The BBC is in a tight corner over DAB. It played a significant role in developing the technology in the 1980s, in experimenting with the earliest DAB transmissions in the UK in the 1990s, and in launching a portfolio of exclusively digital radio stations in the 2000s. During that long period, management teams within the Corporation have come and gone, yet the commitment to DAB as a future technology to replace FM/AM analogue radio has remained resolute. Until now.
Realism eventually rears its ugly head, even in the BBC. And a changing of the guard at the top of the BBC radio division offers a timely opportunity to re-evaluate a strategy for DAB that must have been first decided almost two decades earlier. Across the meeting room conference table, the question is eventually asked by the newcomer – exactly why did we decide to commit so much time and so much money to DAB in the first place? The answers are many and various and have inevitably become muddled over time. The one thing that is certain is that nobody in the BBC could have believed back in the 1980s that we would still be arguing in 2009 as to whether implementation of DAB radio technology is worth the effort. Back then, the bright digital radio future looked attainable within a matter of years, rather than decades. How wrong they were.
The longer you have peddled away, the harder it is to stop and get off the bicycle. Having thrown decades of resources at DAB technology, it would be almost impossible for the BBC to say ‘whoops, it didn’t quite work out so we’ll stop now’. The ire from DAB radio receiver purchasers, the backlash from Licence Fee payers, and the possibility of an incoming Tory government potentially using it as a stick with which to beat the Corporation for wasting money are all too horrible to consider.
So it was interesting to hear Tim Davie, Director of BBC Audio & Music since September 2008, on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Feedback’ programme, ingeniously beavering away at building a potential DAB exit strategy by invoking the will of the listener. As everyone working in BBC radio understands, its listeners are extremely resistant to change – almost however minor it is – and are not afraid to voice their opinions in the media at the slightest inconvenience. It was therefore appropriate that the ‘Feedback’ programme itself should be used to suggest that, if BBC listeners did not want to change over completely to DAB radio, then the BBC might decide it should not happen. Tim Davie said:
“We support the idea of switchover to digital. In terms of the switchover date, our position has always been that 2015 is ambitious. We think that the listeners need to be reassured that coverage levels, quality levels are at a point where switchover is realistic. So we are totally focused on delivering a position where we have hit certain thresholds, we know that we are in a place where switchover can happen without widespread disruption.”
[Are you going to make that judgement yourself or are you going to consult your listeners, many of whom dispute claims that are made by BBC spokesmen about the quality of reception and other things. Have you any plans to consult the audience about whether the time has come when switchover is possible?]
“Absolutely. We are talking to government now about how consultation should take place. From a BBC perspective, whether it be ‘Feedback’ or our constant audience research, the idea that we would move to formally engaging switchover without talking to listeners, getting listener satisfaction numbers, all the various things we do, would be not our plan in any way. We would be – we are – in dialogue now for the next six years.”
[But consultation implies the possibility of changing policy, and a lot of our listeners are sceptical ….]
“I think we are pretty committed to digital. Having said that, since I have arrived at the BBC, I certainly haven’t seen it as inevitable that we move to DAB. We do believe that, if radio doesn’t have a digital broadcast platform, it will be disadvantaged. I’m pretty convinced of that logic. What I’m not saying is that we have to move at 2015 if we haven’t delivered the thresholds – the right levels of listening to digital radio and to DAB. I don’t think we are on a course that is unstoppable to 2015 although we are pretty committed to a DAB switchover over time.” [emphasis added]
[Do you accept, at the moment, that DAB is often inferior to the existing [FM] sound?]
“DAB doesn’t have the coverage of FM at this point, and it’s really straightforward that the quality of your audio is related to how close you are to a transmitter. So, DAB currently has less transmitters. So those people who are further away from a transmitter aren’t getting as good sound. One of the things I’ve been very clear on in my position is – we will not even entertain a switchover unless the level of quality coverage is at 98%, which is in line with FM. So we, as the BBC have said, without the extra 600 transmitters that we would need to put in place, DAB switchover will not be a reality.”
In terms of BBC public pronouncements, these viewpoints on DAB are revolutionary. Under Tim’s predecessor, Jenny Abramsky, public dissention about the DAB future was simply not permitted. Last year, after I had been interviewed for an item on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme about the problems facing switchover to DAB, I never again heard a similar item about DAB on the show. Asked about the BBC’s commitment to DAB at conferences, BBC staffers would look sheepish and admit they had been told to make no comments.
What a difference a year makes. The last ten days have witnessed a blizzard of managed dissent on BBC radio. The ‘Today’ programme yesterday morning ran a substantial piece in the important pre-0830 slot that was very critical about the pitfalls of DAB reception in cars. This week’s ‘Media Show’ on Radio 4 devoted considerable time to the DAB issue. Last week’s ‘You & Yours’ on Radio 4 discussed listeners’ issues with DAB in gory detail. And the weekend’s ‘Feedback’ has opened up the possibility of BBC listener revolt on DAB translating into a policy change.
It feels almost as if a subtle marketing campaign is now going on from within the BBC as a response to the radio proposals in the Digital Britain report, softening up the outside world for the BBC to be able to downgrade/dump DAB at some future time. Of course, Tim is a clever marketer from the real world (Pepsi, P&G), whereas his predecessor was a (very successful) career BBC apparatchik. What we might be seeing is the opening salvo of an action folder marked ‘Possible DAB Downgrade/Exit Strategy’. The nuclear button might never have to be pressed, but it’s always useful to know where the exit doors are and how you are going to reach them, however little you might want to think about the DAB plane going down in flames.