Which? says: DAB radio switchover must be “consumer led or not at all”

What would have to be done to make DAB radio successful?

“What there does need to be, as Freeview and digital satellite has shown in television, is simply a sufficient combination of services, technology, simplicity and price or discount to provide a value proposition for the consumer,” suggested Stephen Carter in 2004, when he was chief executive of Ofcom.

“….. for the consumer” were the key words. They were also the words that became forgotten. The consumer was ignored in the radio industry’s pursuit of the radio industry’s own agenda for DAB radio. As a consequence, DAB radio has still not succeeded … with consumers. The failings were acknowledged by Quentin Howard, one of the architects of DAB radio in the UK:

“The mistake by broadcasters was in not understanding that ‘build it and they will come’ is no longer practical in this integrated technological age.”

Which?, the UK consumer advocacy, noted the radio industry’s lack of attention to the consumer in a February 2011 briefing paper entitled ‘Digital Radio Switchover in 2015? Consumer Led Or Not At All’:

“The transition to digital radio is currently industry led. The benefits of a transition to digital radio over the current analogue service are not clear to consumers, and the uptake of the technology over the past 10 years reflects this.”

Which? suggested that, before the government can announce a date for digital radio switchover, the following criteria should be met:

• “Uptake should be a minimum of 70% of all FM radio listening transferred to digital, leaving 30% still listening on analogue (FM/LW/MW/SW) (the Government’s Digital Radio Action Plan suggests 50%)
• The transition to digital must not be announced until coverage, including a measure of signal quality, is better than that of FM radio
• DAB must have been fitted as standard in all new cars for at least two years and an effective and affordable solution to in-car conversion must be available prior to the announcement of a switchover (which costs no more than for in-home conversion)
• Government must conduct a full cost-benefit analysis from a consumer perspective as a priority because increasing consumer desire for DAB should not focus on cost alone
• Minimum standards associated with a kite mark must be ambitious and future-proofed and any incentive scheme to switch to DAB should offer only kite marked receivers
• Consumer group representatives must be involved in the development of an information campaign independent from industry to raise awareness of the digital switchover by consumers and ensure guidance and training tools are available to retailers. In this regard, any lessons from the Digital TV switchover should be acted upon
• In its assessment of the environmental impact of a switchover to digital radio, the Government must tackle the full range of issues around recycling of analogue sets and the energy impacts of DAB”

However, in some of these areas of concern, current policy on DAB radio appears to be moving in the opposite direction to that advocated by Which?:

• The 50% criterion (50% of radio listening via digital platforms before switchover can be announced) is not mandatory because it was never included in the Digital Economy Act [see my Jan 2010 blog]
• The latest plan for DAB is not to deliver reception even as good as FM, but to make it worse than FM [see my recent blog]
• Only 1% of cars have DAB radios fitted and future take-up will inevitably be slow [see my recent blog]
• Roberts Radio reported a 35-40% customer return rate for its in-car DAB radio adaptors [see my Nov 2010 blog]
• The cost benefit analysis of DAB radio to be considered by the government will also be authored by the government, rather than commissioned independently [see my Jan 2011 blog]
• Roberts Radio admitted having had to pull the plug on several DAB receiver projects, including the industry’s promised ‘£25 DAB radio’, because they could not meet Roberts’ minimum quality standards

In July 2010, after the formation of the new coalition government, culture minister Ed Vaizey had said:

“If, and it is a big if, the consumer is ready, we will support a 2015 switchover date. But, as I have already said, it is the consumer, through their listening habits and purchasing decisions, who will ultimately determine the case for switchover.” [see my Sep 2010 blog]

So, it might appear that the Minister and Which? are, in fact, both lined up in agreement that digital radio switchover can only happen if it is supported by consumers. So why has the government not yet recognised that consumers already seem to have given the thumbs down to DAB?

Because there are middle men (Ofcom, DCMS, Digital Radio UK, Arqiva, DAB multiplex licence owners) who persist in keeping the DAB dream alive in Whitehall. Yet again, consumers are being drowned out by the clamour of agencies eager to pursue their own narrow objectives. And the mantra of the middle men is: ‘DAB crisis, what crisis’?

