Saturday, 23 October 2010

Digital Radio Upgrade? More like Digital Radio Groundhog Day.

It was the Radio Festival, the industry’s annual get together. Everyone wanted to talk about how wonderful the DAB future of radio would be. But nobody wanted to explain how ‘Digital Radio Upgrade’, the government policy to make the UK’s DAB transmission system fit for purpose, will be paid for. It is the radio sector’s favourite parlour game: pass the DAB Upgrade parcel.

The first player is the BBC:

Q: “Very briefly, a one-word answer. Do you have any money set aside now to spend on [Digital Radio Upgrade]?”

Tim Davie, director of BBC Audio & Music: “No.”

Second is commercial radio:

Q: “Does commercial radio have any money to spend on [Digital Radio Upgrade]? [...] What’s your guess?”

Phil Riley, chief executive of Orion Media: “‘No’ is the answer at the moment.”

Third are the politicians:

Jeremy Hunt MP: “I think the most important thing is not something the government can do, but something the industry can do …”

But hold on. This dialogue came from the Radio Festival in 2009…. We need to fast forward one year.

It was the Radio Festival, the industry’s annual get together. Everyone wanted to talk about how wonderful the DAB future of radio would be. But nobody wanted to explain how ‘Digital Radio Upgrade’, the government policy to make the UK’s DAB transmission system fit for purpose, will be paid for. It is still the radio sector’s favourite parlour game: pass the DAB Upgrade parcel.

The first player is the BBC:

“It remains to be seen who will pick up the £100m tab [for Digital Radio Upgrade], with [Tim] Davie saying he did not have the necessary funds.” [from
The Guardian]

Second is commercial radio:

“[Global Group chief executive Ashley] Tabor said the commercial [radio] sector will only pay for the rollout of those local DAB multiplexes that are commercially viable.” [from
The Guardian]

Third are the politicians:

Ed Vaizey, Minister for culture, communications & creative industries: "The BBC has to work with me on coverage. I am talking to the BBC and I hope to accelerate the pace of digital radio coverage."

Déjà vu, anyone? Delegates paid £899 to witness this repeat performance. I have already placed my bet on precisely the same sentiments being made at the Radio Festival in 2011, though the odds offered by the bookie were not at all good. On the coach home from the Festival, everyone must have joined in the usual radio industry singsong:

“When do we want digital radio switchover? Now!
Who do we want to pay for DAB Upgrade?
Somebody else!”

And while we are on the topic of déjà vu, I am reminded of an analyst
report about DAB from June 2008, in which I had written:

“The digital switchover of radio is so far into the future as to be intangible.”

I was swiftly rebuked for this viewpoint in an e-mail from a radio sector CEO.

Now fast forward to the 2010 Radio Festival. Andrew Harrison, chief executive of commercial radio trade body Radio Centre,
said:

"There is no doubt if [digital take-up] carries on at its current projectory we will never get there." [sic]

The current RadioCentre strategy remains inexplicably that the BBC should pay not only for improvements to the BBC’s DAB radio transmitters, but also for the commercial radio sector’s (see earlier blogs
here and here). The nails seem to have been hammered firmly into that coffin by this week’s speed-axing session between the government and the BBC.

Although subsequent press reports have implied that the cost of the (previous) government’s Digital Radio Upgrade policy will now be underwritten wholly by the BBC, the available evidence says otherwise. The resulting four-page
letter from the government to the BBC Trust set out in detail all the new items to which the BBC’s funds will have to be applied in future. The World Service? Yes. BBC Monitoring? Yes. S4C TV? Yes. Local television? Yes. DAB radio? No….

Oh, hold on. In the penultimate paragraph on the final page there is a single sentence about DAB penned by Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt:

“I also welcome the BBC’s plans to enhance its national DAB coverage in the period of this agreement, and to match its national FM coverage as a switchover date draws near.”

But while the rest of the letter is littered with the oft repeated phrase “The BBC will …”, this solitary mention of DAB radio is couched only in terms of “BBC plans” without a hint of compulsion. DAB is an obvious afterthought here and, much to RadioCentre’s chagrin, it refers only to the BBC improving its own DAB transmitter coverage and not to improving commercial radio’s.

In the coming months, when the inevitable axe falls sharply across BBC budgets as a result of this week’s gobsmacking (©
Ray Snoddy) agreement between the BBC and the government, DAB radio must be an obvious short straw. Lose BBC local radio, or lose DAB? BBC local/regional radio accounts for 15% of BBC radio listening. BBC digital radio stations account for 4%. Here comes the chopper ….

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Grant

Surely it isn't just the share of listening but the operating costs of each BBC service that will be taken into account when making the decisions?

We already know that 6Music is staying whatever happens so the chopper won't fall there. BBC7 is about to become a sister station to Radio 4, and 5 Live Sports Extra is broadcasting sport for which 5 Live holds the rights but cannot fit into the schedule (e.g. Grand Prix qualifying), so no savings there.

Apart from Asian Network going I can't see any of the digital radio services being axed. The savings would be negligible because of the relatively low operating costs of these stations.

What I can see though:

BBC3 & BBC4 being merged into one evening service, CBeebies & CBBC being merged into one daytime service.

BBC local radio going regional during daytime off-peak hours.

Those measures alone would save far more than axing a few cheap-to-run digital radio stations.

Grant Goddard said...

Anonymous -

Thanks for your feedback. My apologies for not being clear enough. I was contemplating that 'DAB' as an entity would be chopped - not just the BBC digital stations, but the transmission networks, the marketing effort and associated overheads. Then the content could be re-purposed, offering many more on-demand streams, downloads and IP-delivered stuff from BBC archives. The BBC has too many full-time radio stations. In 2010, you don't need a radio station to deliver audio content to consumers.

Grant.