Monday, 27 December 2010

Ofra Haza: the making of world music's first international star

In January 1985, I had arrived in Israel to work as a DJ on a radio station, but this was no ordinary radio. The studios of ‘The Voice of Peace’ were on a ship anchored permanently in the Mediterranean Sea. Aware of my interest in cutting edge music, the station’s popular breakfast DJ Dave Asher (who had been living in Israel for some time) played me a recent 12-inch single by a young Israeli singer of Yemeni origin named Ofra Haza. It was a traditional Yemeni song, re-mixed and cut up into a state-of-the-art club tune that sounded to me like a new, exciting ‘Middle East meets West’ genre. I wanted to find out more, but the terrible winter storms and shortage of staff meant that I was stuck working on the ship for the next three months.

Eventually, during my first shore leave, I visited the Tel Aviv office of the small independent record company, Hed Arzi, that had produced the Ofra Haza single. They were baffled that a British DJ would be so interested in one of their worst selling record releases, and particularly one that seemed to have such minimal mainstream potential. They humoured me and let me sit at a desk in their office, penning handwritten letters to radio DJs and record labels that I knew back in the UK, sent by airmail along with the single and related album ‘Yemenite Songs’.

Within a month, I had received replies from John Peel at Radio One and Charlie Gillett at Capital Radio, both saying that they had played Ofra’s record on their shows and had received enquiries asking where the record could be purchased. During my next shore leave, I returned to Hed Arzi, whose staff were amazed that their song had been played on national radio in the UK. They introduced me to Ofra and her manager for the first time. I wrote again to several UK record companies and one of them, Globestyle, was convinced sufficiently by the airplay to release both the single and the album.

I returned to the UK at the end of 1985 and spent the next two years trying to convince everyone I knew of Ofra’s talent. By 1987, I had given away so many copies of her records to music industry people that the UK record company said I would be given one last free box. By chance, I had recently been invited to attend a monthly staff meeting of London pirate station Kiss FM (at the London School of Economics) and, as a last resort, I distributed copies of Ofra’s records from this last box to some of the station’s DJs.

Kiss FM DJs Jonathan More and Matt Black, recording together as ‘Coldcut’, had already enjoyed underground success with some highly original cut-up singles on their Ahead Of Our Time label. They liked the Ofra Haza songs so much that they cut up one of them into their homemade remix of US rappers Eric B & Rakim’s latest single ‘Paid In Full’. Island Records in the UK released this remix without seeking Eric B’s prior approval, and without clearing the Ofra Haza sample. By the end of 1987, the single had reached number 15 in the chart, giving Eric B his first British hit and earning significant royalties for the Israeli record company because a third of the track featured Ofra’s voice.

More than anything, the chart success of that Eric B remix stimulated huge public interest in Ofra Haza’s voice beyond the narrow market for 'world music' (which had just been marketed as a new genre). In early 1988, I organised interviews for a promotional visit to the UK, shepherding Ofra Haza and her manager to Radio 1, the World Service and commercial radio stations. The UK record company re-issued Ofra’s ‘Im Nin Alu’ single, which quickly garnered radio airplay this time, despite it being sung in a strange, foreign language. However, the public demand for the single was so great that the independent label had difficulty fulfilling orders, so it licensed the track to Warner Brothers. After an initial meeting with the major label, my direct involvement with Ofra Haza ended abruptly, just as she was invited back to the UK to perform on ‘Top Of The Pops.’

After the success of this single internationally, the Israeli record label invited me to London’s Sarm Studios, where the follow-up single was being mixed. It was evident that none of the Warner Brothers personnel involved had any understanding of the unique charm of Ofra’s Yemeni music in the international marketplace. Ofra’s manager was far too keen to turn her into a mainstream pop singer, which is exactly how the public perceived her in Israel. As a result, the follow-up single bombed and, sadly, it seemed as if Ofra was consigned to be a one-hit wonder as a result of poor career guidance.

In 2000, I was shocked to learn of Ofra’s death at the age of 42 from AIDS-related organ failure. Two years later, an Israeli television film crew came to London and filmed an interview about my role in creating their country’s most successful international pop star. They had just filmed a similar interview with John Peel at his home, during which he impressed them by producing the handwritten letter that had accompanied the Ofra records I had initially sent him from Israel seventeen years earlier. The interviewer asked me if I had made a fortune from ‘discovering’ Ofra Haza for the international market. All I had received was one cheque for £200 from the UK record company in 1988 to reimburse my expenses for Ofra's first London promotional visit.

Ofra’s incredible voice lives on through the music she recorded, although I am always reminded of the parts of her life that had been unbelievably tragic. The crucial roles of the late John Peel and Charlie Gillett in her international success should not be forgotten. Ofra Haza’s music arrived in the Western world at a time when the public welcomed sounds that challenged their expectations. We are musically much the poorer for the loss of Ofra, and of John and Charlie, from our world.

‘The Israeli Madonna’
Thursday 30 December 2010
11.30am-12.00noon
BBC Radio 4


[photo: Grant Goddard]

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Digital Radio UK meets BBC Radio Northampton listeners in a DAB black hole

In October 2007, Ofcom had awarded the DAB local multiplex licence for Northamptonshire to NOWdigital Ltd. and had required “implementation by September 2008” to put it on-air. The multiplex was to carry BBC Radio Northampton along with commercial stations. More than three years after this licence award, the DAB service has still not launched. As a result, BBC Radio Northampton is not yet available on DAB.

