FRANCE: government report recommends 2-3 year “moratorium” before launch of digital radio

A new report on the introduction of digital terrestrial radio (‘DAB radio’ in the UK) in France has recommended to the government that the launch should be delayed by two to three years. In the interim, the French media regulator CSA would be asked to establish a project to investigate the “overseas experiences” of digital radio, according to the government press release.

David Kessler, former head of state radio station France Culture, was commissioned in June 2010 by the government to produce a strategic analysis of the launch of digital radio in France. His interim report, published in November 2010 [see blog], identified the “paradox of DAB radio – it is a sufficiently attractive technology to be launched successfully, but it is insufficiently attractive to successfully allow FM broadcasts to cease.”

In the final report, published this week, Kessler said that not all the conditions had been met from an economic standpoint to permit the widespread launch of digital terrestrial radio. His report identified the significantly different challenges between digital radio switchover and digital television switchover:

“An error in logic has probably contributed greatly to making the debate [about digital radio] opaque rather than transparent. The error came from having planned digital radio switchover with reference to digital television switchover, which started in 2005 and the success of which has been staggering and immediate, so that the changeover from analogue to digital TV will be completed throughout the land by 2012. Many parties imagined that the route to digital opened up by television would be followed by radio. But this plan was wrong for three reasons.

Firstly, the television market was dominated in 2005 by five channels (TF1, France 2, France 3, France 5/Arte and M6) that attracted 75% of television viewing. The transition to a score of free channels was obviously very attractive. However, as will be discussed later, the situation in radio is quite different – the current choice of stations is one of the richest that exists in the world, after the landscape opened up in the 80s. Even if the choice is not the same in every region, none of them – some near – are in a situation where only five major stations dominate the choice.

Second is the difference in receivers. Even if digital radio switchover had been launched simultaneously with that of television, where the evolution of televisions (flat screen, HD and now 3D) resulted in a faster replacement of equipment than anticipated, digital television was accessible without changing the set through the purchase of a single adaptor at a moderate price. Digital radio switchover requires the replacement of all receivers, and households have multiple radios and the market is sluggish. Without doubt, digital radio switchover could re-invigorate the market with a simple, inexpensive high-end (with screen) radio. At this point, no one can say how quickly take-up of replacement receivers will happen. Examples overseas – particularly Britain – demonstrate a relatively slow rate of replacement, and the different situation in countries where take-up is faster – Korea, Australia – make comparisons difficult.

The third reason is that the history of television demonstrates that it works through ‘exclusive changes’ where one technology replaces another quickly. Colour television pushed out black and white television. Digital television is about to push out analogue television. But experience shows that far from all media work this way. On the contrary, some go through ‘cumulative change’. Over a short or long period of time, different technologies co-exist and content is distributed through several technologies. As Robert Darnton noted about the book, we often forget that the printed word has long co-existed with the manuscript. From this perspective, the history of radio is the opposite of television: different transmission systems are cumulative rather than exclusive. This does not exclude the possibility that, in the long run, some transmission systems will decline and no longer be used, just as printing marginalised the manuscript. But what it means is that one cannot plan the launch of digital radio by imagining that all other transmission systems will be switched off, particularly FM. Even today, despite the success of FM, Long Wave and Medium Wave transmissions are still used because they reach a sufficient number of listeners not be switched off by broadcasters.

In fact, a careful examination of the launch of digital radio in other European countries shows that a ‘cumulative change’ scenario exists that we must anticipate in France too. Indeed, the launch of digital radio in other European countries had been presented as a quick substitute for analogue radio, even though the existing choice of analogue stations was less than in France, and the choice of digital stations seemed more attractive and content-rich than offered by analogue. Even if a proportion of listeners are quickly adopting digital radio, a greater proportion are still sticking with their traditional radios, with the possible exception of Norway, where analogue switch-off seems to be seriously considered at present. This leads to a situation in which the government initially adopts a goal of analogue switch-off but then, given the impossibility of switch-off, drops or postpones the switch-off date by several years. As the choice of existing radio stations is particularly substantial in France, it would appear that this situation is most likely to be repeated if digital radio were to be launched. Radio station owners are not mistaken. Very few want a quick switch-off of FM, and some do not want any switch-off.”

These points echo evidence on digital radio switchover in the UK that I had presented to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications in January 2010:

“With television, there existed consumer dissatisfaction with the limited choice of content available from the four or five available analogue terrestrial channels. This was evidenced by consumer willingness to pay subscriptions for exclusive content delivered by satellite. Consumer choice has been extended greatly by the Freeview digital terrestrial channels, many of which are available free, and the required hardware is low-cost.

Ofcom research demonstrates that there is little dissatisfaction with the choice of radio content available from analogue terrestrial channels, and there is no evidence of consumer willingness to pay for exclusive radio content. Consequently, the radio industry has proven unable to offer content on DAB of sufficient appeal to persuade consumers to purchase relatively high-cost DAB hardware in anywhere near as substantial numbers as they have purchased Freeview digital television boxes.”

The Kessler document should offer significant food for thought to the British government for its unworkable plans for DAB radio switchover. Whereas Kessler correctly identified that TV and radio digital switchover are two very different undertakings, our public servants working on digital radio policy in the government and in Ofcom have long failed to understand these differences. The appointment of Ford Ennals as chief executive of Digital Radio UK in 2009, on the back of his work between 2005 and 2008 managing digital television switchover, should have been viewed as barely relevant experience to achieve successful digital radio switchover.

Have any of the people managing digital radio switchover for the UK ever actually worked in the radio industry? At DCMS? No. At Ofcom? No. At Digital Radio UK? No. If, like Kessler, they had radio sector experience, they would realise that all their speeches and presentations that repeatedly cite digital TV switchover as the precedent for radio are completely off-target.

Is there any wonder that failure of DAB public policy was inevitable?

When UK radio listening figures are this good, why does RAJAR need to fib?

It is good to know that radio is still an extremely popular medium in the UK, something borne out by the latest radio audience metrics published by industry body RAJAR for Q1 2011. However, in its determination to make every quarter’s results newsworthy, RAJAR has a track record of bending the truth to achieve press headlines [see my blog May 2010]. This latest quarter was no exception.

According to the RAJAR headline:
• “Total radio listening hours reach 1,058 million per week – new record.”^

RAJAR explained:
• “The total number of radio listening hours broke all previous records to reach 1,058 hours per week …”^

Fantastic news! Except that this is not at all true. RAJAR’s own historical data tell a different story:
• 1,088 million hours per week in Q2 2001
• 1,092 million hours per week in Q3 2001
• 1,092 million hours per week in Q4 2001
• 1,090 million hours per week in Q1 2002
• 1,072 million hours per week in Q4 2002
• 1,094 million hours per week in Q1 2003
• 1,066 million hours per week in Q3 2003
• 1,076 million hours per week in Q4 2003
• 1,086 million hours per week in Q1 2004
• 1,072 million hours per week in Q2 2004
• 1,068 million hours per week in Q3 2004
• 1,059 million hours per week in Q1 2005
• 1,068 million hours per week in Q2 2005
• 1,072 million hours per week in Q3 2005
• 1,060 million hours per week in Q4 2005
• 1,063 million hours per week in Q3 2006

During sixteen quarters between 2001 and 2006, total hours listened to radio were greater than they were last quarter. “New record?” No. “Broke all records”? Er, no.

