Digital radio: time to switch? opinion: digital radio

A decision must be made on digital migration to determine the future of radio in the UK, writes techUK market engagement and membership director Paul Hide


hen the BBC launched its first services on Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) 23 years ago

there was an expectation that this marked the beginning of the end for FM and AM radio. The transition to a digital future for the UK was further strengthened when the Labour Government announced the Digital Britain initiative in 2009. In 2010, the Conservative Government

launched the Digital Radio Action plan, defining a pathway to digital switchover, stating that a switchover target date of 2015 was possible. This report stated that there were two key criteria that had to be met before switchover was possible. Firstly, that DAB coverage was to be equal to that of FM on national (BBC) stations. So, >97% of homes and >90% of roads. Secondly, that the majority, >50%, of all radio listening be via a digital source. But, here we are three years after the original

target date to switch with no commitment to shut down analogue radio broadcasting. What’s gone wrong? Progress towards the key milestones of

coverage and listening have taken longer than expected. Digital listening has now breached the 50% mark, as measured by RAJAR in May of this year. National network coverage for homes is now over 97%. Road coverage is still behind (circa 75% of roads are now served by DAB), so a move away from FM today would

result in a loss of services for in-car listeners travelling away from major road networks. Whilst digital listening is now the majority, it

remains skewed towards national stations, BBC stations in particular. Local radio listening is still mainly via FM and commercial broadcasters are reluctant to support a transition to digital whilst a large percentage of their listeners, and their advertising revenues, rely on FM. The BBC are nervous about supporting

a switch away from analogue for two reasons. Firstly, they have both young and old listeners still very reliant on analogue as the means to listen to BBC stations. Radio 1’s listeners still predominately access via FM and students, seeking a low-cost radio device, still buy huge volumes of analogue only entry-priced radios. Secondly, the BBC are focused on growing services via iPlayer. It appears that they now see DAB as mature technology and would rather invest in growing content delivery via IP than support further investment in DAB. This uncertainty is bad news for radio manufacturers and retailers. Digital radio sales volumes are declining in the UK and we are still selling over two million analogue only radios a year. Neither of these statistics is helping to create a market that is ready for digital switchover. The motor industry has done a great job in supporting DAB; more than 80% of new cars now come with DAB as

standard, adding up to more than 10 million cars on UK roads with DAB capability. The UK led the world in broadcasting digital radio services but now risks being left behind as other countries commit to a digital migration whilst the UK pontificates. Norway switched off its analogue national stations last year and several other European countries have committed to switch in the next five years. TechUK and its radio manufacturing members fully support a commitment to digital radio switchover and believe that naming a target date, probably five to eight years hence, is the best way to focus broadcasters, supply chain and listeners towards the goal of successful migration. Government have a commitment to review switchover now the minimum coverage and listening figures have been reached and we expect an announcement of this review in the autumn. TechUK’s vision for the future of digital radio ensures more choice for all listeners, a supportive environment for UK broadcasters and digital broadcasting at the core of the digital service offerings, supporting innovation and revenue in an industry that has strong roots in the UK and contributes to our economic prosperity, creating jobs and global sales revenues. We maintain that radio service providers have a much higher chance of retaining listener share by focusing on the finite competitive world of broadcasting as opposed to the infinite and global competitive world of IP content delivery. We are now at the stage where we have

The automotive industry has been extremely effective in expanding DAB capability for new cars, but other DAB radio sales have been less impressive

September 2018

two choices. Either the collective industry gets behind a clear plan and timetable that delivers a successful digital migration or we delay making firm decisions and risk DAB becoming an also-ran technology, further stagnating a weak device sales market and eroding broadcasting value for the listener. The next few months of discussion and decision making will most likely define the future of radio in the UK for a generation. | 23

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