NOWdigital Ltd. had been owned by GCap Media, the UK’s largest commercial radio group, which was acquired by Global Radio in 2008. In 2009, NOWdigital Ltd. was sold to Arqiva, the transmission specialist which owns the lion’s share of DAB commercial infrastructure in the UK. In its
application for the Northamptonshire licence in 2007, NOWdigital had boasted:

“GCap … has invested more into digital radio than any other UK operator. This investment has driven the industry forward and is helping build radio’s digital future … Having launched and operated multiplexes since 2001, NOWdigital is in an excellent position to successfully launch and operate the Northamptonshire multiplex.”

So what has Ofcom done to make this licensee comply with the stipulation that the Northampton DAB multiplex had to be launched by September 2008? Nothing. Does the commercial radio industry have a masterplan that includes a specific date for the launch of the Northamptonshire DAB multiplex? No. NOWdigital states disingenuously that its on-air
date for Northamptonshire is “awaiting launch”.

Northamptonshire is one of 13 local DAB multiplex licences that Ofcom
awarded in 2007 and 2008 that have failed to materialise by their required launch dates. In 2007, Ofcom also awarded a national DAB multiplex licence to a consortium, led by Channel 4 television, that similarly failed to launch (all trace of which has been erased from the Ofcom web site).

Despite three years of broken promises to the people of Northamptonshire by Ofcom, NOWdigital, GCap Media, Global Radio and Arqiva that a local DAB radio multiplex will be launched for their area, they were not excused from this year’s Christmas radio industry campaign to sell more DAB receivers. DAB marketing organisation Digital Radio UK was interviewed by BBC Radio Northampton last week, though it was unable to offer even a vague date when either the local DAB multiplex for Northamptonshire will be launched, or when the signal of the existing DAB national multiplexes will be improved.

Although Digital Radio UK is funded jointly by the BBC, commercial radio and Arqiva, these heavyweight stakeholders could offer nothing more concrete to the people of Northamptonshire than platitudes and more promises about DAB … always in the future tense.



BBC Radio Northampton,
lunchtime show
15 December 2010 @ 1223 [excerpts]

Stuart Linnell, presenter [SL]
Jane Ostler, director of communications, Digital Radio UK [JO]

SL: You said, Jane, that the coverage and the reception is pretty good in most parts of the country. From my experience, and from what I hear people saying, where it’s good, it’s great. Where it’s not so good, it’s blooming awful.

JO: Yes. That is absolutely right, and we know that organisations like the BBC actually have a plan in place to make sure that coverage improves. And that’s not only building more transmitters, but it’s also increasing the power on transmitters, so that you don’t get the drop-out of signal that you will get in some areas. However, we know that when people do have a good signal, they absolutely love digital radio and everything that it brings …

[…]

SL: Rod in Daventry has got a question about the DAB signal in Northampton. It’s not specific to any one radio station, this question, I don’t think. It’s come in on a text. He just says: why is the DAB signal in Northampton so weak?

JO: Yeah, there are variances around the country in the signal. And, as I say, you know, there are plans in place, over the course of the next few years, to improve coverage for national radio stations and local radio stations as well. It’s one of these things that we are used to with other electronic devices like mobile phones and even Freeview signals. You know, there’s a course – an engineering programme – that’s taking place over time that will allow the signal to improve. So, if it is weak at the moment, it will get better.

[…]

JO: We believe that DAB will … is the broadcast backbone for the country. It’s free to air, it’s becoming increasingly available, and the signal is getting better all the time…

[…]

John in Corby [caller]: My question is that I watch this, I’ve been doing radio for sixty years, I’ve watched this very, very carefully, and the thing is that there are some very attractive radios which carry DAB which are available now. I take all the magazines, every magazine that’s related to radio and high fidelity in this country. And the point is this. What the $64,000 question is, dear Stuart, is: when shall DAB radio be available on Radio Northampton? Can the lady guesstimate that? That’s what’s important – all the things that have been broadcast about it – I won’t buy a DAB radio until I can get it in my locality, my local station, which makes commonsense to me.

SL: Okay. We get the point. Jane, do you know the answer to that?

JO: That is a very good question from John because I know that BBC Radio Northampton is not available on a local digital multiplex. Obviously, around the Northampton area, you can get – and Corby, you can get – the national stations but not the local ones. There are plans in place to build local coverage, and that includes BBC services by the time …

John [interrupts]: This is what will be needed and this is what will sell the radio … this is what will sell the radios, in my view. [When] this fine station in this fine county has its own DAB service.

JO: Yeah, we completely support that and we understand that. What’s happening is: there is a plan in place to develop local coverage in time for the digital radio switchover, and these plans are being worked on right now. So I can’t give you an exact date, but it will be over the next few years that local radio will be more available on digital.

SL: Because we must make it clear that John’s question is a valid one, but it’s not just BBC Radio Northampton that’s not on DAB. There are other stations as well who have not yet migrated to that platform.

JO: That’s right. The local stations in your area aren’t available. They are in some, but not in your particular area. But you can, subject to doing a postcode check, you can still get all the national services that are available …

[…]

Peter [caller]: What exactly is going to happen to existing car radios and also hi-fi stereos at home and also alarm clock radios? Is there going to be an adapter?

