Saturday, 30 October 2010

BBC head of radio: DAB not "a clear enough offer to listeners"

The Tony Livesey Show, BBC Radio 5 Live, 28 October 2010 [excerpt]
Stephen Nolan, interviewer (presenter, BBC Radio Ulster) [SN]
Tim Davie, Director, BBC Audio & Music [TD]

SN: There are big problems with the digital spectrum, aren’t there, because we cannot seem to hit any target that we are given for people switching to digital?

TD: I don’t think we’ve had many targets … Let’s be honest, I don’t think we’ve had many targets in the past. Digital stations are doing well. Digital listening – we’ve got to be careful – includes online, which is doing pretty well, there’s more we can do. Then also you’ve got DAB. Now DAB, you’re right, it’s been marginally growing for a while …

SN: Why?

TD: I just don’t think it’s been a clear enough offer, in my language, to listeners. I mean, people love radio. They are very happy with their FM radio. Why on earth would you change? And I think the radio industry has to say: ‘the reason you will change is – here’s a load of content’. And there’s clues like 6 Music, or other …. you know, that people love. And here’s a load of stuff that people love, and here’s a better … this device does something better than the other one.

SN: Or, Tim, it’s for the BBC to take a huge risk, and a controversial risk at that, and to withdraw mainstream programming from the FM spectrum and put it onto DAB. Imagine how the numbers would soar if it had [BBC Radio 1 breakfast DJ Chris] Moyles or …

TD: [interrupts] Imagine my inbox!

SN: Exactly, exactly. It’s a serious point.

TD: Sure.

SN: Imagine if you had Moyles or [BBC Radio 2 breakfast DJ Chris] Evans exclusively on DAB, or a massive programme.

TD: Right! And … we could do that. The issue would be that, with current coverage levels and with the amount of devices – particularly in Northern Ireland – I would basically be saying that you can’t listen to it in your kitchen, and everyone pays the Licence Fee. So I think the strategy for digital, where we are taking things away, is not going to work. My approach would very much be that I do want you to feel a bit of pain for not having a digital radio, but that pain is not about not getting The Archers, or not getting Chris Moyles. It’s about: ‘you could get a bit more over here’, or ‘there’s a bit of [Radio] 4 Extra over here that you could really do with’, and that’s what television did with some of those channels.

SN: Do you think, in terms of the internet, that radio is going to fundamentally change?

TD: I think there will be a lot more on-demand, obviously, so people will expect to be able to call up a programme and …

SN: I’m talking about the [UK] Radioplayer, obviously, which people are describing as the new YouView for radio.

TD: Well, er, yeah. Basically, the Radioplayer is … we’ve got the whole industry together. Only about 3% of listening is online and I can’t understand that, as head of radio. I know I’m biased but, at the end of the day, when I’m shopping and doing my Tesco shop or wherever online, why aren’t I listening to the radio? [to SN] Well, you would relate to this because it means more listeners. I think that one of the things is that I think it’s a bit confusing. You’ve got the BBC on the iPlayer, which is pretty good, and we’ve got other bits and … So we’ve put it all together and there will be a thing called the Radioplayer. Now, it gets a bit complex, but I think the YouView thing that you refer to is when you’ve got an internet connection to your television. Now, when you click your television on, I want one Radioplayer icon where you can go in and listen to all the radio. Now, the …

SN: On the TV?

TD: Yeah. On any screen – sorry to sound ‘new age’ – any screen anywhere, whether it’s a … whatever the size of it, you can go and get all your radio services. We don’t currently have that.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

DAB radio usage: going nowhere slowly

Sometimes it seems as if the UK radio industry operates in two parallel universes. On the one hand, there is the virtual world of the DAB radio lobbyists, a reality that only seems to exist within the confines of their Soho office and its funders. On the other hand, there is the real world of the 47 million people in the UK who listen to the industry’s radio stations each week, spread far and wide across this green and still largely analogue land.

