committee
1 February 2010
“Converting analogue radios to digital:
Whilst it is technically feasible, there are currently no products on the market that can adapt an analogue radio to receive DAB signals. Our members would undoubtedly produce such devices should a clear market demand ensue following the passing of the Digital Economy Bill.
However, simply adapting an analogue product will not allow listeners to enjoy the full range of benefits that DAB can offer. With some entry level digital radio receivers costing as little as £25, adapter devices are likely to cost more than digital receivers at the start.”
House of Lords
Select Committee on Communications
Laurence Harrison, Director, Consumer Electronics, Intellect
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: What about converters for what are known as ‘kitchen’ sets? [….]
Mr Harrison: Converters – if you like, a set-top box for an analogue radio – are technically possible. I think we need to look at just how appealing that would be for the listener. A converter would have to include within it pretty much all the components, bar the speakers, of a standard digital radio anyway. Therefore, the cost differential for a converter will be minimal between that and just buying a new digital radio.
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: So they are not going to fly off the shelves?
Mr Harrison: It will depend on just how much the individual values their analogue set. Of course, converters would also come into play if you are talking about, for example, a large expensive hi-fi system; they would work for that, and if you like the sound quality of that hi-fi then a converter may be an option, but I do think we need to be careful, purely because we know that the price differential, for example, will not be that great between a converter and a standard digital set.
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: So for big, stand-alone hi-fi sets with colossal speakers and everything else it might make sense but for the small ‘kitchen’ portable a no no?
Mr Harrison: We know that some manufacturers are looking at the possibility of introducing a converter, so it may well be that some of those do come to market. I just think for the context we need to be aware of what that converter will look like, and how appealing it may be. I think your assessment is correct.
Lord Maxton: There is a major difference; with your existing television all you need is a box.
Mr Harrison: Indeed.
Lord Maxton: A converter, basically. With radios that is not the case.
Mr Harrison: That is true.
Lord Maxton: You do not have to get rid of the televisions but you do have to get rid of the radios.
Mr Harrison: That is absolutely true. All I would say on TVs – you are absolutely right and I do not want to downplay the situation at all ……