JO: If I deal with the car question first. That is also a very good question. There are lots of cars, there are lots of lorries and vehicles on the road, and only a small percentage of them today can actually receive digital radio. But you will start to see – and it’s starting already, and over the next few years – an increasing number of adapters coming onto the market, which you can either fit yourself or which you can get fitted by stores such as Halfords, for example. And then that’s with existing vehicles. With new cars, the motor manufacturers who import and make vehicles in the UK have committed that all new cars will have digital radio as standard by the end of the year 2013. So more and more adapters will come onto the market that are available …

SL [interrupts]: Can I just push you on that a little bit, Jane, because I heard – this is going back probably about 18 months now – that one of the largest motor manufacturers in the world, manufacturing two major brands – luxury brands – in this country, had actually withdrawn their DAB digital radios from their cars, as an optional extra even, because they said it just wasn’t working – the technology wasn’t good enough. Have all the manufacturers now signed up?

JO: They have, into the UK, of getting DAB as standard in cars – in new cars – by the end of 2013. And part of this target date that we talked about earlier on has got the motor manufacturers moving, and it’s also got other manufacturers coming up with new devices which you can fit into your existing car alongside your FM radio.

SL: And that really answers Peter’s point that, whether he has got his clock radio, his hi-fi in his lounge or the car radio, there are going to be adapters that will covert them to take DAB as well.

JO: Not, not the alarm clock. No, the alarm clock example is one where … I think, if you did want an alarm clock that had DAB radio built in, you’d have to get a new alarm clock.

SL: Buy a specific one, okay?

JO: Exactly, exactly. They are increasingly available in stores and they are becoming more affordable all the time.

SL: But for the hi-fi and for the car radio, there should be an adaptor at some stage.

JO: The hi-fi is an interesting question actually because obviously you can get digital radio tuners for hi-fi’s now which can plug in as a separate device. Quite often, a radio might be built into something like a large amplifier where the primary use is actually the amplifier rather than the radio. Ultimately, it would be down to the listener. But these devices are becoming available all the time and, if you go into any electrical store, you’ll start to see more digital radio devices.

SL: Okay, does that answer your question, Peter?

Peter: Yes, it does. I just hope that … I think it’s going to be a big sledgehammer to get a DAB adapter to fit in an existing car. There’s not a lot of room underneath dashboards.

JO: That’s absolutely fair. You can get some now which actually fit onto your windscreen and plug in around the dashboard. But soon, towards the end pf next year, when we anticipate that digital radios in cars will double during the course of next year, you will start to see these devices more hidden away in the glove compartment and that sort of thing.

[…]

SL: It’s Mike in Northants who says: digital reception on Radio Five Live for me, he says, was dreadful, so I just switched back to AM and FM and rejected DAB. No more problems.

JO: Right, well that’s … I don’t know precisely where he lives but, obviously, doing a postcode check would tell him whether he should be able to receive a good signal or not. And there are currently … until the transmitter improvements happen, there are other ways of listening to Radio Five Live, for example on the internet, and on digital television platforms as well, in fact. But, as I say, these coverage improvements are happening all the time. He should check his postcode at our web site.

[…]

Graham from Whitehills [caller]: I’m a communications buff so, as soon as DAB came out, I went and bought myself a mains portable one before I found out I couldn’t get Radio Northampton on it. The big, big problem is that it roars through batteries. It uses batteries at twice the rate of anything else I’ve ever owned.

SL: And I had a letter about this from somebody a while ago, Jane, asking why … is digital radio really environmentally friendly, because it uses up so much power?

JO: Yeah, you will find this is absolutely true for older radio sets that, you know, have been bought a few years ago, that they were quite power hungry and used a lot of batteries all the time and many people chose to operate them from the mains. But there’s been a report out in the last few months that government’s done about the battery consumption and the energy consumption of digital radios. And you’ll find that all the main manufacturers now are making really amazing claims about the battery life of the radios, that they will last for, you know, in some cases, hundreds of hours and use less power than an energy efficient lightbulb and that sort of thing. So, as technology progresses, the energy consumption gets better as well. So I’m afraid that some of those older radios do use quite a lot of energy and the new ones don’t.

SL: You need a new one for Christmas, Graham.

Graham: Yeah, eighty quid down the drain, that was. Thank you.

JO [laughs]: You can get them … you can get them from around £25 now, so you needn’t spend that much.

Graham: Yeah, but I paid eighty. Bye.

[…]

SL: Somebody’s asking: why is it that, when you’re listening to DAB, sometimes it can suddenly cut out altogether or just go to an absolutely garbled signal that sounds like it is underwater?

JO: Yeah, that’s … that’s something that happens when you’re on the edges – or on the fringes – of a reception area and, like other digital media, it can also happen during periods of high weather pressure. So you will find that, if you’re on the edges of a reception area, the signal does cut out rather than degrade gently, which is what it does with FM. So, again, as the coverage improves and the signal strength improves, that should stop happening.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

GERMANY: planned 2011 re-launch of national DAB "solved a problem that did not exist"

On 15 December 2010, five commercial radio stations in Germany – New Wave Radio, Lounge.fm, ERF Medien, Radio Energy in Hamburg and Regiocast Digital – signed contracts with transmission provider Media Broadcast to broadcast on the new national DAB+ platform, scheduled for launch in 2011.