It was only last week that Ford Ennals, chief executive of Digital Radio UK, was telling anybody who would listen that:

· “There is now real momentum in the transition to digital radio…”
· "… significant progress towards building momentum for digital radio…"
· Digital radio switchover is a "matter of when, not if"
· "We have set a course to double listening and expand coverage by 2013, and to switchover by the end of 2015"
· “We do believe it is possible to get there in the four- to five-year time period…”

Yet, today, RAJAR published the latest listening figures for UK radio. None of Ennals’ statements are in any way supported by the official radio listening data. “Momentum”? No. “Real momentum”? No. “To double [digital] listening by 2013”? You have to be joking.

The headlines for all radio listening via platforms in Q3 2010 were:
· Analogue radio’s share of listening up from 67.0% to 67.6% quarter-on quarter
· Digital radio’s share of listening up from 24.6% to 24.8% quarter-on-quarter
· DAB radio’s share of listening down from 15.8% to 15.3% quarter-on-quarter.

At its current long-term growth rate, the government criterion of 50% of radio listening via digital platforms would not be achieved until year-end 2018. The statistical probability of that 50% threshold being reached by 2013, the achievement of which Ennals is supremely confident, is zero. Even Derren Brown could not pull off that stunt.

And so these two radio worlds continue on their parallel paths. Digital Radio UK continues to insist that everything in the digital radio switchover garden is sweetness and light, whilst wilfully oblivious to the fact that the majority of radio listeners simply could not care less about DAB – even after more than a decade of being told by the government, Ofcom and the largest broadcasters that DAB is ‘the future of radio’.

The verdict of UK radio listeners on DAB seems perfectly transparent in the RAJAR data, though many in the radio industry still refuse to listen. On the other hand, the activities of Digital Radio UK, still trying to persuade us of DAB’s virtues, are anything but transparent. After 10 months of existence, its
web site remains empty. And the web site of its forerunner, the Digital Radio Development Bureau, has been conveniently deleted so that all the empty promises, inaccurate forecasts and ridiculous propaganda that were generated about DAB over the last eight years are no longer publicly available.

Those with experience in the radio industry understand perfectly what happens to radio stations that refuse to listen to their listeners, radio stations that refuse to engage in truthful dialogue with their audience, and radio stations that are still broadcasting exactly the same tired messages as they did a decade ago. They die … and nobody misses them when they are gone.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Digital Radio Upgrade? More like Digital Radio Groundhog Day.

It was the Radio Festival, the industry’s annual get together. Everyone wanted to talk about how wonderful the DAB future of radio would be. But nobody wanted to explain how ‘Digital Radio Upgrade’, the government policy to make the UK’s DAB transmission system fit for purpose, will be paid for. It is the radio sector’s favourite parlour game: pass the DAB Upgrade parcel.

The first player is the BBC:

Q: “Very briefly, a one-word answer. Do you have any money set aside now to spend on [Digital Radio Upgrade]?”

Tim Davie, director of BBC Audio & Music: “No.”

Second is commercial radio:

Q: “Does commercial radio have any money to spend on [Digital Radio Upgrade]? [...] What’s your guess?”

Phil Riley, chief executive of Orion Media: “‘No’ is the answer at the moment.”

Third are the politicians:

Jeremy Hunt MP: “I think the most important thing is not something the government can do, but something the industry can do …”

But hold on. This dialogue came from the Radio Festival in 2009…. We need to fast forward one year.

It was the Radio Festival, the industry’s annual get together. Everyone wanted to talk about how wonderful the DAB future of radio would be. But nobody wanted to explain how ‘Digital Radio Upgrade’, the government policy to make the UK’s DAB transmission system fit for purpose, will be paid for. It is still the radio sector’s favourite parlour game: pass the DAB Upgrade parcel.

The first player is the BBC:

“It remains to be seen who will pick up the £100m tab [for Digital Radio Upgrade], with [Tim] Davie saying he did not have the necessary funds.” [from
The Guardian]

Second is commercial radio:

“[Global Group chief executive Ashley] Tabor said the commercial [radio] sector will only pay for the rollout of those local DAB multiplexes that are commercially viable.” [from
The Guardian]

Third are the politicians:

Ed Vaizey, Minister for culture, communications & creative industries: "The BBC has to work with me on coverage. I am talking to the BBC and I hope to accelerate the pace of digital radio coverage."

