Exclusive digital radio content: saying it and doing it are two different things

Everyone seems to agree – it is the availability of exclusive radio content on digital platforms that will drive consumer uptake of the hardware and digital listening.

In its Final Report, the Digital Radio Working Group had said in December 2008: “We must present a compelling [DAB] proposition for consumers not only through new content, but in building a whole new radio experience”.

In its Interim Report, Digital Britain had said in January 2009: “We will expect the radio industry to strengthen its [DAB] consumer proposition both in terms of new and innovative content and to take advantage of the technological developments that DAB can offer”.

In its report commissioned for RadioCentre, Ingenious Consulting had said in January 2009: “…. there is not as much DAB-only material as hoped, and very little that’s truly compelling – there’s no ‘must have’ content as with sports and movies on Sky [TV]”.

In its submission to Digital Britain, Ofcom had recommended in March 2009 “the creation of new commercial radio stations to create a consumer proposition analogous to Freeview: a wide range of popular and niche services, delivered digitally”.

The Digital Radio Working Group had spent a year meeting throughout 2008 and made its final recommendations in New Year 2009. Five months later, for the consumer turning on their DAB radio, the choices do not seem much different than they were then. While the industry continues to talk and talk and talk and talk endlessly about what should be done, the consumer proposition for digital radio seems to be disappearing down the tubes. The data from the Q1 2009 RAJAR audience survey demonstrates that.

For commercial radio, its digital stations are now capturing a lower proportion of its listening (4.5%) than a year ago (5.5%). Only 23% of listening to commercial radio via digital platforms is to exclusively digital content, compared to 30% a year ago. These results are not surprising, given the closure of many digital stations during 2008 (Core, Oneword, Life, TheJazz, Virgin Radio Groove, Yarr, Easy, Mojo and Islam Radio). In 2009 so far, Stafford’s Focal Radio and London’s Zee Radio have also closed.

For the BBC, the results are almost as disappointing. Its digital stations have recovered from a poor performance last quarter, but it appears that much of this improvement may have been due to heightened public interest in 6Music following the Ross/Brand affair. BBC digital stations now capture 2.9% of listening to the BBC, compared to 2.7% a year ago. Only 14% of listening to the BBC via digital platforms is to exclusively digital content, compared to 16% a year ago. For the BBC, it is beginning to look as if interest in its digital content is no longer growing as it had been during 2006 and 2007.

The summary graph (below) of hours listened to exclusively digital radio stations demonstrates the trend’s recent tendency to have levelled out, primarily as a result of commercial radio’s performance since 2007, but now also as a result of the BBC’s performance in recent quarters. Whilst commercial radio experienced significant station closures in 2007/8, the BBC’s portfolio has remained constant and is receiving as much cross-promotional marketing exposure as ever.

It is true that some new initiatives to provide exclusive digital radio content have happened in recent months:

* Colourful Radio launched on DAB in London on 2 March 2009.

* BFBS Radio is available nationally on the Digital One DAB multiplex from 20 April 2009. The station is government funded and aimed at British forces and their families. Unfortunately, listening to BFBS by the general public is likely to substitute for either commercial radio listening, reducing its ratings and revenues, or substitute for BBC radio, reducing its ratings. In the end, neither result will help commercial radio or the BBC make DAB a successful platform.

* NME Radio launched on DAB in London on 13 May 2009.

* Amazing Radio is available nationally on the Digital One DAB multiplex from 1 June 2009 on a six-month trial. Amazing Tunes is a UK website showcasing unsigned bands and musicians. This is a great idea for an on-demand internet service but I am not sure this content will prove so appealing as a broadcast station. The problem, as Xfm discovered with its own disastrous experiment two years ago, is that listening to a playlist chosen by listeners can be as entertaining as looking through a relative’s 300 holiday snaps. Out of several million people’s playlists on Last.fm, I find there are no more than a handful of other people’s selections that I can sit through. What works well online for Amazing is not necessarily going to work in the broadcast medium.

However, at the same time:

* Bauer Radio has relocated Q Radio from London to Birmingham, and Heat Radio from London to Manchester, effectively downgrading these digital stations and making redundancies

* Bauer Radio has removed five stations (Kerrang!, The Hits, Q, Heat, Smash Hits) from the Sky platform

These downgrades are significant because Bauer is easily the biggest player in digital radio, now that Global/GCap/Chrysalis has sold/closed all but two of its digital stations, both of which (The Arrow and Chill) survive only as music jukeboxes. Commercial radio’s commitment to exclusive digital content seems to be hanging by the barest of threads. If Lord Carter decides not to respond positively to the commercial radio industry’s demands for some kind of financial support in the Digital Britain report published in a fortnight, that thread is in imminent danger of snapping.

And so the talk about the need for exclusive digital radio content is likely to run and run and run. But, as long as it remains talk rather than significant action, consumers will remain unimpressed and the graphs above will continue their present trajectories. Nobody wants this to be the outcome, but nobody seems to be doing anything concrete to stop it happening.