DAB radio switchover: the view from the government bunker

The government’s second stakeholder consultation on DAB radio switchover happened this afternoon. It was held in what felt like an underground government bunker in Victoria. No windows, long corridors, and lots of seemingly identical numbered rooms hidden by massive doors that had no viewing windows. When I tried to go up a staircase to ground level, a man appeared from nowhere and told me not to.

Even if the bomb had dropped, down there, you might not have known it. The cityscape outside could have transformed into a wasteland but, down there, you can be certain that our civil servants would continue planning digital radio switchover regardless, even if the precise date had to be postponed until the contamination had receded. I imagine that the government staff working there hardly need to go out, even at lunchtime, because a little lady with a trolley probably comes around with salmon sandwiches.

In this cosseted environment, it is easier to understand how you might spend your days (or months or years) of servitude, devising schemes that have so little relevance to the real world above your bunker office. Perhaps this is why the afternoon was filled with PowerPoint presentations that all looked great, slides that had lots of action words, and monologues from grey men that were filled with the current jargon. It was a perfectly unreal world.

What the afternoon lacked was realism. Occasionally I had to pinch myself to make sure that this was not a Lemsip-induced slumber. It wasn’t. However, I did witness the Civil Service suggest that asking consumers their opinion about DAB radio switchover would be a good idea, as if it was a novel thought that had just come to them. Not withstanding that the government has been pursuing the notion of the DAB platform since the 1980s but, in all those decades, somehow omitted the ‘consumer’ (or ‘listener’) from its plans.

The following quotes came from our civil servants this very afternoon. I wrote them down. Reading them now, these lines could have been extracted from the script of a lost episode of ‘Yes Minister’ in which the cast cleverly parody government plans for digital radio switchover. Sadly, they did not. This is what stakeholders were told today (amongst many other things):

“We genuinely have seen more progress [on digital radio switchover] in the last eighteen months than we have in the last six or seven years I’ve worked on this issue. But, as far as the consumer is concerned, we’ve never certainly in any way advocated or used 2015 [switchover date] as a ‘stick.’ It’s always been the industry target. And, certainly, when this government came in, it was adamant and clear that the consumer would make the case for switchover by purchasing habits, by the percentage of listening [on digital platforms], the way it absorbs and consumes radio. Now, will I, at this point, say that there has been a cross-pollination of those two things? Has the 2015 [date], which was an industry date, started to creep into the public consensus and been used by the media as a scare tactic? Yes, of course it has. And do we, as an industry, need to look at that? Yes, I think we do. I would say that I don’t think anyone – I think very few people – in this room would welcome the government standing up tomorrow and saying that the [switchover] date is the 31st December 2015. And I don’t think we have any answers to the questions that we need to have the answers to before any such decision can be made, and whether the consumer genuinely believes that this is something they want to do.”

“I don’t think we know what listeners want. I think part of this [Digital Radio] Action Plan process is absolutely understanding the value people put on various parameters of radio – what they want, how they want to consume it. I think that part of understanding this decision is understanding the listener better. And I think, whilst we all have our own views on that, I don’t think there’s enough evidence based [data] for us to make those assumptions about what listeners want.”

“I don’t think the government has never ever said ‘digital radio switchover will happen in 2015’ but we think we need to go away and look at the messaging around the cross-pollination. The one thing I would say is: 2013 and 2015 is used by both sides of people in the debate, those who like to frighten people into the fear of losing their analogue services, and those who like to sell digital radios. For all of us who believe that certainty and clarity and the consumer is important, I think we all need to look at how we use the threat of 2013 and 2015 and have some consistency ourselves about how we talk to the consumer about it.”

Threat? Are radio listeners so malleable that they must be viewed by government like cattle to be herded to slaughter? Maybe I imagined mistakenly that government was FOR the people. Anyway, I suppose we should be grateful at all that the ‘consumer’ has suddenly been pushed centre stage in the long running DAB drama, even it is so late in the show [see my 2009 blog and 2010 blog where I predicted it would be ideal for bureaucrats to eventually blame DAB’s failure on the consumer rather than themselves].

Is there any difference between the government forcing the population to buy a DAB radio just to listen to ‘The Archers’, and Sky persuading them to buy ‘Sky Atlantic’ to watch their favourite HBO shows that used to be free? Is the government’s DAB switchover drive really a policy for public regulation, or simply ‘capitalist radio’ (© LBC radio poster campaign in 1989)?