One week earlier, British company Frontier Silicon, “market leading supplier of digital radio technology worldwide”, had
announced that, in order to persuade four commercial radio broadcasters in Germany to persevere with DAB, it had promised them it would purchase an unspecified amount of their advertising airtime for the next four years.

Anthony Sethill, Frontier Silicon CEO,
put a positive spin on an act that some might perceive as little more than legalised bribery in the face of desperation to sell DAB hardware in Germany: “We are delighted that our innovative approach to supporting the roll out will help everyone working on this new radio service to bring their efforts to fruition.”


For years, German transmission provider Media Broadcast has been eager to put into action its masterplan to lock new DAB+ broadcasters into minimum 10-year contracts, for which it will be
charging €2m per annum per station by 2021. The combination of Media Broadcast’s enthusiasm for the financial returns from DAB transmission contracts, and Frontier Silicon’s enthusiasm for the potential sales in Germany of DAB receivers that incorporate its technology, plus the offer of an amount of cash, persuaded a few commercial broadcasters to take on the risk of using the DAB+ platform.

Helmut Egenbauer, CEO of Media Broadcast,
said: “Having introduced Frontier Silicon to the commercial broadcasters, we are delighted to see that their discussions have led to this important commitment to DAB+ radio services.”

Those five German commercial broadcasters should understand that even Frontier Silcon’s subsidy might not prevent them losing money hand over fist for the entire ten years of their transmission contract with Media Broadcast. The evidence is already there from the UK market. Not one commercial digital-only radio station has yet made an annual operating profit from the DAB platform in the UK, even after eleven years, let alone come close to recouping its investment.

Research commissioned by RadioCentre in 2009
found that the average annual revenues of a digital radio station were around £130,000 per annum. By then, 10m DAB receivers had been sold in the UK. Yet Germany is still at Year Zero with DAB+ radio penetration. The same report for RadioCentre had noted that the “annual negative cash flow impact of DAB” on the UK commercial radio industry was around £27m per annum, or 5% of sector revenues. Can German commercial radio afford to deplete its profitability by that sort of amount, year-on-year, for the next decade?

Frontier Silicon’s press release
quoted Helmut G. Bauer as a “representative of the commercial broadcasters,” saying what a fantastic deal it was and promising that “2011 will be year that DAB+ is successfully launched in Germany.” However, Bauer is not associated with the German commercial broadcasting trade body, VPRT, which has been outspoken in its condemnation of plans for digital radio switchover in Germany. Bauer is a Cologne-based lawyer who has long made pro-DAB presentations at media conferences, and pro-DAB statements to the press, as a ”consultant.”

In fact, VPRT had
commented: “As we know, DAB failed in the market. Against this background, plans for the closure of FM – originally scheduled for as early as 2015, but now postponed – are absurd from an economic and social perspective and are therefore unacceptable.”

Noting the developments in Germany this week, Berlin-based Christoph Lemmer
wrote in Radioszene magazine:

“With this decision, DAB will now actually be introduced by those who have succeeded, smelling a quick buck, in selling Germans a new sort of equipment, with millions to be sunk into to a new transmission network. Our old radios will be useless for DAB. Those who want to continue listening to the radio will need a new receiver.“

“It does not take a prophet to suspect that the private radio industry has shot itself in the foot by agreeing to sign the DAB contracts. A few shekels subsidy from a chip manufacturer who wants to install as many of its chips in DAB receivers – that is what has led to this. You, dear people, were not considered in the end. Do you really believe that devices with DAB will ever be as numerous as FM radios are today?”

“No one will understand what [DAB] is and why it is good. Because, with DAB, you have solved a problem that did not exist. The existing technological distribution of radio programmes is excellent and widely used. You did not have to change anything. The argument that DAB will create new radio channels with lower entry barriers is specious, as long as media regulators continue not to award licences for technically available [analogue] frequencies because they do not want additional competition in the market.”

This week, World DMB, the body marketing DAB radio globally, was so excited by developments in Germany that its web site posted seven news stories about it on 15th, nine on 16th and a further four on 17th. The overkill speaks volumes. Lacking any upturn in DAB receiver sales, the only positive news that DAB lobbyists can muster is this second attempt in Germany to launch a DAB technology that was first developed in 1981.

It is hard to recall a comparable technology whose proponents were still pushing for its launch three decades after its invention. DAB proponents argue that, simply because DAB is ‘digital’, it is inevitable that it will replace analogue radio. History indicates otherwise.

Digital Audio Tape. Introduced 1987. Abandoned 2005.
Digital Compact Cassettes. Introduced 1992. Abandoned 1996.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

DAB radio & switchover: the British public speaks its mind

Q. Who will decide if/when digital radio switchover ever happens? The public. Who says so?

In July 2009, BBC ‘head of radio’ Tim Davie had
said:
“… the idea that we would move to formally engaging [digital radio] switchover without talking to listeners, getting listener satisfaction numbers, all the various things we do, would be not our plan in any way.”

In August 2009, BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons had
said:
“It is an extraordinarily ambitious suggestion, as colleagues have referred to, that by 2015 we will all be ready for [digital radio switchover]. So you can’t move faster than the British public want you to move on any issue.”

