Does the nation love its digital radio stations? 86% of UK adults say ‘no’

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]

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.]

DAB radio lies: lobbyist claims 40% of listening to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ show is via DAB

The Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 22 November 2010 @ 0735
Ford Ennals, chief executive, Digital Radio UK [FE]

Q: Doubts persist over this particular digital standard [DAB], don’t they? Let’s just go through some. First of all: that it’s a stop-gap and that we’d all be better off with internet radio, which will become possible in cars and all over the place, and that there will really be no need for DAB at all.

FE: Well, look, what is certain is that the future of radio in the UK, and right across Europe, is digital. And what that’s going to bring is more choice, more competition, and more innovation …

Q: [interrupts] But your particular ‘digital’ is DAB digital, isn’t it …

FE: [interrupts] Well, no. It’s …

Q: … and there are other technologies available?

FE: No, not at all. We’re here to support and promote the transition to digital radio in all its forms, whether it be online, whether it be on TV, or whether it be DAB. DAB is one of those platforms. But, what we do see is great certainty that DAB is, if you like, the broadcast transmission backbone of radio, not just in the UK, but in Europe. There are 40% of all your listeners this morning listen to this programme, are listening on a DAB radio. And, I think, the simple fact is that, if they were all listening online, it couldn’t be supported and the internet would crash. So, right now, IP, as you call it, or online, just isn’t the right technology. It can’t sustain broadcast transmission of radio, and it’s not cost-effective, and it isn’t an option in the short or medium term.

Q: [incredulous] 40% of our listeners are listening on digital? Does that include listeners in cars, because I don’t know a single person who has got a digital radio in their car, I don’t think?

FE: Well, I think you have highlighted the real opportunity here. Car manufacturers have been slow to put digital radios in cars but, since the passage of the Digital Economy Act and the launch of the Digital Radio Action Programme [sic], they’ve now committed to having all new cars with digital radios in by 2013, and we’ve started to see Ford and Vauxhall and Mini putting them in. And I think that’s very important because …

Q: [interrupts] The ‘40%.’ Sorry, though. The ‘40%’ figure – did that include people in cars?

FE: Yes, urm. The 40% does include people in cars …

Q: Really?

FE: … and the targets that government have set also includes people in cars. So, what government is saying is, and I think supported by industry, is that we want to see 50% of listening to a digital platform, including DAB, before we take a firm decision about a switchover date.

Q: Mmm. Last quarter, digital listening was actually down, wasn’t it? It sort of implies that the message isn’t getting through.

FE: Well, actually, as I said, 40% of listeners are listening on digital. That’s over 20 million people every week listening to digital. This year, we’ve seen it grow by 20%. So, typically, what we see is growth in the first half-year, it slows down in the second half, and then steps up again in the second half [sic]. So, actually, quarter-on-quarter, we’ve seen moderate growth, but 20% growth year-on-year, and we’re looking for a major step at the beginning of next year. And, what I would say to people, if you’re buying a radio for a present this Christmas, make sure it’s a digital radio.


…………………………………………………..

Dear ‘Today’

I was shocked to hear Ford Ennals, chief executive of lobby group Digital Radio UK, proclaim on your programme that:

“there are 40% of all your listeners this morning listen to this programme, are listening on a DAB radio.”

This statement is not merely an exaggeration, it is wholly untrue. The radio industry’s audience data (produced by RAJAR, published by Ofcom for Q1 2010) show that 27% of listening to Radio 4 is via all digital platforms, which include digital television, the internet … and DAB. See graph below.


In-car listening accounts for 19% of total radio usage, but this proportion is likely to be considerably higher during the morning commute period. Because DAB radios are installed in less than 1% of cars, it is probable that much, much less than 27% of listening to the ‘Today’ programme is via DAB.

Ford Ennals’ untruthful statement is only the latest in a long line of disinformation perpetuated by commercial forces that will gain financially from DAB take-up, and which are designed to mislead the public into buying DAB radios.

Yours

Grant Goddard

SPAIN: DAB enters the last chance saloon

DAB radio in Spain has been a disaster, not least for those commercial broadcasters who invested in new technology and distribution contracts, but who have generated no additional listeners or revenues. “Zero,” said Agustin Ruiz de Aguirre, technical director of Cadena SER. “The audience is zero.” He explained that a non-existent audience generates no revenues or profits because “who would want to advertise on a medium that does not deliver any consumers?”

Spanish broadcasting law requires stations that embarked upon DAB to continue broadcasting for the duration of their licences, regardless of whether anyone is listening or not. Ruiz de Aguirre said that all the commercial broadcasters are united with a single goal: to stop having to broadcast on DAB. To date, the government has not relented, though the current licences end in 2010 and 2011.

“I do not think analogue radio switch-off will happen in either the short or medium term,” said Xosé Ramón Pousa, professor in the Faculty of Communication Sciences at the University de Santiago de Compostela. “In this scenario, DAB is at a dead end.”


“We are a rarity”,
said Pere Vilas, who heads Spain’s drive for digital radio (and is the managing director of technology at state broadcaster RTVE). State radio has been simulcasting on DAB since 1998. Spanish broadcasting law has required a technical plan for DAB radio to be in place for the last year and a half, though nothing exists as yet. Such a plan is seen as DAB’s last chance to redeem itself in Spain.

“Work began a long time ago, even before digital television switchover,” admitted Xavier Redón, product marketing manager of transmission infrastructure provider Abertis Telecom. “But it is about to begin again.” Like DAB lobbyists elsewhere, Redón was quick to claim that the rest of Europe was already well down the road to DAB radio switchover. He asserted that, in France, all radios would have to be digital by 2013, and that Germany was creating a national DAB+ network in 2011.