This afternoon, while DAB was being discussed in the government bunker, could anyone have actually achieved satisfactory DAB radio reception down there? I think not. Are those government people listening to DAB in their cubicles? They can design as many PowerPoint presentations as they want but, at the end of the day, if DAB radio don’t work properly now, then it don’t work for the consumer.

Q: Who is the government commissioning to produce an objective report on the costs & benefits of DAB radio switchover? A: The government

For two decades, the British government has pursued a policy to replace analogue radio broadcasting with DAB digital radio broadcasting. Why? The real reasons might as well be lost in the mists of time (or maybe were never made public). However, this has not stopped the government and its civil servants continuing to pursue the same digital radio switchover policy since the 1980s, despite overwhelming evidence that the surrounding media landscape has changed beyond recognition in the interim.

Because the government policy to replace AM and FM radio with DAB radio had never been decided on the basis of consumer demand, commercial necessity or global standards, it was unnecessary for officials to produce a document that justified it logically. When a government decides that a particular policy is necessary, it can make legislative change happen without recourse to the consumer market outside of Parliament or the Ministries. Politics and the real world do not inhabit the same space.

In the case of DAB radio switchover, the government made no effort to produce a cost/benefit analysis until 2008, when PricewaterhouseCoopers [PWC] was commissioned by Ofcom. However, the resulting 91-page report did not provide the solid, positive argument for DAB radio switchover that the government had desired. So the PWC report was hidden from the public for a year, eventually to be released and trivialised by civil servants [see my blog entry Feb 2010].


In contrast to the government’s unbridled enthusiasm for DAB, the PWC report felt that “the [radio] industry and consumers may fail to see the benefits of digital radio over the longer term.” It concluded that “there are relatively few up-sides to the estimates and several significant downside risks” from its cost/benefit analysis of DAB radio switchover [see my
blog entry Jul 2010].

The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, in a report on digital radio switchover in March 2010, expressed its dissatisfaction with the government’s attempt to bury the evidence from this PWC report:

“We strongly regret that the cost benefit analysis carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers was not published at the time it was delivered to Ofcom and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport in February 2009.”

The government responded that “technical difficulties” had prevented the report’s publication for nearly a year. As excuses go, it would probably have been better for the government not to have responded at all.

After this embarrassing debacle over the PWC report, the government must have wanted to commission a further report that would conclude what PWC had not: that DAB radio switchover is a wonderful thing and that there are sensible economic arguments to justify forcing it upon the British public.

In June 2009, the government’s Digital Britain report promised: “We will conduct a full Impact Assessment, including a Cost/Benefit Analysis of Digital Radio Upgrade.”

In January 2010, Ofcom’s Peter Davies offered
evidence to the House of Lords Communications Committee that another report would be done:

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: “What about your own impact assessment?”

Mr Davies: “We haven’t done an impact assessment yet.”

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: “But you have been asked to – correct?”

Mr Davies: “At some point in the future. I think the Digital Britain report said that we would be asked to do one, but we haven’t been asked to do one yet. Obviously we would need to do that and we would need a much fuller cost-benefit analysis before any final decision was taken.”

In June 2010, the government stated:

“We agree that a full impact assessment is an essential part of informing the Government’s decision on whether and when to move from a primarily analogue to a digital radio landscape. Work has already begun to collect the evidence needed to support an impact assessment and analysis should begin shortly.” [emphasis added]

Here we are now, in January 2011, and there remains no sign of the long promised cost/benefit analysis of DAB radio switchover, despite the new government continuing to pursue the digital radio switchover policy of the previous government. However, in December 2010, a document from the Department for Culture Media & Sport [DCMS] (marked “UNCLASSIFIED”) disclosed:

“The Government launched a joint Government and industry Digital Radio Action Plan on 8 July 2010. This Action Plan sets out the process for providing ministers with the information and assurances necessary to make a decision on whether and how to proceed with a Digital Radio Switchover. … Fundamental to the information provided to Government as part of the Action Plan will be a comprehensive Cost Benefit Analysis on the proposals for a digital switchover. … Government is conducting the modelling of the costs and benefits in-house. This research will provide robust evidence of potential costs and benefits to consumers of digital switchover to be incorporated into the Government’s Cost Benefit Analysis.”