In July 2010, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey had
said:
“If, and it is a big if, the consumer is ready, we will support a 2015 switchover date. But, as I have already said, it is the consumer, through their listening habits and purchasing decisions, who will ultimately determine the case for switchover.”

Q. What is the BBC’s strategy for digital radio switchover?

In July 2010, the BBC Trust
told the BBC Executive that it:
“should draw up an overarching strategy for digital radio.”

Q. What is the public’s opinion of DAB radio?

Research published this week by the BBC Trust for the Strategy Review collated opinions voiced in 20 focus groups held in September 2010 in ten locations. Below are excerpts that relate consumers’ experiences with DAB radio and the BBC’s digital radio stations. They make sobering reading ….

Key Findings

The availability of radio services on the move (especially in-car and for those working outdoors) was felt to be of continued high importance. People expect radio to stay portable – at least the range of stations they currently have available on analogue, including local stations which are critically important in-car for their local travel information. In this context especially there was strong resistance to the idea of analogue radio switch-off, and considerable scepticism as to whether or not this will actually happen.

4.2 The range of services provided by the BBC

“Rather than spending money on Radio 57 or whatever, invest more money on the core main programmes.”
35-44, Male, C2DE, Crowthorne

4.3 Attitudes to DAB radio

Many of the distribution issues we set out to discuss in the groups related to the availability of DAB (or of certain stations on DAB). However, what became clear in the groups was that, although we did speak to some real fans of DAB, most licence fee payers we spoke to do not yet view DAB as an essential service in the way they do Freeview, for example. This certainly coloured their reaction to some of the trade-offs they encountered between funding distribution and content.

“I think they should improve the Freeview signal before they start worrying about the radio. Radio is fine.”
18-24, Female, ABC1, Inverness

These attitudes were coloured by a number of factors:
· Limited awareness of what DAB is and what it offers
· Limited awareness and uptake of the BBC’s digital-only radio stations (most digital radio listeners within the groups were using digital radio as a means of listening to stations they would otherwise be able to receive via analogue)
· Most DAB set owners we spoke to had received them as presents – they hadn’t necessarily had a compelling reason to buy one
· Many trialists of DAB in the groups had been frustrated with their experiences – e.g. intermittent/non-existent signals, limited range of their favourite stations available
· Some doubts as to whether DAB technology will be around in the long term

“I did have a DAB radio but I didn’t notice it being any better”
18-24, Female, C2DE, Cheddar

“I find DAB radio can be quite troublesome although that’s not BBC specific. The signal seems to interrupt quite regularly”
45-59, Female, ABC1, Crowthorne

“I don’t find that DAB radio is achieving a lot for me. It’s supposed to be better quality, but because of the size of the set I’ve got, it doesn’t really make any difference.”
55+, C2DE, Derby

“Aren’t we the only ones to use DAB? Europe uses a different system and America too - I don’t see the point of it now so many people have the internet as it’s as cheap to get an internet radio as it is a DAB radio and you can listen to far more stations on it”
25-44, ABC1, Fort William

“You can’t get much [on DAB in the car] - no Radio 1, no Radio 2, no Radio 5 live, no Radio 4, you just get a message saying ‘no reception’. You need to be on top of a mountain to receive it. It’s a complete waste of time.”
55+, C2DE, Derby

There was real confusion and in some cases concern about the idea of a digital switchover for radio, and some debate as to whether the mooted date of 2015 was realistic or not. Certainly in the current circumstances there would be much resistance among participants in these groups to the idea of switching off analogue radio, especially those for whom in-car listening was an important (or the dominant) part of their radio listening.

“They can’t switch off analogue radio - people are really not going to be happy with that”
18-24, Male, C2DE, Belfast

“The idea of making all radios into digital is just ridiculous... It’s not persuading you - it’s just pushing you”
18-24, Female, C2DE, Cheddar

“What about all the car radios - surely we’re not going to replace all those?”
25-34, Female, ABC1, Caernarfon

“Are you telling me my radios will be totally obsolete if they do this? That’s outrageous”
60+, Female, ABC1, Newry

5.1 Availability of services

“I’m going to sound old fashioned but the core product is BBC One, BBC Two and Radios 1 to 5”
35-44, Male, C2DE, Crowthorne

The digital-only radio stations were considered of significantly lesser importance (awareness of these was limited, and listening to them was quite sporadic through the sample). In fact in several groups it was suggested that one solution to the complex problems of making access to digital radio more easily available to people would be to get rid of the stations altogether!

“I don’t think anyone really cares about the digital channels and they won’t until all the non-digital signals have been turned off”
25-34, Male, C2DE, Newry

“It’s limited because digital radio hasn’t really taken off.. they’re talking about changing over in 2015... if it’s half the hassle of the digital [TV] switchover, it will be a dead loss”
45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil

6.1 Availability of platform choice

There was also a general consensus across the groups that, although the convergence of platforms has started to offer useful additional means of consuming ‘broadcast’ services, as a minimum the BBC’s television services should be available via a television set, and the main radio services via a radio set.