Redón predicted that 2011 would be “key” to laying the groundwork for the re-launch of DAB in Spain. A glance at the website for DAB radio in Spain elicits a similarly optimistic stance. It states boldly: “Digital radio is a fact. It is not the future. It is the present.”

Until you realise that this latest news item was posted in April 2008.

BBC head of radio: DAB not “a clear enough offer to listeners”

The Tony Livesey Show, BBC Radio 5 Live, 28 October 2010 [excerpt]
Stephen Nolan, interviewer (presenter, BBC Radio Ulster) [SN]
Tim Davie, Director, BBC Audio & Music [TD]

SN: There are big problems with the digital spectrum, aren’t there, because we cannot seem to hit any target that we are given for people switching to digital?

TD: I don’t think we’ve had many targets … Let’s be honest, I don’t think we’ve had many targets in the past. Digital stations are doing well. Digital listening – we’ve got to be careful – includes online, which is doing pretty well, there’s more we can do. Then also you’ve got DAB. Now DAB, you’re right, it’s been marginally growing for a while …

SN: Why?

TD: I just don’t think it’s been a clear enough offer, in my language, to listeners. I mean, people love radio. They are very happy with their FM radio. Why on earth would you change? And I think the radio industry has to say: ‘the reason you will change is – here’s a load of content’. And there’s clues like 6 Music, or other …. you know, that people love. And here’s a load of stuff that people love, and here’s a better … this device does something better than the other one.

SN: Or, Tim, it’s for the BBC to take a huge risk, and a controversial risk at that, and to withdraw mainstream programming from the FM spectrum and put it onto DAB. Imagine how the numbers would soar if it had [BBC Radio 1 breakfast DJ Chris] Moyles or …

TD: [interrupts] Imagine my inbox!

SN: Exactly, exactly. It’s a serious point.

TD: Sure.

SN: Imagine if you had Moyles or [BBC Radio 2 breakfast DJ Chris] Evans exclusively on DAB, or a massive programme.

TD: Right! And … we could do that. The issue would be that, with current coverage levels and with the amount of devices – particularly in Northern Ireland – I would basically be saying that you can’t listen to it in your kitchen, and everyone pays the Licence Fee. So I think the strategy for digital, where we are taking things away, is not going to work. My approach would very much be that I do want you to feel a bit of pain for not having a digital radio, but that pain is not about not getting The Archers, or not getting Chris Moyles. It’s about: ‘you could get a bit more over here’, or ‘there’s a bit of [Radio] 4 Extra over here that you could really do with’, and that’s what television did with some of those channels.

SN: Do you think, in terms of the internet, that radio is going to fundamentally change?

TD: I think there will be a lot more on-demand, obviously, so people will expect to be able to call up a programme and …

SN: I’m talking about the [UK] Radioplayer, obviously, which people are describing as the new YouView for radio.

TD: Well, er, yeah. Basically, the Radioplayer is … we’ve got the whole industry together. Only about 3% of listening is online and I can’t understand that, as head of radio. I know I’m biased but, at the end of the day, when I’m shopping and doing my Tesco shop or wherever online, why aren’t I listening to the radio? [to SN] Well, you would relate to this because it means more listeners. I think that one of the things is that I think it’s a bit confusing. You’ve got the BBC on the iPlayer, which is pretty good, and we’ve got other bits and … So we’ve put it all together and there will be a thing called the Radioplayer. Now, it gets a bit complex, but I think the YouView thing that you refer to is when you’ve got an internet connection to your television. Now, when you click your television on, I want one Radioplayer icon where you can go in and listen to all the radio. Now, the …

SN: On the TV?

TD: Yeah. On any screen – sorry to sound ‘new age’ – any screen anywhere, whether it’s a … whatever the size of it, you can go and get all your radio services. We don’t currently have that.

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” (
Independent);
* “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” (
ITN).

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’.

GERMANY: “The over-40’s will be listening to radio on FM for the next 40 years”

On the afternoon of 10 August 2010, a group of radio people from Germany, Austria and Luxembourg gathered in Erfurt, Germany to discuss the future of radio in the digital age. They had been invited there by the media regulator for Thüringer state (TLM) and some of the region’s broadcasters. The event was entitled ‘Radio 2020: a radio future between optimism and pessimism’ and followed on from a similar event held a year earlier.

This year, the final conference session tackled the topic ‘Radio and the day after tomorrow: new possibilities for distribution and exploitation of radio content on the internet’. A presentation by Dr. Klaus Goldhammer, managing director of the Goldmedia Group in Berlin, included the assertion:

“Radio broadcasting and internet radio are different markets.”

Goldhammer plotted the flow of daytime audiences in Germany for broadcast radio and internet radio on the same graph. It demonstrated that the peak broadcast radio audience between 0700 and 0800 corresponded with the lowest daytime audience for internet radio. Conversely, the peak audience for internet radio was between 1800 and 0000, corresponding with broadcast radio’s lowest audience of the day (see the slide below from his presentation).

Goldhammer noted that 31% of internet radio’s daily hours listened were consumed between 1800 and 2100. This appears to be very different from the US experience where a significant volume of listening to internet radio takes place during office hours in workplaces. In Europe, listening to radio (any radio) at work is still nowhere near as common as it is in North America.