Déjà vu, anyone? Delegates paid £899 to witness this repeat performance. I have already placed my bet on precisely the same sentiments being made at the Radio Festival in 2011, though the odds offered by the bookie were not at all good. On the coach home from the Festival, everyone must have joined in the usual radio industry singsong:

“When do we want digital radio switchover? Now!
Who do we want to pay for DAB Upgrade?
Somebody else!”

And while we are on the topic of déjà vu, I am reminded of an analyst
report about DAB from June 2008, in which I had written:

“The digital switchover of radio is so far into the future as to be intangible.”

I was swiftly rebuked for this viewpoint in an e-mail from a radio sector CEO.

Now fast forward to the 2010 Radio Festival. Andrew Harrison, chief executive of commercial radio trade body Radio Centre,

"There is no doubt if [digital take-up] carries on at its current projectory we will never get there." [sic]

The current RadioCentre strategy remains inexplicably that the BBC should pay not only for improvements to the BBC’s DAB radio transmitters, but also for the commercial radio sector’s (see earlier blogs
here and here). The nails seem to have been hammered firmly into that coffin by this week’s speed-axing session between the government and the BBC.

Although subsequent press reports have implied that the cost of the (previous) government’s Digital Radio Upgrade policy will now be underwritten wholly by the BBC, the available evidence says otherwise. The resulting four-page
letter from the government to the BBC Trust set out in detail all the new items to which the BBC’s funds will have to be applied in future. The World Service? Yes. BBC Monitoring? Yes. S4C TV? Yes. Local television? Yes. DAB radio? No….

Oh, hold on. In the penultimate paragraph on the final page there is a single sentence about DAB penned by Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt:

“I also welcome the BBC’s plans to enhance its national DAB coverage in the period of this agreement, and to match its national FM coverage as a switchover date draws near.”

But while the rest of the letter is littered with the oft repeated phrase “The BBC will …”, this solitary mention of DAB radio is couched only in terms of “BBC plans” without a hint of compulsion. DAB is an obvious afterthought here and, much to RadioCentre’s chagrin, it refers only to the BBC improving its own DAB transmitter coverage and not to improving commercial radio’s.

In the coming months, when the inevitable axe falls sharply across BBC budgets as a result of this week’s gobsmacking (©
Ray Snoddy) agreement between the BBC and the government, DAB radio must be an obvious short straw. Lose BBC local radio, or lose DAB? BBC local/regional radio accounts for 15% of BBC radio listening. BBC digital radio stations account for 4%. Here comes the chopper ….

Saturday, 16 October 2010

David vs Goliath: commercial radio spends £27 per hour on programmes, BBC Radio 2 spends £4,578

There has been an abundance of fighting talk from the commercial radio sector in the press in recent weeks. Commercial radio seems determined to pick another fight with BBC Radios 1 and 2, two of the three most listened to radio stations in the UK.

Guardian Media Group Radio
announced that “by broadcasting on National DAB, Sky, Freeview and Freesat, Smooth Radio will provide a strong commercial alternative to BBC Radio 2.” Chief executive Stuart Taylor said:

“We are still at war with the BBC and we still compete for listeners tooth and nail, as we always will."

The press headlines affirmed:
· “New national network makes a Smooth attack on Radio 2” (
· “Forget Radio 2: in five years’ time, we’ll all be going Smooth” (
· “Smooth Radio takes on Radio 2 in national rollout” (
Marketing Week)
· “Radio Two faces fight, warns new Smooth news chief” (
Press Gazette)

Then, Global Radio announced that its local FM stations will be re-branded ‘Capital Radio’ in 2011. Chief executive Ashley Tabor

“With the launch of the Capital network, there will now be a big national commercial brand seriously competing with Radio 1.”

