The path to digital is not straight

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Yesterday the Culture Secretary, Ed Vaisey, made his long-awaited statement on the proposed Digital Switchover date (or switch-off) for Radio… the upshot of which was, there isn’t one. This is what most us expected him to say. The idea that turning off analogue radio any time soon is absurd and has been a worry for many for a long time.

The problem is that radio isn’t television. Consumers (we like to call them listeners) behave differently. Many commentators have pointed to the fact that over the past few years sales of DAB radios have slowed; even though coverage is up and the amount of digital listening is also up. Although, some would it’s all a bit rubbish and we should abandon DAB now.  It could argued that the lack of clarity about our digital future is to blame here; as without a definitive end date for analogue for radio, then why bother buying DAB? There might be some truth here, the real change with TV was when when we knew when our screens would start going blank. This is where the real difference between TV and Radio is clear. We tend to own more radio’s than TV’s and we probably don’t change them as often. Upgrading to a bigger screen or adding IPTV to the lounge has real benefit and the inner-geek in us all makes us want it. Radio on the other hand tends to be something we live with, until it breaks. Then we buy a new one.

My guess is that sales have levelled as the initial rush of interest has peaked and we’re now into the phase where radio’s are being bought not as an additional sets to listen to DAB but as replacements to broken or tatty sets. So, should we take this is a sign that interest has also peaked? Probably not. OK, so I am radio geek. I have DAB radios in most rooms of the house and on my desk at work. The only place I don’t have it right now is the car – and that’s only because I need a new kit for my Pure Highway. The statement this week addresses this, with plans to send DAB information out with every DVLA tax reminder. This coupled with the announcement from Halfords that won’t be selling analogue only radio’s from 2015 will add some movement to the one place that was clearly a problem for DAB. However, this alone is not the solution.

There are two other big problems when it comes to switchover. The first is choice. This week the Minister told us that Ofcom will once again issue a 2nd National Digital Multiplex; which might go some way in dealing with one of the problems of DAB. Whilst the likes of Absolute Radio and Bauer have understood that Digital offers them opportunities to build out brands, much of what we can hear on DAB is already available on FM. Choice is limited and – to be honest – my kitchen radio spends more time tuned to internet radio than it does to DAB. I love Absolute 80’s, I appreciate 6Music and think that the BBC World Service is amazing and I’m glad they’re all on DAB, but it can feel like the incentives offered in DTV were better. Content will be a key to the future and we have to hope that D” offers choice, rather than re-workings of current brands or the relay of another London FM station.

The BIG problem though is what happens when there is no path to digital. This is the case for lots of the smaller stations, such as those owned by UKRD. In November they joined forces with others to warn that switch-off was not an option. For their stations, the current arrangements for digital transmission means they would be covering areas much bigger than need to and at costs in excess of their ability to pay. This is an even bigger issue for Community Radio, where budgets are even tighter. The minister promised some action here, including funding to examine future options.

The key thing, though, is that he did not set and end date for analogue. If anything, he reaffirmed that notion that the future will be a mixed economy of analogue AND digital. So, bad news for those who wanted DAB to turned off (sorry guys). Interestingly, he also slipped in a suggestion that there may be some further change ahead for Community Radio to make their lives even easier.

Despite the flurry of small announcements and whatever stability his words have generated, we are no further on. We know that AM and FM will around for some time to come. We know we will get more DAB and that the government will continue to support it. What we don’t know is if the likes of the BBC and Global will slowly move their brands onto DAB only, leaving FM to the small independents and community stations; like the chains leaving the high street to move into the shiny new shopping centre on the edge of town, leaving behind boarded up windows and charity shops.