Monday, 7 December 2009

Digital radio switchover: amendment to ‘consider the needs’ of listeners and small stations

Clause 30 of the government’s Digital Economy Bill sets out the process for determining the date for radio ‘digital switchover’:

97A: Date for digital switchover
(1) The Secretary of State may give notice to OFCOM nominating a date for
digital switchover for the post-commencement services specified or
described in the notice.
(2) When nominating a date, or considering whether to nominate a date,
the Secretary of State must have regard to any report submitted by
OFCOM or the BBC under section 67(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 1996
(review of digital radio broadcasting).

An amendment has been tabled by Lord Howard of Rising and Lord de Mauley which would require the government additionally to consider:

• the needs of local and community radio stations
• the needs of analogue listeners

as well as any reports submitted by Ofcom and the BBC. This amendment will be considered, along with many others not concerned with radio, when the Bill is debated by a House of Lords committee on 6 January 2010.

Although this amendment does not suggest a specific mechanism for canvassing the opinions of listeners or local radio stations, it nevertheless acknowledges implicitly that the consumer and small commercial/community radio stations need to have a voice in the process. It is about time.

From its earliest formulation, the proposal for radio broadcasting to be switched from FM/AM to DAB seemed to have been intended to create:
• a ‘walled garden’ under the control of the UK’s largest commercial radio owners and the BBC who, between them and transmission provider Arqiva, not only own the entire DAB infrastructure but also act as ‘gatekeeper’, deciding which station has access to the platform.
• a ‘walled garden’ on DAB that would hopefully stop consumers listening to content not produced or approved by the BBC or the largest commercial radio companies, such as online radio (most of which originates or is owned overseas), pirate radio, community radio and small independent stations.

Massive consolidation in commercial radio since then has resulted in a more divided industry than ever, in which the biggest commercial players are eager to ‘nationalise’ or ‘regionalise’ what had been licensed as local radio stations, whereas most of the smaller commercial and community owners want to keep local radio as local as they can.

There is no longer likely to be a single organisation that can embrace the full range of stakeholders in the radio sector. Even government agencies such as Ofcom and DCMS seem wilfully to be ignoring the wider picture, as if seduced by notions that ‘DAB must happen’, ‘bigger must be better’, ‘Britain must lead the way’ and ‘consumers don’t know what’s good for them’.

Inevitably, it will end in tears. You can pass all the laws you want but, if you cannot get the consumer interested in DAB, it will fail. And, to date, the consumer seems largely disinterested and could not care less that manufacturers of DAB radios are mostly British (though they manufacture outside the UK) or whether they listen to British radio content.

Ofcom’s most recent market research shows the stark reality: 64% of households say they are unlikely to buy a DAB radio in the next 12 months, and a further 20% say they don’t know.

You ignore consumer opinion at your peril.

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