So the government has confirmed that the government decision on digital radio switchover will be informed by a government cost/benefit analysis of digital radio switchover that utilises government modelling of the costs and benefits. It appears that, in the case of DAB radio switchover, the government has decided to be judge, jury and executioner too. This smacks more of ‘big brother’ than of the Conservatives’ much touted ‘big society.’

The unclassified DCMS document hinted that the earlier PWC report had not produced the desired results:

“A similar piece of work was carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2008 to inform the work of the Digital Radio Working Group into the future of digital radio and the potential for switchover. That Cost Benefit Analysis raised a number of caveats, chief among which were the gaps in research into consumer behaviour and willingness to pay. Although the radio ecology has changed since that Cost Benefit Analysis was produced, the document provides useful insights and the recommendations made by PricewaterhouseCoopers on further research remain valid.”

So what will be in the government’s new cost/benefit analysis report? The latest version of the government’s Digital Radio Action Plan explained:

1.4 IMPACT ASSESSMENT
Carry-out an impact assessment of the options and timings of the Radio Switchover. This will include, but not limited to, the following:
*the costs and benefits of any interventions to enable the switching the migration of all national and large local radio stations to DAB and alternative uses for the analogue spectrum vacated after the Radio Switchover;
* the rural impact of implementing the Digital Radio Switchover;
* Impact on energy consumption of a Switchover; and
* Environmental impact of analogue receiver disposal following Switchover.”

Interesting to see that neither the ‘consumer’ nor the ‘listener’ are mentioned here. For this workstream, the “first report to Ministers” is not scheduled until Q4 2011. It is evident that there is little urgency to execute this new cost/benefit analysis or for it to make a significant contribution at this juncture to any government re-evaluation as to whether to proceed with DAB radio switchover. If a cost/benefit analysis were a genuine priority, why was:
* the PWC report buried in February 2009 for a year;
* a new cost/benefit analysis promised by Digital Britain in June 2009 but not prioritised subsequently;
* the government saying in June 2010 that “work should begin shortly” on the analysis;
* a “first report” of this work now not scheduled to be presented until Q4 2011?

If the government’s DAB radio switchover policy were but a minor issue within the DCMS Ministry, all this deceit, delay and manipulation might be considered trivial. It is not. In December 2010, Minister Ed Vaizey admitted that he receives more correspondence from angry consumers about DAB radio than about any other issue within his portfolio.

So why are we witnessing such a continued lack of government transparency on the DAB radio switchover issue, despite prime minister David Cameron’s commitment in November 2010 to make the UK “the most open and transparent government in the world”?

The Digital Radio Stakeholders Group: another ‘faux consultation’

Did you hear about the inaugural Digital Radio Stakeholders Group meeting held on 1 November 2010 at the government’s DCMS [Department for Culture, Media & Sport] office? Probably not, unless you were one of the couple of dozen people who were in attendance. Otherwise, you were in the majority who were unaware of the event. There was no public pre-announcement of this meeting. Afterwards, there was only one article about it in the media trade press. Google returns ‘no results’ from an internet search for ‘Digital Radio Stakeholders Group’, even though this is the title writ across the top of the agenda circulated for the event.

You have to look in the new government’s Digital Radio Action Plan, published in July 2010, to discover:

“The Government will chair a Stakeholder Group which will be open to a wide range on industry and related stakeholders. The principle purpose of this Group will be to inform external stakeholders of progress against the Action Plan and gather views on emerging findings. We expect that the Group will meet quarterly.”

The government’s project management plan anticipated that, by Q2 2010, it would be able to:

“secure commitment from the Government Digital Radio Group and the Stakeholders Groups to the Action Plan.” [Task 5.1]

This pre-determined outcome was justified on the grounds that:

“Successful implementation of the Digital Radio Switchover programme will only be achieved through close Government-Industry co-operation. […] This will include commissioning and delivery of reports, reviewing progress against key milestones and disseminating information to key stakeholders.”

So, essentially, the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group seems to be an almost non-existent forum that has only been convened to secure some kind of external ‘rubber stamp’ for the government’s proposals on DAB radio. It will allow the government, when challenged as to the democratic basis of its DAB radio policy, to assert confidently: “We convened a stakeholders group and it endorsed our proposals.”

