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.]

Commercial radio local DAB build-out “not the BBC’s responsibility” says BBC Trust chairman

Culture Media & Sport Select Committee, House of Commons
15 December 2010
BBC Annual Report & Accounts 2009-10 [excerpt]

Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman, BBC Trust
Mark Thompson, Director General, BBC

Damian Collins, MP Folkestone & Hythe (Con): Has the [Licence Fee] settlement affected the amount of support you can give to digital radio switchover and the build-out of digital radio in local services within the regions?

Sir Michael Lyons: What you see in yesterday’s announcement is a clear message that the BBC remains committed to DAB and will continue to build out up to FM equivalents. That is clear. It is involved in discussions with the commercial radio industry and Government about local build-out, for which it is not responsible and for which there are not funds currently identified. They were expected to be undertaken by the commercial operators of those Mux [DAB multiplex] licences.

I don’t think I should add very much to that, other than that, clearly, the Government has determined on a switchover date. Whether that can be achieved is, in our view, whether the audience is ready for it to be.

Damian Collins: I suppose whether it can be achieved ought to be linked to the level of coverage as well. The Government has been clear about that, too. In those negotiations you are having with Government and the commercial stations, is the amount of money you have on the table a smaller amount, as a result of the settlement, than it was before?

Mark Thompson: No.

Sir Michael Lyons: It is clearly another one of the pressures that we have to balance in a tighter envelope; that is the important thing.

Mark Thompson: I think it is fair to say that the underlying commitment that we have made and the focus we have on the building out of our own national multiplex, is unchanged by the settlement.

Sir Michael Lyons: Absolutely. It is a reference to local, I think, that I was …

Mark Thompson: Quite. But the BBC’s focus has always been … the issue about local is that we only have in England, and only intend to have, a single BBC local radio station per region. With each local multiplex that has been opened so far, we have taken a place on that multiplex; we decided that we should do that.

I have no reason to believe we would not continue to do that as they are built out. But whereas the national multiplex, obviously, is a way of getting additional BBC services to the public – the digital services – there is no such increase in BBC services that we can offer if you are taking a single station which is analogue and putting it on digital as well. So our focus is on national build-out, and the broad policy and the commitment over time to absolutely keeping pace with the audience, building out nationally, is unchanged by the settlement.

Damian Collins: Your commitment is clear, and you made that again today, but is it going to take longer to get there now, as a consequence of finding some other issues you have to deal with?

Mark Thompson: I don’t think so. If you say something slightly different, which is, “Would some people have liked some level of additional commitment in the settlement?”, perhaps they would, but it is not there.

Damian Collins: But as far as you are concerned, your commitment is the same?

Mark Thompson: It is exactly the same.

Damian Collins: In the document put to us yesterday, you talk about preparing for any potential radio switchover. That does not sound like it is going to happen within the next five years.

Sir Michael Lyons: That is not a judgment for the BBC; that is a judgment for Government. The BBC is very clear that it is doing its bit in these national investments. There remain unresolved issues about where the investment comes from at a local level. That is not the BBC’s responsibility, but we are part of those discussions. And then, very critically, as the Government has conceded, switchover can only take place … I do take your point that audience preparedness will to some extent depend on coverage, but it also depends on choices made about replacement television sets, investment in cars and a whole series of other things, which are not in our gift.

[This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others. Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.]

Digital Radio UK meets BBC Radio Northampton listeners in a DAB black hole

In October 2007, Ofcom had awarded the DAB local multiplex licence for Northamptonshire to NOWdigital Ltd and had required “implementation by September 2008” to put it on-air. The multiplex was to carry BBC Radio Northampton along with commercial stations. More than three years after this licence award, the DAB service has still not launched. As a result, BBC Radio Northampton is not yet available on DAB.

NOWdigital Ltd had been owned by GCap Media, the UK’s largest commercial radio group, which was acquired by Global Radio in 2008. In 2009, NOWdigital Ltd was sold to Arqiva, the transmission specialist which owns the lion’s share of DAB commercial infrastructure in the UK. In its application for the Northamptonshire licence in 2007, NOWdigital had boasted:

“GCap … has invested more into digital radio than any other UK operator. This investment has driven the industry forward and is helping build radio’s digital future … Having launched and operated multiplexes since 2001, NOWdigital is in an excellent position to successfully launch and operate the Northamptonshire multiplex.”