The press headlines responded:
· “Capital Radio will go national in bid to challenge Radio 1” (
Evening Standard)
· “Capital Radio set to rival BBC Radio 1 in move to broadcast nationally” (
Daily Mail)
· “Global to take on Radio 1 with Capital Network” (
Marketing Week)
· “Capital Radio to form first national commercial radio station” (

Both the GMG and Global Radio statements achieved the intended sabre-rattling headlines in the press though, for me, these sentiments are remarkably hollow. This ongoing phoney war between the BBC and commercial radio is like a war between a one-eyed giant and an over-exuberant mobile phone salesman. The giant will win every time. Commercial radio can huff and puff all it wants, but the BBC knows it is perfectly safe in its house built from Licence Fees. It can afford to chuckle loudly at every challenge like this lobbed at it by commercial radio. Why?

Firstly, you could only ever hope to seriously compete with the existing formats of BBC Network radio stations if you had access to their same abundance of resources. This is something that Channel 4 belatedly realised after having promised for two years that it would invent a new commercial radio station to compete with BBC Radio 4. Then it scrapped its radio plans altogether.

The huge gulf between the funding of commercial radio content and BBC Network Radio content makes direct competition simply pointless. In a recent
report for the BBC Trust, I noted that commercial radio spends an average £27 per hour on its content, while BBC Radio spends an average £1,255 per hour. There is no way that commercial radio can make programmes that will sound like Radio 2 on a budget that is 170th of the latter’s £4,578 per hour.

Secondly, what sort of message do these press headlines send to consumers? To me, they say ‘we realise that Radios 1 and 2 are fantastically successful, so we want a slice of their action’. Or maybe even ‘you really like Radios 1 and 2, don’t you? Try us, because we want to be just like them.’ So where is the Unique Selling Point [USP] for your own product? Don’t you have enough faith in it to tell us why it is so good, rather than comparing it to your much bigger, much more successful rival? Or is this the Dannii Minogue method of marketing?

I had always been taught that the cardinal sin of radio was to mention your competitors to your audience. Every reference to your competitor tells the audience how much you respect them and their success. Ignore them! Pretend your competitor does not even exist! Plough your own furrow and concentrate on making a radio station that is genuinely unique. Then you will create a brand that has a genuine USP, rather than being merely a pale imitation of Radio 1 or 2 without their big budgets. ‘I can’t believe it’s not Radio 2’ is not a tagline to which to aspire.

Thirdly, neither Capital Radio nor Smooth will be genuinely ‘national’ stations, as in capable of being received on an analogue FM/AM radio from one end of the country to the other. So why pretend to consumers and advertisers that they are ‘national’? In the case of Capital, its proposed FM network presently covers 57% of the UK adult population. In the case of Smooth, RAJAR tells us that DAB receiver penetration is presently 35%. Just how little of the UK population can you cover and yet still describe yourself as ‘national’?

Fourthly, don’t keep looking at Radio 1 and 2’s huge audience figures and dreaming of how much money you could make if only you could monetise their listenership. Part of the reason older listeners probably like Radio 2 is because there are no advertisements. Accept the fact that Radios 1 and 2 together account for a quarter of all radio listening in the UK. Compared to those mammoths of radio, both Capital and Smooth are mere termites. Live with that fact and, instead, seek out commercial clients who are not merely frustrated because they cannot advertise on BBC Radio, but who actively want to use your radio station because your audience is intrinsically valuable to them.

Finally, invest the time and money to develop your own on-air talent rather than simply hanging on the coattails of others’ successes. Whatever his next gig might be, Chris Moyles will forever be remembered as ‘the saviour of Radio 1’, just as Chris Evans will always be remembered for his Radio 1 breakfast show, not for his subsequent time at Virgin Radio. Find new people who are good at radio and put your faith in them. Why does Smooth’s schedule have to resemble Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together with a bit here from Radio 1 in the 80s, and a bit there from Radio 2 last month?

What your radio station should be doing is not competing with Radio This or Radio That for listeners, but competing directly for consumers to spend time with you because you are ‘you’. Radio is not like selling soap powder or yoghurt pots, where your business model can be built upon undercutting the price of a competitor’s product, however low-quality your own cheapo version might be. There is no price of admission in radio. Your content needs to be ‘different’ rather than ‘the same’ and it needs to create its own unique place in the market.

