Bauer Radio talks the DAB talk, but walks its ‘Magic’ brand off DAB

Bauer Radio is the second largest commercial radio group in the UK. It publicly supports the government’s plans for DAB radio switchover. Only this month, Paul Keenan, chief executive of Bauer Media, told The Guardian: “What part if any is the BBC going to play on the local DAB level?” He went on to ask:

“Will there be some form of seismic content innovation or intervention that really pulls listeners across [to DAB]?”

Keenan need have looked no further than his own company’s DAB radio strategy to discover a form of “seismic content intervention” that might well result in pushing existing listeners away from DAB, rather than pulling them in. While Keenan was talking to The Guardian, Bauer was busy pulling the plugs on its ‘Magic’ brand from the DAB platform in the following areas:
* Aberdeen
* Ayr
* Birmingham
* Bradford & Huddersfield
* Cambridge
* Dundee & Perth
* Edinburgh
* Glasgow
* Kent
* Northern Ireland
* Norwich
* Peterborough
* Stoke
* Sussex Coast
* Swansea.

If you were a loyal listener to Magic in one of these areas, your favourite station simply disappeared from the DAB menu in January 2011 (Magic had 1 million out-of-analogue-area listeners per week, contributing 24% of the brand’s total hours listened, according to RAJAR). This change is surprising given that, as recently as May 2008, Bauer Radio decided to add its Magic brand to the DAB platform in the following areas:
* Aberdeen
* Ayr
* Birmingham
* Bradford & Huddersfield
* Cambridge
* Dundee & Perth
* Edinburgh
* Glasgow
* Kent
* Northern Ireland
* Norwich
* Peterborough
* Stoke
* Sussex Coast
* Swansea.

In 2008, in most of these areas, Magic had replaced another Bauer brand, ‘Kiss’, which could not have pleased existing Kiss listeners. Now, in 2011, it is the Kiss brand that is replacing the Magic brand in all but three of these areas. Musical chairs, anyone?

In 2009, Bauer had said that it was investing in the “right long-term platforms for the right stations at the right time.” So, in 2008, Kiss was right for DAB whereas, in 2011, now Magic is right?

It is hard to believe that such precipitous content changes inspire consumer confidence in the DAB platform. But, sadly, the DAB platform has never really been about ‘radio’ and ‘listeners’. Loyalty to DAB radio? What’s that? For commercial radio, its pursuit of the DAB platform had been about the exercise of power, the expectation of profit and the promise of automatic renewals for the industry’s most valuable analogue radio licences.

It was also about a much coveted transfer of the power to determine which stations are broadcast to a cartel of commercial DAB multiplex owners, and away from the regulator. This is why station changes on DAB, such as Bauer’s (Kiss to Magic to Kiss) can be executed without a public consultation or impact assessment.* The regulator merely nods its head and makes a quick note in a file. So what role does Ofcom play in ensuring that the DAB radio platform “furthers the interests of citizens and of consumers” as mandated by law? The answer is: absolutely none. We might as well have a scarecrow in charge of digital radio at Ofcom.

The reason that Bauer Radio (with a 25% listening share of commercial radio) made these latest changes to DAB is that it is locked in a war with arch rival Global Radio (38%). Neither company has a track record of developing its own successful radio stations from the ground up. Both companies are piled high with acquisitions and mergers of other radio businesses. As a result, the two compete with each other by moving their radio pieces around the chess board, rather than by innovation.

In January 2011, Global Radio extended its ‘Capital’ brand outside London, replacing the former ‘Galaxy’ brand and some local FM stations. Global describes the brand:

“Capital’s target audience of 15-34 year olds are big fans of popular music, they are media savvy and are on trend.”

To compete, Bauer Radio extended its Kiss brand to every available local DAB multiplex (replacing Magic). Bauer describes the brand:

“Kiss evolves around ever changing lifestyles and trends of the UK’s young 15-34 market … Every part of their day revolves around music.”

If, like me, you think that these two brands sound almost identical, understand that this phenomenon is the outcome of long understood business practice in the radio sector. In 1951, American economist Peter Steiner wrote:

“If, as is often suspected, [radio] broadcasters exaggerate the homogeneity of audiences and their preferences for certain program stereotypes, the tendencies towards [programme] duplication will be increased. … The problem, of course, is that a series of competing firms, each striving to maximize its number of listeners, will fail to achieve either the industry or the social good. Here, then, competition is providing a less than desirable result.”

In the UK, this is precisely why we have a regulator for radio broadcasting – to ensure that consumers benefit from a wider choice of content than a free market would provide. However, with its hands tied in DAB policy by the Broadcasting Act 1996, and its laissez-faire ‘do nothing until someone complains about it’ strategy, Ofcom has had no more impact on the DAB station menu than having no regulator at all.

DAB is the Wild West of radio where anything can, and often does, happen. Seemingly, it often happens with little concern for listeners or for those who paid good money for a DAB receiver. Without a sheriff in sight, or a cavalry about to ride over the horizon, the danger is that the public might come to view DAB radio as nothing more than a bunch of cowboys locked in a private war of one-upmanship.

Yet the radio industry wonders why the DAB platform is not stimulating more listening or more receiver sales.

[*Footnote: There was an Ofcom consultation in November 2010 about a change of format for the Kiss brand, but this did not touch upon Magic being dropped from DAB. Magic continues to be simulcast on DAB in nine areas where it is already available on FM or AM, as a contractual condition of its automatic analogue licence renewals.]