So what has Ofcom done to make this licensee comply with the stipulation that the Northampton DAB multiplex had to be launched by September 2008? Nothing. Does the commercial radio industry have a masterplan that includes a specific date for the launch of the Northamptonshire DAB multiplex? No. NOWdigital states disingenuously that its on-air date for Northamptonshire is “awaiting launch”.

Northamptonshire is one of 13 local DAB multiplex licences that Ofcom
awarded in 2007 and 2008 that have failed to materialise by their required launch dates. In 2007, Ofcom also awarded a national DAB multiplex licence to a consortium, led by Channel 4 television, that similarly failed to launch (all trace of which has been erased from the Ofcom web site).

Despite three years of broken promises to the people of Northamptonshire by Ofcom, NOWdigital, GCap Media, Global Radio and Arqiva that a local DAB radio multiplex will be launched for their area, they were not excused from this year’s Christmas radio industry campaign to sell more DAB receivers. DAB marketing organisation Digital Radio UK was interviewed by BBC Radio Northampton last week, though it was unable to offer even a vague date when either the local DAB multiplex for Northamptonshire will be launched, or when the signal of the existing DAB national multiplexes will be improved.

Although Digital Radio UK is funded jointly by the BBC, commercial radio and Arqiva, these heavyweight stakeholders could offer nothing more concrete to the people of Northamptonshire than platitudes and more promises about DAB … always in the future tense.


BBC Radio Northampton,
lunchtime show
15 December 2010 @ 1223 [excerpts]

Stuart Linnell, presenter [SL]
Jane Ostler, director of communications, Digital Radio UK [JO]

SL: You said, Jane, that the coverage and the reception is pretty good in most parts of the country. From my experience, and from what I hear people saying, where it’s good, it’s great. Where it’s not so good, it’s blooming awful.

JO: Yes. That is absolutely right, and we know that organisations like the BBC actually have a plan in place to make sure that coverage improves. And that’s not only building more transmitters, but it’s also increasing the power on transmitters, so that you don’t get the drop-out of signal that you will get in some areas. However, we know that when people do have a good signal, they absolutely love digital radio and everything that it brings …

[…]

SL: Rod in Daventry has got a question about the DAB signal in Northampton. It’s not specific to any one radio station, this question, I don’t think. It’s come in on a text. He just says: why is the DAB signal in Northampton so weak?

JO: Yeah, there are variances around the country in the signal. And, as I say, you know, there are plans in place, over the course of the next few years, to improve coverage for national radio stations and local radio stations as well. It’s one of these things that we are used to with other electronic devices like mobile phones and even Freeview signals. You know, there’s a course – an engineering programme – that’s taking place over time that will allow the signal to improve. So, if it is weak at the moment, it will get better.

[…]

JO: We believe that DAB will … is the broadcast backbone for the country. It’s free to air, it’s becoming increasingly available, and the signal is getting better all the time…

[…]

John in Corby [caller]: My question is that I watch this, I’ve been doing radio for sixty years, I’ve watched this very, very carefully, and the thing is that there are some very attractive radios which carry DAB which are available now. I take all the magazines, every magazine that’s related to radio and high fidelity in this country. And the point is this. What the $64,000 question is, dear Stuart, is: when shall DAB radio be available on Radio Northampton? Can the lady guesstimate that? That’s what’s important – all the things that have been broadcast about it – I won’t buy a DAB radio until I can get it in my locality, my local station, which makes commonsense to me.

SL: Okay. We get the point. Jane, do you know the answer to that?

JO: That is a very good question from John because I know that BBC Radio Northampton is not available on a local digital multiplex. Obviously, around the Northampton area, you can get – and Corby, you can get – the national stations but not the local ones. There are plans in place to build local coverage, and that includes BBC services by the time …

John [interrupts]: This is what will be needed and this is what will sell the radio … this is what will sell the radios, in my view. [When] this fine station in this fine county has its own DAB service.

JO: Yeah, we completely support that and we understand that. What’s happening is: there is a plan in place to develop local coverage in time for the digital radio switchover, and these plans are being worked on right now. So I can’t give you an exact date, but it will be over the next few years that local radio will be more available on digital.

SL: Because we must make it clear that John’s question is a valid one, but it’s not just BBC Radio Northampton that’s not on DAB. There are other stations as well who have not yet migrated to that platform.