The reality is that total radio listening has not yet returned to the level it had achieved in 2001. Except that, ten years ago, the UK adult population was 48.1 million, whereas now it is 51.6 million. So the population has increased by 7% over the last decade. Yet total UK radio listening is still less than it was then.

Most statisticians I know would refer to that as a like-for-like 7%+ decline in total hours listened to radio. However, to RAJAR, it is evidently a “new record” that “broke all previous records.”

Why does any of this matter? Because radio broadcasters have been progressively losing usage over most of the last decade. Initially, it was 15 to 24 year olds that were spending less time with radio. Increasingly, it is also 25 to 34 year olds. For a decade, the UK radio industry has desperately needed a coherent strategy to reverse this loss of listening. The decline in young adult listening to broadcast radio does not merely impact the NOW. If these consumers do not find anything in their youth worth listening to on the radio, they will grow old without the radio habit. Their radio listening patterns NOW are likely to influence radio listening for the next half-century.

This is why RAJAR’s continuing efforts to achieve yet another headline in the Daily Mail proclaiming “Radio listening at an all time high” are ultimately redundant. Those headlines do not impact the reality of the data collected from tens of thousands of radio listeners every month. Those data show incontrovertibly that listening is in significant long-term decline amongst younger demographics. And radio will be in mortal danger if it does not re-invent itself for the next generation.

You only have to listen to any pirate radio station in London to understand that the gulf between what young people are actually listening to and what the old fogies who run UK radio are giving them has never been wider. Chris Moyles is as passé as Dave Lee Travis was twenty years ago.

So, yes, RAJAR’s fibs and the resulting Daily Mail headline will be another opportunity for champagne corks to pop in radio boardrooms across the land. But if radio doesn’t start making itself exciting and relevant to young people, broadcast radio’s future role will be relegated to a soundtrack in old people’s homes. Complacency such as that propagated by RAJAR will only make many radio businesses redundant in the long run.

^ in a footnote this small, the RAJAR press release admits the caveat “since new methodology was introduced in Q2, 2007.”

DAB Radio Downgrade? The new masterplan to deliver DAB radio reception worse than FM

When something works well, it just works. You do not need to analyse why it works. It just works. And nobody asks questions as to why or how. That is the case with FM radio. During half a century of development, more and more FM transmitters have been built across the UK (2,100 currently in operation) so as to reach the point now where almost the entire population receives an FM signal (maybe not always perfect, but some reception rather than none at all).

DAB radio was intended to replace FM radio. However, it must only be worth replacing FM with DAB if DAB is actually better than FM. Why replace a transmission system that has taken 50 years to perfect with something that is going to be worse? Unfortunately, nobody thought to conduct a cost/benefit analysis during the last two decades to determine what the cost would be of making DAB radio reception as good as FM radio, let alone better. As a result, DAB radio was foisted upon the public in 1999 without a roadmap to ensure that reception was even as good as FM radio for consumers.

Twelve years later, DAB reception remains worse than FM reception in many places, or is non-existent. Whereas poor FM reception gives the consumer a poor quality listening experience, poor DAB reception provides no listening experience whatsoever. With DAB, a poor signal is the same as no signal.

Instead of Ofcom valiantly admitting defeat over DAB radio – which might infer that the regulator and its predecessor, the Radio Authority, had screwed up the implementation of DAB in the UK – Ofcom presses ahead with increasingly desperate attempts to try and salvage this technological and regulatory disaster.

Ofcom’s latest ‘project’ is to try and understand why FM radio, more than half a century after its introduction, gives consumers acceptable radio reception. Intrinsically, the work is redundant. If FM works well, why bother to analyse why it works? The answer is: because DAB radio does not work. In order to make DAB work, an understanding is deemed necessary of why the system it was intended to replace – FM radio – does work.

Belatedly, it has been understood by the bureaucrats that the expense of making DAB as good as FM will prove too costly. It requires too many DAB transmitters, too many DAB power increases, at too great a cost for the radio industry. Might this not be a good time for them to back away from the notion of DAB radio REPLACING FM radio because it is simply too costly, even just to make it AS GOOD?

Not for the bureaucrats involved. Instead, the philosophy within Ofcom and the government is a new plan to deliberately make DAB radio NOT AS GOOD as FM radio. But still to persuade consumers that DAB is intended to replace FM radio for national and large local radio stations. Madness? Yes. Self-defeating? Yes. Contempt for radio listeners? Totally.

Peter Davies, who is responsible for radio at Ofcom, explained part of this 1984-style philosophy to replace ‘good’ FM with ‘worse’ DAB to the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group meeting in the calmest of tones on 3 February 2011. Although his presentation is lengthy, I have included Davies’ words in full below so that you too can try and decipher the logic of a solution for DAB radio that is purposefully sub-par.

Perhaps the Digital Radio UK marketing slogan next winter will be: ‘Buy a DAB radio! Worse reception than FM guaranteed. But better than no radio at all.’

Peter Davies, Ofcom: “The Coverage Planning Working Group is chaired by Ofcom, but we have effectively two groups that are feeding into this. There is the actual Working Group that is doing all the sort of hard grind of doing the planning work, and that consists of Ofcom, Arqiva and the BBC. There is also a Planning Advisory Group which consists of all the [DAB] multiplex operators, with Digital Radio UK and RadioCentre as well. So what I’m going to run you through this afternoon, quite quickly because of the time, is just what we’re doing in terms of FM. What is it we are trying to match? Secondly, how you then do that with DAB. Thirdly, looking at what we need to do to the frequency plan in the UK to achieve that. And then just onto the next steps.

So, FM coverage. I should say we are doing this for national services as well as local. So it’s both BBC and commercial national services, as well as the local. But I’m going to focus this afternoon on the local because that’s, in a way, where some of the more difficult issues are. This is a map of Manchester. I know you won’t be able to see the detail on that, but it gives you an impression, at least. So what we’ve done in each part – in fact, in the whole country – is define a set of ‘editorial areas.’ So that’s shown on this map by that dotted line – you can see around the edge, a sort of dark purple dotted line – so that everywhere in the country is covered by one or more areas – there are some overlaps – but at least everywhere is covered by one area. So the editorial areas are areas that have been agreed by the BBC and by the [DAB] multiplex operator and commercial radio operators as being the sort of area that they would, in an ideal world, like to cover. It’s also based on [DAB] multiplex areas, so it’s a bit of a compromise.

So, if you look at the actual coverage of BBC Radio Manchester [GMR] within this, that’s shown in the sort of standard way of measuring – 54 db – is shown in green but, actually, editorially BBC Radio Manchester would like to cover the bits within the dotted line. So there is coverage beyond the editorial area where people can pick up the service, but it’s not really intended for them. And, equally, there are bits within the existing editorial area which aren’t covered terribly well on FM but which, nevertheless, the station would like to think it serves.

