In his perceptive commentary on last quarter’s RAJAR radio audience figures, IPSOS’ research manager Andy Haylett noted:
“18.5 million adults are DAB owners, yet only an estimated 12.6 million are confirmed listeners. What are the other 6 million doing with their DAB sets? Further investigation shows that there are only 7.4 million listeners to digital-only stations, of which under half (3.3m) comes from DAB listening. This suggests that around three quarters of all DAB listeners are tuning to stations readily available on a traditional analogue transistor.”
This reiterates a point I have made previously in this blog [Feb 2009, Aug 2009, Feb 2010]. After more than a decade, it is a sad fact of life that digital radio stations on broadcast platforms have not succeeded in setting listeners’ hearts on fire:
* Only 4.6% of all radio listening is to digital radio stations
* 18.2% of all radio listening via digital platforms is to digital radio stations
* 7.4m adults per week listen to digital radio stations (14.3% of adults)
* 3.3m adults per week listen to digital radio stations via DAB (6.4% of adults).
Of course, the corollary is that digital platforms are being used predominantly for listening to radio stations that are already available to consumers on the analogue platform:
* 95.4% of all radio listening is to analogue radio stations
* 81.8% of all radio listening via digital platforms is to analogue radio stations
* 44.2m adults per week do NOT listen to digital radio stations (85.7% of adults).
These figures might have been understandable during the early years of DAB radio. But now? After more than a decade? Planet Rock launched in 1999; the BBC digital stations in 2002. Compared to the influence that digital terrestrial television stations have had in the UK over a shorter period, digital radio stations have had very little impact on radio listening patterns to date.
The overwhelming use of digital platforms to listen to analogue radio stations begs the question: so what is the point of DAB? There was never anything wrong with FM radio anyway, and there is no proposed alternate use for FM spectrum, so why is the government insisting that consumers and the radio industry both spend huge sums of money to enable the public to listen (on DAB) to exactly what is available already (on FM/AM)?
In the graph above, the listening to digital radio stations is shown in red (analogue stations in grey). It remains tiny. Despite BBC Radio 6 Music’s uplift after last year’s consumer campaign, it still languishes as the UK’s 18th most listened to national radio station. Fortunately for the BBC, the funding for its digital radio stations continues to come (for now) from the public purse.
For commercial radio, the funding for digital radio stations has to come from deep pockets. Not one digital radio station has yet made an operating profit. History is littered with commercial digital radio stations that used to be on the national DAB platform: ITN News, Talkmoney, The Storm, PrimeTime Radio, 3C, Capital Disney, Core, Virgin Radio Groove, Oneword, Capital Life, TheJazz, Fun Radio, Virgin Radio Xtreme and Panjab Radio.
Some of these digital radio stations had offered fantastic content unavailable elsewhere (PrimeTime, OneWord). Other digital stations had had very little thought put into their creation. Former GWR staffer Steve Orchard boasted that his company’s strategy for Planet Rock had been conceived in The Lamb Inn, Marlborough: “Going into a pub with Ralph Bernard, my boss, listening to the classic rock jukebox and coming out, several pints later, with Planet Rock sketched out on the back of an envelope.”
GCap Media sold Planet Rock in 2008 to an ‘outsider’ and it has been the commercial radio industry’s most listened to digital radio station since 2009. It speaks volumes that the entire UK commercial radio sector’s efforts at digital radio stations over more than a decade have been trumped by a music enthusiast with no previous radio sector experience.
However excellent it is, Planet Rock alone cannot save the DAB platform from continuing consumer disinterest. It would require a dozen stations of this calibre to create a portfolio of sufficient interest to stir consumers. Worse, for those consumers who have tried DAB and given up due to the platform’s other issues (poor reception, lack of mobility, lo-fi audio, expensive hardware), even a dozen stations might not tempt them back.