JO: That’s right. The local stations in your area aren’t available. They are in some, but not in your particular area. But you can, subject to doing a postcode check, you can still get all the national services that are available …

[…]

Peter [caller]: What exactly is going to happen to existing car radios and also hi-fi stereos at home and also alarm clock radios? Is there going to be an adapter?

JO: If I deal with the car question first. That is also a very good question. There are lots of cars, there are lots of lorries and vehicles on the road, and only a small percentage of them today can actually receive digital radio. But you will start to see – and it’s starting already, and over the next few years – an increasing number of adapters coming onto the market, which you can either fit yourself or which you can get fitted by stores such as Halfords, for example. And then that’s with existing vehicles. With new cars, the motor manufacturers who import and make vehicles in the UK have committed that all new cars will have digital radio as standard by the end of the year 2013. So more and more adapters will come onto the market that are available …

SL [interrupts]: Can I just push you on that a little bit, Jane, because I heard – this is going back probably about 18 months now – that one of the largest motor manufacturers in the world, manufacturing two major brands – luxury brands – in this country, had actually withdrawn their DAB digital radios from their cars, as an optional extra even, because they said it just wasn’t working – the technology wasn’t good enough. Have all the manufacturers now signed up?

JO: They have, into the UK, of getting DAB as standard in cars – in new cars – by the end of 2013. And part of this target date that we talked about earlier on has got the motor manufacturers moving, and it’s also got other manufacturers coming up with new devices which you can fit into your existing car alongside your FM radio.

SL: And that really answers Peter’s point that, whether he has got his clock radio, his hi-fi in his lounge or the car radio, there are going to be adapters that will covert them to take DAB as well.

JO: Not, not the alarm clock. No, the alarm clock example is one where … I think, if you did want an alarm clock that had DAB radio built in, you’d have to get a new alarm clock.

SL: Buy a specific one, okay?

JO: Exactly, exactly. They are increasingly available in stores and they are becoming more affordable all the time.

SL: But for the hi-fi and for the car radio, there should be an adaptor at some stage.

JO: The hi-fi is an interesting question actually because obviously you can get digital radio tuners for hi-fi’s now which can plug in as a separate device. Quite often, a radio might be built into something like a large amplifier where the primary use is actually the amplifier rather than the radio. Ultimately, it would be down to the listener. But these devices are becoming available all the time and, if you go into any electrical store, you’ll start to see more digital radio devices.

SL: Okay, does that answer your question, Peter?

Peter: Yes, it does. I just hope that … I think it’s going to be a big sledgehammer to get a DAB adapter to fit in an existing car. There’s not a lot of room underneath dashboards.

JO: That’s absolutely fair. You can get some now which actually fit onto your windscreen and plug in around the dashboard. But soon, towards the end pf next year, when we anticipate that digital radios in cars will double during the course of next year, you will start to see these devices more hidden away in the glove compartment and that sort of thing.

[…]

SL: It’s Mike in Northants who says: digital reception on Radio Five Live for me, he says, was dreadful, so I just switched back to AM and FM and rejected DAB. No more problems.

JO: Right, well that’s … I don’t know precisely where he lives but, obviously, doing a postcode check would tell him whether he should be able to receive a good signal or not. And there are currently … until the transmitter improvements happen, there are other ways of listening to Radio Five Live, for example on the internet, and on digital television platforms as well, in fact. But, as I say, these coverage improvements are happening all the time. He should check his postcode at our web site.

[…]

Graham from Whitehills [caller]: I’m a communications buff so, as soon as DAB came out, I went and bought myself a mains portable one before I found out I couldn’t get Radio Northampton on it. The big, big problem is that it roars through batteries. It uses batteries at twice the rate of anything else I’ve ever owned.

SL: And I had a letter about this from somebody a while ago, Jane, asking why … is digital radio really environmentally friendly, because it uses up so much power?

JO: Yeah, you will find this is absolutely true for older radio sets that, you know, have been bought a few years ago, that they were quite power hungry and used a lot of batteries all the time and many people chose to operate them from the mains. But there’s been a report out in the last few months that government’s done about the battery consumption and the energy consumption of digital radios. And you’ll find that all the main manufacturers now are making really amazing claims about the battery life of the radios, that they will last for, you know, in some cases, hundreds of hours and use less power than an energy efficient lightbulb and that sort of thing. So, as technology progresses, the energy consumption gets better as well. So I’m afraid that some of those older radios do use quite a lot of energy and the new ones don’t.