In terms of the actual [FM] coverage, it’s been quite difficult to determine what that is. The ‘54db’ is the standard internationally agreed planning measure. So that’s 54db per μv per metre, but I’m not an engineer so don’t ask me any more detail than that. But it’s a definition that was drawn up back in the 1950s and is really about reception 10m above the ground, using a rooftop aerial and it sort of tells you whether you can get a signal on your radiogram, which is not terribly useful [now]. So we know that people use radios in very different ways, but we sort of know that this works, but it has never actually been tested. So it’s a planning definition, which is very old and slightly messy.

So what we’ve been doing as part of this work is drawing up what’s known as a ‘link budget ‘, which is effectively taking the signal strength as it leaves the transmitter and then adjusting it all the way along until it actually gets to the receiver. So, in other words, you adjust it because it’s a distance from the transmitter going over some hilly ground, going down into buildings, loss within the receiver itself and so on. So that you can work out what signal strength you will need to work to get decent FM coverage. So we’ve looked at three different strengths because we know that the 54db is probably a little bit conservative, so we also looked at 48db and 42db, again because conditions vary between what you can receive on a portable kitchen radio and what you can get in your car. We are also looking at coverage not only of households, but also of major roads as well, so it’s not just an indoor measurement we’re looking at.

What we have seen so far is actually that the link budget we have developed is that these numbers are probably about right. So 42db is probably about right for cars. But you can see that there’s not actually very much yellow on that map, so that most places either get a good solid indoor signal, or the signal’s not good at all, basically. So, for each area, we have looked at both the BBC local service – so that’s BBC Manchester – and also the commercial coverage, and we’ve taken the largest commercial station in each area. So, for Manchester, this is ‘Key 103.’ As you can see, the coverage is very different, mainly because they are using different transmitter sites and different powers on FM. But, of course, both of those services and others are on the same multiplex for DAB, so you have to think ‘what exactly is it on FM that we are trying to match?’ It’s no good just matching Key 103, you can’t just match to Key 103 because then you would be missing out BBC Manchester and other services. In this case, commercial [radio coverage] is smaller. In other cases that we have looked at, the commercial [stations] cover one part of the county but not another, but the BBC [station] will do the opposite.

So, what we’ve then done is to look at the composite coverage of both BBC local [radio] and the largest commercial station. So this is what we think people in the area would expect to be able to hear as a local service on FM. So you get either the BBC or the commercial radio [station] or both. So that’s the basis of what we think we should be trying to match. So it would be sort of green or blue for indoor, and the yellow bits for road coverage. As I say, we’ve done that for basically every area in the country, including the Nations services – so Radio Scotland, Radio Wales, etc for the BBC – and for the national services as well.

The question then is ‘how do we match DAB [to FM]?’ So the approach to that again has been to build up a link budget for DAB, starting with the transmitter and going right the way through to the receiver. And we’ve been doing receiver tests as part of that. And what we tried to do – because that sort of coverage is slightly debatable on FM – is [identify] where exactly is that band, and where exactly is that field strength? The approach we have taken is, first of all, to say that, within the editorial area, let’s plan for absolutely universal coverage. So how many transmitters – if you wanted to cover it as near as possible to 100% – how many transmitters would you need, both to get indoor coverage and road coverage as well? And we’ve tried to do that in a sort of commonsense way by starting with where the existing FM transmitters are. So rather than just look for new sites, because actually if coverage from FM is good from that site, so you should get decent coverage from DAB from that site as well. And then we’ve added on transmitters at decreasing levels of coverage until you get as close as we can to 100%.

Then, once we’ve done that, we’ve said ‘okay, actually some of those are now covering areas which aren’t covered by FM’ so actually you might not need them. So then you can then sort of roll back from that full universal coverage. The question then is ‘where do you draw the line?’ So, if you look at Manchester. Again, you’ve got the editorial area, which is a bit hard to see on this, but is the solid purple line around the edge. That is the existing local DAB coverage in Manchester, so you see 66.4% of households at the moment. In terms of households [for FM coverage], we have got 96.2% indoor at the moment, 98.2% (that’s a slightly sort of spurious measurement because it’s not actually a road measurement, but it’s households), so 96.2% for FM. So 66.4% existing [DAB] coverage from the two transmitters which are currently operating from the Manchester multiplex. It is one in central Manchester – sort of there – and there is one at Winter Hill at the top in the northwest corner.

We then looked at ‘okay, what would you do if you just increased the power of the existing transmitters and moved them up the mast a bit?’ And, actually, that gets you, as you can see, quite significantly increased coverage. In order to do that, we need to change the frequency plan, and I’ll come back to that in a minute. So that gets you up to 82% [DAB coverage] and then we keep adding on transmitters until we get as close as we can to 100%. This goes to 99% and that means 15 transmitters which are shown by the crosses dotted all over that map.

But then, as I say, you look at it and you say ‘well, actually, the two smallest of these – which are these two up here – actually have no household coverage at all, and the smallest one only adds 8km of road coverage.’ Now, obviously, if you’re driving and you lose your radio reception, then that’s a problem. But there’s a question as to whether that is essential for local coverage – it might be for national, but is it for local? So the question is ‘where do you draw that line in terms of a sort of cost/benefit analysis,’ if you like? You might decide, actually, you wouldn’t bother with those, but the question is ‘how far down the list of 15 [transmitters] do you go,’ as to what’s commercial viable and what provides an acceptable level of service to consumers?

So that’s the approach that we’ve taken. As I say, in order to do that, we need to change the frequency plan. Those are the big [frequency] blocks we use for DAB at the moment, dotted around the country. And you can see that they – the colours represent frequencies – so you can see that we have to reuse the same frequencies over and over again around the country. And that does cause interference so, at the moment, Manchester uses the same frequency as Birmingham. And, because of that, we can’t increase the power of the Manchester transmitters to get beyond that 66% to the 82% [coverage]. And that problem is repeated around the country. So what we’d like to do is re-draw the frequency map, which means that, as far as consumers are concerned, means doing a re-scan of their radio but does then allow us to boost the coverage quite significantly from existing transmitters and reduces that problem of interference which, in same places, can be quite significant. In order to that, it’s quite a long process – we need international co-ordination – but that part of the planning process we are going through at the moment.

So, the next steps are to finalise that frequency plan and begin the international co-ordination. We’ve got to complete the FM coverage maps and just check that link budget for FM, both for local and national [stations]. And then, for each of the local DAB areas and for the BBC national multiplex and for Digital One, the commercial multiplex, to produce the coverage maps and the household count and the road count as well for all of these existing multiplexes. Once we have done all of that, we plan to publish the whole thing later in the spring or early summer in a consultation so that we can then begin a debate as to whether this approach is actually right or not, and where it gets us.

Obviously, one of the big questions in all of that is actually ‘how much does it cost the broadcasters?’ I should say that that’s not something the Coverage Planning Group is looking at. It’s not something that we’ve been asked to look at, so it’s purely a technical approach at this stage but we think, sort of by the end of April, we should have the answers of how many extra transmitters you would need in order to achieve switchover.”