“It’s good enough to be able to get main stations on analogue radio and the others through the TV - I don’t think they need to be able to get all these radio stations on radio only.”
25-34, Female, ABC1, Caernarfon

Lack of availability of BBC Radio Derby on DAB

Local radio was considered to fulfil an important community service, particularly by those in the older group, who remarked that there had been a decline in the range of local media available (local newspapers closing, and the ITV regional television coverage now being focused on Birmingham).

As such, BBC Radio Derby was felt to be important to giving the city a sense of identity. Sports coverage was an integral part of this (for the men especially), and Derby-specific coverage was felt to help ensure that they don’t live in the shadow of nearby Nottingham. Frequently, they felt, Derby is treated like a poor relation next to Nottingham; the availability of BBC Radio Nottingham (but not BBC Radio Derby) on DAB was yet another manifestation of this, they believed.

A number of them had bought DAB radio specifically with the intention of listening to BBC Radio Derby and had thus been extremely disappointed not to be able to find it.

“I asked for a DAB set for Christmas, specifically so I would be able to listen to Radio Derby, nice and clear, around the house – not realising that you can’t get Radio Derby on DAB at all... I only found out when I pressed the ‘auto-scan’ button... Leicester, Nottingham, loud and clear, but no Derby... I felt really let down.”
55+, C2DE, Derby

“My wife bought me one for Christmas. It wouldn’t work next to the bed - we thought it was broken. We ended up just using it as an alarm clock. It never occurred to me that it might not work depending on where you live.”
40-54, ABC1, Derby

There was little awareness or understanding of the reasons why this is the case (the lack of a local commercial multiplex operator), so some participants were upset that the BBC appeared to be viewing Derby as a lower priority than neighbouring areas. Others had assumed that this was a technical issue (reception problems), rather than the station not being broadcast on DAB. (There was some awareness of a promised launch date of July 2010, but they claimed that this date had been and gone with no further update on what was happening.)

“What makes me angry is that Radio Derby comes out as one of the best local news stations in the country, but it’s not available on the latest technology.”
55+, C2DE, Derby

“If you can get the others, you’d just assume that you can get Radio Derby as well. Whose decision is it not to have it?”
40-54, ABC1, Derby

Some of the participants had experimented with some of the BBC’s digital-only stations on DAB. Radio 7 in particular was well-liked by some of the participants in the older group, and some of the younger men had used 5 live Sports Extra, but their overall impression with DAB was one of disappointment. The absence of BBC Radio Derby was a significant contributor to this, along with poor reception quality.

“The way they sell DAB it was going to be the be-all-and-end-all of radio listening, but it’s just been a great disappointment.”
55+, C2DE, Derby

Although many were disappointed with DAB in general, the absence of BBC Radio Derby from DAB was not felt to be a major problem for them as long as the station remains available on analogue (many were listening out of home in any case - traffic reports in the car, or match commentary when out and about at the weekend).

However, in line with most other groups, these participants would be extremely upset if the analogue signal were switched off and BBC Derby only then available online.

Radio Foyle on DAB

Many participants felt that they get a better reception with DAB than on analogue (in the home). Many of the older group in particular claimed to have experienced reception problems with Radio Foyle in particular on analogue, especially in bad weather. However it was not a case of a having had a desperate need to get a digital radio because they got no analogue signal previously, more that the sound was not always great and they sometimes experienced reception problems.

“DAB radio... I got it out of curiosity... everybody said it was better than analogue... the analogue sometimes you can’t tune in because you have got high pressure or rain or wind. The DAB you can pick it up.”
50+, ABC1, Londonderry

Most assumed that Radio Foyle was already on DAB, as they insisted they were listening to it on their DAB radios – it is not entirely clear whether this is confusion between DAB and analogue signals on the same set, or they have been experiencing the ‘dynamuxing’ test.

“No I didn’t know that because when I press it comes up on my DAB radio so I thought it was. I just took it that all the stations I can pick up on my DAB are digital.”
50+, ABC1, Londonderry

“Foyle on an ordinary radio is still poor I think. I am right in Derry. On the digital they do both seem clear to me.”
30-49, C2DE, Londonderry

When it was explained to them that ‘dynamuxing’ the two stations would result in two mono (as opposed to one stereo) stations, reactions were somewhat mixed. Although some participants were adamant that going from stereo to mono would compromise their listening experience, particularly when listening to music, others admitted that they were not sure what mono sound is, and probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference! It is also worth noting that, from the description they gave of their DAB sets, the majority of participants in the groups were listening to DAB on mono-only sets anyway.

On balance, all participants would prefer both stations to be available, even if this meant mono-only broadcasting. The younger group, who were more loyal Foyle listeners, were happy enough with the availability of Foyle on analogue only, but would be concerned by the prospect of an analogue radio switch-off, in which case continued availability of Foyle would be vital.

Poor DAB coverage (in Fort William)

Most of the participants in the groups are used to struggling with coverage issues. Lack of DAB coverage is just the latest manifestation of issues they have experienced historically with analogue television and radio signals.

“I live over in a rural area completely surrounded by hills so there is no radio reception at all so all our radio listening is done through the TV box or the internet”
25-44, ABC1, Fort William

“I tried a DAB radio but it wasn’t very good - it would go for a bit then completely cut out and we have no FM signal at all out in the glens where I am”
45-64, C2DE, Fort William

As a result, satellite (by which most really meant Sky, as awareness of Freesat was very low) had become the default standard for most to receive television, especially for those outside the main town of Fort William itself, and many were increasingly using the good broadband services that are now available to them as a more reliable means of accessing media content.