SL: You need a new one for Christmas, Graham.

Graham: Yeah, eighty quid down the drain, that was. Thank you.

JO [laughs]: You can get them … you can get them from around £25 now, so you needn’t spend that much.

Graham: Yeah, but I paid eighty. Bye.

[…]

SL: Somebody’s asking: why is it that, when you’re listening to DAB, sometimes it can suddenly cut out altogether or just go to an absolutely garbled signal that sounds like it is underwater?

JO: Yeah, that’s … that’s something that happens when you’re on the edges – or on the fringes – of a reception area and, like other digital media, it can also happen during periods of high weather pressure. So you will find that, if you’re on the edges of a reception area, the signal does cut out rather than degrade gently, which is what it does with FM. So, again, as the coverage improves and the signal strength improves, that should stop happening.

GERMANY: planned 2011 re-launch of national DAB “solved a problem that did not exist”

On 15 December 2010, five commercial radio stations in Germany – New Wave Radio, Lounge.fm, ERF Medien, Radio Energy in Hamburg and Regiocast Digital – signed contracts with transmission provider Media Broadcast to broadcast on the new national DAB+ platform, scheduled for launch in 2011.

One week earlier, British company Frontier Silicon, “market leading supplier of digital radio technology worldwide”, had announced that, in order to persuade four commercial radio broadcasters in Germany to persevere with DAB, it had promised them it would purchase an unspecified amount of their advertising airtime for the next four years.

Anthony Sethill, Frontier Silicon CEO, put a positive spin on an act that some might perceive as little more than legalised bribery in the face of desperation to sell DAB hardware in Germany: “We are delighted that our innovative approach to supporting the roll out will help everyone working on this new radio service to bring their efforts to fruition.”


For years, German transmission provider Media Broadcast has been eager to put into action its masterplan to lock new DAB+ broadcasters into minimum 10-year contracts, for which it will be charging €2m per annum per station by 2021. The combination of Media Broadcast’s enthusiasm for the financial returns from DAB transmission contracts, and Frontier Silicon’s enthusiasm for the potential sales in Germany of DAB receivers that incorporate its technology, plus the offer of an amount of cash, persuaded a few commercial broadcasters to take on the risk of using the DAB+ platform.

Helmut Egenbauer, CEO of Media Broadcast, said: “Having introduced Frontier Silicon to the commercial broadcasters, we are delighted to see that their discussions have led to this important commitment to DAB+ radio services.”

Those five German commercial broadcasters should understand that even Frontier Silicon’s subsidy might not prevent them losing money hand over fist for the entire ten years of their transmission contract with Media Broadcast. The evidence is already there from the UK market. Not one commercial digital-only radio station has yet made an annual operating profit from the DAB platform in the UK, even after eleven years, let alone come close to recouping its investment.

Research commissioned by RadioCentre in 2009 found that the average annual revenues of a digital radio station were around £130,000 per annum. By then, 10 million DAB receivers had been sold in the UK. Yet Germany is still at Year Zero with DAB+ radio penetration. The same report for RadioCentre had noted that the “annual negative cash flow impact of DAB” on the UK commercial radio industry was around £27m per annum, or 5% of sector revenues. Can German commercial radio afford to deplete its profitability by that sort of amount, year-on-year, for the next decade?

Frontier Silicon’s press release quoted Helmut G. Bauer as a “representative of the commercial broadcasters,” saying what a fantastic deal it was and promising that “2011 will be year that DAB+ is successfully launched in Germany.” However, Bauer is not associated with the German commercial broadcasting trade body, VPRT, which has been outspoken in its condemnation of plans for digital radio switchover in Germany. Bauer is a Cologne-based lawyer who has long made pro-DAB presentations at media conferences, and pro-DAB statements to the press, as a ”consultant.”

In fact, VPRT had
commented: “As we know, DAB failed in the market. Against this background, plans for the closure of FM – originally scheduled for as early as 2015, but now postponed – are absurd from an economic and social perspective and are therefore unacceptable.”