So the overarching question posed by the forthcoming Ofcom consultation seems to be: how poor can DAB coverage be made but still be accepted by consumers? If Peter Davies’ workplan, as explained here in February 2011, sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because he had addressed the Radio Festival in July 2008 and promised:

“Once we have defined what existing DAB coverage is, we then have to work out what it would take to get existing DAB coverage up to the level of existing FM coverage. Now, we have already done a lot of work on this, and certainly enough to inform the interim report, and the whole thing will be finalised in time for the Digital Radio Working Group final report later this year.” [see my Dec 2008 blog]

Incredibly, three years late[r], the promised work is only just being completed. An amazing lack of urgency has been demonstrated by Ofcom, despite DAB radio resulting in more correspondence from angry consumers to the broadcasting minister Ed Vaizey than any other issue.

What most astonishes me is that the digital radio sector is still trying to persuade people living in Manchester to purchase a DAB radio, just as it has for the last twelve years, when it knows that there is a one-in-three chance that a Manchester household will be unable to receive ANY local stations via DAB, according to Davies. I assume a similar situation prevails in other cities.

Time for a class action by disappointed DAB radio receiver buyers?

[no accompanying graphics because DCMS explained: “Peter Davies’ Ofcom presentation is not attached as the content is still work in progress. Ofcom plan to publish all of the data later in the year.”]

Commercial radio: “so keen to hold back the BBC?”

House of Lords Select Committee on Communications
Inquiry on Governance & Regulation Of The BBC [excerpt]
22 March 2011 @ 1515

Baroness Deech: Listening to you, I am a bit puzzled about why you are so keen to hold back the BBC. Can’t Virgin Media and the local commercial radio stations stand on their own two feet? Why have they got to hold back the BBC?

Mr Andrew Harrison [chief executive officer, RadioCentre]: I would not characterise it at all as wanting to hold back the BBC; I would characterise it as wanting a level playing field for the commercial sector to compete. The truth is that, in radio, the BBC is hardly held back. It has 55% national market share, it has the vast majority of national FM spectrum and it has a huge raft of local radio stations, so it is hardly held back. We seek the opportunity to build our own commercial businesses, entrepreneurially and innovatively, without facing the elephant in the room that, every time we try to do something new, there is a BBC service that pops up to squash it before it has time to be established.

Mr Andrew Barron [chief operating officer, Virgin Media]: With great respect, I think we are in slightly different places. I would argue that Virgin Media is one of the companies pushing the BBC forward in many instances.

[This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and webcast on www.parliamentlive.tv. Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither Members nor witnesses have had the opportunity to correct the record.]

DAB radio sector rubbishes its own digital radio receiver sales figures

When UK companies that had once anticipated they were poised to make a mint out of ‘DAB radio’ realise that things are not going the way they had wanted, they lash out. That seems to be what happened yesterday. ‘Shoot the messenger’ appeared to be the digital radio industry’s reflex response when backed against a wall of facts that tell an unpalatable story.

At the Westminster Media Forum conference on digital radio, a graph of DAB/digital radio receiver sales was displayed in a presentation by The Guardian’s Jack Schofield (see below):

The graph clearly showed that 2010 unit sales were down on 2009, and that 2009 unit sales were down on 2008. This data was collected by GfK.

Anthony Sethill, founder and chief executive of Frontier Silicon, took exception to this graph’s narrative of declining consumer interest in DAB radio receivers. He commented:

“My company supplies the chipsets that drive about 80% of digital radios on the market today. So, I think the panel today, with the exception of Andrew [Harrison, RadioCentre chief executive] is a wonderful example of how the minority seem to take the stage and voice the negativity and things. And, if we were to re-run Jack’s presentation again, put some facts in the correct order, and the correct facts, I think we would have a very different read. You know, it’s very difficult, when you have people like Jack that have a national platform in terms of a national newspaper, to voice these views.

So we’ll start with the GfK data. Now, GfK is actually a retail audit and, over the years, has been used by the consumer electronics and the retail trade in the UK to measure the sales of consumer electronic devices. In the last few years, GfK has been dying. The reason it has been dying is that it relies on the data – sales out data – from national retailers such as Dixons and John Lewis and Tesco and so on. Last year, Dixons pulled the plug on supplying data to GfK. That meant the largest retailer in the UK, which accounts for 25% of all sales, actually stopped giving them data. To carry on selling that data, [GfK] then had to formulate panels and most people in the industry know that, statistically, it’s not valid and that, basically, it’s falling apart. Now, you’ve quoted GfK [DAB/digital radio receiver] sales falling and I’ve given you the reasons why that data is not accurate. […]

This is a practical example of discrediting the data, which a number of people use to bash DAB. So this is one small example of how you’re misinterpreting and you’re misleading people. I don’t know if you understand what GfK is, or what it has done, or why it has fallen apart but, if you do, then that’s really poor. And if you don’t, before you quote it, you should learn the facts.”

The graph to which Sethill was referring was created by me and published in this blog last weekend (Jack Schofield had asked before the conference if he could use it in his presentation). I had first published these DAB/digital radio receiver sales data in a blog in January 2011, in which I wrote:

“1.94m digital radios were sold in 2010, compared to 1.99m in 2009 and 2.08m in 2008. Increase? No. Growth? No. Over 2m in 2010? No.”

In March 2011, these same sales figures were reprinted in The Telegraph newspaper, which wrote that “new figures showed that sales of digital radio equipment actually fell last year.”

It should be noted:
• The sales data in my graph were distributed by Digital Radio UK, the radio industry organisation marketing DAB radio in the UK
• Digital Radio UK purchases these data concerning DAB/digital radio receiver sales from GfK
• Digital Radio UK has regularly quoted these GfK data in its press releases (most recently on 23 Dec 2010 and 21 Dec 2010) and in its newsletters
• Digital Radio UK has never publicly challenged the validity of the GfK sales data that it is distributing and using in its marketing campaigns
• Until now, these data on DAB/digital radio receiver sales have been widely reported in the public domain without challenge from the wider digital radio sector.

So what is eating Frontier Silicon? It seemed wholly inappropriate for Anthony Sethill to beat up panellist Jack Schofield in public for using the digital radio industry’s OWN DATA in his presentation. If Frontier Silicon has an issue with the digital radio industry’s sales data, it should take that up with Digital Radio UK, which purchased the data from GfK and distributed them.

Perhaps the real issue is that the rewards from DAB radio have evidently still not materialised for the digital radio industry. By year-end 2009, Frontier Silicon Limited had an accumulated loss of £28m. In financial year 2009, it generated an operating loss of £536,000 on turnover of £22m. Its shareholders include Digital One (owned by Arqiva) and Imagination Technologies (which owns Pure Digital). Imagination owns 9.3% of Frontier Silicon, a stake that it wrote down by £3.4m in 2008, and then finally wrote down by a further £3.6m in 2010. As Imagination’s accounts explained:

“Due to the lower resulting valuation of the business and the impact of Frontier’s capital structure, the Group’s investment [in Frontier Silicon] has been revalued to £nil.”

