Commercial radio has talked the digital talk for years about striving to make DAB a successful platform, vaguely promising new digital radio ‘content’ that it has still not delivered. Instead, it has spent the last few years cutting costs, consolidating, lobbying the government, complaining about the BBC, closing its digital stations and contracting out its DAB capacity to marginalised broadcasters (religious, ethnic, government-funded and listener-supported stations) that will never attract mainstream audiences to the platform (and whose listening is not even measured in the RAJAR audience survey).
From the listener’s perspective, the only thing that has happened to the DAB platform in recent years is the disappearance of commercial digital stations such as OneWord, TheJazz, Core, Capital Life and Virgin Radio Groove. For the average consumer, the arrival of Traffic Radio, Premier Christian Radio or British Forces Broadcasting Service are hardly replacements.
A report commissioned by RadioCentre from Ingenious Consulting in January 2009 concluded:
“Commercial radio is now at a crossroads with respect to DAB. It needs either to accept that the commercial challenges of DAB are insuperable and retreat from it – such a retreat, because of contractual and regulatory commitments, would be slow and painful; or strongly drive to digital.”
In the year since this report was prepared, commercial radio has done neither. Instead, it has spent a small fortune on parliamentary lobbying, not one iota of which has had a direct impact on 10 million increasingly baffled DAB radio receiver owners. These latest RAJAR data convey their clear message that content is their only concern.
For the BBC, it is becoming increasingly hard to justify spending, for example, £12.1m per annum on the Asian Network when its peak audience nationally is only 31,000 adults. Broadcast platforms such as FM attract huge audiences for a fixed cost, making them the most efficient distribution system for mass market live content. As a result, Radio 1 costs us only 0.6p per listener hour. By comparison, the Asian Network is costing 6.9p per listener hour, probably making it more expensive to ‘broadcast’ than to send each listener a weekly e-mail attaching the five hours of Asian Network shows they enjoy.
The BBC should still be congratulated for creating new digital radio services in 2002 that attempted to fill very specific gaps in the market which commercial radio was unlikely to ever find commercially attractive. This is precisely why we value a public broadcaster in the UK. However, the BBC digital radio strategy over the last decade has suffered from:
• The BBC’s evident inability to successfully execute the launch of genuinely creative, innovative radio channels that connect with listeners (GLR, the ‘new’ Radio 1, the original Radio 5)
• The BBC pre-occupation with constantly creating new ‘broadcast channels’ when most niche content is more suited to narrowcasting and delivery to its audience via IP (live, on-demand or downloaded).
For the UK radio industry, its digital ‘moment of truth’ has belatedly arrived. A new strategy now has to be adopted which does not continue to raise the DAB platform to the level of a ‘god’ that has to be worshipped above all others. The future of radio is inevitably multiple-platform and the industry’s focus has to be returned to producing content, rather than trying to control the platforms on which that content is carried.
I suspect that Tim Davie, director of BBC Audio & Music, will eventually lead these winds of change, following in the wake of director general Mark Thompson’s pronouncements at the end of this month as to where the internal financial axe will fall. Where the BBC leads, commercial radio will inevitably (have to) follow.
The future digital radio strategy is likely to be ‘horses for courses’. Rather than all radio content being delivered via all available platforms, it will in future be delivered only where, how and when it is most demanded by listeners. Our economic times make this mandatory. The DAB platform’s mass market failure will make it necessary.