This is cynical government at its worst. A ‘faux consultation’ that pretends to have asked a group of somebodies to endorse a government policy for which no mandate has ever been given by the electorate. It is similar to the manipulation practised by Ofcom in its radio policymaking (viz. Ofcom’s recent decision to permit Smooth Radio to dump its commitment to broadcast 45 hours per week of jazz music, after having acknowledged that 13 of the 15 responses submitted to its public consultation were opposed to this loss of jazz).

According to a government document, the Terms of Reference for the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group are as follows:

“Purpose:
To enable a wide range of organisations to contribute to the process of delivering the Digital Radio Action Plan.

Objectives:
* To inform all stakeholders of progress with the Action Plan;
* To seek the views of stakeholders on future progress of the Action Plan;
* To provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to share news, views and concerns relevant to the Digital Radio Action Plan.

Membership:
Any organisation with a valid interest in the objectives of the Digital Radio Action Plan may be a member. Members will include consumer representative bodies, broadcasters, manufacturers, retailers, vehicle manufacturers, transmission network operators, content providers. The Group will be chaired by BIS in the first instance, though in principle the Chair could be any person acceptable to the majority of stakeholders and able to represent the collective views of the stakeholders to the Steering Board.

Mode of operation:
The Digital Radio Stakeholders Group will meet quarterly.
The Chair will report the views of the stakeholders, as expressed through the meetings of the Stakeholders Group, to the Steering Board.”

So what happened at the first meeting? Very little, according to some of those who were present. It was a game of two halves. In the first half, the bureaucrats put their case. From the government, Jane Humphreys, head of digital broadcasting & content policy, BIS [Department for Business Innovation & Skills]; John Mottram, head of radio & media markets, DCMS; and Jonny Martin, digital radio programme director, BIS/DCMS. From Digital Radio UK, Ford Ennals, chief executive; Jane Ostler, communications director; and Laurence Harrison, technology & market development director. Then, in the second half, representatives from Age UK, the Consumer Expert Group, Voice of the Listener & Viewer and W4B raised issues on behalf of the consumer.

At the end of it, I guess the government-appointed chairman could return to her government office, tick the box on the government wall planner that says ‘stakeholder commitment’ and be pleased that this ‘rubber stamp’ had cost the taxpayer only an afternoon’s salary plus some tea and biscuits for the ‘stakeholders’. Well worth it!

More interesting than noting those who attended is identifying who was not there:
* No presentation by Ofcom, whose longstanding ‘Future of Radio’ policy has forced the DAB platform upon the public for almost the last decade;
* Nobody from the largest commercial radio owners – Global Radio, Bauer Radio and Guardian Media Group – that have considerable investments in DAB multiplex licences.

After the meeting, under the headline ‘RadioCentre quits digital radio meeting’, Campaign reported:

“RadioCentre, the commercial radio trade body, has walked out of discussions over the future of digital radio after the BBC licence-fee settlement did not commit BBC funds to roll out DAB radio. The body refused to attend a [Digital Radio Stakeholders] meeting on 1 November after the [BBC Licence Fee] settlement, published last week, included provision only for [BBC] national DAB [upgrade].” [I noted this development in my blog last month]

Whatever RadioCentre’s reason for non-attendance (and the story in Campaign has not been refuted), this kind of stance is a disgrace. Raising two fingers to the people you are supposed to be persuading of your DAB policy is not a clever PR strategy for the commercial radio industry. But I am not surprised. All the organisations pushing for DAB radio have increasingly adopted a ‘bunker’ mentality that precludes any direct contact with the public. What we appear to have now is:
* Ofcom refusing to engage in public discussion about its DAB ‘Future of Radio’ policy;
* The government organising a Stakeholder Group to rubber stamp its unrealistic, dictatorial policy on DAB radio;
* Digital Radio UK refusing to engage in public explanation of its DAB campaign work, as illustrated by its non-existent web site;
* RadioCentre and its members now refusing to attend a meeting to explain just how/why DAB is still being pursued.

At the same time, the public – the consumers, the 46,762,000 adults who spend 22.6 hours per week listening to radio – have been omitted altogether from these manoeuvrings that are still focused upon trying desperately to force them to purchase DAB radio receivers. The public had been omitted from the proposals at the very beginning of DAB more than a decade ago, which is precisely why it failed, and they are still being omitted today.