Which? advises: two of “seven Christmas gifts to avoid” are DAB radios

A reader comment appended to an online newspaper story this week about the decision of some commercial radio station owners to launch an anti-DAB radio marketing campaign said jokingly:

“Now all that’s needed before Christmas is for ‘Which’ to warn consumers of moral hazard in purchasing DAB radios.”

In fact, last month, ‘Which?’ [the UK consumer organisation] published its list of ‘Seven Christmas gifts to avoid’, two of which were DAB radio receivers. According to Which?:

“Argos Value Range CDAB8R digital radio and Roberts CRD-37 digital radio. Sound on both of these DAB radios is disappointingly poor.”

One of the enduring problems that has contributed to the slow take-up of DAB radio in the UK has been the consistently high retail prices of DAB radio receivers compared to analogue models. The radio industry has promised repeatedly over many years that the retail price of DAB radios would fall. It has, but nowhere near as much as hoped.

In order for unit prices to fall further, DAB radio receivers would have to be manufactured in production runs of millions in factories in China. Because the notion of DAB radio has failed to excite consumers during the last decade, not only in the UK but across Europe, those high production runs have not been achieved, so that the unit prices remain relatively high (average price paid in Q1 2010 was £91).

The problem with trying to produce low-price DAB radio receivers is that something inside them has to be sacrificed to keep costs down. Whereas the UK’s FM transmission system is sufficiently robust to permit usable reception of radio stations on even the cheapest hardware, the DAB transmission system is still not robust enough for usable reception in many circumstances. Additionally, with analogue radio, poor reception equals background noise and interference. Whereas, with DAB radio, poor reception equals no audio whatsoever.

This issue has long been known by the UK radio industry, but it proves a lot easier to ignore it than to fix it. So, the £55m marketing campaigns to persuade consumers to purchase DAB radios continue, despite the radio industry being aware that many consumers are likely to have unsatisfactory experiences with their newly purchased DAB radios.

At the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group meeting on 1 November 2010, UK manufacturer Roberts Radio admitted to pulling the plug on several receiver projects, including the industry’s long promised ‘£25 DAB radio’, because they could not meet Roberts’ minimum quality standards. Leslie Burrage, chief executive of Roberts Radio, told the meeting that there had been a 35 to 40% consumer return rate for its in-car DAB radio adapters.

Roberts Radio, unlike competitor Pure Digital, has been outspoken about its concerns that DAB radio is being marketed wrongly to UK consumers. Owen Watters, sales/marketing director of Roberts Radio, told the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group that he felt such campaigns should be advocating the merits of the DAB radio experience, rather than threatening consumers with the prospect of digital radio ‘switchover’.

The government’s Consumer Expert Group [CEG] raised these issues in its critical report on DAB for the government in September 2010. The government published its response to those criticisms on 30 November 2010:

Consumer Expert Group: “A clear and balanced public information campaign needs to be implemented through a trusted body, independent of the industry.”
Government: “If a decision is made to implement a digital radio switchover, we agree that a clear and balanced consumer information campaign will be important. A strategic plan for such a campaign is a central component of the Digital Radio Action Plan and we have invited representatives of the CEG to play a key role in advising on its development, for example through representation on the Market Preparation Group.”

Consumer Expert Group: “Emphasis should not be placed on driving down costs unless the sound quality and functionality of cheaper DAB sets are at least equal to analogue.”
Government: “There is clearly a balance to be struck between reducing the cost burden on the consumer of a digital radio switchover, and ensuring devices are of a good standard and offer additional benefits to the listener. We want to see a competitive market for receivers which offers consumers choice on innovation and price.”

These government responses seem to qualify as ‘non-answers’ of exactly the type we have become all too used to when difficult, but important, issues have been raised about DAB radio implementation in the UK. The prevailing philosophy justifying DAB seems to be: ‘ask me no questions, I tell you no lies.’