Noting the developments in Germany this week, Berlin-based Christoph Lemmer wrote in Radioszene magazine:

“With this decision, DAB will now actually be introduced by those who have succeeded, smelling a quick buck, in selling Germans a new sort of equipment, with millions to be sunk into to a new transmission network. Our old radios will be useless for DAB. Those who want to continue listening to the radio will need a new receiver.“

“It does not take a prophet to suspect that the private radio industry has shot itself in the foot by agreeing to sign the DAB contracts. A few shekels subsidy from a chip manufacturer who wants to install as many of its chips in DAB receivers – that is what has led to this. You, dear people, were not considered in the end. Do you really believe that devices with DAB will ever be as numerous as FM radios are today?”

“No one will understand what [DAB] is and why it is good. Because, with DAB, you have solved a problem that did not exist. The existing technological distribution of radio programmes is excellent and widely used. You did not have to change anything. The argument that DAB will create new radio channels with lower entry barriers is specious, as long as media regulators continue not to award licences for technically available [analogue] frequencies because they do not want additional competition in the market.”

This week, World DMB, the body marketing DAB radio globally, was so excited by developments in Germany that its web site posted seven news stories about it on the 15th, nine on the 16th and a further four on the 17th. The overkill speaks volumes. Lacking any upturn in DAB receiver sales, the only positive news that DAB lobbyists can muster is this second attempt in Germany to launch a DAB technology that was first developed in 1981.

It is hard to recall a comparable technology whose proponents were still pushing for its launch three decades after its invention. DAB proponents argue that, simply because DAB is ‘digital’, it is inevitable that it will replace analogue radio. History indicates otherwise.

Digital Audio Tape. Introduced 1987. Abandoned 2005.
Digital Compact Cassettes. Introduced 1992. Abandoned 1996.

GERMANY: DAB “is not financially viable”, internet radio on the rise

“DAB or DAB+, in its current form, is not financially viable for commercial radio stations,” said Stefan Schmitt, managing director of RTL’s Berlin radio stations, in Promedia magazine. He pointed out that user numbers were increasing steadily for the internet, wireless via PC, laptops and smartphones. “Under these circumstances, I do not know where exactly the added value is for DAB,” he said.

Schmitt argued that the whole radio business model is still based on FM broadcasting and will remain so “for the foreseeable future.” He believes that the best alternative to broadcasting is currently ‘online radio’: “We are achieving market penetration [with online] much more rapidly than with DAB, which is not market driven.”

In Germany, a dispute continues to rage over the funding of DAB radio. The CDU party’s media expert Thomas Jarzombek has argued that “more than €200m of public funds were wasted on DAB” and that “these resources should be used for technologies that are well received by the public.”

Negotiations have been proceeding for months over a further €42m of public funds earmarked to be released to re-launch DAB radio nationally using the DAB+ codec, following the failure of the earlier launch using the older DAB codec. Initially, the contracts between transmission provider Media Broadcast and the station owners were meant to have been signed on 22 July 2010. Then, the subsequent 22 September 2010 deadline for negotiations passed without agreement, as a result of commercial radio’s unwillingness to commit financially to broadcasting on DAB+. This deadline has been extended again to 15 December, which experts in Germany
now suspect is “the last chance for DAB+.”

At its annual conference on 12 November 2010, the German association of commercial broadcasters, VPRT, reiterated its opposition to the government forcing the introduction of DAB+ radio upon the German market. Outgoing VPRT vice president Hans-Dieter Hillmoth
said: “The current draft of the new Federal Telecommunications Act ignores the existing interests of commercial radio in the functioning infrastructure, whose core business is FM radio.”

New
research in Germany by the Frankfurt Link Market & Social Research Institute has demonstrated the increasing popularity of listening to radio via the internet platform. Consumers’ preference for radio delivered to a PC or laptop increased 84% year-on-year, and is now exceeded only by traditional radio hardware – car radios, kitchen radios and stereo systems. Amongst 14-29 year olds, radio via a PC/laptop scored second only to the car radio.

The question put to respondents was: “Radio can now be received on many different types of appliances. Please indicate which appliances you particularly appreciate, regardless of duration of usage.”

Having DAB cake and eating it: temper tantrums in the Global Radio playpen

Most of us mere mortals spend our lives trying to persuade people to give us what we want. We have to persuade our parents to buy us a new toy, persuade a potential employer to offer us a job, persuade the bank manager to give us a business loan. To make these things happen, we are taught to always be careful what we say – “Mind your P’s and Q’s”, our parents told us.