This is not the first time that government ‘stakeholder’ meetings about DAB radio have been organised simply to tick a box. As part of the previous government’s attempts to solve the DAB problem, in 2008 it convened a Digital Radio Working Group with two similar ‘stakeholder meetings’ held at DCMS. I attended and felt they existed purely for the bureaucrats to report back to their superiors that they had done something to ‘disseminate’ their policies. DCMS’ own write-up of the first meeting recounted bluntly:

“A stakeholders meeting was held on 10 March and offered opportunities for a wide range of views to be heard.”

A place where “views” were merely “heard”. The ineffectiveness of these earlier stakeholder meetings is demonstrated by re-visiting the agenda for the first of them. The issues tabled for discussion nearly three years ago (“How to make digital radio the predominant platform for listening to radio in the UK? What are the barriers to this? How can these barriers be overcome?”) still remained the same at this month’s meeting. Worse, none of the DAB technical problems identified then have been solved in the interim. And guess what? All trace of these 2008 meetings ever having happened has been erased from the DCMS website (in 2008, I had had to write to DCMS to get them to add the meeting details to their website).

The next meeting of the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group will be held on 3 February 2011 at DCMS/BSI, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET. If you belong to any kind of community group or organisation (even if it is your neighbourhood watch) whose members are likely to be impacted by the government’s policy on digital radio switchover, I suggest you write to Jane Humphreys (e-mail to [first name][dot][second name]@bis.gsi.gov.uk) and ask for an invitation to this next meeting.

‘Stakeholder’ radio listeners should turn up to the February meeting and shout: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!” … or maybe the DAB plug will already have been pulled by then.

Digital Radio Upgrade? More like Digital Radio Groundhog Day

It was the Radio Festival, the industry’s annual get together. Everyone wanted to talk about how wonderful the DAB future of radio would be. But nobody wanted to explain how ‘Digital Radio Upgrade’, the government policy to make the UK’s DAB transmission system fit for purpose, will be paid for. It is the radio sector’s favourite parlour game: pass the DAB Upgrade parcel.

The first player is the BBC:

Q: “Very briefly, a one-word answer. Do you have any money set aside now to spend on [Digital Radio Upgrade]?”

Tim Davie, director of BBC Audio & Music: “No.”

Second is commercial radio:

Q: “Does commercial radio have any money to spend on [Digital Radio Upgrade]? […] What’s your guess?”

Phil Riley, chief executive of Orion Media: “‘No’ is the answer at the moment.”

Third are the politicians:

Jeremy Hunt MP: “I think the most important thing is not something the government can do, but something the industry can do …”

But hold on. This dialogue came from the Radio Festival in 2009…. We need to fast forward one year.

It was the Radio Festival, the industry’s annual get together. Everyone wanted to talk about how wonderful the DAB future of radio would be. But nobody wanted to explain how ‘Digital Radio Upgrade’, the government policy to make the UK’s DAB transmission system fit for purpose, will be paid for. It is still the radio sector’s favourite parlour game: pass the DAB Upgrade parcel.

The first player is the BBC:

“It remains to be seen who will pick up the £100m tab [for Digital Radio Upgrade], with [Tim] Davie saying he did not have the necessary funds.” [from The Guardian]

Second is commercial radio:

“[Global Group chief executive Ashley] Tabor said the commercial [radio] sector will only pay for the rollout of those local DAB multiplexes that are commercially viable.” [from The Guardian]

Third are the politicians:

Ed Vaizey, Minister for culture, communications & creative industries: “The BBC has to work with me on coverage. I am talking to the BBC and I hope to accelerate the pace of digital radio coverage.”

Déjà vu, anyone? Delegates paid £899 to witness this repeat performance. I have already placed my bet on precisely the same sentiments being made at the Radio Festival in 2011, though the odds offered by the bookie were not at all good. On the coach home from the Festival, everyone must have joined in the usual radio industry singsong:

“When do we want digital radio switchover? Now!
Who do we want to pay for DAB Upgrade?
Somebody else!”

And while we are on the topic of déjà vu, I am reminded of an analyst report about DAB from June 2008, in which I had written:

“The digital switchover of radio is so far into the future as to be intangible.”

I was swiftly rebuked for this viewpoint in an e-mail from a radio sector CEO.

