Sunday, 14 August 2011

Growing DAB radio usage in the UK. Confused? You should be!

"Digital listening at an all-time high," shouted the headline of one online news story. Yes, it was the quarterly RAJAR radio ratings, offering opportunities for some journalists to pitch their stories just about any which way they wanted. The opening sentence of this particular report said:

“The digital revolution shows no signs of slowing down, and not even the radio airwaves are set to maintain their analogue tradition, as a new [RAJAR] study suggests.”

Hardly. This news story was interesting because it achieved two simultaneous feats of confusion:
• ‘DAB radio’ and ‘digital radio’ are two different things. ‘DAB’ is the platform on which the UK radio industry bet the farm in the 1990s. ‘Digital radio’ is radio received on any platform that is not analogue (AM/FM) and includes the internet, smartphones, digital TV … and DAB
• The fact that DAB listening is growing does not necessarily mean that it is replacing analogue listening at a rapid rate of attrition. Why? Because DAB listening, even after 12 years, is still at a remarkably low level.

These confusions are not accidental. At every opportunity, statements made by Digital Radio UK have sought to confuse the public by referring to ‘digital radio’ as if it means precisely the same as ‘DAB radio.’

A look at the graphs below of the latest RAJAR data illustrate clearly that the “analogue tradition” in radio remains so dominant that the real question to be asked is: how come DAB usage is still so low after so many years and after so much money has been invested in content, transmission systems and marketing?




The adage ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ has never been more true than with DAB/digital radio usage. The four graphs above – all taken from the industry’s latest RAJAR data – say it all by showing:
• how little impact DAB radio has had on analogue radio usage in the UK
• how slow the rate of growth is of DAB receiver take-up and of digital radio station listening.

Far from radio losing its “analogue tradition,” as the news article asserted, the old FM/AM platforms look, from these data, to be as strong as ever in the market.

One hint that some digital radio stations on the DAB platform could be on their way out is the BBC’s latest decision to aggregate listening for Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra in RAJAR. It had been doing this from the outset for Five Live and Five Live Sports Extra, on the premise that ‘Sports Extra’ was only a part-time broadcast station.

I would not be at all surprised to see the BBC:
• similarly aggregate Radio 2 listening with 6 Music
• similarly aggregate Radio 1 listening with 1Xtra
• downgrade its digital radio stations from full-time DAB broadcast stations to online, on-demand ‘extra content’ available via RadioPlayer, iPlayer and applications.

The problem with national broadcast BBC radio stations, whether analogue or DAB, is that the BBC Charter insists they must be made available universally to all Licence Fee payers. Given the huge cost of extending the BBC’s national DAB transmission multiplex to near-universal coverage equivalent to FM radio, particularly at a time when the BBC is having to cut budgets massively, it would be more sensible to downgrade ‘1Xtra’, ‘2Xtra’ and ‘4Xtra’ to ‘red button’ status whereby they offer additional content on a part-time basis. The consumer would access these Extra 'stations' via a complementary platform (IP) rather than the BBC having to shoulder the financial burden of programming them as 24-hour broadcast entities.

It would prove a convenient solution for the BBC. As it found with 6 Music last year, public controversy surrounds any decision to close a radio station, however small its audience in absolute terms. Alternatively, by pursuing the 'Extra' route, the digital stations can be re-branded, re-purposed and re-platformed away from expensive, fixed-cost DAB and towards IP, where the cost of delivery varies proportionately with the number of people using it. What better way to deliver value for money to Licence Fee payers? And what better way not to face public wrath for 'closing' a digital radio station.

As BBC Radio 2 DJ Steve Wright said on today's Broadcasting House show:
"Maybe full digitisation [of radio from FM/AM to DAB] may well take thirty years …"

As the graphs above demonstrate, there IS slow growth in DAB usage, but the rate is insufficient to replace analogue radio as the dominant consumer platform any time soon. It's time for BBC strategy to catch up with that reality.

4 comments:

James said...

One factual correction: just as Radio 5 Live services have been listed separately for many years in RAJAR (Radio 5 Live, Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, and total Radio 5 Live branded content), so BBC Radio 4's output is now similarly being listed. BBC Radio 4, and Radio 4 Extra, are listed separately in RAJAR, as is total Radio 4-branded content.

Given the point of 4 Extra is to give a halo effect from the main Radio 4 brand, it's right that the BBC monitors the stations separately and together.

As for "why is DAB so low", it would be interesting to ask the same for internet radio, which is around a quarter as popular.

DP said...

As for "why is DAB so low", it would be interesting to ask the same for internet radio, which is around a quarter as popular.”
Grant didn’t pose or address “why is DAB low”. He just documented that it is, and forecast possible next BBC steps.

DAB radio is not the 6, 5, 4 X Internet radio touted by pro-DAB campaigners. RAJAR’s “total radio” is measuring live listening for subscribers. RAJAR’s DAB ~17% is with DAB platform devices—including FM (and Internet) listening using DAB devices. RAJAR’s Internet ~3% is only live—significantly under-recording non-subscribers in the UK (smaller commercial, community, student, hospital, pirate, and Internet-only are only possible by write-in and with too small sample size) and rest-of-world. And, (from separate RAJAR reporting) live Internet is more than matched by on-demand, personalized tracklists, and podcasts. For mobile, RAJAR only reports if they have listened this way. Total actual radio listening seems close to 10% for both. (Do you believe Internet listening decreased last quarter, more than 10%, as the latest RAJARs reports?)

The BBC and Commercial Radio have promoted DAB radio extensively, long and hard. The commercial value of their promotions exceeds the sales revenues of all DAB radios sold (similarly for commercial radio in the US promoting HD radio). They have promoted Internet radio relatively very little. Some would say to avoid Internet radio (adding location and time flexibility for all radio) more quickly and obviously exceeding DAB radio. Their avoidance has allowed the new personal tracklisting services to coopt the title “Internet Radio” and the position of use and trust for many. DAB radio has not succeeded; it has not satisfied advertisers or listeners.

Radio has tremendous promotional value. And, radio promoting radio is even better—talking to the members. But, trust and goodwill have been expended promoting DAB (and HD) to unconvinced and now unbelieving, unsatisfied, and unaccepting listeners and advertisers.

It seems overdue to see if Internet radio promotion—with desired product, multi-platform, live and on-demand programming—will gain greater success.

Richard said...

A couple of observations,
1)It seems odd that the take up of DAB radio sales are
slow given that it's almost impossible to buy a radio without DAB.

I had to look hard to find a non DAB radio during my
last trip to the UK.

However perhaps it's to be expected that sales of radio will be slow as alternative media players proliferate.

2)Internet radio is still generally not very mobile,
until that changes i would expect listening figures to remain low in almost any survey.

On a personal level as an overseas listener in Asia, my
WiFi internet radio has brought radio back to life in my
household.

gagarinones said...

@Richard said...
"Internet radio is still generally not very mobile.."

That's not true. Internet radio is very mobile. I'm living in Sweden.

Here we have unlimited mobile plans for around 10 euro/month. so I'm using my Android HTC Legend to listen to radio from other countries, like LBC and Point Blank FM from London, wherever I'm going.

That must be the best innovation since the starts of radio broadcasting. It's gives me, the listener the benefit of listening to whatever station around the globe I like.