Roll up! Roll up! Enjoy the radio industry pantomime: ‘DAB Radio’

The Ministerial Group for the government’s Digital Radio Action Plan will meet tomorrow. That meeting has all the hallmarks of a radio industry seasonal pantomime, with participants dressed up in their gladrags to play the appropriate parts. A select audience has been hand picked, though the ending of the story has still to be written.

Pantomime often brings out a sense of déjà vu, of having seen the same thing during previous Christmases. This winter’s DAB radio marketing campaign has that feeling. The 2010 slogan is:

“There’s a digital radio for everyone this Christmas”

While the UK radio industry’s Christmas campaign for 2009 had been:

“Struggling to think of the perfect gift for Christmas? There’s a digital radio for everyone …”

Pantomime often stages a sleight of hand, where you are not quite sure if what you saw was real or just some cheap trick. This winter’s DAB radio marketing campaign has that feeling. On 18 November 2010, the press story was:

“The commercial radio campaign [for DAB], which breaks on November 22, covers Global [Radio], Bauer [Radio], Guardian Media Group [Radio], Absolute [Radio], UTV [Radio] and many local commercial stations.”

But, within days, that story had changed so that the campaign:

“… will run across major commercial groups” and “commercial radio stations including Absolute, UTV, Orion.”

What happened to Global Radio, Bauer Radio and Guardian Media Group Radio? Well, every pantomime has its jesters who do their best to spoil the rest of the cast’s fun. This winter’s DAB radio marketing campaign has that feeling. Two days after the Christmas DAB campaign had started, The Telegraph broke the story that:

“Leading commercial radio groups [Global Radio, Guardian Media Group] have refused to promote DAB radio …”

Every pantomime has its bully, who picks on people mercilessly and prevents them from going to the ball. This winter’s DAB shenanigans have that feeling. Commercial radio trade body RadioCentre offered its story as to why its members, Global Radio and Guardian Media Group, had pulled out of the marketing campaign:

“Commercial radio operators are currently in discussions with government about the funding of local DAB coverage. Until those discussions are resolved, we understand that some stations felt it would be inappropriate to run the digital radio Christmas campaign.”

Er, isn’t that blackmail rather than negotiation? Is it not transparent that, if you really cared about making DAB radio a success, you would think twice about cutting off your nose to spite your face by deliberately NOT promoting the very DAB platform that you have been attempting to palm off on the public for the last decade? In essence, you are trying to convince consumers that you care so much about your backward 10-year old offspring that you intend to starve it to death. In pantomime, such a tragedy might give the audience a laugh. In reality, it would be time for Social Services to intervene. It cannot be good PR for the commercial radio industry to be so convincingly playing the part of The Wicked Witch of The West.

RadioCentre’s lack of parenting skills has been evident in recent weeks:
* Its children had refused to attend the government’s Digital Radio Stakeholders Group meeting on 1 November [see my earlier blog];
* Last Friday, its children refused to participate in a Westminster conference on ‘the future of UK digital radio’ organised for 7 December, resulting in the event’s postponement until April 2011.

And here is what the school notes said to explain these absences:
* “Following the announcement of the [BBC Licence Fee] settlement, RadioCentre has been in discussions with Government about the funding of local DAB coverage. As these discussions are ongoing, RadioCentre members felt it would be inappropriate to attend the Digital Radio Stakeholder meeting.” [Campaign];
* “Sensitivity of current negotiations on the future of digital radio” for the conference pull-out.

The evident paradox in this radio pantomime is that:
* The radio industry is spending £55m between now and 2015 to try and convince the public that DAB radio is the best thing since the cat’s whisker [see my earlier blog];
* The radio industry big boys will not stand up in front of other stakeholders in the media sector, or in front of a conference, and explain what, why or how they are pursuing (or not really pursuing at all) the government’s DAB dreams;
* Commercial radio has been demanding for several years that the BBC pays for fixing the deficiencies in commercial radio’s own DAB local transmission system. (Yes, this is the same BBC that RadioCentre has lambasted for years about its interference in commercial activities. Yes, these are the same commercial radio big boys who invested heavily in DAB in the 1990s in the hope of making profits for their shareholders.)

Pantomime is pure theatre, and tomorrow’s meeting will doubtless provide much entertainment for all involved. The only unresolved issue is how it will all end. Will the government Minister play the part of Scrooge, insisting that the commercial radio big boys should work longer hours for their living and must pay for improvements to their DAB system themselves? Or will the government play the wicked stepmother, compromising the BBC’s independence by forcing it to pay for an expensive sticky plaster to fix a commercial media sector DAB problem that has been all of its own making?

My feeling is that, in these austere times, it would be opening up another big black hole for public money to now finance such massive deficiency issues with DAB radio that could and should have been anticipated and fixed a decade ago. It is simply too expensive to commit unknown quantities of cash to transform the ugly DAB frog into a handsome prince who might never be fit enough to rival FM radio. Anyway, the BBC has already made a public commitment to not spend any more Licence Fee money on yet another ‘makeover’ show. In which case, our Cinderella DAB may not be going to the ball.

Or is all of the above just a pantomime within a farce? Is all this play-acting merely intended to allow commercial radio to walk away from DAB altogether, pointing the finger of blame elsewhere (and smug that the Classic FM automatic licence renewal is nearly almost within its grasp)?