Monday, 29 November 2010

Roll up! Roll up! Enjoy the radio industry pantomime: 'DAB Radio'

The Ministerial Group for the government’s Digital Radio Action Plan will meet tomorrow. That meeting has all the hallmarks of a radio industry seasonal pantomime, with participants dressed up in their gladrags to play the appropriate parts. A select audience has been hand picked, though the ending of the story has still to be written.

Pantomime often brings out a sense of déjà vu, of having seen the same thing during previous Christmases. This winter’s DAB radio marketing campaign has that feeling. The
2010 slogan is:

“There’s a digital radio for everyone this Christmas”

While the UK radio industry’s Christmas campaign for
2009 had been:

“Struggling to think of the perfect gift for Christmas? There’s a digital radio for everyone …”

Pantomime often stages a sleight of hand, where you are not quite sure if what you saw was real or just some cheap trick. This winter’s DAB radio marketing campaign has that feeling. On 18 November 2010, the press
story was:

“The commercial radio campaign [for DAB], which breaks on November 22, covers Global [Radio], Bauer [Radio], Guardian Media Group [Radio], Absolute [Radio], UTV [Radio] and many local commercial stations.”

But, within days, that
story had changed so that the campaign:

“… will run across major commercial groups” and “commercial radio stations including Absolute, UTV, Orion.”

What happened to Global Radio, Bauer Radio and Guardian Media Group Radio? Well, every pantomime has its jesters who do their best to spoil the rest of the cast’s fun. This winter’s DAB radio marketing campaign has that feeling. Two days after the Christmas DAB campaign had started, The Telegraph broke the
story that:

“Leading commercial radio groups [Global Radio, Guardian Media Group] have refused to promote DAB radio …”

Every pantomime has its bully, who picks on people mercilessly and prevents them from going to the ball. This winter’s DAB shenanigans have that feeling. Commercial radio trade body RadioCentre offered its
story as to why its members, Global Radio and Guardian Media Group, had pulled out of the marketing campaign:

"Commercial radio operators are currently in discussions with government about the funding of local DAB coverage. Until those discussions are resolved, we understand that some stations felt it would be inappropriate to run the digital radio Christmas campaign."

Er, isn’t that blackmail rather than negotiation? Is it not transparent that, if you really cared about making DAB radio a success, you would think twice about cutting off your nose to spite your face by deliberately NOT promoting the very DAB platform that you have been attempting to palm off on the public for the last decade? In essence, you are trying to convince consumers that you care so much about your backward 10-year old offspring that you intend to starve it to death. In pantomime, such a tragedy might give the audience a laugh. In reality, it would be time for Social Services to intervene. It cannot be good PR for the commercial radio industry to be so convincingly playing the part of The Wicked Witch of The West.

RadioCentre’s lack of parenting skills has been evident in recent weeks:
· Its children had refused to attend the government’s Digital Radio Stakeholders Group meeting on 1 November [see earlier
blog]
· Last Friday, its children refused to participate in a Westminster conference on ‘the future of UK digital radio’ organised for 7 December, resulting in the event’s postponement until April 2011.

And here is what the school notes said to explain these absences:
· "Following the announcement of the [BBC Licence Fee] settlement, RadioCentre has been in discussions with Government about the funding of local DAB coverage. As these discussions are ongoing, RadioCentre members felt it would be inappropriate to attend the Digital Radio Stakeholder meeting." [
Campaign]
· “Sensitivity of current negotiations on the future of digital radio” for the conference pull-out.

The evident paradox in this radio pantomime is that:
· The radio industry is spending £55m between now and 2015 to try and convince the public that DAB radio is the best thing since the cat’s whisker [see earlier
blog]
· The radio industry big boys will not stand up in front of other stakeholders in the media sector, or in front of a conference, and explain what, why or how they are pursuing (or not really pursuing at all) the government’s DAB dreams
· Commercial radio has been demanding for several years that the BBC pays for fixing the deficiencies in commercial radio’s own DAB local transmission system. (Yes, this is the same BBC that RadioCentre has lambasted for years about its interference in commercial activities. Yes, these are the same commercial radio big boys who invested heavily in DAB in the 1990s in the hope of making profits for their shareholders.)

Pantomime is pure theatre, and tomorrow’s meeting will doubtless provide much entertainment for all involved. The only unresolved issue is how it will all end. Will the government Minister play the part of Scrooge, insisting that the commercial radio big boys should work longer hours for their living and must pay for improvements to their DAB system themselves? Or will the government play the wicked stepmother, compromising the BBC’s independence by forcing it to pay for an expensive sticky plaster to fix a commercial media sector DAB problem that has been all of its own making?

My feeling is that, in these austere times, it would be opening up another big black hole for public money to now finance such massive deficiency issues with DAB radio that could and should have been anticipated and fixed a decade ago. It is simply too expensive to commit unknown quantities of cash to transform the ugly DAB frog into a handsome prince who might never be fit enough to rival FM radio. Anyway, the BBC has already made a public commitment to not spend any more Licence Fee money on yet another ‘makeover’ show. In which case, our Cinderella DAB may not be going to the ball.


Or is all of the above just a pantomine within a farce? Is all this play-acting merely intended to allow commercial radio to walk away from DAB altogether, pointing the finger of blame elsewhere (and smug that the Classic FM automatic licence renewal is nearly almost within its grasp)?

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