I guess it must be tough for Frontier Silicon to see a shareholder value its business at “£nil.” That is no reason for its unprovoked attack on Jack Schofield’s presentation which had merely used the industry’s own data.

…………….
 
I contacted GfK for its response to the comments from Frontier Silicon. Its response was (in full):

Date: 6th April 2011

GfK Retail and Technology UK response:

GfK Retail and Technology UK currently track over 100 individual technology product categories and partner with major UK multiple retailers within every single audited channel they report on, to complement this research and to ensure GfK cover the overall market they also have a representative sample of independent retailers working with them. This means GfK are receiving weekly data from over 24,000 individual stores within the UK. The majority of these retailers deliver weekly EPOS data on their complete sales and this allows GfK to report to a detailed level on the performance of all the leading technology categories. If faced with a retailer who is not willing to participate GfK employ a widely used global research methodology to ensure they are representing the overall market.

When challenged on the GfK reported performance of the DAB market Commercial Director Anthony Norman commented “the overall technology markets have all come under increasing pressure in the last 12 months, the austerity measures announced and now being implemented by the coalition government have had a major impact on consumer confidence which has in turn impacted on retail sales of technology areas”. Norman continued in specific reference to the DAB market “the reported data by GfK is based on over 70% live reported sales by retailers, rather than focussing on the downturn of this market it would be more beneficial to put the whole picture in perspective. The overall technology market has experienced only 4 months of growth in the last 33 months. The average decline in this area is 6%, for DAB the market in 2010 declined by only 2%. Given the overall sector performance this is something that should be recognised. As a business GfK are committed to delivering actionable insight to the industries they operate within”

The GfK Group

The GfK Group offers the fundamental knowledge that industry, retailers, services companies and the media need to make market decisions. It offers a comprehensive range of information and consultancy services in the three business sectors of Custom Research, Retail and Technology and Media. The no. 4 market research organization worldwide operates in more than 100 countries and employs over 10,000 staff. In 2009, the GfK Group’s sales amounted to EUR 1.16 billion. For further information visit www.gfkrt.com or www.gfkrt.com/uk

AM/FM switch-off of national radio stations? An empty threat whose expiry date has long passed

Some of Digital Britain’s radio recommendations were unworkable. However, the notion has remained that FM and AM analogue transmitters of the UK’s national radio stations will be switched off once digital radio listening passes the 50% threshold. This was never practical. It was a ‘threat’ propagated by government to the public in the hope of forcing them into buying more DAB radios, instilling fear that they would otherwise lose their favourite stations. The threat failed.

The problem with any threat is that, once it has failed, it remains difficult for the protagonist to climb down. So the threat continues to be propagated. For what reason now? So as not to make those who issued the threat look completely foolish. The need to save face has locked the government apparatus into a fiction that BBC and commercial radio will willingly throw away half their audiences by closing their FM/AM transmitters. This was never true.

THE BBC

‘Universal’ reception of the BBC’s core public services is mandatory. It would prove impossible to levy the BBC Licence Fee on every UK household if (almost) the entire population could not receive the BBC services for which they pay.

The BBC Charter & Agreement requires:

“12. Making the UK Public Services widely available
(1) The BBC must do all that is reasonably practicable to ensure that viewers, listeners and other users (as the case may be) are able to access the UK Public Services that are intended for them, or elements of their content, in a range of convenient and cost effective ways which are available or might become available in the future.”

Would the BBC switch off analogue transmissions of its national networks once more than 50% of listening was attributed to digital platforms? Of course not. You would be a complete fool to slash your radio audience by half, particularly as such an action would contradict the BBC Charter & Agreement.

Could the government insist that the BBC switched off the analogue transmissions of its national networks? Only if it wanted a revolution on its hands. It would be difficult to think of a policy more likely to lose it the next General Election.

COMMERCIAL RADIO

The revenues of commercial radio are directly related to the sector’s volume of listening. If commercial radio switched off its analogue transmitters once digital listening had passed the 50% threshold, at a stroke it would risk losing 50% of its volume of listening and, subsequently, 50% of its revenues. Would it do that? No, of course not.

RadioCentre’s self-interested ‘policy’ has been to argue that the BBC national networks should turn off their analogue transmitters first, years in advance of commercial radio stations. Radio Chicken, anyone? Naturally, RadioCentre failed to mention that the outcome of this proposal would be likely to significantly increase its member commercial radio stations’ analogue audiences and revenues. There is nothing quite like trying to persuade your competitor to commit joint suicide … first.

Additionally, the value of commercial radio companies is vested in the scarcity of their analogue FM/AM licences. Because no new analogue licences are awarded by the regulator, each existing licence has a significant intrinsic value, even if the business using it is not profitable. The same is not true of DAB licences. Anybody can apply to Ofcom for a DAB licence by filling in a form and paying a relatively small fee.

An example of the value of analogue licences to commercial radio owners is Absolute Radio. In 2008, Times of India paid £53.2m for Virgin Radio, comprising one national AM licence and one London FM licence. Having re-launched the station as Absolute Radio, the company lost £4.3m in 2009, but its balance sheet still retains considerable value because of the scarcity of its two analogue radio licences. If Absolute Radio were put up for sale, someone would be interested in buying it because of that scarcity.

By contrast, when DAB commercial radio services such as Zee Radio, Islam Radio, Muslim Radio, Flaunt and Eurolatina no longer wanted their digital radio licences in 2010, there was no queue of potential buyers. They simply handed their licences back to Ofcom because those licences were not scarce.

This is why it would prove financially suicidal for commercial radio to switch off its FM/AM transmitters. It would have to write down the value of those scarce analogue licences to zero in its balance sheets which, at a stroke, would negate almost the entire value of the licence owners. Not a good company strategy.

So, when headlines such as ‘Absolute Radio mulls AM switch-off’ appear in the trade press, they should be read with a bucket of salt. The headline might as well say: ’Absolute Radio mulls destruction of shareholder value.’

And, when yet another DAB proponent appears on radio or television to persuade you, in all seriousness, that the UK’s most listened to national radio services – both BBC and commercial – will imminently be switching off their AM/FM transmitters, please feel justified to laugh in their face.

This is about as likely to happen as Tesco putting security guards at their store entrances to tell the public to shop elsewhere because they want fewer customers.

FOOTNOTE:

It emerged last week that, after the Norwegian state classical music station ‘Alltid Klassisk’ abandoned FM transmission on 1 July 2009 for DAB transmission, its audience contracted from 25,000 to 10,000 per day.

Now, consider that only 20% of listening to BBC Radio 2 is via digital platforms (in Q1 2010), lower than the 24% average for all stations [see Sep 2010 blog]. If that average ever managed to reach the 50% threshold, it might leave 60% of Radio 2’s audience still listening via analogue. That’s 8m listeners that Radio 2 would have to turn its back on as a result of FM switch-off. Time for the BBC to start erecting barricades outside Broadcasting House.

[thanks to Eivind Engberg]

Culture Secretary: “digital radio industry needs to do a lot more work … to carry the public with it”

House of Commons Culture, Media & Sport Committee
30 March 2011 @ 1006 [excerpt]
Committee Room 15

Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media & Sport

Q: What are your expectations now with regard to digital radio switchover?

