Not much to love 

24 November 2010

Whilst everyone else is currently thinking about other, much more pressing matters such as the economy, student fees or a certain wedding, the UK radio industry is still fretting to itself in a quiet corner as to what will happen in relation to a much-derided digital radio ‘switchover’ process that most people have surely forgotten about by now.

What hasn’t exactly helped matters is that joke of a 2015 target for supposedly moving most or all of the national UK radio stations to predominantly DAB-only broadcasting, combined with a BBC licence fee settlement that (perhaps thankfully) leaves out any specific additional financial commitment for this plan to be properly completed.

Hence it’s no surprise that the UK radio industry is now starting to suffer from panic attacks as to what will happen and where the money for all of this will come from (read: it’s not coming from the commercial operators!), hence a distinct reluctance to alienate their already-befuddled listeners with yet another ultimately futile digital radio push.

(It seems that the current government is just as “not bothered” about DAB as the general public – no matter what ministers might profess to say in public – because if it was at all serious about the project then the BBC in its current vulnerable state could have easily been coerced into funding a timely conclusion of the migration process.)

Indeed any residual (and short-term) motivation for DAB migration just has to be the sole prospect of making more money for the Government by relicensing FM band allocations to local community radio stations because there are still very few alternative uses for this part of the spectrum that are currently practicable.

But local community radio isn’t exactly a profitable area of the industry to say the very least and is perhaps intended just to keep the FM spectrum free of pirate broadcasting (which would surely be rife after many existing FM stations have officially vacated the band) as well as a temporary source of revenue.

Therefore an early forcing of the DAB migration process would only generate a relatively minor increase in revenue in exchange for upsetting and alienating a fair chunk of the radio listening population in the process; not something that’s very high on the agenda for a government with much more pressing issues elsewhere to attend to.

Of course someone somewhere is still hoping that some form of profitable new technology will come along shortly that’s positively begging for a chunk of 88-108MHz, but there’s nothing specific that immediately springs to mind. And this lack of direction is a distinct discourager for such an FM sell off regardless of quoted public government policy.

Plus when US giant Qualcomm is now looking to sell off its previously-acquired spectrum chunks – perhaps including its UK acquisition of spectrum as well at some point – why wait in vain for spare FM capacity when you could instead aim to get something that’s materially much more useful and potentially available a lot sooner.

So any so-called FM radio ‘switchoff’ or digital radio ‘switchover’ is just journalistic licence for neither of those things, and there may be little to stop any newly-licenced community FM radio stations from being snapped up by Bauer, Global or GMG, etc., and turned into a pseudo-national network – let’s stop there before this turns into a recursive loop.

Especially when any incentive(s) to switch to DAB are primarily aimed at existing licenced staions, although there could be (perhaps belated) steps taken to specifically prevent multiple community station licences being bought/owned by one particular broadcaster.

There’s one thing worse than missing a project deadline, and that’s actually setting a deadline that’s totally unworkable in the first place, because once that unworkable deadline has been missed then any enthusiasm for regaining momentum would promptly fall to an all-time low.

On top of this there’s the loss of morale which occured when the overall share of digital radio listening recently fell for the first time despite the major audience gains previously made by the once-threatened-with-closure BBC Radio 6 Music station.

Commercial operators are currently extremely reluctant or unable to provide the significant additional investment needed to improve commercial DAB multiplex availability in order to match ongoing improvements in BBC National DAB mux coverage. (They wanted the BBC to provide the funding for them to do this.)

So the UK is very likely to end up with significant areas where the only DAB radio stations receivable will be provided by the BBC (at least for several years), therefore it’s easy to see that some commercial operators would refuse to air a digital switchover campaign that may end up driving a fair number of their listeners into the hands of the BBC.

Perhaps a botched compromise solution could involve Classic FM (the only truly national commercial FM radio station) occupying space on the BBC National DAB mux, perhaps occupying the slot currently used by the soon-to-be-axed BBC Asian Network.

Either way, if the radio industry is forced at gunpoint to complete a DAB switchover programme at short notice, expect intense pressure to be placed on the BBC in order to provide some form of temporary station sharing on its National DAB mux in areas devoid of commercial DAB coverage, inevitably at the expense of BBC stations in the process.

This might be very tricky from a technical perspective and would require using a different frequency for the BBC National DAB mux in certain areas, but it could be a cheaper short term solution for the commercial sector and such difficulties wouldn’t dissuade them from turning the screws on the BBC in order to make this sort of thing happen, so to speak.

On top of this, a DAB switchover campaign for an imminent 2015 ‘deadline’ that clearly turns out to be irrelevant is also a surefire way of losing the trust and loyality of your listeners; something that’s of vital importance for commercial radio stations in particular when trying to compete with other stations, especially at this current juncture.

This is in addition to the prospect of certain listeners being annoyed to find out that DAB isn’t currently available in their area, although the digital availability problem didn’t substantially affect the takeup of Freeview digital terrestrial television in its early days (having a Sky/satellite alternative for digital TV did help though).

Additional funding for DAB from central government is now totally out of the question, and the BBC is so cash-strapped that even its local radio stations are now going down a increasingly well-worn path of partial networking that was previously unthinkable for a public service broadcaster even if this idea wasn’t inspired by recent cuts.

So where’s the DAB money going to come from now?

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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