The BBC started DAB radio transmissions in the UK twenty years ago and then, ten years later, DAB was implemented commercially. During all that time, DAB radio has failed to ignite the interest of most British consumers. Neither has this European technology been successfully exported to all corners of the globe, as had been anticipated. Countries where DAB is working commercially can be counted on one hand. The end result – warehouses full of unsold DAB radios, billions of pounds of investment unlikely to ever show a return, apathetic consumers and potentially disgruntled venture capitalists.
The one-month DAB ‘scrappage’ scheme announced this week smacks of desperation. In 2009, fewer DAB radio receivers were sold than in 2007. Consumers have voted with their wallets and remain unconvinced. This downward sales trend started before the credit crunch but no action has been taken to stop it. The window of opportunity for DAB radio mass market take-up would seem to have come and gone.
During the first decade of DAB, a scrappage scheme would have been unthinkable. All parties involved in launching DAB were too busy rubbing their hands at the very anticipation of the profits that would be coming their way. High-priced DAB receivers, monopoly control of DAB airwaves and cheap, DJ-free jukebox digital radio stations. You could almost see the pound signs in the eyes of DAB stakeholders.
How times have changed. The DAB radio industry is now a salvage operation. It is a passé technology and the current objective is simply to shift as many of those brick-shaped DAB radios out of storage warehouses as possible, almost at any price. The present period before DAB is finally pronounced DOA is time limited. After that, DAB radios will become the Tamagotchi of the broadcast sector.
The most damning part of all this is the boldness with which the radio industry is still prepared to foist a technology on the public that, in many listening situations, is so technically inadequate. Instead of fixing the problems with DAB reception (which would cost a fortune), the industry just persists in maintaining its stance that DAB radio is fine. But trying to dupe your customers (particularly when radio is the most ‘trusted’ medium, according to Ofcom) must be counterproductive. Crime doesn’t pay if your business model requires loyal listeners.
Just as damning is the industry’s refusal to accept that it is ‘content’ that drives radio listening. Why would anyone buy a relatively expensive DAB radio when it offers so little content over and above what can already be accessed via AM/FM, digital TV, mobile phones and the internet? Commercial radio’s closure of most of its digital stations, followed this year by BBC proposals to axe two of its digital stations, hardly inspire consumer confidence in DAB.
Complicit in this is the radio industry’s willingness to endorse DAB radio set manufacturers’ increasingly desperate measures to shift their products. Pure, the biggest UK brand of DAB radio receivers, is circulating a booklet for consumers to pick up in-store that purportedly “dispels digital radio switchover myths”. Rather than itemise all of the booklet’s assertions that are either untrue (“AM services will either move to FM or to digital only”) or which distort the truth (“Digital radio … crystal-clear, interference-free listening”), I suggest you read it yourself here.
On the one hand, it will make you laugh with incredulity. On the other hand, if you love the radio medium, it will make you cry. Sorry, but when exactly was it that snake oil salesmen took over this industry?