A: Well, I think the future is digital. I think the future is DAB. But I think the digital radio industry needs to do a lot more work to boost the penetration of DAB and to carry the public with it. And I think that it has not been nearly as successful as that, as the TV industry has been, in persuading the public of the benefits of digital switchover. And that’s why, at the moment, the industry is having to bear the costs of running two systems [analogue and DAB] in parallel. I very much hope that they won’t have to do that. We want to do everything we can to help the industry migrate smoothly, but we would like it to be user-led, so we have said that we are not going to have an arbitrary 2015 deadline. We will make a decision in due course as to whether we can have switchover in 2015, but we want the radio industry to step up to the plate in making sure there are better products and services available, and that consumers really can see the benefit of DAB.

Q: Would your expectation be that the financial commitment of the BBC to expand the radio coverage in rural areas will remain the same or might that be affected by their review of spending?

A: Well, the BBC are committed in the [Licence Fee] Agreement I did to national availability of national DAB channels. There is still a discussion to be had about the funding of local DAB channels, which is an additional cost. And I am closely involved in discussions with the radio industry, and very keen to resolve this as soon as possible because I think it’s a very, very important next step.

NORWAY: government proposes “possible FM [radio] switch-off” and “possible prolongation of FM licences”

In February 2011, some hysterical reports appeared concerning the White Paper published by the government in Norway on DAB radio. Some of these would have had us believe that Norway had made a definite commitment to switch off all FM radio in 2017. This was not true [as documented by diymedia and Media Network]. In fact, the government had set out several criteria that will have to be met before digital switchover can be sanctioned. The Norwegian criteria are similar to those adopted in the UK which, as commented here previously, are unlikely ever to be fulfilled, making switchover an ‘unreality.’


To make the situation perfectly clear, in the words of Norway’s media regulator:

“The following three conditions are absolute and must be fulfilled regardless of when switch-off takes place:

1. Digital coverage for the NRK’s radio services correspond to that of NRK P1 on FM
2. The multiplex that carries commercial national services (Riksblokka) must cover at least 90 per cent of the population
3. The digital radio offer must represent added value to the listeners

The above three conditions, as well as the two following conditions, must be fulfilled by 1 January 2015 for the switch-off to take place in January 2017:

4. Affordable and technically satisfactory solutions for in-car radio reception must be available
5. At least 50 per cent of daily radio-listeners employ digital platforms, exclusively or in combination with FM-radio

Provided the absolute criteria (1-3) are fulfilled in 2015, switch-off may nevertheless take place in 2019, even if criteria 4 and 5 are not fulfilled.”

Furthermore, far from FM being switched off completely, the regulator said:

“The Report proposes that the majority of local radio stations should have the right to continue transmitting in FM beyond 2017. The Ministry of Culture will determine in 2015 what categories of local radio may maintain the right to do so.”

The milestones anticipated by the government are:

“2011: The Ministry of Culture decides on the possible prolongation of commercial radio-licenses in the FM-network until 2017 (or 2019).

2013: The Ministry of Culture determines:
· Whether the coverage obligation for NRK radio-services shall be attached to the DAB-multiplex alone, or whether it may be fulfilled by employing other technologies in addition to DAB
· What is to be understood by the criterion ‘affordable and technically satisfactory solutions for in-car reception.’

2015: The Ministry of Culture decides whether the following conditions are met:
· The digital coverage of NRK-radio corresponds to that of NRK P1 in FM
· The population coverage of the national, commercial multiplex >90 per cent
· The Digital radio-offer represents added value to the public
· Availability of affordable and technically satisfactory in-car solutions
· Usage of digital platforms >50 % of daily radio-listeners.

2017: Possible FM switch-off
2019: Prospective postponed final switch-off of FM
2011: Decision on possible prolongation of FM-licences
2013: Definition of coverage obligations NRK & in-car solutions
2015: Assessment whether ASO-criteria are met
2017: Possible FM-switch off
2019: Possible postponed FM switch-off.”


In parliament, the Progress Party’s Ib Thomsen challenged the Minister of Culture, Anniken Huitfeldt:

“The closure of FM radio worries the Progress Party, it worries IKT Norway and it worries consumers. To close FM radio, we need to scrap 15 to 20 million radio receivers, including even DAB radios that are not of the most modern type [DAB rather than DAB+]. This will have major consequences for consumers and for the environment.”

Thomsen asked the Minister of Culture: “What will the closure of FM radio cost the country? We know that it will cost consumers billions of krone, but what will it cost the state and society?”

The Minister rejected categorically the notion that consumers would have to pay one billion krone, or that 15 to 20 million radios would have to be scrapped. She responded:

“It is very clear in the White Paper that the digitalisation of radio will be consumer focused. It is typical of the Progress Party to spread fear about something that has already been addressed. These figures are not correct. There are, according to numbers that I have been quoted, 3.5 to 7 million radio receivers in Norway. These devices will not be thrown out. People can buy adapters that will provide access to digital radio.”

“It is the simulcasting [on FM and DAB] that is the most expensive. When we published the White Paper on the digitalisation of radio, P4 responded immediately that it wanted to launch more stations. There will be more competition and more channels. It went very well when we introduced digital television. It is going to go just as well with radio.”

Ib Thomsen was unsatisfied with the Minister’s response. He replied:

“The Progress Party is not the only one that is worried. IKT Norway and the rest of the world is concerned too. Adapters will cost consumers 1,200 krone. It is a pity that the Minister is not taking into account that Norway is locking itself into a technology that has already been scrapped by the European Union.”

The Minister responded:

“The European Commissioner has stated that radio must be at the forefront of the digital revolution and has highlighted DAB. It is not true that no other countries are digitising radio. There is no discussion in Europe as to whether to introduce DAB or not, only discussion about the date for digitalisation. Neither is it correct to say that adapters will cost 1,000 krone. Prices will go down.”

To date, sales figures for DAB radios in Norway have been even less impressive than in the UK. In 2010, only 81,000 DAB radios were sold out of a total of 833,000 radio receivers. The cumulative total of DAB receivers sold is 336,000, although these are DAB rather than DAB+ and will have to be replaced if Norway changes to the latter system.

Year: number of DAB radios sold in Norway
2004: 10,000
2005: 51,000
2006: 55,000
2007: 61,000
2008: 42,000
2009: 66,000
2010: 81,000

IKT Norway has long argued that DAB radio is not appropriate as the digital platform to replace FM radio. After the White Paper was published, its secretary general, Per Morten Hoff, commented:

“Norway becomes the first country in the world to decide to shut down its FM radio networks. This is a bold decision at a time when technological developments are more uncertain than ever. Closing FM radio gives you no route back. NRK has spent several hundred million krone building its DAB network, ‘a killer’, and its owner, the Norwegian state, and the Culture Minister have concluded that there is no going back. The market has said so far that it is not adopting DAB, so forcing them has been the only way forward.”