Goldhammer noted that the growth of internet radio listening was still very slow in Germany, compared to the growth in available internet bandwidth. He concluded that:

“The over-40’s will be listening to radio on FM for the next 40 years”

Lars Gerdau, managing director of LandesWelle Thüringen, a regional rock/pop radio station broadcast on 14 FM frequencies, commented:

“We see the whole [internet radio] thing has become much more complicated than a year ago. Firstly, it is very expensive to stream a lot of radio programmes and, secondly, we have no claim to be first [in the internet space]. We have time and will focus first on FM.”

After the conference, Inge Müller-Seibel, a German radio sector commentator, noted that neither was DAB radio replacing FM as the main listening platform:

“After two decades of experimentation in Germany, the future of digital [terrestrial] radio remains uncertain. It was 1987 when the new DAB transmission technology was presented for the first time at the IFA in Berlin. Some ten years later, the German states listened to Brussels and recommended the closure of their terrestrial FM frequencies by 2015 at the latest. But almost nobody believes it will happen, and now the radio stations are putting more hope in new distribution technologies via the internet.”

And a reporter at this year’s IFA consumer electronics fair wrote:

“Digital radio is not a success story in Germany. Little more than 500,000 digital receivers have been purchased, a tiny number compared to the several million analogue FM receivers.”

A recent article in Die Welt newspaper asked ‘When will FM radio die?’ and explained:

“In fact, the [FM] technology should no longer exist. Originally, the abolition of FM was planned for this year. Instead, radio listeners across the country should have been receiving only digital signals. But the outcome has been different because most people are completely satisfied with the quality of good old FM stereo, and because of the inertia from an estimated 300 million FM radio receivers in Germany. Only a few geeks have so far bought digital radios with DAB technology.

Additionally, it is mobile phones, a symbol of the triumph of digital technology, that have supported the continuation of analogue FM radio. This is because most phones have a built-in FM radio receiver.”

[thanks to Katrin Penzel]

UK commercial radio audiences: one swallow doesn’t make “long-term and sustained growth”

UK commercial radio has been in the doldrums for the last decade. Its audiences have been battered by competition from the BBC, revenues have been declining, and some local stations have been forced to close or merge (sorry, ‘co-locate’). So, when a piece of good news comes along, it is natural that it will be celebrated. The latest RAJAR audience survey for Q2 2010 provided just one such fillip of positivity for the commercial radio sector. But, sometimes, what should have been a small private party gets turned into a showy public display of excess by the celebrants.

This appears to have been the case with commercial radio’s take on its latest audience figures. Maybe it was the effects of too much champagne, but the RadioCentre press release stated:

“This is a fantastic set of results for the commercial radio sector showing long-term and sustained growth by every measure.”

This might have been an appropriate thing to say to a roomful of cheering partygoers but, in the sober light of day, sticking this claim in a press release was bound to invite closer scrutiny. In the following graphs, the main RAJAR metrics for UK commercial radio are put in historical perspective. In these graphs, we are seeking what RadioCentre told us is “long-term and sustained growth” in “every measure.”

UK commercial radio adult weekly reach hit an all-time low of 60.9% as recently as Q3 2009, then subsequently made gains in three consecutive quarters to 63.7% in Q2 2010. Growth? Yes (three consecutive quarters). Sustained growth? Not really. Long-term growth? No.

UK commercial radio total adult listening hit an all-time low the previous quarter (Q1 2010) of 419m hours per week, then bounced back in Q2 2010 to 445m hours per week. Growth? Yes (one quarter). Sustained growth? No. Long-term growth? No.

UK commercial radio average hours listened per adult listener hit an all-time low of 13.0 hours per week the previous quarter (Q1 2010), then bounced back in Q2 2010 to 13.5 hours per week. Growth? Yes (one quarter). Sustained growth? No. Long-term growth? No.

UK commercial radio’s share of adult listening hit an all-time low of 41.1% in Q1 2008 and, since then, has bounced up and down. Last quarter (Q1 2010), it had hit its second lowest level ever (41.3%) before rebounding to 43.2% in Q2 2010. Growth? Yes (one quarter). Sustained growth? No. Long-term growth? No.

UK commercial radio absolute adult reach is the only metric that is presently at an all-time high of 32.9m adults per week in Q2 2010. It jumped up that quarter because once a year, in Q2, RAJAR increases all its adult totals to account for the 1% per annum UK population increase. It is positive that more people are listening to commercial radio but, at the same time, as the result of population growth, there are also more people listening to BBC radio, and more people not listening to radio at all. However, commercial radio’s absolute reach has not grown sufficiently in the long term to even keep pace with the increasing UK population.

So, in total, it seems impossible to locate commercial radio’s “long-term and sustained growth” in the latest RAJAR data. I point out these facts because I want to see commercial radio succeed. The sector desperately needs to attract more hours listened in the long term if it is to improve revenues and return to profitability. This has not yet happened. There is no point pretending that it has.

As for RadioCentre, an inaccurate statement of fact is an inaccurate statement of fact is an inaccurate statement of fact. Telling the world that your industry is enjoying “long-term and sustained growth” might be good propaganda for rallying your troops, but surely it must undermine the commercial radio industry trade body’s credibility with the rest of the world if it clearly is not true.

What is to be achieved for the radio sector by the RadioCentre press release crossing that line between hype and untruth?

Lies, damned lies and … Ofcom’s first digital radio progress report

Ofcom quietly published its first Digital Radio Progress Report in July 2010, without fanfare or a press release. This report has been a remarkably long time coming, given that DAB radio has been with us more than a decade. During that time, Ofcom has published 26 Digital Television Progress Reports, starting in 2003.

