Audience data published by Ofcom in its latest Communications Market report (page 219, Figure 3.34) help us to understand the current roadblock with DAB consumer take-up. Ofcom divulged the proportion of listening to individual stations by platform, data that has not been made public by RAJAR (see graph below).
The government has stated that it will not consider ‘switchover’ until at least 50% of radio listening is via digital platforms. Digital listening to the ten stations and station types shown in the above graph add up to only 20%, even after ten years of DAB (digital-only stations bring the total to 24%). There is a reason that it will prove an impossible challenge to get this up to the 50% government target.
Around 300 local commercial radio stations account for 31% of all radio listening. Their success in convincing audiences to migrate to digital platforms will be a vitally important part of the aim to achieve the 50% criterion. However, only 15% of local commercial radio listening is attributed to digital platforms, the lowest proportion (along with BBC local radio) of the ten stations/types in the graph. The task to improve this performance from 15% to the 24% national average is likely to prove impossible, let alone to grow it to the 50% criterion.
This is because many stations in the local commercial radio sector cannot and will not ever be available on DAB because:
• The economics of DAB transmission make it too costly
• The unavailability of any local DAB multiplex in some areas
• The unavailability of space for stations on some local DAB multiplexes
• The industry grand plan to amalgamate existing local multiplexes into regional multiplexes makes DAB transmission, for small local radio stations, more irrelevant and more costly.
These issues had been identified by the government in its Digital Britain consultation in June 2009:
• “merging [DAB] multiplexes will reduce the overall capacity available for DAB services, therefore reducing the potential for new services”
• “reduced capacity on local multiplexes might result in some services losing their current carriage on DAB.”
The government’s decision to ignore these outcomes is now coming back to bite it on the bum. Not having a plan to ensure that all local commercial radio stations can be made available on DAB will only ensure that the government’s 50% criterion can never be met.
At the same time, the determination of the largest players in the commercial radio sector to forge ahead with DAB, regardless of these unresolved issues, has created a serious schism between them and the smaller local radio groups and independent local stations who have no digital future. These issues were raised in parliamentary debate of the Digital Economy Act but were ignored and trivialised by the DAB lobbyists.
Some local commercial radio owners are seriously alienated by the way their predicaments have been ignored by large radio groups and their trade organisations – RadioCentre, Digital Radio Development Bureau and Digital Radio UK. One such group owner, UKRD, has taken direct action by running a campaign on-air and on its stations’ websites against the government’s proposed switchover to DAB.
A page entitled ‘Love FM’ on the Wessex FM website says:
“As you probably know Wessex FM proudly broadcasts to this area on the FM frequencies 96 & 97.2, and had been hoping to for many years to come. However, recent developments mean that we may not be able to broadcast in this way for much longer. In fact, the current plan from parliament is to switch off the use of FM for many stations in 2015. That means, soon, you may not be able to listen to us on FM.”
William Rogers, UKRD Group chief executive officer explained:
“We are not prepared to encourage any of our listeners to go and replace their perfectly satisfactory analogue radio set with a DAB one which may not be able to pick up a DAB signal at all and if it can, it may be a signal which may be wholly inadequate. Even worse, the very station that the listener may have heard the [DAB marketing] advertisement on may not be on DAB or even have a DAB future.”
Pam Lawton, managing director of another UKRD-owned station, KL.FM in King’s Lynn, said:
“We are not on DAB at the moment and currently most of the DAB digital platforms have been snapped up. As things stand, West Norfolk does not have a digital platform because there are limitations about how many there can be and there will only be one station that will serve Norfolk. That station will probably be based in Norwich so once the government decides to turn off FM, we will have to switch off for good.”
The paradox is that the radio sector stakeholders who have been pushed aside and ignored by the DAB movers and shakers are some of the very ones who hold the key to enabling digital radio switchover to happen. Unless the huge audience for local commercial radio can be persuaded to migrate its listening to DAB, the 50% criterion cannot be achieved.
At the same time, some stakeholders who are making the most noise about DAB switchover matter the least in the scheme of things. Absolute Radio can trumpet its individual success with digital listening, but it is contributing less than 1% to the 50% criterion that has to be reached, despite being a national station. It is the hundreds of local commercial radio stations that, collectively, matter the most. Yet, many of these have been denied any seat at the DAB table.
As politicians have learnt through the ages, unless you can convince the little guys (the local radio station owners) and the ‘man in the street’ (the radio listener) to endorse your grand scheme, a scheme is all it will remain. Fancy words in boardrooms, lengthy documents from corporate consultants and detailed project management timelines will inevitably come to nothing, without involving and bringing on board the people who really matter.
It is the radio industry data, particularly for local radio, that tell the real story of DAB and why it can never become the mass radio medium for UK consumers. That is why digital radio switchover will not happen.
[all RAJAR data are Q1 2010, as used by Ofcom]