A reader comment appended to an online newspaper story this week about the decision of some commercial radio station owners to launch an anti-DAB radio marketing campaign said jokingly:
“Now all that’s needed before Christmas is for ‘Which’ to warn consumers of moral hazard in purchasing DAB radios.”
In fact, last month, ‘Which?’ [the UK consumer organisation] published its list of ‘Seven Christmas gifts to avoid’, two of which were DAB radio receivers. According to Which?:
“Argos Value Range CDAB8R digital radio and Roberts CRD-37 digital radio. Sound on both of these DAB radios is disappointingly poor.”
One of the enduring problems that has contributed to the slow take-up of DAB radio in the UK has been the consistently high retail prices of DAB radio receivers compared to analogue models. The radio industry has promised repeatedly over many years that the retail price of DAB radios would fall. It has, but nowhere near as much as hoped.
In order for unit prices to fall further, DAB radio receivers would have to be manufactured in production runs of millions in factories in China. Because the notion of DAB radio has failed to excite consumers during the last decade, not only in the UK but across Europe, those high production runs have not been achieved, so that the unit prices remain relatively high (average price paid in Q1 2010 was £91).
The problem with trying to produce low-price DAB radio receivers is that something inside them has to be sacrificed to keep costs down. Whereas the UK’s FM transmission system is sufficiently robust to permit usable reception of radio stations on even the cheapest hardware, the DAB transmission system is still not robust enough for usable reception in many circumstances. Additionally, with analogue radio, poor reception equals background noise and interference. Whereas, with DAB radio, poor reception equals no audio whatsoever.
This issue has long been known by the UK radio industry, but it proves a lot easier to ignore it than to fix it. So, the £55m marketing campaigns to persuade consumers to purchase DAB radios continue, despite the radio industry being aware that many consumers are likely to have unsatisfactory experiences with their newly purchased DAB radios.
At the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group meeting on 1 November 2010, UK manufacturer Roberts Radio admitted to pulling the plug on several receiver projects, including the industry’s long promised ‘£25 DAB radio’, because they could not meet Roberts’ minimum quality standards. Leslie Burrage, chief executive of Roberts Radio, told the meeting that there had been a 35 to 40% consumer return rate for its in-car DAB radio adapters.
Roberts Radio, unlike competitor Pure Digital, has been outspoken about its concerns that DAB radio is being marketed wrongly to UK consumers. Owen Watters, sales/marketing director of Roberts Radio, told the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group that he felt such campaigns should be advocating the merits of the DAB radio experience, rather than threatening consumers with the prospect of digital radio ‘switchover’.
The government’s Consumer Expert Group [CEG] raised these issues in its critical report on DAB for the government in September 2010. The government published its response to those criticisms on 30 November 2010:
Consumer Expert Group: “A clear and balanced public information campaign needs to be implemented through a trusted body, independent of the industry.”
Government: “If a decision is made to implement a digital radio switchover, we agree that a clear and balanced consumer information campaign will be important. A strategic plan for such a campaign is a central component of the Digital Radio Action Plan and we have invited representatives of the CEG to play a key role in advising on its development, for example through representation on the Market Preparation Group.”
Consumer Expert Group: “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.”
Government: “There is clearly a balance to be struck between reducing the cost burden on the consumer of a digital radio switchover, and ensuring devices are of a good standard and offer additional benefits to the listener. We want to see a competitive market for receivers which offers consumers choice on innovation and price.”
These government responses seem to qualify as ‘non-answers’ of exactly the type we have become all too used to when difficult, but important, issues have been raised about DAB radio implementation in the UK. The prevailing philosophy justifying DAB seems to be: ‘ask me no questions, I tell you no lies.’