Now fast forward to the 2010 Radio Festival. Andrew Harrison, chief executive of commercial radio trade body Radio Centre, said:

“There is no doubt if [digital take-up] carries on at its current projectory we will never get there.” [sic]

The current RadioCentre strategy remains inexplicably that the BBC should pay not only for improvements to the BBC’s DAB radio transmitters, but also for the commercial radio sector’s (see my earlier blogs here and here). The nails seem to have been hammered firmly into that coffin by this week’s speed-axing session between the government and the BBC.

Although subsequent press reports have implied that the cost of the (previous) government’s Digital Radio Upgrade policy will now be underwritten wholly by the BBC, the available evidence says otherwise. The resulting four-page letter from the government to the BBC Trust set out in detail all the new items to which the BBC’s funds will have to be applied in future. The World Service? Yes. BBC Monitoring? Yes. S4C TV? Yes. Local television? Yes. DAB radio? No….

Oh, hold on. In the penultimate paragraph on the final page there is a single sentence about DAB penned by Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt:

“I also welcome the BBC’s plans to enhance its national DAB coverage in the period of this agreement, and to match its national FM coverage as a switchover date draws near.”

But while the rest of the letter is littered with the oft repeated phrase “The BBC will …”, this solitary mention of DAB radio is couched only in terms of “BBC plans” without a hint of compulsion. DAB is an obvious afterthought here and, much to RadioCentre’s chagrin, it refers only to the BBC improving its own DAB transmitter coverage and not to improving commercial radio’s.

In the coming months, when the inevitable axe falls sharply across BBC budgets as a result of this week’s gobsmacking (© Ray Snoddy) agreement between the BBC and the government, DAB radio must be an obvious short straw. Lose BBC local radio, or lose DAB? BBC local/regional radio accounts for 15% of BBC radio listening. BBC digital radio stations account for 4%. Here comes the chopper ….

The exit strategy for DAB radio switchover: the Consumer Expert Group addresses Vaizey’s “big if”

When you are looking for an exit route from a product you have been developing for nearly two decades, and which has consumed hundreds of millions of pounds, you need to find a damn good reason that will deflect the blame elsewhere. You need a report, an organisation or some bona fide research that screams out ‘no’ at the highest volume. Then your response can be: “I would be a fool to ignore the warning signs voiced by X” when what you are really saying is: “Blame them, not me! It’s them that made me do it.”

DAB radio and digital radio switchover presently seem to be at this point. But there is a big problem for a radio industry that is belatedly trying to find a way ‘out’. Almost all previous reports produced by the government, the regulator, the radio industry, the electronics industry, the working groups, Digital Britain and the car manufacturers have been overwhelmingly positive about DAB and have painted an amazingly rosy future. There has been almost nothing published about DAB by agencies of the state that has said plainly: “Stop this crazy plan.”

So whose fault can it be that DAB radio and digital switchover has not worked? Given the sheer number of agencies that have been so gung-ho for so long about DAB, the fickle finger of fate naturally had to point elsewhere and so it landed upon ‘the consumer’. It becomes much easier to decide that the general public is the reason for a masterplan’s lack of success when everybody sat around the government’s conference table is feeling a little guilty about their shared role in a wasted £1bn investment.

A change of regime is always a useful point at which to invoke such a change. In July 2009, less than a year into his first radio job, the BBC’s top radio manager Tim Davie explained that digital radio switchover would be determined by listeners, not by the BBC:

“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. … 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.”

The following month, BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons reinforced this notion:

“Who comes first in this? Audiences and the people who 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.”

The change of government then provided an opportunity for the Department for Culture, Media & Sport [DCMS] to similarly invoke the will of the people in determining digital radio switchover. In July 2010, culture minister Ed Vaizey said:

“If, and it is a big if, the consumer is ready, we will support a 2015 switchover date. But, as I have already said, it is the consumer, through their listening habits and purchasing decisions, who will ultimately determine the case for switchover.” [emphasis added]

For both the BBC and the government, the problem with belatedly putting the consumer at the centre of digital radio switchover is that almost no organisation, over the course of a decade of DAB, has done any significant consumer research about DAB. Why? Because the implementation of DAB radio in the UK had always been a top-down policy initiative by civil servants, regulators, trade organisations and commercial opportunists, without ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ having ever been consulted.

