Thursday, 3 February 2011

DAB radio switchover: the view from the government bunker

The government’s second stakeholder consultation on DAB radio switchover happened this afternoon. It was held in what felt like an underground government bunker in Victoria. No windows, long corridors, and lots of seemingly identical numbered rooms hidden by massive doors that had no viewing windows. When I tried to go up a staircase to ground level, a man appeared from nowhere and told me not to.

Even if the bomb had dropped, down there, you might not have known it. The cityscape outside could have transformed into a wasteland but, down there, you can be certain that our civil servants would continue planning digital radio switchover regardless, even if the precise date had to be postponed until the contamination had receded. I imagine that the government staff working there hardly need to go out, even at lunchtime, because a little lady with a trolley probably comes around with salmon sandwiches.

In this cosseted environment, it is easier to understand how you might spend your days (or months or years) of servitude, devising schemes that have so little relevance to the real world above your bunker office. Perhaps this is why the afternoon was filled with PowerPoint presentations that all looked great, slides that had lots of action words, and monologues from grey men that were filled with the current jargon. It was a perfectly unreal world.

What the afternoon lacked was realism. Occasionally I had to pinch myself to make sure that this was not a Lemsip-induced slumber. It wasn’t. However, I did witness the Civil Service suggest that asking consumers their opinion about DAB radio switchover would be a good idea, as if it was a novel thought that had just come to them. Not withstanding that the government has been pursuing the notion of the DAB platform since the 1980s but, in all those decades, somehow omitted the ‘consumer’ (or ‘listener’) from its plans.

The following quotes came from our civil servants this very afternoon. I wrote them down. Reading them now, these lines could have been extracted from the script of a lost episode of ‘Yes Minister’ in which the cast cleverly parody government plans for digital radio switchover. Sadly, they did not. This is what stakeholders were told today (amongst many other things):

“We genuinely have seen more progress [on digital radio switchover] in the last eighteen months than we have in the last six or seven years I’ve worked on this issue. But, as far as the consumer is concerned, we’ve never certainly in any way advocated or used 2015 [switchover date] as a ‘stick.’ It’s always been the industry target. And, certainly, when this government came in, it was adamant and clear that the consumer would make the case for switchover by purchasing habits, by the percentage of listening [on digital platforms], the way it absorbs and consumes radio. Now, will I, at this point, say that there has been a cross-pollination of those two things? Has the 2015 [date], which was an industry date, started to creep into the public consensus and been used by the media as a scare tactic? Yes, of course it has. And do we, as an industry, need to look at that? Yes, I think we do. I would say that I don’t think anyone – I think very few people – in this room would welcome the government standing up tomorrow and saying that the [switchover] date is the 31st December 2015. And I don’t think we have any answers to the questions that we need to have the answers to before any such decision can be made, and whether the consumer genuinely believes that this is something they want to do.”

“I don’t think we know what listeners want. I think part of this [Digital Radio] Action Plan process is absolutely understanding the value people put on various parameters of radio – what they want, how they want to consume it. I think that part of understanding this decision is understanding the listener better. And I think, whilst we all have our own views on that, I don’t think there’s enough evidence based [data] for us to make those assumptions about what listeners want.”

“I don’t think the government has never ever said ‘digital radio switchover will happen in 2015’ but we think we need to go away and look at the messaging around the cross-pollination. The one thing I would say is: 2013 and 2015 is used by both sides of people in the debate, those who like to frighten people into the fear of losing their analogue services, and those who like to sell digital radios. For all of us who believe that certainty and clarity and the consumer is important, I think we all need to look at how we use the threat of 2013 and 2015 and have some consistency ourselves about how we talk to the consumer about it.”

Threat? Are radio listeners so malleable that they must be viewed by government like cattle to be herded to slaughter? Maybe I imagined mistakenly that government was FOR the people. Anyway, I suppose we should be grateful at all that the ‘consumer’ has suddenly been pushed centre stage in the long running DAB drama, even it is so late in the show [see 2009
blog and 2010 blog where I predict it would be ideal for bureaucrats to eventually blame DAB’s failure on the consumer rather than themselves].

Is there any difference between the government forcing the population to buy a DAB radio to listen to The Archers, and Sky persuading them to buy Sky Atlantic to watch their favourite HBO shows that used to be free? Is the government’s DAB switchover drive really a policy for public regulation, or simply capitalist radio (© LBC poster campaign 1989)?

This afternoon, while DAB was being discussed in the government bunker, could anyone have actually achieved satisfactory DAB radio reception down there? I think not. Are those government people listening to DAB in their cubicles? They can design as many PowerPoint presentations as they want but, at the end of the day, if DAB radio don’t work properly now, then it don’t work for the consumer.


James said...

I'm not against Migration from FM to DAB.
But 1st... We need DAB+. DAB wasn't designed to cram as many stations on as possible in mono [64kbps].
2nd... DAB/DAB+ has to match FM. eg... a local service wil cover its area, and then go further. A DAB Multiplex doesn't even cover the area it needs to and the Government has not made any attepmt to sort this. 2015 date is a joke.
3rd... We must keep FM alive whatever happens, for Communtiy radio, & give student radio a chance also.
What does DAB spell backwards...
enough said really

Richard said...

I am also not against a move towards digital radio however i am concerned that DAB and DAB+ are not endorsed internationally. My AM/FM radio works the world over. However technological development is racing ahead of the political game, While DRM is being considered in several countries there also appears to be several intemediate 'digital' options such as mobile internet delivery-APPs for mobile phones & receivers and radio DNS that were never considered in the UK digital debate but may prove to be more of a global standard. Evolution rather than design.

Anonymous said...

DAB coverage does in no way equal the coverage of FM stations using VHF Band2 frequencies because it (DAB)should never have been transmitted using VHF Band3 which used to be used for ITV (B/W)transmissions.
Surely coverage would have been much better if the old VHF Band1 (ex-BBC TV B/W ) had been used - even although longer aerials would have been needed I still feel that much better transmission coverage would have been achieved. I have a couple of small personal DAB/FM radios where the earphone lead is used as the aerial and as their length is much longer then the preferred Band3 length and more like the ideal Band1 length then reception on Band1 would be quite acceptable I'm sure.