Lobby the EU to mandate Europe-wide digital radio switchover? No chance!

The European Union [EU] has always made its position perfectly clear on radio broadcasting policy for its member states. It will not adopt an EU-wide digital radio strategy. A year ago, Viviane Reding, then EU commissioner for information society & media, reiterated the policy in an interview:

“This issue of EU-wide radio standardisation is still in its infancy. The main reason is that radio, from a political, business and consumer standpoint, is organised primarily as a regional or even local product. This is, in principle, rightly so. The reason the radio landscape in Europe is so fascinating is because it is so diverse and highly innovative. Therefore, EU-wide radio legislation is not advocated.”

“I believe the time is not ripe for a single EU-wide radio FM switch-off, such as we are doing for analogue TV in 2012. I can also well imagine that the 27 EU Member States, given their different levels of development, will want to take their own innovative approaches to digital radio switchover.”

Given this clearly stated EU policy, it was a surprise when World DMB, the lobbying organisation for DAB radio,
announced on 10 November 2010 that one of its three objectives for the coming year was:

“To persuade the European Union to champion switch-over policies at European level …”

Using the forum of the European Broadcasting Union [EBU] Digital Radio Conference 2010 held in Belfast the previous week, World DMB seemed to have persuaded the EBU to endorse a no-hope strategy of challenging existing EU strategy in order that digital switchover be mandated through diktat. This follows the evident failure of World DMB’s bottom-up approach to convince consumers in many EU countries to replace their satisfactorily working FM/AM radios with DAB receivers.

World DMB president Jørn Jensen said in the press release:

“If digital radio is to succeed, then the EBU must show their support for the DAB family, the only technology platform chosen by Germany, UK, France, Italy, Spain and the Nordic countries as the future of digital radio.”

The EBU obliged by issuing its own statement which stressed that its conference had “achieved a significant breakthrough in efforts to accelerate moves towards securing a digital future for radio.” The EBU wording is significant – its public statement talked about ‘digital’ radio but never mentioned the ‘DAB’ platform specifically. Whereas, the World DMB press release went out of its way to interpret ‘digital’ radio narrowly as ‘DAB’, almost to the point of obsession, when Jensen said:

“It’s time to stop talking about less mature standards, EBU needs to promote the Eureka 147 [DAB] family of standards.”

And what exactly did Jensen mean by “less mature standards”? Could he be referring to the platform whose name dare not be spoken amongst DAB lobbyists – THE INTERNET? Coincidentally, five days prior to the World DMB press release, Neelie Kroes, the current EU commissioner for the digital agenda, had admonished content producers who do not adapt their businesses to the internet age in a speech:

“Like it or not, content gatekeepers risk being sidelined if they do not adapt to the needs of both creators and consumers of cultural goods. So who will win the heart of the creators and of the public? It is still too soon to say. Of course, some of the new giants of internet come from another continent. I would wish that more of them were European, but when I see the wealth of creativity gathered in this room, I am optimistic for the future.

I believe that those who will prosper in the digital age are those who understand that convergence is one of the keys. The convergence of media provides an incredible opportunity for the artists and creators of our times, and also for their public – you and me. Just like cinema did not kill theatre, nor did television kill radio. The internet won’t kill any other media either.”

Despite the EU’s enthusiasm for convergence, the internet is still perceived as a competitive threat by some European radio broadcasters, who fear attrition to their audiences from an influx of online audio content from beyond their borders. To them, Last.fm, Spotify and We7 are the antichrists, and they hope that DAB’s walled garden will banish these insurgents from their kingdom. But, although Jensen wants to paint the internet as a “less mature standard”, history books show that it was around long before DAB (I was sending e-mails, before they had that name, across the Atlantic in 1978).

Also, when World DMB promised in its 10 November press release that it would “foster effective partnerships between broadcasters and the automotive sector” over the next year to get DAB radio into cars, it was advocating actions it could and should have taken more than a decade ago. It has long missed the boat. EU commissioner Neelie Kroes had announced on 8 November that IP-connected cars were the current European policy objective:

“Europe leads in wireless communication to and from vehicles. That is critical to improve both safety and efficiency. And to convert this into global market success global cooperation and standardisation will be required. This is where the EU’s Future Internet Public Private Partnership comes in. We need the automotive and ICT communities side-by-side. That way we can seize the opportunities of the next generation of wireless broadband, beyond 3G, to meet the growing demand for connectivity in cars.”

So what chance does World DMB have of achieving these two stated objectives for EU policy during the next year (compulsory digital radio switchover, DAB in cars)? None whatsoever. So why would it set itself objectives that are bound to fail? It can only be sheer desperation at this rapidly deteriorating stage in DAB’s lifecycle.