It is understandable, therefore, that Planet Rock’s owner, Malcolm Bluemel, should be frustrated with the rest of the radio industry for not following in his wake. This month, he said:
“I’ve only been in the radio industry about two and a half years now and I’ve never actually come across an industry that has such a collection of self-interest in discussing this matter [digital switchover]. I’m quite amazed at this need for certainty around the future of business. I came from an era where, to get a decent radio [station], I had to stick my AM transistor under the bedclothes and listen to Kid Jensen from Luxembourg at night. Well, now we’ve got people saying ‘Well, I want to know this, I want to know that, I want to know that my radio stations will be this, and I can have that, and I want it all, and I want it all now.’
It’s fairly obvious to me that, as an industry, we should be all sticking together. Digital is here. It’s not a question of a switchover date. Digital is out there. It’s being listened to. There’s 1.1 million people listening to 6 Music, there’s 827,000 people listening to Planet Rock on digital radio NOW. So why don’t we just accept the fact that digital is here and all get together and say ‘Right, how are we going to make this work for the industry?’ For all those people with their self-interest and their stupid press statements over ‘20 years [until digital switchover]’ or whatever it is (how ridiculous is that?), and just get together and have a consensus of opinion about how we are best going to do this, but collectively for the radio industry, and stop fighting amongst ourselves because of our own petty little grievances.”
Planet Rock’s 827,000 weekly reach last quarter is a remarkable achievement. Compare this to the dismal performances of some analogue commercial radio stations. Absolute Radio, with the benefit of a national AM licence and a London FM licence, reached only 1,375,000 adults per week. Xfm reached 938,000 adults nationally with the benefit of a London FM licence. Choice FM reached 734,000 adults nationally with the benefit of a London FM licence.
By comparison, Planet Rock has performed miracles, given that the only broadcast platform it has access to is DAB. As Bluemel identified, paradoxically, the thing that is stopping him from turning Planet Rock into the profitable radio station that it should be is the very industry in which he is working. Whilst (post-GCap Media) Planet Rock is doing all the right things for all the right reasons, the rest of the industry, where DAB is concerned, continues to do all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons.
Unfortunately, the barriers to Planet Rock’s commercial success are the outcomes of the sad history of the DAB platform:
* The commercial radio sector initially invested in DAB to control the platform, not to create successful digital radio stations
* The BBC decided to launch minority interest digital radio stations that would not cannibalise its existing national analogue networks
* The commercial DAB multiplex owners (aka the largest commercial radio groups) did not want upstart independents creating successful digital radio stations on their DAB platform
* The industry’s ‘build it and they will come’ strategy for DAB failed because consumers are driven by content, not by platforms
* If you wanted to persuade consumers to buy relatively expensive DAB radios, you should have inspired them with new content rather than have threatened them with FM switch-off
* Radio listeners are loyal and do not like losing access to content they once enjoyed (the closure of digital radio stations)
* DAB radio reception, for many, is still not as robust as FM or AM.
The best solution for Planet Rock would be a national analogue licence. Or, at least, a London FM licence. However, the radio regulatory system we have in the UK militates against that possibility. Why? Because politicians, civil servants and regulators have ensured that those who already own (what were once) commercial radio ‘licences to print money’ get to keep them, seemingly in perpetuity.
It is the existing radio industry itself which is limiting Planet Rock’s opportunities for greater success. We do not enjoy an openly competitive radio market that allows new entrants such as Bluemel to shake up our stagnant radio industry with new, exciting ideas. Instead, ‘outsiders’ have to stand around on the sidelines while the owners of stations such as Absolute Radio, Xfm and Choice FM continue to run them into the ground. So why don’t they just sell them?
Sell their stations? Of course not! When you are part of a commercial radio oligopoly, why would you want to encourage an insurgent, who might actually understand how to create a successful radio station, to camp right on your analogue doorstep? Not only might he show you up, but he might even steal listeners from your other stations. Instead, the current philosophy is to let ‘outsiders’ bleed to death financially on the DAB platform, while the incumbents continue to divide up (what is left of) the spoils of FM/AM radio between them.
So we listeners get the (analogue) mediocrity they think we deserve.
[blog headline adapted from Andy Haylett’s of IPSOS]