There would appear to be a number of reasons why DAB is being pursued so doggedly in Norway:
· Norway was one of the first countries to invest in a DAB radio transmission system in 1995
· Jørn Jensen, since 2009 the president of World DMB (the organisation lobbying for the replacement of FM with DAB), is the chief adviser to NRK on platform distribution
· NRK, the state broadcaster, signed DAB transmission contracts with Norkring that do not expire until 2020, so the government cannot pull the plug on DAB without exposing an embarrassing waste of public funds

Some of the issues facing the successful implementation of DAB in Norway would appear to be:
· Only 80 DAB transmitters are currently in service, although at least 650 will be necessary (TV in VHF Band III uses 2,635 transmitters and transponders)
· Achievement of 99.5% DAB coverage (to match FM coverage) will prove very expensive, and Norkring has only guaranteed 90% in its current transmission contract with NRK. The government will be forced to fund the difference
· The government White Paper noted that current FM coverage is 99.5%, although NRK FM coverage is 99.95%, a more expensive penetration for DAB transmission to match
· The high costs of simulcasting about which Arild Hellgren, former NRK director of technology, commented: “Compared to what happened when we digitised TV, we will have a very long period of parallel distribution on FM and DAB. It is very expensive”
· The two national commercial stations will be granted automatic licence renewals ONLY IF they support the DAB platform and pay for DAB coverage up to 90%
· Local stations’ transfer to the DAB platform will be determined by the government in 2015 in a ‘Big Brother’-style elimination contest

So who was the bright spark in the Ministry of Culture who decided to headline its press release: “FM switch-off in 2017 – the radio medium will be digital”?

By 2017, that person could have a large quantity of egg on their face.

[thanks to Bjarne Boen, Darryl Pomicter + others]

UK commercial radio revenues underperform the 2010 media market

Marketing magazine’s annual survey of the top 100 advertisers announced some good news:

“More than three-quarters of the UK’s top 100 advertisers increased their adspend in 2010, defying predictions that the year would mark a steep decline in marketing budgets. By channel, the biggest year-on-year increase was in TV advertising, with a 17% rise, according to Nielsen; print, outdoor and cinema spend also rose.”

So, good news for radio too? Marketing continued: “The only medium in which spending fell was radio, falling 6% on 2009 levels.” Oh dear.

Why was radio so badly hit in 2010? Partly because of commercial radio’s greater dependency than other media on public expenditure which, as Marketing explained, was cut drastically in 2010:

“The government’s commitment to slashing public-sector spending was reflected in the 50% year-on-year decline in the COI’s [Central Office of Information] adspend to £105.4m.”

And partly because the volume of commercial radio listening has been in decline for the last decade, and sector revenues are a product of listening.


Encouragingly, 2010 witnessed a 3% year-on-year increase in the total volume of commercial radio listening, the first increase since 2001. However, total radio listening (commercial + BBC) had increased in 2010 by 2%, making commercial radio’s gain only marginally greater than the total market.

As for the other issue of slashed public expenditure on commercial radio, although 2010’s loss of £24m seemed bad [see my blog], 2011 could prove to be worse. On Friday, the Cabinet Office recommended the scrapping of the 60-year old Central Office of Information:

“As part of the changes, the COI will be replaced with a new body, the Government Communications Centre, with a wider remit and responsibility for keeping a tight reign on advertising and marketing spend. … The report does not say how much the government might cut from its £1bn annual communications bill, or how much of the £540m spent on everything from TV, radio and posters to sponsorship might be reduced.”

This would prove a further financial blow for commercial radio, since COI expenditure on radio of £30m in 2010 still contributed as much as 11% to the sector’s national advertising revenues, even after having been slashed by the coalition government.

Although Marketing’s (Nielsen) data reported that radio’s national revenues fell by 6% in 2010, the commercial radio sector’s own numbers showed a 6% increase. This discrepancy is puzzling. Nevertheless, analysis of the industry’s dataset tells us:


TOTAL UK COMMERCIAL RADIO REVENUES:
2010: £522.6m (£505.5m in 2009)
Up 3% in absolute terms
First year-on-year increase since 2007
Down 1% at constant prices [RPI]

UK COMMERCIAL RADIO NATIONAL REVENUES:
2010: £276.2m (£259.4m in 2009)
Up 6% in absolute terms
First year-on-year increase since 2007
Up 2% at constant prices [RPI]

UK COMMERCIAL RADIO LOCAL REVENUES:
2010: £144.3m (£144.7m in 2009)
Down less than 1% in absolute terms
Lowest value in absolute terms since 2001
Down 5% at constant prices [RPI]
Lowest value at constant prices since 1992

This apparent collapse in local advertising revenues would appear to mask a dichotomy that is taking place in the radio sales market. For those stations in small groups or independently owned that rely almost entirely on local revenues, the market for local advertising has already rebounded from the recession. The closure of many local newspapers, the cuts to local council freesheets and the closure of many local radio station offices owned by large radio groups have left these genuinely local stations in an opportune position to hoover up more local advertisers.

On the other hand, local radio stations that have been transformed recently by Global Radio into ‘national brands’ (Heart, Capital) seem to be abandoning their interest in local advertising markets. If I owned a local business in Eastbourne, I would like to know how effective an advertisement would be on the local Heart FM station in my immediate area of Eastbourne & Hastings. This is no longer possible because Global Radio has done away with RAJAR audience data for many local markets. The smallest market that RAJAR can tell me about now is “Sussex” comprising 1.3m adults – much too big a coverage area for an advert for my one local shop in Eastbourne.

This new strategy seems inconsistent with the Heart FM licence for Eastbourne & Hastings which Ofcom insists is “A LOCALLY ORIENTED CONTEMPORARY AND CHART MUSIC AND INFORMATION STATION…” So, please will Ofcom explain how Heart FM can be a “locally orientated” station if, as a potential advertiser in Eastbourne, I can no longer determine how many people would hear an advertisement broadcast on the station?

RAJAR explained the changes to its data: “Campaigns transferred from Q3 2010 to Q4 2010 will contain the old station definitions and they will be visible Q4, however the data will not be accurate. Please re-plan the campaign using the new regional definitions available in Q4.” In plain English – audience data for local stations have been removed and merged into regional groupings from last quarter.

So, it would seem that the ‘nationalisation’ of the content on Global Radio’s Heart and Capital brands has been accompanied by ‘nationalisation’ of advertising sales. If ever there seemed like a wrong time to be pursuing national advertisers for commercial radio, surely it must be now [see my blog]. In real terms, national advertisers spent no more on commercial radio in 2010 than they had in 1997. However, in 1997, there were only 200 commercial radio stations, whereas now there are 300.

I am reminded of a meeting in 2007, just weeks before EMAP was sold, with its chief executive when I asked him if he felt there was anything that the group’s radio division should have done differently. Local advertisers, he told me. We neglected local advertisers in pursuit of the larger amounts we could earn from potential national advertisers. But we turned our backs on previously loyal local advertisers who quickly lost interest in our stations without regular contact from our salespersons.

Here is a lesson to be learnt from the UK’s second largest commercial radio group. Don’t look your local cash cow in the mouth.