The third of World DMB’s stated objectives for the next year – “to advance partnerships between public and broadcasters” to make DAB happen – must have been drafted by someone with a wry sense of irony. Such ‘partnerships’ appear to be going nowhere in DAB:
* In the UK, RadioCentre, the commercial radio trade body, has failed in its insistence that publicly funded BBC should pay for the upgrade of commercial radio’s local DAB transmitters;
* In Germany, commercial radio has failed to agree with public radio to a new plan to re-launch national DAB radio;
* In Spain, commercial radio called DAB “a road to nowhere” despite public radio’s insistence on persevering;
* In France, national commercial radio networks have refused to support public radio’s plan to launch digital terrestrial radio;
* In Denmark, only one commercial station is broadcasting on DAB, alongside 17 state radio stations (many of which are about to be axed);
* In the Netherlands, national commercial radio stations have had to be forced to broadcast on DAB by the government inserting new clauses in their licence renewals.

World DMB’s rallying call of “let’s just get on with it!” might make more sense if its proposed solutions were practical in any way. Its press release was headlined ‘European Broadcasting Union backs digital radio switch over across Europe.’ Given that all three of its objectives for the next 12 months fly in the face of realpolitik, it would have been more accurate to entitle the press release ‘Three impossible European things before breakfast.’

[with thanks to Michael Hedges at Follow The Media]

David vs Goliath: commercial radio spends £27 per hour on programmes, BBC Radio 2 spends £4,578

There has been an abundance of fighting talk from the commercial radio sector in the press in recent weeks. Commercial radio seems determined to pick another fight with BBC Radios 1 and 2, two of the three most listened to radio stations in the UK.

Guardian Media Group Radio announced that “by broadcasting on National DAB, Sky, Freeview and Freesat, Smooth Radio will provide a strong commercial alternative to BBC Radio 2.” Chief executive Stuart Taylor said:

“We are still at war with the BBC and we still compete for listeners tooth and nail, as we always will.”

The press headlines affirmed:
* “New national network makes a Smooth attack on Radio 2” (Telegraph);
* “Forget Radio 2: in five years’ time, we’ll all be going Smooth” (
* “Smooth Radio takes on Radio 2 in national rollout” (
Marketing Week);
* “Radio Two faces fight, warns new Smooth news chief” (
Press Gazette).

Then, Global Radio announced that its local FM stations will be re-branded ‘Capital Radio’ in 2011. Chief executive Ashley Tabor said:

“With the launch of the Capital network, there will now be a big national commercial brand seriously competing with Radio 1.”

The press headlines responded:
* “Capital Radio will go national in bid to challenge Radio 1” (Evening Standard);
* “Capital Radio set to rival BBC Radio 1 in move to broadcast nationally” (
Daily Mail);
* “Global to take on Radio 1 with Capital Network” (
Marketing Week);
* “Capital Radio to form first national commercial radio station” (

Both the GMG and Global Radio statements achieved the intended sabre-rattling headlines in the press though, for me, these sentiments are remarkably hollow. This ongoing phoney war between the BBC and commercial radio is like a war between a one-eyed giant and an over-exuberant mobile phone salesman. The giant will win every time. Commercial radio can huff and puff all it wants, but the BBC knows it is perfectly safe in its house built from Licence Fees. It can afford to chuckle loudly at every challenge like this lobbed at it by commercial radio. Why?

Firstly, you could only ever hope to seriously compete with the existing formats of BBC Network radio stations if you had access to their same abundance of resources. This is something that Channel 4 belatedly realised after having promised for two years that it would invent a new commercial radio station to compete with BBC Radio 4. Then it scrapped its radio plans altogether.

The huge gulf between the funding of commercial radio content and BBC Network Radio content makes direct competition simply pointless. In a recent report for the BBC Trust, I noted that commercial radio spends an average £27 per hour on its content, while BBC Radio spends an average £1,255 per hour. There is no way that commercial radio can make programmes that will sound like Radio 2 on a budget that is 170th of the latter’s £4,578 per hour.

Secondly, what sort of message do these press headlines send to consumers? To me, they say ‘we realise that Radios 1 and 2 are fantastically successful, so we want a slice of their action’. Or maybe even ‘you really like Radios 1 and 2, don’t you? Try us, because we want to be just like them.’ So where is the Unique Selling Point [USP] for your own product? Don’t you have enough faith in it to tell us why it is so good, rather than comparing it to your much bigger, much more successful rival? Or is this the Dannii Minogue method of marketing?

I had always been taught that the cardinal sin of radio was to mention your competitors to your audience. Every reference to your competitor tells the audience how much you respect them and their success. Ignore them! Pretend your competitor does not even exist! Plough your own furrow and concentrate on making a radio station that is genuinely unique. Then you will create a brand that has a genuine USP, rather than being merely a pale imitation of Radio 1 or 2 without their big budgets. ‘I can’t believe it’s not Radio 2’ is not a tagline to which to aspire.