Here was an opportunity for Ofcom to demonstrate that it is acting in the public interest by publishing solid, objective data about the progress of digital radio in the UK. Did it take that opportunity? No. Instead, Ofcom published a set of data that are so selective and so distorted that they misrepresent the progress (or lack of it) made to date in advancing the UK towards the ‘digital radio switchover’ that our government is determined to execute. Why? Because Ofcom (like the government’s DCMS department) seems determined to persuade us that its totally unrealistic plan for DAB radio has not been an unmitigated disaster with the citizen/consumers on whose behalf it is supposed to be working.

It might appear pedantic to pick over the details of data represented in this feeble 24-page Ofcom report. However, it must be stressed that this is no nitpicking exercise. The Digital Economy Act 2010 insists that this very document submitted by Ofcom (and another by the BBC) to the government will decide whether the UK will progress to ‘digital radio switchover’. It is these data that will decide whether we can continue to receive BBC network radio stations on the 100 million analogue radios that are out there. It is these data that could mean we have to replace perfectly satisfactory analogue radio receivers in every household across the country, at a cost of millions to consumers.

To note the issues in the order they appear in the Ofcom report:

FIGURE 1:
This Ofcom graph purports to show that:
* Digital platforms’ share of radio listening increased from 12.8% to 24.0% between 2007 and 2010 (this is TRUE);
* Analogue platforms’ share of listening decreased from 87.2% to 76.0% between 2007 and 2010 (this is FALSE).

The four figures cited in Figure 1 for the analogue platform – 87.2% in 2007, 82.2% in 2008, 79.9% in 2009 and 76.0% in 2010 – are an Ofcom invention. These false data seek to demonstrate that a rapid decline in analogue listening has taken place. This is not true. As the graph below shows, analogue listening has remained remarkably static over this timeframe.

The situation is complicated by two facts: a significant proportion of radio listening remains ‘unspecified’ by respondents in RAJAR listening surveys, and that this proportion has varied greatly in size in different surveys. However, this does not detract from the falsehood of Ofcom’s attempt to demonstrate that analogue listening is in sharp decline.

FIGURE 2:
This Ofcom graph purports to show that:
* 54% of 15-24 year olds use digital radio;
* 57% of 25-34 year olds use digital radio;
* 56% of 55-64 year olds use digital radio;
* 46% of 65-74 year olds use digital radio;
* 29% of 75+ year olds use digital radio.

In fact, the fine print explains that Ofcom had asked the question ‘Have you ever used digital radio?’ This ensured that the results were almost meaningless because they tell us nothing whatsoever about current usage of digital radio. For example, a 68-year old who, on a single occasion ten years ago, had listened to digital radio for 10 minutes will have answered ‘yes’, despite having made no further usage during the last decade.

Ofcom’s objective here seems to have been to highlight the large size of the resulting numbers, without indicating that they derive from an almost useless question (garbage in, garbage out). If you were to ask people ‘Have you ever bought a banana?’, almost 100% would respond ‘yes’. Their answers tell you absolutely nothing about the current market for bananas. Exactly the same is true of digital radio usage. In this context, the resulting numbers seem remarkably low because only half the population has ever tried digital radio (even once in their lifetime).

FIGURE 3:
This Ofcom graph purports to show that:
* 53% of adults use digital radio;
* 63% of adults in socio-economic groups AB use digital radio;
* 55% of adults in socio-economic group C1 use digital radio;
* 48% of adults in socio-economic group C2 use digital radio;
* 42% of adults in socio-economic groups DE use digital radio.

Just as in Figure 2, the fine print explains that Ofcom had asked the question ‘Have you ever used digital radio? The same issues apply here as with Figure 2.

FIGURE 5:
This Ofcom graph shows digital platforms’ share of total radio listening, but the data omit:
* A comparison with the analogue platform;
* A time sequence to show how fast the market is changing.

The following graph demonstrates the slow growth of digital platforms and their low level in comparison with analogue. It also demonstrates that a proportion of the growth in digital platform usage is the result of a statistical technicality caused by a reduction of ‘unspecified’ listening in recent quarters.

The following graph demonstrates the slow growth of individual digital platforms since 2007, using the same scale as applied in the preceding graph.

FIGURE 8:
This Ofcom graph purports to show that:
* “five digital-only services generated a weekly reach of 1 million+ listeners in Q1 2010.”

However, the fine print explains that the Ofcom data refer to “all listeners [aged] 4+”, whereas the radio industry’s standard metric is and always has been ‘adults 15+’. Indeed, all RAJAR audience data used in this same Ofcom report refer to ‘adults 15+’, except for Figure 8.

Once the graph is re-worked using ’15+’ instead of ‘4+’ data (see above), it is evident that:
* Only three digital-only radio stations generate a weekly reach of 1million+ adult listeners;
* BBC World Service was included in the Ofcom graph (and was one of the five stations cited as exceeding 1m weekly reach) even though it is not digital-only, being available across a large part of the UK on 648AM;
* BBC Asian Network was omitted from the Ofcom graph (also available on analogue but limited to the Midlands);
* Not only are Panjab Radio and NME Radio no longer available on the national DAB platform (as the Ofcom text notes), but Q Radio is no longer on DAB, and the BBC has proposed the closure of Asian Network;
* These weekly reach data for digital-only stations should be considered in the context of analogue radio stations – for example, BBC Radio 2 has a weekly adult reach of 14.6million.

FIGURE 9:
This Ofcom graph purports to show that:
* Digital radio’s current share of listening is “broadly in line with the organic growth outlined on the [government’s] forecast chart.”

Bizarrely, the Ofcom graph displays the government forecasts but has omitted the historical data that would show how successfully the forecast has been achieved to date.

