Digital radio switchover: ‘you can’t move faster than the British public want you to move’

Feedback, BBC Radio 4, 31 July 2009 @ 1330

Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, interviewed by Roger Bolton and listeners:

[Do you think the principle of moving across to DAB is a good one?]

The BBC has been a strong supporter of digital radio, believing that it will actually offer an improved service, and …

[Improved in what way? The quality of the existing services will be made better? Or it allows you to provide a range of other services as well?]

I think both. But, of course, you only satisfy the first of those two tests when you’ve actually got the same sort of coverage [on DAB] that you’ve got on FM. And indeed, it’s important to say that the BBC has already picked up what commercial radio was going to do in terms of more investment to get to 90% of the population, and that will be achieved by 2011. But I think we’re going to go on to the question of ‘[FM] switch-off’ because actually that’s a different issue altogether ….

[Well, one of the key things of public service is universal access and, clearly, a lot of people are saying [that] until 2015 there won’t be one because, unlike a television set, perhaps we’ve got five or six radios around the house and a different radio in the car. And are you telling us we are going to have to buy five or six new radios and a new radio for the car in order to listen to something we might not want in the first place? That’s the argument.]

Well, let me underline that I’m not saying that. That’s actually in the government’s Green Paper – they propose a date of 2015. The Trust is very clear actually. Who comes first in this? Audiences and the people you pay the Licence Fee. It is an extraordinarily ambitious suggestion, as colleagues have referred to, that by 2015 we will all be ready for this. So you can’t move faster than the British public want you to move on any issue. So there’s no doubt that 2015 looks challenging.

[Chairman, are you prepared to say, on behalf of the listeners, to the government, whichever government is in power, if they are insistent in pushing this through and you believe that listeners will be significantly disadvantaged, are you prepared to say ‘no, the BBC can’t go along with this’?]

Well, as things stand at the moment, [in] the Digital Britain report, it seems that the BBC will find the money for this final stage, so there are serious discussions to be had about how it’s going to be funded, as well as whether actually 2015 is in any way a realistic timescale. Now, what I can say now, is that those have already formed part of our discussion with Ministers and will continue to form part of our discussions with Ministers.

[But, to repeat my question, are you prepared to say at some point, or countenance saying, to a Minister ‘no, we can’t go along with this because, in doing so, we will provide a disservice to our listeners’?]

Well, I think I’ve said as much I need to say today …..

[…. as a diplomatic chairman …..]

…. and also, you know, it’s very important that I don’t try and conduct any discussion I’m having with Ministers over the air.