Thirdly, neither Capital Radio nor Smooth will be genuinely ‘national’ stations, as in capable of being received on an analogue FM/AM radio from one end of the country to the other. So why pretend to consumers and advertisers that they are ‘national’? In the case of Capital, its proposed FM network presently covers 57% of the UK adult population. In the case of Smooth, RAJAR tells us that DAB receiver penetration is presently 35%. Just how little of the UK population can you cover and yet still describe yourself as ‘national’?

Fourthly, don’t keep looking at Radio 1 and 2’s huge audience figures and dreaming of how much money you could make if only you could monetise their listenership. Part of the reason older listeners probably like Radio 2 is because there are no advertisements. Accept the fact that Radios 1 and 2 together account for a quarter of all radio listening in the UK. Compared to those mammoths of radio, both Capital and Smooth are mere termites. Live with that fact and, instead, seek out commercial clients who are not merely frustrated because they cannot advertise on BBC Radio, but who actively want to use your radio station because your audience is intrinsically valuable to them.

Finally, invest the time and money to develop your own on-air talent rather than simply hanging on the coattails of others’ successes. Whatever his next gig might be, Chris Moyles will forever be remembered as ‘the saviour of Radio 1’, just as Chris Evans will always be remembered for his Radio 1 breakfast show, not for his subsequent time at Virgin Radio. Find new people who are good at radio and put your faith in them. Why does Smooth’s schedule have to resemble Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together with a bit here from Radio 1 in the 80s, and a bit there from Radio 2 last month?

What your radio station should be doing is not competing with Radio This or Radio That for listeners, but competing directly for consumers to spend time with you because you are ‘you’. Radio is not like selling soap powder or yoghurt pots, where your business model can be built upon undercutting the price of a competitor’s product, however low-quality your own cheapo version might be. There is no price of admission in radio. Your content needs to be ‘different’ rather than ‘the same’ and it needs to create its own unique place in the market.

You should not think of your market competitors as radio stations, but as each and every opportunity a consumer is presented with to pass their leisure time. A winning station must be able to convince a consumer to listen to it, rather than watch television, read a book or simply sit in silence. Because radio is ‘free’, the competition for radio is everything else that is also free to consumers at the point-of-use.

To offer a practical example, when I worked on the launch of India’s first commercial radio network, Radio City, the advertising agency produced an excellent marketing campaign that extolled the virtues of the station over other radio stations. But the campaign had to be rejected and the agency briefed in more detail. Why? Because we were launching the very first radio station on the FM dial in a city such as Bangalore, so the overriding challenge was to persuade people to use ‘radio’ at all, or to persuade people to buy an FM radio for the first time, or to persuade people to switch off their television and turn to radio instead.

This philosophy seems to be a million miles away from the current UK commercial radio strategy which seems to focus on berating BBC radio for being too successful, whilst wanting to somehow achieve part of that success through osmosis. If only half this war effort was put into developing policies to make the commercial sector’s stations successful on their own account, the BBC would soon cease to matter.

Instead, RadioCentre is now demanding that commercial radio be allowed to re-broadcast old Proms concerts recorded by BBC Radio 3. But how many of our 300 commercial radio stations play classical music? One. And which Proms concert do you recall that would fit into Classic FM’s playlist of short musical extracts? What next? Will Capital FM be asking the BBC for the rights to re-broadcast some old Zoe Ball Radio 1 breakfast shows?

In September 2010, the government’s Consumer Expert Group criticised RadioCentre for having proposed a policy for the BBC’s Strategy Review that, it felt, would have “bullied” listeners.

Trying to bully listeners? Trying to bully the BBC? This is the war of the playground, not of a mature media industry that has a strategy of its own making, a plan, a roadmap for its future success. “It’s not fair. Your willy is bigger than mine.” No, it probably isn’t fair, but life deals you a hand, you have to stop whining, get on with it and make the best of what you’ve got.

Just accept this reality: commercial radio’s willy is never going to be as big as the BBC’s. So competing directly on size alone is a complete waste of time when, instead, you should be developing your own individual ‘technique’.

FRANCE: Digital radio “is not progressing one inch”

A meeting of radio sector stakeholders on Monday 15 March 2010 at France’s media regulator, the CSA, failed to progress the plan to launch digital terrestrial radio this year. According to Le Point, the commercial broadcasters – RTL, Europe 1, NRJ and RMC – demanded a moratorium. State broadcaster Radio France is one of the few continuing to support the CSA’s plan to launch digital radio, delayed from 2009 to mid-2010, using the T-DMB transmission standard.

A member of the Bureau de la Radio trade organisation commented: “There is no economic model [for digital radio]. The choice of the [T-DMB] broadcast standard adopted in Bercy is very expensive. The upside for listeners is not sufficient for us to fund a third broadcast platform to add to the existing Long Wave and FM [platforms]. … We are disappointed because this meeting has not enabled anything to progress. What happens next?”

According to Le Point, the regulator has responded only with “radio silence”. Its headline read: “Digital terrestrial radio is not progressing one inch.”