The forecast published in June 2009 predicted that, by year-end 2009 (a mere six months later), digital platforms would account for 24% or 26%, the latter the result of a concerted ‘drive to digital.’ In fact, the year-end figure was 21%. The likely reason that Ofcom has failed to include the historical data is that neither of the two forecasts (‘organic growth’ or the ‘drive to digital’) has any chance of being realised. If the current growth rate is extrapolated, the 50% criterion will be reached by year-end 2018, and certainly not by either 2013 or 2015, as the forecast (credited to Value Partners) predicted.

FIGURE 14:
This Ofcom graph and accompanying text assert that:
* “DAB sets made up over a fifth (21%) of all radio sales by volume” in the year to Q1 2010;
* “In the portable market, DAB sets accounted for 65% of sales.”

However, Ofcom omitted to point out that:
* Fewer DAB radios had been sold in 2009 than in 2008;
* DAB radios were a lower proportion of total radios sold in 2009 than in 2008;
* Its reference to “the portable market” is limited strictly to ‘portable radios’ of the type used in kitchens. There is not a single mobile phone on sale in the UK that includes DAB radio, and the vast majority of portable media players that include radio do not have DAB radio.

In fact, the data in the graph above demonstrate that:
* DAB radio receiver sales volumes peaked in 2007/8 at 2.2million per annum and have declined 13% since then to 1.9million per annum;
* Analogue radios contributed a greater proportion of total radio receiver sales in 2009 (79%) than they had in 2008 (78%);
* DAB has not invigorated the market for radios, with fewer radios sold now than ever, perhaps due to evident consumer confusion about ‘digital radio switchover’.

FIGURE 17:
The Ofcom graph shows that:
* 17% of adults say they are likely to buy a DAB radio in the next 12 months.

However, the Ofcom graph does not offer a historical perspective. The graph above demonstrates that the propensity to purchase a DAB radio has diminished over time. In 2006, 17% of respondents said they would be likely to buy a DAB radio within the next six months. In 2010, 17% said they would be likely to buy a DAB radio within the next 12 months. This would translate into a significant reduction in DAB radio receiver sales. Additionally, the proportion of respondents who say they do not know if they will purchase a DAB radio continues to increase over time, perhaps a further symptom of market confusion or DAB indifference.
————
Given that Ofcom has had the luxury of several years to prepare this first Digital Radio Progress Report, the result is a travesty. It should not be the regulator’s role to selectively highlight and distort data that support its own policies in a document specifically requested by government in order to inform a parliamentary decision on digital radio switchover. We deserve better from our public servants. Otherwise, they might as well go and work for Digital Radio UK, the lobby group (funded by commercial interests and the BBC) busy pumping out propaganda to try and persuade consumers that they need DAB radio.

On page 5 of this first Digital Radio Progress Report, Ofcom notes:

“Our principal general duty, when carrying out our radio functions, is … to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters.”

Exactly how are citizens’ interests being furthered by Ofcom distorting the facts about digital radio take-up?

DAB radio’s slow consumer take-up: lessons not learnt from FM radio 50 years earlier

“Without a knowledge of your history, you cannot determine your destiny”

Misty In Roots, ‘Live At The Counter-Eurovision 1979’
Recent history can teach us important lessons. Efforts to turn dreams into reality come a lot easier if we learn from what has gone before us, what has gone right, and what has gone wrong. This is as true in radio as it is in any human endeavour.
Dr. Stephen Lax, Senior Lecturer in Communications Technology at the University of Leeds’ Institute of Communications Studies, has written an excellent paper entitled ‘A Vision For Radio: Engineering Solutions For Changing Audiences – From FM to DAB’. It was published in a recent anthology ‘Digital Radio In Europe’. The following are excerpts taken directly from Dr. Lax’s work and document what the radio industry should have learnt from the slow consumer take-up of FM radio half a century ago before it embarked upon DAB radio.
“The introduction of FM was itself no straightforward matter of replacing its AM forebear, and neither have innovations in radio technology in the half century that followed been unproblematic. It is in the context of this history that the emergence of DAB should be studied.
Like DAB, FM was widely claimed to offer a significant improvement in sound quality in comparison with the then universal AM modulation system. By the early 1940s, its technical superiority was established. One leading figure amongst US radio engineers, W.R.G. Baker, suggested in 1943 that FM was ‘so much better technically than the present regular broadcast system that it can’t fail of acceptance.’ Yet, despite such advantages, for several decades it did indeed fail to be accepted as a replacement for AM.