You should not think of your market competitors as radio stations, but as each and every opportunity a consumer is presented with to pass their leisure time. A winning station must be able to convince a consumer to listen to it, rather than watch television, read a book or simply sit in silence. Because radio is ‘free’, the competition for radio is everything else that is also free to consumers at the point-of-use.

To offer a practical example, when I worked on the launch of India’s first commercial radio network, Radio City, the advertising agency produced an excellent marketing campaign that extolled the virtues of the station over other radio stations. But the campaign had to be rejected and the agency briefed in more detail. Why? Because we were launching the very first radio station on the FM dial in a city such as Bangalore, so the overriding challenge was to persuade people to use ‘radio’ at all, or to persuade people to buy an FM radio for the first time, or to persuade people to switch off their television and turn to radio instead.

This philosophy seems to be a million miles away from the current UK commercial radio strategy which seems to focus on berating BBC radio for being too successful, whilst wanting to somehow achieve part of that success through osmosis. If only half this war effort was put into developing policies to make the commercial sector’s stations successful on their own account, the BBC would soon cease to matter.

Instead, RadioCentre is now
demanding that commercial radio be allowed to re-broadcast old Proms concerts recorded by BBC Radio 3. But how many of our 300 commercial radio stations play classical music? One. And which Proms concert do you recall that would fit into Classic FM’s playlist of short musical extracts? What next? Will Capital FM be asking the BBC for the rights to re-broadcast some old Zoe Ball Radio 1 breakfast shows?

In September 2010, the government’s Consumer Expert Group
criticised RadioCentre for having proposed a policy for the BBC’s Strategy Review that, it felt, would have “bullied” listeners.

Trying to bully listeners? Trying to bully the BBC? This is the war of the playground, not of a mature media industry that has a strategy of its own making, a plan, a roadmap for its future success. “It’s not fair. Your willy is bigger than mine.” No, it probably isn’t fair, but life deals you a hand, you have to stop whining, get on with it and make the best of what you’ve got.

Just accept this reality: commercial radio’s willy is never going to be as big as the BBC’s. So competing directly on size alone is a complete waste of time when, instead, you should be developing your own individual ‘technique’.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

BBC Trust chair notes "the absence of a coherent digital [radio] strategy"

On 8 September 2010, Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the BBC Trust, and Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, appeared before the government’s Culture, Media & Sport Committee. They were asked about BBC radio policy by a committee member:

David Cairns: It will be brief because it is about radio. Clearly the [BBC Radio] 6 decision has come and gone. Where does this leave you? There seems to be a slight divergence between the Trust and the executive on the vibrancy and distinctiveness of the offer. You wanted to close Radio 6 to make [Radios] 1 and 2 more distinctive. Now 6 is staying open, so a couple of headlines on where we are in terms of the strategy in radio, with particular reference to 1 and 2?

Sir Michael Lyons: It isn’t part of the Government’s structure that the Trust and the Director General have to agree on everything and indeed we’ve had some criticism for not more frequently exposing to public scrutiny the debates which do take place, which are often challenging. I think getting the balance of that right between how much of that discussion is open is I think a matter for reflection.

Now let’s turn to the strategic review: the Trust rejected the proposal to close BBC 6 in its current form believing that the arguments didn’t stand up as a result of the consultation analysis we’ve done. But what that proposal did do was to bring into really quite sharp relief the two big strategic issues sitting behind it. The first of those – the greater distinctiveness of Radio 1 and Radio 2 – very much the subject of the service reviews that the Trust had undertaken earlier in the year, requiring both stations to work more energetically to distinguish themselves from each other and to serve a rather different audience demographic.

The second issue, of course, is the absence of a coherent digital strategy – not an issue for the BBC alone because it immediately brings in the issue of where the Government stands on DAB radio for the future. So where we are at the moment is the Director General is now working on both of those issues, recognising those are the big issues, the big strategic issues, and 6 continues perhaps for ever but certainly until both of those big issues are clear to us.