There was one notable exception. When the government’s Digital Radio Working Group considered the issue of DAB radio switchover during 2007/8, a sub-committee named the Consumer Impact Group had prepared a report. However, this report was not made public until almost a year after the Working Group had been wound up. The report had been highly critical that consumers’ viewpoints were not being considered:

“The group is concerned that the case for digital [radio] migration has not been made clearly enough from the point of view of the consumer. While it is clear what the rationale is for the radio industry, the group would like to see a compelling argument as to why digital migration is desirable for consumers and what its benefits would be for consumers.”

But that was then, this is now. Then, digital radio was considered by the previous government to be a real possibility, and that is why dissent from consumer groups was buried. Now, that same consumer dissent could provide the perfect nail on which to hang any number of DAB exit strategies. A new report outlining the massive consumer challenge of digital radio switchover would be a perfect ‘get out of jail free’ card for many long-term DAB stakeholders.

So today, a new report has been published by the government’s Consumer Expert Group [CEG] which asks the pertinent question ‘Digital radio switchover: what is in it for consumers?’ Moreover, rather than it being embarrassedly added to the depths of the DCMS web site a year later, today’s report was circulated to the press and stakeholders in advance of publication. Its introduction states:

“This report was not requested by Government but the CEG have taken the initiative to attain a thorough understanding of the consumer issues surrounding digital radio and bring them to the Government’s attention as preliminary policy decisions are made.”

In other words, this new report just happens to directly address the “big if” cited in the culture minister’s speech about digital radio switchover nine weeks earlier. If its publication were not startling enough, its conclusions are damning in almost every respect about the lack of progress made to date with digital radio switchover. But, before that, the report is quick to invoke the role of consumers in what it admits is “new” government policy:

“Setting a date, or a firm commitment to a date, would have had the effect of scaring consumers to switch. Clearly this would not be compatible with Government policy to support a switchover when enough listeners voluntarily adopt digital radio. Government’s new emphasis on consumers should provide the focus to ensure consumer concerns and needs regarding digital radio are addressed, thereby reducing the barriers to voluntary take-up.”

However, if these “consumer concerns and needs” were to prove simply too onerous and costly for the government to address in the current economic climate, the choice is now there to opt out of pursuing the DAB switchover policy altogether. The Film Council … the Audit Commission … DAB radio switchover. Chop chop chop. The first two might have seemed a bit arbitrary to voters. Now, at least this one has a consumer report to back it up.

So this new report reiterates and elaborates the same arguments made in the previous consumer report to the Digital Radio Working Group two years earlier, and adds some more. Its recommendations are worth quoting in full:

“The consumer costs and consumer benefits of digital radio:
* A full cost benefit analysis from a user perspective must be carried out as a matter of urgency;
* Consumer benefits need to be clear and demonstrable before an announcement for a digital switchover is made;
* A workable system for the disposing and recycling analogue radios, which consumers are likely to implement must be introduced;
* Emphasis should not be placed on driving down costs unless the sound quality and functionality of cheaper DAB sets are at least equal to analogue;
* There must be more emphasis on improving the basic usability, rather than the advanced functionality, of digital radio to encourage take-up;
* Both the BBC and the commercial sector need to offer new and compelling digital content to convince consumers to adopt digital radio;
* Research into consumers’ willingness to pay and into their concerns and needs relating to digital radio needs to be carried out as a matter of urgency.

Take-up:
* The take-up criterion should compare like-for-like listening platforms and measure DAB listening only;
* A digital switchover date should only be announced when no more than 30 per cent of listening remains on analogue;
* The target date for a digital switchover should be revised upwards as 2015 is realistically far too early for the necessary preparations to be put in place for consumers. Any target date set should be looked upon as secondary to consumer issues such as willingness to adopt the technology, voluntary take-up and digital radio reception as an instigator for switchover;
* Measures need to be taken to introduce a more inclusive methodology for measuring take-up.

Coverage:
* The fair allocation of coverage build-out costs between the BBC and the commercial sector must be made once build-out plans are agreed;
* The coverage criterion should be measured by signal strength, not just population, so that indoor and mobile reception are considered;
* The coverage criterion must be geographically weighted to ensure rural communities are not left behind;
* The switchover roadmap must include plans for DAB+;
* DAB+ compatible chips must be installed as standard to “future-proof” receivers as a matter of urgency;
* The reception time delay between receivers should be standardised.