[…]
Following a UK launch in 1955, the BBC rolled out the FM service relatively quickly: by the end of 1959, most transmitters had been upgraded and 96.4% of the population was within range of the signals; but, even ten years later, when coverage was over 99%, the corporation noted that only one third of households had any form of FM receiver. A similarly slow rise in the popularity of FM continued in the US: although FM services had begun there on the VHF band some ten years earlier than in the UK, it was not until after 1979 that FM finally achieved a higher share of listening than AM.
[…]
[In 1974], [BBC director of engineering James] Redmond expressed puzzlement at the slow adoption of FM, even for fixed reception in the home. Despite its superior sound quality, he noted that ‘changeover has been slower than anticipated.’ …. [One] reason was the simulcasting of radio programmes on FM and on AM, rather than offering new programmes on the new service: listeners would only be able to hear on FM what their AM receivers already gave them.
[…]
This history serves as an illustration of how an apparently self-evidently superior technology pursued as a solution to a problem of audio quality did not automatically find favour with listeners, who […] were apparently prepared to put up with inferior sound and were less inclined to adopt FM while it offered little new programming or competition with television in the evening.
[…]
A mismatch is revealed between the broadcasters’ and engineers’ beliefs as to what was important to listeners, and the preferences and priorities of the vast majority of those listeners themselves.
[…]
[A group of audio enthusiasts] was contrasted [by Wireless World magazine in 1961] with ‘the most important group of all, the reasonable layman’ who simply wants decent reproduction at a reasonable cost, and it is this far larger group that no doubt hesitated to replace perfectly adequate AM receivers with the more expensive FM variety.
[…]
…. early promotion of DAB by the industry certainly used the phrase ‘CD-quality sound’, and placed this and related phrases at the top of the list of DAB’s advantages.
[…]
However, just as the slow pace of adoption of FM confounded broadcasters, for whom its advantages were self-evident, DAB too has failed to gain an enthusiastic embrace from the audience.
[…]
The exhortation ‘radio must go digital’ has been expressed repeatedly over the years: for example, by the Director General of Audio Visual Policy at the European Union’s Media programme, Spyros Papas, in 1998; by BBC Director of Radio, Jenny Abramsky, in 2003; and, more recently, in 2009 by French National Assembly member Patrice Martin-Lalande and, less surprisingly, by Quentin Howard of World DMB. For these commentators, the logic of this transition is self-evident and so needs little explanation, technical or otherwise, and none is offered – put simply, radio cannot remain an analogue technology when all other consumer technologies are digital. Yet, however compelling the logic might be from a technical point of view, the development of both FM and of DAB have failed to follow it: both have emerged only slowly and, in the case of DAB, its future remains uncertain.
[…]
A further difficulty for DAB was the changing landscape of radio in many countries during the period of its development such that, by the time of its public launch in 1995, it was seen by some as reflecting a view of the radio industry that was out of date.
[…]
Just as, by the time FM was launched, other changes in radio had made its introduction more complex, so too we can observe similar, non-technological reasons for the problems in introducing DAB.
[…]
In the case of digital radio, it is possible to identify a number of intentions behind its development, from an imagined need to compete with other emerging technologies to a macro-economic need to aid a key industry. In contrast to the history of radio technology frequently presented as a straightforward series of technical challenges faced and solutions proffered, we find instead that apparently compelling innovations follow a complex path in which cultural practices and economic interests must be taken into account.”

[reprinted with permission of the author]

Cost/benefit analysis of DAB radio: Murdoch rushes in where governments fear to tread

Governments have had plenty of practice, over many years, of hiding reports from the electorate. In some cases, they might justify this as a matter of national security or military expedience. However, it is hard to understand how the UK government thought it could justify hiding from the public a cost/benefit analysis of digital radio switchover it had commissioned and then, a year later, have believed the matter had been successfully buried. But so it was, until the House of Lords Communications Committee intervened in early 2010.

On 6 February 2009, PricewaterhouseCoopers [PWC] delivered a 91-page report entitled ‘Cost Benefit Analysis of Digital Radio Migration’ to Ofcom. It contained a number of serious reservations that any benefits would arise from switchover to DAB radio, even by the year 2030:

“The results suggest that there are relatively few up-sides to the estimates, and several significant downside risks. … The results suggest that there is a very long pay-back from the Digital Radio Working Group [DRWG] policy ‘investment’ – the Net Present Value [NPV] turns positive after 2026. This result assumes that the existing multiplex licences are extended to 2030, as per the DRWG recommendations. Without the licence extension or any other policy instruments that provide clarity on the long term future of commercial radio, the industry and consumers may fail to see the benefits of digital radio over the longer term. Our analysis suggests that the NPV is negative should either of these two proposals not be implemented.” [emphasis added]

Since then, parliamentary policy has failed to provide “clarity on the long term future of commercial radio,” as evidenced by last week’s wholly ambivalent government statement about digital radio switchover. As a result, just as PWC predicted, industry and consumers increasingly “fail to see the benefits of digital radio over the longer term.”

The PWC report, and its verdict that digital radio switchover offers almost no benefits, remained hidden from public view from February until November 2009, when an appendix to the government’s Digital Economy Bill mentioned it casually. That citation raised questions: what was this PWC report, and why could not the public see it?

When the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications convened in January 2010 to consider the digital switchover issue, it asked those same questions of the Ofcom officers it invited to present evidence:

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: We understand that you commissioned a report from PWC last year into the costs and benefits of digital switchover in radio, but you didn’t publish it. We know, therefore, what we have learned from the Department for Culture, Media & Sport about what it said. It appears that it found, for example, that the benefits could – and I emphasise the word “could” – outweigh the costs by £437 million after 2026, but that conclusion is hedged about with quite a lot of caveats to do with what would have to happen in order for that good outcome to eventuate, and that if those things didn’t happen, then quite quickly you would get into a position where the costs would outweigh the benefits. Can you tell us a bit about that report? In particular, can you tell us why you haven’t published it? Do you think that, given what it appears to say – I choose my words carefully – about the constraints on potential for benefit, that it should have been available to inform the Government’s digital policy? ….. [edited]

Mr Peter Davies [Director of Radio Policy & Broadcast Licensing, Ofcom]: We were asked to commission it by the Government. We then commissioned it from PWC with a lot of input from various government departments and then submitted it to the Secretary of State.

Chairman: So you decided not to publish it.

Mr Stewart Purvis [Partner for Content & Standards, Ofcom]: …. [edited] On this particular occasion, it was decided in conjunction with the Department that work would be sent to the Department. Perhaps the most important thing is for Peter to respond to your characterisation of the work, but, in a sense, we have not hidden the piece of work. Indeed, I think it is now available to you. Is that right?