DAB radio take-up in the UK: the 2010 year-end scorecard

“I think that there is great potential for digital radio, as the UK and Danish experiences demonstrate.”
Neelie Kroes, vice president for the digital agenda, European Commission, 3 March 2011

“This milestone is part of building momentum for the transition to digital radio in the UK …”
Digital Radio UK, December 2010

“I think that there has been a transformation in the last twelve months.”
Ford Ennals, chief executive, Digital Radio UK, February 2011

“2010 was a fantastic year for the DAB family, with much encouraging news and positive activity from individual markets …”
Jørn Jensen, president, World DMB, March 2011

“We are seeing increased momentum and activity as digital radio switchover moves from debate to reality …”
Bernie O’Neil, project director, World DMB, March 2011

“2010 had a real sense of forward momentum and activity …”
Caroline Brindle, project office manager, World DMB, March 2011

“Building momentum”? “Transformation”? “Fantastic year”? “Increased momentum”? “Forward momentum”?

Is this DAB radio that we are talking about? In the UK, at year-end 2010, the picture looked like this:

DAB radio receiver penetration:
· 2010 year-end forecast: 53.4% (Digital Radio Development Bureau, 2007)
· 2010 year-end actual: 35.8%

Cumulative DAB radio receiver sales:
· 2010 year-end forecast: 24.5 million (Digital Radio Development Bureau, 2006)
· 2010 year-end actual: 12.5 million

DAB radio receiver sales as % total receiver sales:
· Q1 2011 forecast: 50% (Digital Radio Working Group, 2009)
· Q1 2010 actual: 21%

Radio listening via digital platforms:
2010 year-end forecast: 50% (Ofcom, 2006)
2010 year-end actual: 25%

Radio listening via digital platforms:
2015 year-end forecast: 50% (Digital Radio Working Group, 2009)
2010 year-end actual: 25%

Radio listening via digital platforms:
2010 year-end forecast: 31% (Digital Britain: drive to digital, 2009)
2010 year-end actual: 25%

Commercial radio listening via digital platforms:
2010 year-end forecast: 40% (RadioCentre, 2007)
2010 year-end actual: 24%

None of the stakeholder forecasts of DAB take-up in the UK have come to pass. In this respect, 2010 was no better a year than any other.

Neelie Kroes is mistaken. Evidence from the UK experience certainly does not demonstrate the “great potential” for DAB radio.

Public spending cuts impacted commercial radio 2010 revenues by £24m

Who was UK commercial radio’s biggest advertiser in 2010? British Gas? No, it was second. Autoglass? No, it came third. Volkswagen? No, it was fourth. Unilever? No, it came fifth.

Radio’s biggest advertiser in 2010 was the government (in the guise of the Orwellian-sounding Central Office of Information [COI]). Not only was the government the biggest advertiser on radio, but it was far and away the biggest advertiser by miles. The government’s £30m expenditure on radio in 2010 exceeded the sum total of British Gas, Autoglass, Volkswagen and Unilever.

After the coalition government was formed in May 2010, it immediately executed Conservative Party strategy to cut public expenditure on commercial advertising by 50%. Before the election, I had predicted that this Conservative policy would have a disastrous impact on commercial radio revenues [see my May 2010 blog]. It did.

Although the coalition had been in power for little more than seven months by year-end, COI expenditure on radio was quickly slashed from £50m in 2009 to £30m in 2010. Additional (non-COI) public expenditure cuts reduced radio’s revenues by a further £4m in 2010. This £24m total was a significant loss to commercial radio, and represented 9% of national revenues, or 5% of total revenues.

Did radio suffer greater cuts from the COI than other media? Seemingly not. Radio’s share of COI ad spend was 27% in 2010, slightly higher than the previous year. The reason the impact was so great for radio was the sector’s much greater dependency upon public money than competing media (television, the press, billboards).

In June 2010, the Radio Advertising Bureau had said bravely: “We are optimistic that radio’s strengths will be recognised as COI budgets come under ever greater scrutiny.” Evidently, radio strength’s were not.

By September 2010, the Radio Advertising Bureau said that it was “working with a wide range of advertisers to bridge the gap” left by public expenditure cuts. What was the outcome?

There were some impressive gains for radio from other clients in 2010:
* British Gas increased its expenditure on radio from £5m to £9m year-on-year (particularly impressive since it had only spent £2m on radio in 2007);
* Autoglass increased its expenditure on radio from £5m to £9m year-on-year (50% of its ad budget);
* Gocompare.com increased its expenditure on radio from £1m to £5m year-on-year;
* More Than increased its expenditure on radio from £2m to £4m year-on-year;
* Mars increased its expenditure on radio from £1m to £4m year-on-year;
* Asda multiplied its expenditure on radio eight-fold to £3m year-on-year.

The problem was that even these gains combined did not match the loss from government spending cuts. The huge challenge the commercial radio industry still faces is its history of increasing dependency upon one very large advertiser.

Additionally, there were other clients that either spent less in 2010, or might in 2011:
* Blockbuster Entertainment was radio’s sixth biggest advertiser in 2010 (spending 50% of its ad budget on radio), but filed for bankruptcy in the US in September 2010;
* Sky TV reduced its expenditure on radio to £4m in 2010 from £7m the previous year;
* BT reduced its expenditure on radio to £4m in 2010 from £7m the previous year;
* Proctor & Gamble reduced its expenditure on radio to £4m in 2010 from £6m the previous year;
* Specsavers had been the second biggest spender on radio in 2009, spending £8m, but dropped out of the top 20 in 2010.

However, these single-digit losses were dwarfed by the £24m reduction in public expenditure on radio advertising in 2010.

In terms of product sectors, motor vehicles rebounded from the recession and led the field in 2010 with £90m expenditure on radio. The finance sector similarly rebounded to £52m in 2010. On the other hand, the property sector did not rebound and its spending on radio of £8m in 2010 was down 42% compared to two years earlier. Likewise, online retailers spent only £2m on radio in 2010, down 55% from two years earlier.

Public expenditure on radio fell from the number one product sector in 2007, 2008 and 2009 to fourth place in 2010. Inevitably, given that the coalition was only elected mid-2010, the cuts to public expenditure are likely to have as much impact on radio in 2011 as they had in 2010. Neither is there any prospect of these cuts being restored under the present government.

Total radio sector revenues for 2010 are likely to be up slightly year-on-year [see my Oct 2010 blog]. This is not something to shout about, given that Q2 and Q3 in 2009 had produced commercial radio’s lowest recorded revenues this millennium. However, it is an achievement in an environment where expenditure by commercial radio’s biggest advertising client fell off a cliff (as the graphs above demonstrate visually).

Unfortunately, in the longer term, unless commercial radio succeeds in improving its performance with listeners, both in absolute terms and in comparison with BBC radio, it cannot expect its revenues to return to levels recorded a decade ago. By 2009, UK commercial radio revenues had fallen by 32% since 2000 in real terms. Radio’s revenues from national advertisers had fallen by 47% during that period. That will be an almost impossible expanse of ground to regain.

[data source: Nielsen Media Research]

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]