Mark Thompson: I think Michael answered that very clearly. We have had, I believe, a real success with our television portfolio, including our digital channels, in helping encourage the public to move from analogue to digital television. We are not alone in that, Sky has done a great deal to help with that and so have others. But we know that our digital television channels have made a significant difference in people wanting to take digital television up. We have yet to see the same level of success with digital radio. We are very committed to digital radio. We support the Government’s and indeed the previous Government’s ambitions around moving towards analogue-to-digital switchover in radio as well. The challenge for the BBC is coming up with a portfolio of services which firstly encourages people to sign up on digital radio, but in ways which support the rest of the radio market rather than producing adverse competition.

We need to make sure that the core mainstream channels, like Radio 1 and Radio 2, are sufficiently distinctive, are really doing something different from their commercial counterparts, but also that we have a range of attractive but also distinctive new digital services.

So I think this is a hard Sudoku. It’s not absolutely straightforward because there are a number of different things going on, and I take the BBC Trust’s response on 6 Music I think in the way it is intended which is there are bigger things at stake here. Go back and look at the broad radio strategy and that’s what we’re doing at the moment.


On 14 September 2010, Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, appeared before the government’s Culture, Media & Sport Committee. He was
asked by a committee member about progress with digital radio switchover:

Damian Collins: There was a report in the press this morning claiming that a report to your Department has been published today by the Consumer Expert Group, saying that 2015 is too early as a target date for digital radio switchover, and even questioning the consumer demand for it. I wonder what your views are on that?

Mr Hunt: On 8 July Ed Vaizey published a digital radio action plan. We made it very clear that we think when it comes to radio, the future is digital. We aspire to the 2015 date but there need to be some changes in consumer patterns of radio consumption before we would agree to a switch-off of the analogue spectrum. Those include a greater-than-50% market share for digital radio listening. At the moment it is about 25% and DAB is only 16%. It includes, for national radio stations, coverage that is as good as FM and, for local stations, 90% coverage and coverage on all major roads. So until we are confident that those conditions are met, we won’t be signing the bit of paper that says there will be switchover in 2015.

Damian Collins: But do you still see 2015 as a date the industry should be aiming for?

Mr Hunt: I hope that we can deliver it by then but they need to work much harder to persuade consumers of the benefits of digital radio. I would much rather this was a process similar to the transition from records to CDs and from CDs to iPods, which was driven by changes in consumer behaviour, rather than something that we change as a sort top-down mechanism.

[these transcripts are uncorrected and are not yet an approved formal record of proceedings]

Saturday, 9 October 2010

UK commercial radio: Q2 2010 national revenues down 40% since 2003

It seems like only yesterday that the Radio Advertising Bureau [RAB] was telling us that:

“The [commercial radio] sector has turned a corner and not only halted [revenue] decline, but moved into renewed growth …”

In fact, it was 20 May 2010 and the reason for the RAB’s optimism was the sector’s 2009 revenue performance. Yes, revenues in 2009 were down 10% year-on-year and yes, back in 2008, they had already been down 6% year-on-year. But, as I
noted at the time, mere numbers never seem to get in the way of the trumpeting of a “terrific achievement.”

Fourteen days prior to the RAB pronouncement, a general election had ousted the Labour government and introduced a new Conservative/Liberal coalition. The writing was clearly on the wall that tougher times were ahead for the commercial radio sector. At the beginning of May 2010, I had
spelled out emphatically the dire implication for commercial radio revenues of an incoming Conservative government:

“The Conservative Party pledged in its manifesto to reduce advertising expenditure by government departments, if elected. The planned cuts would be significant, 40% of the COI 2008/9 budget of £540m, according to one press report. … A 50% budget cut to COI expenditure on radio would lose commercial radio £26m to £29m per annum, 6% of total sector revenues.”

And so it came to pass, even though the Radio Advertising Bureau was still
insisting in June 2010:

“We are optimistic that radio’s strengths will be recognised as COI budgets come under ever greater scrutiny.”