“We’ve been up there seven years now and when we first moved we had a reasonable medium wave signal for Radio Scotland but then that tailed off but we get no FM and there was no TV until satellite came on stream... We had very young children at the time and they were happy just watching DVDs... There are about 250 people in our village and many of the surrounding communities have the same issues... There used to be a mast for the TV but that was turned off and now everyone has a satellite dish... satellite has been a godsend for us - especially for the radio - but we are now even more likely to be listening online. Our broadband is excellent - 8Meg - and now we even have wi-fi radios in the house.”
25-44, ABC1, Fort William

Some participants in the groups had been drawn to DAB, but left frustrated by the experience.

“I won a DAB in a Radio Scotland competition and I was really excited about being able to listen to 6 Music but there was absolutely no signal so I gave it to my dad down in Glasgow and he’s really happy with it”
25-44, ABC1, Fort William

Limited availability of Radio Wales and Radio Cymru on DAB

In common with many of the research locations across the country, issues surrounding the lack of availability of Radio Wales and Radio Cymru were caught up in other issues around the quality of DAB signal in general.

While some participants (for example, one lived near a mast) were experiencing extremely good reception via digital, others were having problems based on their location and even the prevailing weather conditions.

“If you get a rain cloud overhead, or worse than that the snow, you might as well chuck it in the bin.”
45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil

“People who live in the dips - they can’t get any kind of digital radio reception at all... they’ve got to do something to help them.”
25-44, C2DE, Merthyr Tydfil

This frustration was a manifestation of a broader dissatisfaction with digital reception in general. Many were experiencing problems with their television reception (especially, but not exclusively through Freeview). Lack of a reliable television signal was seen by most as a more significant problem than lack of a reliable radio signal.

“They said the digital signal was going to be better - that you’d be able to get S4C and Channel 4 - but it’s actually worse.”
25-44, C2DE, Merthyr Tydfil

“Wales has always got problems, we get worse service with the digital, the broadband, the post... We pay the same, we have a right to the same service.”
25-44, C2DE, Merthyr Tydfil

As a result many in the groups considered themselves to be disgruntled licence fee payers.

Most could understand that there are diminishing returns in terms of building out the transmitter network, and that those in the more mountainous parts of central Wales (for example) might not be able to have access to the same choices as people in more densely populated areas. However, in these groups the argument was most strongly made that people in these areas should have some kind of discount from their licence fee in recognition of the reduced service they receive.

“They [the BBC] can’t please everyone, they’re doing the best they can, but If people can’t get the service, why should they pay the full money.”
45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil

“You shouldn’t be penalised for living in an area where they can’t provide these services, because we have to pay extra to get Sky, for example, to be able to receive it.”
45-64, ABC1, Merthyr Tydfil

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

DENMARK: "DAB radio: we do not use it here!"


‘DAB radio: we do not use it here!’ said the headline in daily newspaper Ekstra Bladet last month, noting that the proposed digital radio switchover in Denmark has been postponed indefinitely.

Danish state radio, Danmarks Radio [DR],
confirmed that it will half its number of DAB radio channels, reducing its total radio services from 23 to between 10 and 12 by next year. In April 2010, the government had insisted that state radio should, in future, focus on quality rather than quantity [see earlier blog]. Despite having launched its DAB channels in 2002, in aggregate they achieve less than a 10% share of radio listening in Denmark.

Mikael Kamber, media director of Danmarks Radio, commented: “It was a great idea when we introduced so many DAB stations at that time. Then, they were a public service channel assignment. DR helped launch digital listening. But I will say that, today, we can state: mission completed.”

Kamber suggested that, with the growth of online music players such as Spotify and TDC Play, consumers now had lots of other options to find exactly the music that suits their tastes. He
explained: "Anyone listening can go online and find exactly what interests him. If you want to hear saxophone music, then there are plenty of opportunities to find it. You can even find saxophone music from the New York school on the web ".

One of the factors limiting DAB usage has been listener inertia. In 2009, nine out of ten Danes listened to only one or two radio stations each week. “New figures show that only 6% of listeners to [youth station] P3 change channel,”
said Danmarks Radio media researcher Dennis Christensen. “The remainder listen to P3 whenever they turn on their radios.”

Saturday, 4 December 2010

GERMANY: DAB "is not financially viable", internet radio on the rise

“DAB or DAB+, in its current form, is not financially viable for commercial radio stations,” said Stefan Schmitt, managing director of RTL’s Berlin radio stations, in Promedia magazine. He pointed out that user numbers were increasing steadily for the internet, wireless via PC, laptops and smartphones. “Under these circumstances, I do not know where exactly the added value is for DAB,” he said.

Schmitt argued that the whole radio business model is still based on FM broadcasting and will remain so “for the foreseeable future.” He believes that the best alternative to broadcasting is currently ‘online radio’: “We are achieving market penetration [with online] much more rapidly than with DAB, which is not market driven.”

In Germany, a dispute continues to rage over the funding of DAB radio. The CDU party’s media expert Thomas Jarzombek has
argued that “more than €200m of public funds were wasted on DAB” and that “these resources should be used for technologies that are well received by the public.”

