DAB Radio Switchover: Dead As The Dodo

In 2004, I wrote my first article predicting that the UK’s implementation of DAB digital radio was headed for failure. It was not guesswork. I had analysed radio industry data since 1980. I had worked  at The Radio Authority when it implemented DAB. I had worked  in Ofcom’s radio division. I had seen DAB from inside and outside the regulator and the commercial radio industry. Only five years after its launch, the available evidence demonstrated that DAB was headed for disaster in the UK.

I continued to write about DAB  –  in press articles, in analyst reports, in my blog, in my book ‘DAB Digital Radio: Licensed To Fail’  –  and to talk about DAB in radio and TV interviews. I did this not because I was ‘anti-DAB’ or a ‘campaigner’ (as some described me), but because my work as a media analyst requires me to carefully examine the facts and figures and to document their consequences. I had nothing to gain personally from stating evident truths.

Between 2004 and today, the UK radio industry could have scrutinised the growing collection of analyses that demonstrated DAB consumer take-up was failing. It could have taken firm, decisive action to transform DAB radio from failure to success. It chose not to. Instead, I found myself on the receiving end of abuse, slander and libel.

Two years ago, I stopped writing about UK radio in this blog because ‘Jimmy’s and ‘John’s were pasting my analyses into their press articles, blogs and corporate statements, uncredited and without permission. Those same people then e-mailed me to ask why I was no longer updating my blog!

I write today only to bookend this blog. In recent months, it has been interesting to witness some of my ‘critics’ make a 180-degree turn and suddenly herald the imminent non-event of DAB radio switchover, whilst citing my analyses (uncredited) in support of their newly adopted viewpoint.

I wrote about DAB because I consider that this single issue has contributed more to the decline of the UK radio industry than all other sector issues combined. Thousands of experienced radio professionals have lost their jobs. Hundreds of genuinely local radio stations have disappeared. Much radio in the UK has become a shadow of its former self. The medium is suffering rapidly declining appeal to those aged under 30. The industry that I have worked in since 1972 is on the rocks. Most of the blame for this sorry state of affairs can be laid directly at the UK radio industry’s single-minded pursuit of DAB since the 1990s, at the expense of all other objectives and at a cost of more than £1bn.

 

In 2011, I had been invited by the government’s Department of Culture, Media & Sport [DCMS] to participate in a consumer panel as part of its consultations about DAB switchover. Addressing an audience of industry stakeholders, I predicted that the government would kick the DAB radio switchover decision into the long grass in 2013. I made the same prediction in my presentation to the board of one of the UK’s largest commercial radio companies [see above].

After the close of the DCMS stakeholder session, its chairperson, a civil servant in the DAB radio switchover section, leaned over to me and said something along the lines of: “You really shouldn’t be writing the things you do. People don’t like it, you know, and it is making them angry.”

She is one of a select group of people in DCMS, Ofcom, Digital Radio UK, the BBC and RadioCentre who have earned their livings by pumping out factually incorrect reports supporting their fiction that DAB radio is a massive UK success story and that DAB switchover is inevitable. Public money and BBC Licence Fees have paid many of these people for years to mislead the public and the media about DAB radio.

Anyone with knowledge of the UK radio industry and training in statistics could have concluded from available data during the last decade that the implementation of DAB radio in the UK was headed for disaster. My analyses were not ‘rocket science’. What riled the army of DAB propagandists was that my published analyses directly contradicted their bullshit. The final e-mail sent to me by the chief executive of the Digital Radio Development Bureau (forerunner of Digital Radio UK) said:

“If you are going to deliberately mis-use the information we provide to you to construct as negative a view as possible with cheap shots like those below then we just won’t co-operate with you in the future.”

He saw only “cheap shots”, rather than evidential analysis, in my 2008 Q2 commercial radio sector report published by Enders Analysis, which had said:

“Although it remains the most popular platform for digital radio, ‘DAB’ usage seems to be steadfastly stuck at 9.0% of total commercial radio listening, dwarfed by the continued dominance of analogue radio (69.2%). Whilst 87% of households now have access to digital TV, and 67% have access to the internet, DAB penetration remained static at 27.3% in Q2 2008. Sales of DAB receivers have failed to continue the momentum demonstrated in Q1 2008, unit sales having slowed to 108,000 in June 2008, their lowest monthly level since June 2007. With sales of DAB receivers still concentrated mainly in the Christmas period, the imminent danger is that the hardware’s relatively high average ticket price, combined with the effects of the consumer ‘squeeze’, could impact the much needed winter 2008 sales peak (552,000 units sold in December 2007).

Despite the sterling efforts of the Digital Radio Working Group (convened by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport) over the past eight months, the radio industry, as yet, seems no closer to finding an immediate solution to the problem of slow DAB take-up than it was a year ago. Although all parties agree that it is ’content’ that will drive consumers to purchase DAB radios, the major radio groups have still not unveiled any plans to stimulate the consumer market with new digital radio brands.”

Five years on, the numbers may have changed but the unresolved problems with DAB radio remain exactly the same. My analyses and predictions during the last decade have proven correct … while a small army of DAB propagandists have been paid handsomely during that time to produce a massive volume of ‘South Sea bubble’ hot air about DAB radio, partly paid for from public funds. Doubtless they will be rewarded for their failure.

Footnote: find out more in these selected writings on DAB radio:
Channel 4: Radio Ambitions Aim Too HighEnders Analysis, July 2007
The Future Of Digital Radio: Is It DAB?Enders Analysis, January 2008 
Tuned Into The Future Of Radio, Broadcast, June 2008
Channel 4 Radio: Six Feet UnderEnders Analysis, October 2008 
In The Ditch With DAB Radio, The Register, December 2008
Digital Radio In The UK: Progress And ChallengesEBU 3rd Digital Radio Conference, June 2009
Germans And Swiss Snub DAB, The Register, London, July 2009
‘Digital Britain’ And The Radio Sectoregta Radio Newsletter no.16, November 2009
DAB Is Dead, Index On Censorship, June 2010
DAB Digital Radio: Licensed To Fail, Radio Books, October 2010

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.