But budget cuts of 50% cannot be executed that recognise the radio medium’s strengths. Since May 2010, public funding of commercial radio has fallen sharply from 18% of sector revenues and will not be bouncing back anytime, at least not while the Conservative Party holds the public purse strings. The largest commercial radio owners have been hit the hardest, whilst the smaller local stations (that rely much more on local advertisers) have been little impacted.

As a result, it was no surprise that commercial radio revenue data for Q2 2010 were released quietly without fanfare or further pronouncements about “renewed growth.” The notion that commercial radio revenues had “turned a corner” looks even more hollow now, a mere four months after the Radio Advertising Bureau had uttered those words.

· Up 1.9% year-on-year, but remember that Q2 2009 had been the sector’s most disastrous
· Q2 2010 total revenues are the third lowest this millennium (after Q2 and Q3 in 2009)

· No change year-on-year, but remember that Q2 2009 revenues were already down 16.1% year-on-year and, before that, Q2 2008 had been down 15.9% year-on-year
· Q2 2010 national revenues are the second lowest this millennium (after Q3 2009)

· Up 1.7% year-on-year, but remember that Q2 2009 was already down 6.0% year-on-year and, before that, Q2 2008 had been down 8.4% year-on-year
· Q2 2010 local revenues are the lowest since Q2 2009 and, before that, Q1 2002

The most frightening facts about the Q2 2010 data are:
· National revenues have fallen 40% since Q4 2003
· National revenues have fallen to a level the sector had attained in 1998 (earlier, if inflation is considered) when there were about eighty fewer commercial radio stations

If Q2 2010 was bad for commercial radio, then the following quarters are likely to be worse, as the impact of government expenditure cuts will have wreaked havoc across complete quarters of commercial radio’s national revenues. The outlook for the commercial radio sector looks anything but “terrific”, though trade body RadioCentre was still peddling eternal optimism in its September 2010 newsletter:

“Whilst revenue for Q1 2010 was up 7.3% year on year, the best performance and highest growth for 2 years, Q2 proved more of a challenge with the election and subsequent cuts in government expenditure. However, the RAB is working with a wide range of advertisers to bridge the gap, and the current outlook for quarter three is that we'll see a modest growth, even despite COI cutbacks.”

And, after this week’s Radio Advertising Awards (where, ironically, “government departments and campaigns scooped the most awards,”
wrote Marketing Week), the RAB was still proclaiming “… the outstanding work which has seen our [commercial radio] sector return to growth …”

Suffice to remind you that Q2 and Q3 in 2009 witnessed the commercial radio sector’s lowest recorded revenues this millennium, so that any year-on-year increase will have been achieved from a base of absolute ‘rock bottom’. To add to the gloom, Minister for the Cabinet (and the government’s Paymaster General) Francis Maude
told The Times last week:

“We are looking at whether we should be expecting the BBC — when people are paying their Licence Fee — to carry some public information advertisements. It wouldn’t be a propaganda operation but this is public service broadcasting. The taxpayer might say, ‘Should I be paying out my taxpayer’s money for the Government to pay ITV to carry public information advertisements?’”

So the worse news for commercial radio is that it could be about to lose whatever remaining government advertising has survived, if pubic service announcements are to be switched to BBC Radio. After all, not only would such a policy save the government a further £30m per annum, but BBC Radio reaches 67% of the UK adult population per week, greater than commercial radio’s 64%.

In May 2010, I had
predicted that the government could adopt just such a policy:

“If a government were to return to the post-War COI policy of using public broadcasters to air its Public Service Announcements, rather than paying commercial rates for airtime, up to 18% of commercial radio revenues would disappear at a stroke.”

I am sufficiently ancient to
remember the intriguing, but rather bizarre, Public Information Films that used to grace BBC television. I also remember the Public Service Announcements that local commercial radio stations were required to broadcast for free when the Independent Broadcasting Authority was the sector regulator. So such a policy would be nothing new and should have been anticipated by the sector.