Vehicles:
* A Digital Radio Switchover date cannot be announced until DAB radios have been standard in vehicles for a minimum of 2 years, in other words by 2015 at the earliest;
* An affordable in-vehicle converter needs to be developed urgently which works with a vehicle’s external aerial, is safe, easy to fit and aesthetically pleasing;
* A switchover date cannot be announced until there is a solution to in-vehicle conversions, providing the majority of motorists with the opportunity to have a digital radio in their vehicle;
* A solution for the continuation of traffic and travel services on FM for a transitional period following digital switchover needs to be agreed;
* An accreditation scheme for dealers and other installers of retrofit digital devices must be developed.

Accessibility:
* Digital switchover should not go ahead without suitable equipment being available for all listeners including older and disabled people;
* Digital radios which incorporate voice output technology must be available for blind and partially-sighted people preferably via the mainstream market or, if that is not feasible, through a channel made affordable by Government intervention, such as a help scheme;
* Appropriate information and support on the enhanced features of accessible digital radios should be available from retailers;
• Appropriate usability requirements should be included in minimum receiver specifications and a kitemarking scheme;
* The proposed integrated station guide must be consumer tested before any decision on its inclusion in devices is made.

Consumer information:
* A clear and balanced public information campaign needs to be implemented through a trusted body, independent of the industry;
* Once a switchover date is announced, sales of analogue-only radio must stop;
* A post-announcement information campaign to target vulnerable groups should be developed;
* The digital tick should be adopted for digital radio and adapted as necessary;
* A ‘scorecard’ should be displayed on all products to convey more information about the available features at the point of sale;
* A digital radio pre-purchase checklist should be widely available and at point of sale;
* An effective training and “accredited adviser” scheme needs to be developed for retailers;
* The CEG must be involved in the minimum specification for digital radio;
* The CEG must be involved in the design and development of any public information campaigns.

Consumer support and a help scheme:
* Any Digital Radio Switchover must be accompanied by a help scheme to assist those who would find it disproportionately difficult to switch;
* The eligibility criteria of a help scheme should include people registered blind or partially sighted, those on low incomes, the over 65s and those with learning disabilities and other cognitive difficulties such as Alzheimer patients;
* A help scheme for digital radio should provide appropriate accessible equipment and include as many instructional home visits as necessary;
* A help scheme should be publicised early on in the information process on a national level and the publicity should coincide with the start of the national information campaign for a switchover;
* The CEG must be consulted in the preparation of printed material and publicity on the help and support available;
* The engagement of the voluntary sector in providing assistance with a digital radio switchover should be properly supported and funded;
* Government should ensure that charities, such as Wireless for the Blind Fund and W4B, are not undermined financially or strategically by a help scheme or any of its components, as these charities will be left with providing the ongoing of support, assistance and help people need once a help scheme has finished.” [End of quote.]

These recommendations seem to divide into: those that would require considerable time to implement, those that would require considerable money to implement, those that would require both time and money, and those that would be almost impossible to implement. Such recommendations should have been considered and acted upon before DAB transmitters even started to be built-out in the 1990s. Their presence in 2010 only serves to highlight the ineptitude of the 1990s ‘plan’.

No organisation escapes unscathed from the critique of the Consumer Expert Group (some are not named): BBC radio, commercial radio, Ofcom, RadioCentre, receiver manufacturers, the Digital Radio Development Bureau, Digital Radio UK, etc. By spreading the criticism so widely, no single stakeholder gets to feel singled out or isolated for DAB’s failure.

Now it is left to the government to decide to pull down the shutters on DAB radio switchover. That will not require the immediate death of DAB. But it will provide the BBC with something that it can sacrifice down the line to budget cuts in the assault on its Licence Fee. For commercial radio, it will provide relief from expensive dual transmission costs, once a settlement has allowed it to keep its coveted licence renewals invoked by this year’s Digital Economy Act. For consumers, it will offer certainty that FM radios will continue to work. There will be sighs of relief all around.

I started writing about DAB radio as a news editor in 1992 and today’s report is the first government distributed document I have seen that sensibly articulates the multitude of barriers and obstacles to digital radio switchover happening in the UK. The very first words of the report summarise the current situation perfectly:

“Despite the introduction of digital radio in the UK in 1998, analogue radio is still a key feature in many households.”

Now we await the fat lady.