For the wealthy, there is little need for self-control over what comes out of their mouths. Whereas our only power derives from what is in our head, the power of the wealthy derives from what is in their offshore bank accounts. “P’s and Q’s” are barely a necessity when a platinum credit card can be flashed. Money obviates the need for persuasion. So the wealthy can pretty much say what they like, knowing that ‘money talks’ on their behalf, and it certainly seems to talk more loudly than any persuasion that the rest of us can muster.

This week we saw an outburst in The Guardian that would have done any rich, spoilt brat proud. But no, this was the founder and CEO of Global Group, Ashley Tabor, which owns Global Radio, the UK’s largest commercial radio group, demanding that the BBC “put their money where their mouth is” and invest more in DAB radio:

“Tabor said his company, which owns Heart, Classic FM, Capital and LBC, would not invest in new digital services until the DAB signal was sufficiently strong and widespread to match that currently provided by FM. He said the cost of the rollout of DAB and the strengthening of the signal in areas which can already receive it – estimated at between £150m and £200m – was the sole responsibility of the BBC. […]

‘Global has stepped up and said we are absolutely doing it, we have great new ideas of things we could do on digital but we are not going to bloody do it until our listeners can hear it in decent quality and that is something that we have been clear from the start the Beeb will need to do,’ said Tabor, the Global Group founder and chief executive. ‘They have always said yes [and] now is the time to do it. A lot of pressure is building on them to now actually put their money where their mouth is. It’s not actually a lot of money because it’s amortised over 10-12 years. I think it will happen’” [The Guardian removed he word ‘bloody’ from later editions].

Was I the only one baffled by Ashley’s line of argument? Although commercial interests own the lion’s share of DAB in the UK, the largest commercial radio group is insisting here that the cost of fixing DAB to make it work properly is the “sole responsibility” of the publicly funded BBC. Furthermore, Global Radio will only launch new commercial digital radio stations, from which it must expect to make a profit, once the BBC has underwritten the huge cost of making the DAB system fit for purpose using public funds. I remain baffled.

This was by no means the first time, and will probably not be last, that Global Radio has talked rubbish publicly about DAB radio. In its PR, Global paints itself as a driving force behind digital radio and is constantly demanding that DAB switchover be implemented as quickly as possibly. However, in practice, Global has shown no interest in developing DAB as a replacement for FM, having sold off the majority of its DAB licences. This hypocrisy has been documented on previous occasions in this blog, during which time Global’s attitude towards the BBC has shifted from ‘carrot’ to ‘stick’. History speaks volumes.

In October 2007, Global Radio cancelled the contract with Sky inherited from its acquisition of Chrysalis Radio that would have created a national Sky News Radio station on DAB. A Global spokesperson said then that “Global was not prepared to make the necessary investment in this project.”

In December 2007, Global Radio dropped live presenters from the digital radio station The Arrow which it had also acquired from Chrysalis Radio. The Arrow was removed from DAB in London in May 2008, removed from DAB in Scotland in February 2009, removed from satellite and cable TV in June 2009, and removed from DAB in the West Country in February 2010. It is now available over-the-air on only 5 local DAB multiplexes.

In January 2008, Global Radio dropped dedicated shows from the digital version of its Galaxy Radio brand, replacing them with simulcasts of local FM output.

On 31 March 2008, the day after Global Radio’s offer to acquire GCap Media had been accepted, the latter’s two remaining national DAB radio stations Capital Life and TheJazz were closed. GCap had already closed another national DAB station, Core, in January 2008.

In March 2009, Global Radio dropped digital-only station Chill from DAB multiplexes in Leicester, Nottingham and West Wiltshire. Chill was then removed from further local DAB multiplexes in July 2009, and from cable TV in July 2010. It is now available over-the-air on DAB only in London and Birmingham.

However, in April 2009, Ashley said that he appreciated that the BBC had the capacity to make a significant contribution to facilitate Digital Britain from a radio perspective, and that Global Radio was prepared to play a leading role. Confusingly, this was the same month it was announced that Global Radio had agreed terms to sell the majority of its DAB multiplex licenses.

