Saturday, 27 March 2010

When is an FM radio not a radio? When it’s in a portable media player, says digital switchover group

Digital Radio UK is the new organisation funded by the BBC and commercial radio “to ensure that the UK is ready for digital radio upgrade”. In February 2010, Digital Radio UK submitted written evidence to the House of Lords Communications Committee informing it of the latest data for UK retail sales of radio receivers. Amongst other things, the data showed that:

• Sales of digital radios in 2009 were under 2 million units, their lowest annual volume since 2006
• Sales of analogue radios seemed to have dropped dramatically to 5.2 million in 2009 from between 7 and 8 million during 2008
• As a proportion of the total volume of radios sold, digital radios had apparently leapt to 28% in 2009 from 21% only a year earlier.

I was puzzled. Why had sales of analogue radios fallen so dramatically by year-end 2009 (see graph below)? There seemed to be almost no substitution effect by DAB radios, whose volume sales were also down, though not by as much as analogue radios. It appeared as if many consumers had just suddenly decided to stop purchasing radios. I wrote to [*****], the company that [***********************************************] Digital Radio UK, asking why the data had suddenly ‘jumped’ in Q4 2009.

The written response from [*****] was:

“The q4 2009 drop is more about the basket of products included as areas previously included such as set top boxes and portable media players were excluded from the data at that time.”

[*****] defines a ‘portable media player’ as any device that plays music and has a 3.5mm headphone jack: MP3 players, iPods, portable cassette players, portable CD players, etc. From Q4 2009 onwards, when any of these devices are sold in the UK and also include a radio, they are no longer counted as ‘a radio’. Now, every MP3 player sold that includes a radio is simply excluded from these statistics. This is why the number of radios sold appeared to drop so significantly (by around 2m units per annum) in the latest Digital Radio UK data.

Why was this change in definition made? It is hard to understand the logic because a radio within an MP3 player is still used as a radio and has no other purpose. It is a real radio, not a fake radio, but to [*****] it is no longer a radio.

The answer seems to be that a huge number of MP3 players are sold in the UK (value £666m in 2009) but almost none of them incorporate a DAB radio. When an MP3 player does include a radio, it is inevitably an FM radio. MP3 players are manufactured and sold globally by multinational electronics manufacturers who understand that FM remains the universal standard for listening to broadcast radio, while DAB is still confined to no more than a handful of countries. Global manufacturers are reluctant to mass produce an MP3 player incorporating a DAB radio because the sales market would be limited to a few, small territories.

I checked the Argos retail website this week and found it offered 82 models of MP3/MP4 player. None incorporated DAB radio, whereas there were 16 that included an FM radio and 66 that had no radio.

It seems that the last resort for Digital Radio UK to be able to demonstrate to a sceptical public (and increasingly sceptical members of the House of Lords) that DAB radio is ‘taking off’ with consumers is to fix the figures to make it look that way. If you cannot convince the public to stop buying analogue radios, you can ‘bend’ the figures to magically make it appear that the public is buying fewer analogue radios.

Earlier this month, I documented how Digital Radio UK had similarly fixed the same dataset from [*****] to declare in its publicity that “when buying a radio, more than 75% of people choose a digital radio”. This was not at all true. The real fact was that, in December 2009 alone (December always being the peak month for DAB radio sales), 76% of people who bought a kitchen radio bought a digital kitchen radio. That was an attempt to brazenly redefine ‘a radio’ as only ‘a kitchen radio’ so as to exclude clock radios, tuners, in-car radios, boomboxes, etc.

I can only repeat what I said then. However desperate you might be to try and make DAB radio a success, how is it justifiable to deliberately mis-state data so outrageously in print? And to Parliament?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Here's a Google Trends graph that shows the almost complete lack of consumer interest in DAB: