Saturday, 2 April 2011

David Blunkett's opinion of DAB radio: BBC is "defending the indefensible"

‘You & Yours’
BBC Radio 4
28 March 2011 @ 1200 [FM only]

Julian Worricker, presenter [JW]
Paul Everitt, chief executive, Society of Motoring Manufacturers & Traders [PE]
Laurence Harrison, technology & market director, Digital Radio UK [LH]

JW: Now, car manufacturers have long prided themselves on arming their vehicles with the latest groundbreaking technology, but there’s one in-car gadget which has remained stuck in the twentieth century. Radios in cars, generally speaking, are FM/AM analogue, and not digital. Around 20% of all radio listening takes place in the car, that’s according to RAJAR, the organisation which counts these things. So, if the UK is to go all-digital and the analogue signal switch is turned off – and that, of course, is the plan – cars need to be equipped with digital radios.

JW: Well, car manufacturers are planning that all new vehicles will have digital radios fitted from 2013. And, now, Ford says it will make digital radios available in its cars a year earlier than that. This will all help achieve the target that 50% of all radio listening should be digital, which is one of the pre-conditions for turning off the analogue signal. We can explore this with Paul Everitt, who is the chief executive of the Society of Motoring Manufacturers & Traders, and with Laurence Harrison, the technology & market director from Digital Radio UK, which is the company set up by broadcasters to help with the switchover. Gentlemen, good afternoon. Paul Everitt, why is the car industry pushing ahead with installing digital radios by 2013?

PE: Well, I think there are two key reasons. The first is because that’s the agreement we had with government as part of the Digital [Radio] Action Plan. They recognised that listening in-car was a key part of radio listenership and, therefore, early introduction of vehicles with digital radio was a key part of the package that needed to be achieved. But, I think, increasingly, what we are seeing, and certainly the announcement from Ford that you mentioned slightly earlier, is actually about the consumer saying that this is something that we want. The consumer now has an increasing opportunity to experience both the listening quality of digital in-car, but also the content, the increasing content, and desirability of the content on digital, as well as gradually and increasingly improving coverage. So, it’s a combination here of ….

JW: [interrupts]: Right, right, I just want to ….

PE: …. both something that we have to do, or we have agreed to do. But I think, increasingly, this is a push that is now coming from consumers.

JW: Okay, I just want to scrutinise that a little, because I don’t doubt that Laurence Harrison will say the same thing because we are told this is consumer led. But, surely, the truth of the matter is that the consumer has been led because of what the government requires you and others to do, so consumer choice only goes so far here.

PE: Well, I think we can argue the finer points of this, if you like. But, from an industry point of view, we began to be involved in this discussion during the course of 2008, obviously the conditions during 2009 with the development of the Digital Britain report brought that forward, or conclusions from that report have been built into vehicle manufacturers’ plans. But, as I say, what we are actually seeing today is, you know, increasing interest in digital from consumers.

JW: Okay. Let me bring Laurence Harrison in on coverage because, as I understand it, at least 90% [population] coverage is a target. That’s part of the targets that will only allow the switchover to take place. Now, 90% sounds positive until you then think about the 10% who can no longer hear what they are listening to now.

LH: Well, I think the key thing on coverage is to become the equivalent of FM coverage. So the 90% figure you refer to is around local coverage. Actually, on the coverage of national services, we are already at just over 90%, and the BBC has just recently committed to build that out to 93% by the end of this year. And the target thereafter is to get to FM equivalence as soon as we can, so that programme is well underway.

LH: And, if we are driving from A to B a significant distance, can we be sure that that coverage will remain consistent over that distance?

PE: So, you’re absolutely right. Of course, for the car market, geographical coverage is vitally important. What we do know now is that the vast majority of motorways and A roads have got good coverage, and significant coverage on B roads and smaller roads. But we are working with broadcasters to try and prioritise the road network going forward.


JW: Paul Everett, what about those who can’t afford to buy a new car after 2013 with a smart digital radio inside it? When that switchover eventually happens, what happens to them?

PE: Well, this has always been our biggest – or one of our biggest – concerns, which is that how do we retro-fit the entire vehicle parc? We are currently looking at something between 25 and 30 million vehicles all up, so it’s quite a challenge. What we have seen over the course of the last year – 18 months – is relatively low-cost adaptors. I think now ... I mean the prices vary, but certainly less than £100 to adapt your vehicle, and these are sort of a relatively basic unit, so not desirable for everybody …

JW: What does 'relatively basic' mean in terms of what it will actually do?

PE: Well, it means you get a digital reception but you have to kind of plug it into the cigarette lighter and have a bit of an aerial up and …

JW: It’s a bit Heath Robinson, isn’t it?

PE: We would agree with that. From our perspective, we’ve been very much focusing on what we would see as an integrated unit. So, something that you can put into your car or have installed in your car which would effectively mean that you could just use your standard radio to receive digital broadcasts. Now, we’ve seen … I’ve seen first kind of trials of that technology. We hope that that’s going to be available from sort of around the end of this year – the beginning of next year – so we’re already seeing a market begin to develop and, as I say, I think we … well, there are two ways of looking at the problem. One is that we must all prepare because this switchover is going to happen. Or the one which we are focused on is: the more consumers have experience of digital, the more they like it and want it and therefore that’s a market driver, rather than sort of an administrative pull.

JW: No, and that’s a fair point because I read some surveys, Laurence Harrison, that I know you were quoted in in recent weeks. But the point that has just emerged from the last comment, surely, to put to you are that whatever we do here, it is going to cost us and we do not have any choice over that.

LH: Well, I think the stage we are at at the moment, as Paul said, is that we have not got a confirmed switchover date now, so what we are trying to do is build momentum.

JW: But it will happen one day.

LH: It will happen one day, but what’s going to drive people towards digital radio is the great content we’ve got. The same happened on TV. So if you look at the offering now on digital radio, you’ve got the soon to be launched BBC Radio 4 Extra on Saturday, 5 Live Sports Extra, 6 Music, Absolute 80s [and] 90s, Planet Rock, Jazz FM has just announced it is going onto the digital network, so the content offering has frankly never been better and what we do know about people that have digital radio is that once they’ve tried it, they love it.

[The programme was followed with a Yours & Yours blog which invited comments from listeners on their experiences with DAB radio in cars. David Blunkett MP submitted a comment to the programme about his experiences with DAB, upon which listeners made further comments.]

……………………………

‘You & Yours’
BBC Radio 4
1 April 2011 @ 1200 [FM only]

Peter White, presenter [PW]
David Blunkett MP [DB]
Lindsey Mack, senior project manager of digital radio, BBC [LM]

PW: Now, you’ve all been writing in, telling us about your frustrations with digital radios, after Monday’s report on how Ford is planning to install DAB radios as standard in some new cars from next year. Steve told us about his A370 journey between Cardiff and North Wales: perfect listening for 30 miles outside the Welsh capital, then nothing for 150 miles. By contrast, over on Anglesey, Steve tells us the only place that silences his DAB car radio is the Conwy Tunnel. Another correspondent was former Home Secretary, David Blunkett. He’s had trouble getting a DAB signal at his home in Derbyshire. So we brought him together with a senior digital manager for the BBC, Lindsey Mack, and David started by challenging the main claim of digital supporters that DAB achieves 90% coverage.

DB: My thrust was that there are not 90% of the population with access to digital [radio], and many of those who claim to have access have intermittent or interference with the access. And I’m a classic [case] because I can just about get digital radio in North Derbyshire, where I rent a cottage, if I hold the radio up to the roof, or I find one particular spot on the kitchen window sill. Get it out of kilter and either the signal goes or, as quite often I get, even in London, it breaks up.


PW: Right, let me at this point bring in Lindsey Mack. A lot of our e-mails mirrored what David had to say, and particularly this point: that the quality isn’t adequate for many people, even if they’re … it’s said they have reception, and in that so to talk of [FM radio] switch-off at this stage, you know, seems wrong.

LM: Over the last sort of two years, the BBC has been very committed to building out its DAB coverage. We actually are at 90% of the UK population, but that doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to always get a very good reception. A lot of it does depend on the device you have, as well. There are some receivers that are a little bit more sensitive than others. And, in fact, we’ve actually just been doing some tests on the last sort of bestselling sort of ten or dozen receivers in the market.

PW: But what a lot of people said to us, and I suspect David will reiterate this, is that FM, which digital is going to replace, that has a much more stable signal and that, even if you start to lose that signal, you don’t lose it altogether in the way you often lose the digital [signal] or it just goes into sort of burble.

LM: Yes, and with DAB, you usually either get it or you don’t. I mean, looking in Derbyshire, we’ve actually got very good coverage, especially North Derbyshire, so perhaps after this we could actually talk to David about the device he’s actually got, as well, just to see which one he’s actually using. Whilst the BBC has been very committed to DAB and extending the coverage, we are now actually having to make the existing coverage more robust, and that’s actually what we haven’t been doing as much before. What we’ve done before, we’ve concentrated on just rolling out DAB. Now we know we’ve got to really look at the whole way we’re measuring DAB. We’re looking at indoor coverage in particular. You know, originally, when we launched DAB, we actually based all our coverage on car listening and then, obviously, car listening didn’t take off the same way as people are actually listening indoors.

PW: Well, it couldn’t because there weren’t [DAB] radios in cars.

DB [laughs]: Absolutely.

LM [laughs]

DB: It is a problem, Peter, actually, that if you can’t get it and you can’t hear it, you can’t appreciate it. I’ve got no problem with the extra reach and the way in which [BBC] Radio 7 is now going to become Radio 4 Plus or, whatever, Extra. My problem is that there’s a big over-claim for this. Let’s take it steadily, let’s try and get it right, let’s not claim that people have got a service when they haven’t and, particularly, let’s not say – which was what the sell for DAB was – that this is going to be higher quality when, as you’ve just described, the burble, the break-up, the lack of a good sound... I have three DAB radios up north. I’ve tried them all in different places, so it’s: please don’t do to me and to the audience what always happens, which is: it is not the fault of the deliverer, it’s the piece of equipment you’ve got, and they’re pretty good pieces of equipment.

PW: But, David, it was your own government who published Digital Britain and it was your own government that set the 2015 date.

DB: Yeah, and I criticised them at the time. Everybody wants everything now. They want it faster, they want to claim it as the greatest quality. I mean, everything is always ‘the best ever.’ And, frankly, it isn’t and if we just accept that and say ‘lets take it steady and lets try and get it right,’ we’ll all be on the same page.

PW: So it isn’t the principle that you’re against. It’s the practice, really.

DB: Yes, it is. I mean, if FM is better than DAB, let us continue for the time being with FM and, in many parts of this country, it is.


PW: Lindsey Mack, 2015 is supposed to be dependent on, you know, the state of digital [radio listening] and the public’s attitude to it. There’s a report in the papers this week that, in fact, digital sales of digital radio have actually fallen, and fallen for the second year running.

LM: They did fall slightly down last year, compared to the year before but, to be very honest, over the last sort of quarter, the consumer electronic market has been hit very badly. Not just in terms of radio sales, but other consumer electronics as well. You know, the BBC is working very closely with commercial radio and doing a lot of sort of joint promotions. We have to get our messaging right on this.

PW: A lot of our listeners said ‘if it ain’t broke,’ you know, ‘don’t fix it.’ In other words, okay, people quite accept that you’ve got, that you should move on, and that digital probably is the next thing, but why get rid of FM before … in some ways, some people said ‘why get rid of it at all’? Why can’t they exist side by side?

LM: But we’re not getting rid of FM totally. What we’re saying is that the BBC services – the national services – are on FM and DAB, and also we have our digital-only stations on DAB. By 2015, we have to … hopefully, we will have reached 50% digital listening. That’s not [just] DAB. It’s digital listening across all platforms. But there’s a lot that has to be done by, you know, at 2015, and beyond that.

PW: Are you happy about that 2015 date?

LM: 2015 is just … is a date that the industry can focus on. It is not a switchover date. What we have to achieve by then, though, if we can, is obviously digital listening up, we have to have good coverage rollout which has to be robust. People have to be able to turn on their radio and it has to work.

DB: Well, just one final message, Peter, which is that Lindsey’s done a pretty good job at defending the indefensible …

LM: [scoffs]

DB: … and I commend her on it, but don’t get carried away by the anoraks. They’ll tell you anything is working, even if it isn’t.

PW: So what would be your … what’s your solution? What would you want the BBC to do, David?

DB: I’d want them to be absolutely clear and honest and to say: there are problems with this, we’re resolving them, we want people to buy the [DAB] radios because they’ll get the extra coverage of different channels, and we want to keep FM as long as it’s necessary for people to be able to listen to Radio 4 properly.


[thanks to Darryl Pomicter & Luke Shasha]

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