In May 2009, in an interview bizarrely headlined ‘Global evangelist for digital radio: Ashley Tabor has a clear vision for his group…’, he said:

“I am really confident now that all the right things are happening that will get us to where we need to go. We are in favour of [analogue radio] switch-off, so can we do it quickly please?”

That same month, Ashley’s right-hand man at Global Radio, Stephen Miron, told a radio conference:

* “The future of our sector is intrinsically linked to the successful implementation of the government’s digital strategy and to the successful migration to DAB”;
* “We need more of this in the coming weeks and months. Not just words, but action”;
* “We need to get our act together to make the best possible case for consumers to switch to digital”;
* “Global is up for the challenge and, as the largest commercial player, we are prepared to lead this charge.”

In July 2009, Global announced the completion of the sale of its DAB licences, the largest ever transaction of its type, which drastically shifted the dominant ownership of the UK’s commercial radio DAB system from the commercial radio sector itself to transmission specialist Arqiva.

Global Radio sold:
* its 63% shareholding in Digital One, the sole national DAB multiplex for commercial radio;
* its 100% shareholding in Now Digital Ltd and Now Digital (Southern) Ltd, its local DAB multiplexes;
* 12% of MXR Holdings Ltd.

These transactions left Global Radio with a 51% shareholding in MXR, owner of five regional DAB multiplexes, a half-stake in 3 CE Digital local multiplexes and a minority stake in Digital Radio Group, owner of one London multiplex. At a stroke, Global’s role in DAB had been reduced from the dominant player to an also-ran. However, this did not prevent Ashley from stating in the press release announcing these disposals:

“As a company we are leading the commercial radio industry in its drive to digital.”

Neither this press release, nor the Annual Accounts, revealed how much Global Radio commanded for its sale of these assets. All we know is that the last, shortlived chief executive at GCap Media, Fru Hazlitt, was so disenamoured of DAB that she had planned to sell the company’s controlling stake in the DAB national multiplex licence for £1 in January 2008 (the transaction was halted by Global’s offer for GCap).

None of these closures and disposals seemed to change Global Radio’s public enthusiasm for DAB radio. In July 2010, a government press release on digital radio included a quote from Ashley saying:

“We look forward to working with the government and other partners to bring the benefits of digital radio to a growing group of listeners.”

So what precipitated the change of heart in Ashley’s previously collaborative noises to the BBC from a ‘carrot’ into the ‘stick’ evident in his interview this week? Well, less than 24 hours earlier, the government had published a report on DAB radio switchover that was critical of many radio sector stakeholders for the lack of progress that had been made during the last decade. Those criticised included commercial radio, its trade body RadioCentre, the Digital Radio Development Bureau and its successor, Digital Radio UK. Some people can take measured criticisms like this in their stride. But others cannot.

Not only does Global Radio account for 38% of UK commercial radio listening, but the group funds a substantial portion of RadioCentre (£2.8m in subscriptions between September 2007 and March 2009) and of the Digital Radio Development Bureau and Digital Radio UK. Even so, why did this new government report exercise Ashley so much? Because:
* Global Radio needs DAB switchover to succeed for the company to hang on to its valuable analogue radio licences;
* The responsibility for making DAB switchover happen now lies elsewhere, so Ashley has decided to pin the tail on the BBC.

Maybe Ashley is a graduate of the Malcolm McLaren and Stevo school of negotiation. This is the strategy where you make the most outrageous demands and the other person caves in for fear of not being invited to your party. This might work in the unregulated music business, where excess is viewed as a virtue, but in the radio industry there are laws and rules governing large parts of the business.

What would be the response of record companies if a radio owner were to march in and tell them that they should pay radio stations for playing their music, rather than the other way around? Or if you were to tell record companies that your radio stations would no longer play ‘hit’ records that line their coffers but, instead, would deliberately play unpopular songs that they did not want on the radio. Record company bosses would probably laugh in your face and ask their legal department to show you a filing cabinet full of royalty agreements with commercial radio dating back to 1973.

Getting your own way, all the time, only works when you have been given absolute power over your fag. Ashley phoning a journalist, stomping his feet at the BBC and demanding that it do this or that will have no effect whatsoever. His demands about DAB must have had BBC radio managers laughing their socks off on Wednesday morning. As Scott Taunton, the straight-talking managing director of UTV Radio, said of Ashley in 2009:

“He is a guy who is used to getting his own way. He isn’t from the same school of business, the same school of negotiation, that I am.”