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: In, as they say, a redacted form.

Chairman: Just to be absolutely clear, the Department asked you to commission the work from PWC. Is that what you are saying?

Mr Purvis: They asked us to commission the work. Did they ask us specifically from PWC?

Mr Davies: Not specifically from PWC.

Chairman: The Department said to Ofcom, “Ofcom, you go and commission this particular work.” Is that the position?

Mr Davies: Yes.

Chairman: You then got the work which then came back to you and then you sent it to the Government and the Government said, “We’re not going to publish this in full.”

Mr Davies: I think they have certainly made it available to various groups. I think consumer groups have had it for some time.

Chairman: Fine. There will be no problem, therefore, in this Committee having the full report. …. [edited]

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: The thing that is slightly troubling – perhaps only to me, but a bit – is that when you see what appears to be evidence that the costs and benefits are, let’s say, finely balanced, or could be, that the drive towards digital migration, one might think, was driven more by the technology than by the needs either of the broadcasters or the consumers.

The Committee’s displeasure with Ofcom and the government was evident both in this exchange and in its subsequent report on digital switchover, published in March 2010, which stated:

“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’s response to the Committee’s statement, published in June 2010, was:

“The Cost Benefit Analysis produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers, to accompany the work of the Digital Radio Working Group, was widely distributed amongst broadcasters and consumer representatives. However, there were technical difficulties which prevented the initial publication of the report on the DCMS website; these were rectified and the report published in February 2010.”

“Technical difficulties” for a whole year? As excuses go, this really takes the biscuit. It seems unlikely that the PWC report would ever have been made public, if not for the intervention of the House of Lords Communications Committee in January 2010 (first publication of the report’s findings was in this blog a few days later).

The PWC report did not offer the government the support for its digital radio switchover strategy that it had anticipated, so now it has to commission a further cost/benefit analysis which it hopes will produce a more favourable outcome. Is the government in a hurry to complete another study evaluating the supposed benefits of digital radio switchover? Hardly, judging by the evidence.

In June 2009, the government’s Digital Britain report had promised:

“We will conduct a full Impact Assessment, including a Cost/Benefit Analysis of Digital Radio Upgrade.”

In January 2010, Ofcom’s Peter Davies had offered evidence to the House of Lords Communications Committee:

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.

Most recently, 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]

Why bother with yet another report at this late hour in DAB’s history? Someone else has already done the sums. News International has just run its sliderule over the idea of launching a national digital radio station ‘SunTalk’ (a brand extension of its national daily newspaper ‘The Sun’) on the DAB platform. Its result was: DAB radio is not a viable commercial platform.

According to The Guardian: “News International management were considering extending the [SunTalk] station’s reach by launching it nationally on DAB digital radio. But it is understood they baulked at the extra cost.”

If Murdoch cannot see a way to make a profit from a broadcast platform that is crying out for compelling content, then how exactly does any other content owner think it can make a financial return from DAB radio?

It’s the platforms Rupert Murdoch rejects ….

DAB radio: a national platform that no one wanted

In 1998, the Radio Authority advertised a licence for the “first and only national commercial digital [DAB] multiplex licence.” There was no stampede of applicants. By June 1998, the regulator had to issue a press release with the headline “Radio Authority receives one application ….” The sole applicant was ‘Digital One’, 57% of which was owned by commercial radio’s GWR Group plc, whose chief executive Ralph Bernard later admitted:

“GWR was encouraged to apply for the national [DAB multiplex] licence and was under some pressure to invest in the opportunities for a national licence from the then regulator. Had we not done it, there would be no national DAB platform now. Not only that, [the regulator] did not know what they would have done on the question of national radio stations with regard to the opportunities given by the then government to renew their national licences for a further period of time if they were to commit to going digital. But how can you [do that] if there are no opportunities to go digital because there is no national multiplex? When I put that question to the Radio Authority, I was told that the answer was: ‘We don’t know what would happen – there is no Plan B’. It was just an assumption that someone would go for [the national multiplex].”

Bernard had a hard time convincing his own board that the DAB licence was a worthwhile investment for a radio group that, until then, had owned radio stations rather than transmission infrastructure:

“When we were seduced into believing that this was going to be the only [national DAB] licence, we realised that there would be substantial losses, but the payback would be when you have the opportunity to be the only player in the national market for DAB. When it’s the Radio Authority, an agency of government, you tend to believe what you are told. On that basis, the investment was justified and, at the time, getting it through my Board was not easy. Persuading shareholders, particularly the larger ones, was not easy.”

Now, twelve years later, GWR Group no longer exists, Ralph Bernard is out of the commercial radio business, but the ‘Digital One’ national DAB platform is still there. Nobody really wanted it in 1998, and nobody really seems to want it now. Its ownership has changed hands like pass-the-parcel, GWR Group plc having merged into GCap Media plc, which was then sold to Global Radio which, in 2009, sold its majority stake in Digital One to transmission provider Arqiva. How many millions were thrown at Digital One over the years by GWR, GCap and Global Radio will probably never be known.

The only thing cheap about Digital One was the cost of its initial 12-year licence, a mere £10,000 per annum paid to the regulator for the radio spectrum it uses. The business model was that Digital One would lease space on the DAB platform to radio stations that would pay it rent (about £1m per year, dependent upon audio quality). Since opening for business in 1999, many digital-only stations have tried using the platform but, to date, almost none have stuck around. No digital radio station has yet made a profit.