But what can commercial radio do? The key is the word ‘commercial’. The industry was foolish to have ever considered public expenditure on radio advertisements anything more than an ‘extra’ that was bound to disappear some time at the whim of politicians. That time is now. The same way that the government is mounting a war on ‘benefit scroungers’ who are said to have become too reliant on public handouts, the Conservatives are effectively waging a war against ‘COI scroungers’ – commercial broadcasters whose sales teams knew they could rely on government advertising handouts to meet their revenue targets and earn their bonuses.

How did the industry let itself get into this state? ‘Commercial radio’ was always meant to be ‘commercial’, not publicly funded. In exactly the same way, ‘local commercial radio’ was always meant to be ‘local’. It is the very point at which you begin to lose sight of who you really are that you set off down a rocky road that leads to inevitable oblivion.

Local Commercial Radio, know thyself.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Shameless Book Plug

Apologies for the interruption to my normal radio sector analyses, but I wanted to let you know that a book of my writings about DAB radio was published this week. It collects together 99 of the essays that have appeared in this blog over the last two years concerning the digital radio switchover issue in the UK. The period between 2008 and 2010 was a critical ‘make or break’ time for DAB which ended with the legislation of the Digital Economy Act. But have any of the committees, consultations, working groups, reports and recommendations from this period made any difference to the slowing take-up of DAB in the UK? No.

Leslie Burrage, chief executive of Roberts Radio, one of the main UK manufacturers of radio receivers, said recently:

“I’ve been surprised by how many of my peers at the golf club have adopted internet radio and some of those are people who can’t even get a decent FM signal, never mind DAB. The key issue with DAB and the migration to FM is going to be dictated by the speed at which at the motor car can be migrated, and there is no easy solution. If the migrations takes 20 or 25 years to go as it did from FM, the future is just possibly wi-fi.”

Digital radio switchover seems doomed and the only people still talking it up are those who have a direct stake in it, either through their financial investments, or from earning their living from talking it up. Because the UK started on the DAB switchover trail earlier than other European countries, our experiences have relevance to markets that started later on the DAB journey.

This week, it has been interesting to see the interest my book has spurred in markets such as Norway, Denmark and Italy where, like the UK, DAB is still being pursued despite widespread consumer indifference. In Norway, a news
story about the local receiver market appeared in the newspaper Aftenposten headlined ‘Customers do not want DAB: FM is still selling like hotcakes’. The buyer at a Norwegian electronics store said that DAB was already a flop and he was quoted: “So far, this year, according to industry sales statistics to which I have access, only one DAB radio has been sold for in-car installation”.

Many countries are awaiting some kind of government decision as to whether digital radio switchover will still be a policy goal. In Norway, a government report on the DAB issue is to be published later this year. In France, a government report on the financial model for digital radio was meant to have been unveiled this week, but was not. In Germany, the 21 September deadline by which state and commercial radio was meant to have submitted a joint plan for government funding to re-launch a national DAB+ multiplex passed without agreement and has had to be extended to 15 December 2010. One German
report said “it is highly doubtful whether the negotiating parties will agree by the [new] deadline.” Another report said: “experts suspect that this is the last chance for DAB+.”

In Italy, radio stations that have started broadcasting in DAB and DRM are angry at the lack of digital radio receivers in their shops and have
turned to UK manufacturer Pure Digital for help. One Italian report asked: “Do people feel the need to replace their old FM radios? Especially in the era of the smartphone, internet radio and applications, the answer seems obvious.” In Spain, the existing DAB radio licences that were initially issued for a ten-year period in 2000 have just been extended to fifteen years, in the face of widespread consumer apathy towards DAB radio.

It is evident that the digital radio switchover issue continues to generate a lively debate in many European countries. My hope is that our experience in the UK can help other countries make an informed decision about the adoption of a realistic plan for ‘the future of radio’ in their own markets.

Radio Books, London
ISBN 978 0 9564963 0 0
paperback 297x210 mm, 314 pages
1 October 2010
book excerpts
more information
available from online book retailers including Amazon

Book plug over.