So why exactly does Global Radio need DAB switchover to happen? Because:
* Global Radio was created by Ashley’s millionaire father for a son who is a radio obsessive (“I would literally have a radio in my [school] bag and the second I was allowed to put it on I would actually phone [presenter] Pat Sharp in the studio at whatever time, 10.30, 11.30, just to say hello and develop a relationship with him. He thought I was nuts,” said Ashley);
* Global Radio overpaid to acquire GCap Media in June 2008 for £375m, a mis-managed company whose performance was dropping like a stone, and whose market capitalisation had fallen from £711m in 2005 to £200m by year-end 2007;
* Global Radio has already had to write down its assets by £194m in March 2009, reducing the group’s net book value to £351m from the total £545m it had paid for Chrysalis and GCap in 2007 and 2008 respectively;
* Global Radio “is primarily funded by debt”, its accounts state, and external bank debt was £110m in October 2009, an amount that must be repaid in quarterly instalments by October 2012;
* Global Radio has been hit hard in 2010 by the new government’s sudden 50% cut to its advertising spend (“The COI change has been larger than expected, very abrupt. It’s been pretty severe, more than 50%,” said Ashley)
* Ofcom is presently re-evaluating the price of Global Radio’s Classic FM licence, the most profitable in commercial radio and, if DAB switchover is abolished, the cost of that licence could be increased from its current £50,000 per annum to nearer £1m per annum from 2011 to 2018;
* The Digital Economy Act 2010 renewed commercial radio licences for a further seven years only on the basis that DAB switchover will happen. If switchover does not happen, the government has the power to terminate all renewed licences by 2015 (or by two years’ notice, if later). However, in its accounts, Global decided to write off the ‘goodwill’ of its GCap acquisitions over twenty years.

For Global Radio, which owns more analogue licences than any other commercial radio group, this means that the value of its business could be reduced drastically if DAB switchover does not happen. Its one national licence would become a lot more expensive and then might have to be publicly auctioned, while its dozens of local licences could be terminated earlier than anticipated. Global needs DAB switchover to happen at all costs.

However, at every opportunity, Global decided to forgo investment in the DAB platform and, instead, to dispose of the majority of its DAB assets. This has left it with almost no remaining leverage to ensure that DAB switchover will ever happen. Furthermore, Ashley has alienated commercial radio competitors such as UTV, precipitating its resignation from the trade body RadioCentre in 2009. UTV’s Scott Taunton described Ashley as a “rich man’s son” and explained:

“For us it came down to Global, as the largest funder of the RadioCentre, making sure that the policies of the RadioCentre were in the interests of Global Radio. At times, for me, that meant the [trade body] was pursuing an agenda that wasn’t necessarily in the interests of all its members.”

So, Global Radio needs DAB switchover to happen in order to maintain the value of its analogue radio business. But it can do little itself directly, its biggest competitor Bauer is unlikely to help, and its smaller competitors have been alienated. Global had succeeded in wrangling a very beneficial deal from Lord Carter in the Digital Economy Act, but Carter exited quickly and the whole government has changed since then. The sting in the tail was that parliament included a get-out clause (if DAB switchover does not happen …) and now that clause looks more likely than ever to be invoked.

The pheasants look as if they might be coming home to roost at the Tabor estate. And what does a young man do when the train set his father made for him is not working the way he wants? He stomps his feet. He shouts. He issues demands. This week, the BBC has been on the receiving end. It should feel honoured. Ashley has demonstrated his belief that the BBC can do more to fix the DAB disaster than the whole of the commercial radio sector and its trade and marketing agencies added together. But, remind me, why should part of my BBC Licence Fee go to fix his plaything?

And what might Ashley think of doing next if the BBC does not bow to exactly what he wants? Will he be demanding that BBC director general Mark Thompson stands on his head in the corridor during short break, or runs around the perimeter of White City in his underwear fifty times in the pouring rain, or sits in the BBC library after work copying out chapters of ‘Paradise Lost’ by hand?

Are any of these shenanigans a strategy for the future of radio? All they demonstrate to the world is that large parts of the UK commercial radio sector seem to have completely lost the plot.

[declaration of interest: I was paid to advise DMGT on the offer made for GCap Media by Global Radio in 2008]