The latest additions to the lengthening list of stations that have failed to make the national DAB platform work for them are NME Radio and Panjab Radio, both of which quit Digital One in June 2010 (see shaded area of table). The reason? Almost no one was listening. Add together the digital-only stations broadcasting on the platform last quarter (and that are measured by RAJAR) and, in total, they accounted for less than 1% of total radio listening.

Yet the radio industry, the receiver manufacturers and their lobby groups are still spending money on campaigns to convince the public that DAB radio is a raging success. Digital One says its radio platform reaches “more than 90%” of the [UK] population,” equivalent to 46 million adults. RAJAR tells us that 35% of those adults have a DAB radio. Yet only 226,000 adults per week listened to NME Radio, after nearly two years on-air. If you were in any way persuaded to believe the hype surrounding DAB, your business plan to start a digital radio station might look dangerously over-optimistic.

When NME Radio launched in June 2008, it had forecast that its audience would reach 396,000 adults per week by its second year. For most of its life, the station was broadcast on local DAB multiplexes (and online). Then, from 21 December 2009, NME Radio was made available nationally on DAB for an eight-month trial. Broadcasting to a much bigger potential audience, there should have been a positive uplift to the station’s performance in Q1 2010. However, there was no noticeable impact upon adult reach (226,000) or hours listened.

In its forecasts, NME Radio had projected that DAB would be “53%” by 2010. Maybe this referred to Ofcom’s forecast that, by year-end 2010, digital platforms (not DAB alone) would account for 50% of all radio listening. In fact, in Q1 2010, only 15% of listening to all radio was via DAB, and 24% was via all digital platforms (worse for commercial radio at 12% and 23% respectively). Ofcom’s forecast of how digital radio usage would grow was disastrously inaccurate. NME Radio did not stand a chance of commercial success using DAB.

The other digital radio station that quit the national DAB platform in June 2010 was Panjab Radio. Like NME Radio, it had broadcast via local DAB multiplexes (and online), but was then made available nationally on DAB for a six-month trial from 1 December 2009.

There was no lift to Panjab Radio’s audience in Q4 2009, but the following quarter saw a noticeable increase to 172,000 adult reach and 913,000 hours listened per week. This was almost twice the amount of listening that NME Radio recorded on the national DAB platform, a real achievement for an ethnic radio station.

The day Panjab Radio had joined the national DAB platform, Digital One operations director Glyn Jones said:

“Like Premier Christian Radio and UCB UK, Panjab Radio relied on a fund-raising appeal to pay for the launch of the station. It’s interesting to see the growth of listener-supported stations, and the way they’re extending the range and choice of stations on air via digital radio. These are stations that neither a traditional commercial model nor the BBC have chosen to provide, but which listeners value so much that they’re prepared to help pay for them out of their own pockets.”

The sub-text was that the Digital One national DAB platform cannot support a commercial digital-only radio station because the financial returns are simply insufficient to cover the expense for it to lease space on the platform. If Panjab Radio had managed to sell advertising at the average commercial radio sector rate, it should have generated £1m per annum of revenue. However, an industry study in 2009 found that the average digital radio station generated only £130,000 revenue per annum (and Panjab Radio attracted less listening than others).

When Panjab Radio quit the national DAB platform in June 2010, Digital One’s Glyn Jones issued a press release that seemed over-eager to deflect the blame:

“Panjab Radio’s revenues come from a mix of traditional radio advertising plus fund raising among Britain’s Panjabi and Sikh communities. Following a strategic and financial review the station opted to end its national transmissions but to continue to broadcast on DAB digital radio in three parts of the country with significant concentrations of the target audience – the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and London.”

As the table above demonstrates, the national DAB platform’s history is littered with commercial digital radio stations that failed to make it work for them. Most of the stations currently on the national DAB platform are non-commercial and so do not need to meet their costs from advertising revenues. But religious stations, army radio and unsigned artists do not come close to the mass market purpose for which the platform was originally envisaged. Did GWR Group make its substantial investment in national DAB in the expectation that, after a decade, the platform would be filled with subsidised radio stations attracting tiny audiences?

Two years ago, I had written:

“This sudden flowering of ethnic, religious and publicly-funded radio stations on the DAB platform echoes the fate of the ‘AM’ waveband in the 1990s … The ‘DAB’ platform of 2008, particularly in London, is already starting to resemble the ‘AM’ platform of 1998, suggesting that ‘DAB’ might have already been written off by the sector as a means to reach the ‘mass market’ audiences that national advertisers desire from the medium.”

Since then, this desperate filling of DAB multiplex capacity with non-commercial stations has spread from London to the national platform. Bizarrely, given the overwhelming empirical evidence that this “first and only national commercial” DAB platform is not working, even after a decade of operation, Ofcom is keen to create a second quasi-national DAB platform. Its rationale is that:

“This could help to facilitate the creation of national commercial radio stations to create a consumer proposition analogous to that of Freeview: a wide range of popular and niche services, delivered digitally” because “we believe DAB still offers the best solution for the future growth of radio in the UK.”

This nonsense was written in an Ofcom report less than a year ago, when the writing on the wall could not have been larger that the national DAB platform’s future for commercial radio was doomed. Surely, a regulator that refuses to deal with the reality of the here and now could be a regulator that will eventually find it has no future. For years, Ofcom (and its predecessor) have led the commercial radio sector a merry dance down a DAB blind alley that has proven almost fatal to the industry’s economic health.

If Ofcom publishes one more policy document proclaiming (as if it were still 1998) that ‘the future of radio’ is DAB, rather than it working to bang industry heads together to find a practical route out of the present mess, all it will succeed in doing is writing its own epitaph.