Negotiations have been proceeding for months over a further €42m of public funds earmarked to be released to re-launch DAB radio nationally using the DAB+ codec, following the failure of the earlier launch using the older DAB codec. Initially, the contracts between transmission provider Media Broadcast and the station owners were meant to have been signed on 22 July 2010. Then, the subsequent 22 September 2010 deadline for negotiations passed without agreement, as a result of commercial radio’s unwillingness to commit financially to broadcasting on DAB+. This deadline has been extended again to 15 December, which experts in Germany
now suspect is “the last chance for DAB+.”

At its annual conference on 12 November 2010, the German association of commercial broadcasters, VPRT, reiterated its opposition to the government forcing the introduction of DAB+ radio upon the German market. Outgoing VPRT vice president Hans-Dieter Hillmoth
said: “The current draft of the new Federal Telecommunications Act ignores the existing interests of commercial radio in the functioning infrastructure, whose core business is FM radio.”

New
research in Germany by the Frankfurt Link Market & Social Research Institute has demonstrated the increasing popularity of listening to radio via the internet platform. Consumers’ preference for radio delivered to a PC or laptop increased 84% year-on-year, and is now exceeded only by traditional radio hardware – car radios, kitchen radios and stereo systems. Amongst 14-29 year olds, radio via a PC/laptop scored second only to the car radio.

The question put to respondents was: “Radio can now be received on many different types of appliances. Please indicate which appliances you particularly appreciate, regardless of duration of usage.”

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Which? advises: two of "seven Christmas gifts to avoid" are DAB radios

A reader comment appended to an online newspaper story this week about the decision of some commercial radio station owners to launch an anti-DAB radio marketing campaign said jokingly:

“Now all that's needed before Christmas is for 'Which' to warn consumers of moral hazard in purchasing DAB radios.”

In fact, last month, ‘Which?’ [the UK consumer organisation] published its
list of ‘Seven Christmas gifts to avoid’, two of which were DAB radio receivers. According to Which?:

“Argos Value Range CDAB8R digital radio and Roberts CRD-37 digital radio. Sound on both of these DAB radios is disappointingly poor.”

One of the enduring problems that has contributed to the slow take-up of DAB radio in the UK has been the consistently high retail prices of DAB radio receivers compared to analogue models. The radio industry has promised repeatedly over many years that the retail price of DAB radios would fall. It has, but nowhere near as much as hoped.



In order for unit prices to fall further, DAB radio receivers would have to be manufactured in production runs of millions in factories in China. Because the notion of DAB radio has failed to excite consumers during the last decade, not only in the UK but across Europe, those high production runs have not been achieved, so that the unit prices remain relatively high (average price paid in Q1 2010 was £91).

The problem with trying to produce low-price DAB radio receivers is that something inside them has to be sacrificed to keep costs down. Whereas the UK’s FM transmission system is sufficiently robust to permit usable reception of radio stations on even the cheapest hardware, the DAB transmission system is still not robust enough for usable reception in many circumstances. Additionally, with analogue radio, poor reception equals background noise and interference. Whereas, with DAB radio, poor reception equals no audio whatsoever.

This issue has long been known by the UK radio industry, but it proves a lot easier to ignore it than to fix it. So, the £55m marketing campaigns to persuade consumers to purchase DAB radios
continue, despite the radio industry being aware that many consumers are likely to have unsatisfactory experiences with their newly purchased DAB radios.

At the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group
meeting on 1 November 2010, UK manufacturer Roberts Radio admitted to pulling the plug on several receiver projects, including the industry’s long promised ‘£25 DAB radio’, because they could not meet Roberts’ minimum quality standards. Leslie Burrage, chief executive of Roberts Radio, told the meeting that there had been a 35 to 40% consumer return rate for its in-car DAB radio adapters.

Roberts Radio, unlike competitor Pure Digital, has been outspoken about its concerns that DAB radio is being marketed wrongly to UK consumers. Owen Watters, sales/marketing director of Roberts Radio, told the Digital Radio Stakeholders Group that he felt such campaigns should be advocating the merits of the DAB radio experience, rather than threatening consumers with the prospect of digital radio ‘switchover’.

The government’s Consumer Expert Group [CEG] raised these issues in its critical
report on DAB for the government in September 2010. The government published its response to those criticisms on 30 November 2010:

Consumer Expert Group: “A clear and balanced public information campaign needs to be implemented through a trusted body, independent of the industry.”
Government: “If a decision is made to implement a digital radio switchover, we agree that a clear and balanced consumer information campaign will be important. A strategic plan for such a campaign is a central component of the Digital Radio Action Plan and we have invited representatives of the CEG to play a key role in advising on its development, for example through representation on the Market Preparation Group.”

Consumer Expert Group: “Emphasis should not be placed on driving down costs unless the sound quality and functionality of cheaper DAB sets are at least equal to analogue.”
Government: “There is clearly a balance to be struck between reducing the cost burden on the consumer of a digital radio switchover, and ensuring devices are of a good standard and offer additional benefits to the listener. We want to see a competitive market for receivers which offers consumers choice on innovation and price.”

These government responses seem to qualify as ‘non-answers’ of exactly the type we have become all too used to when difficult, but important, issues have been raised about DAB radio implementation in the UK. The prevailing philosophy justifying DAB seems to be: ‘ask me no questions, I tell you no lies.’