DABtastic? 

1 May 2003 tbs.pm/3194

Just a few years ago, analogue radio was enough for most people. Over the years, the number of stations available on the FM and MW dials had slowly but surely increased.

Then DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) arrived. The sets were expensive, the audience limited to the early adopters. It’s the early adopters who help any technology get off the ground, but they’re not enough to make it work. You need the mass market for that.

And then it came. The Pure Digital Evoke – the first DAB radio available for under £100. Helped by high profile digital launches from the BBC, sales were high, and sets were initially scarce. The mass market had spoken. Other manufacturers followed suit, Ford said it would start offering DAB sets in their new cars. Digital, it seems, has taken off.

The number of digital stations has been slowly growing over the past few years – their owners recognising that digital is a long term game that could hold big rewards, if they get in there first.

But despite the boom in sales of receivers, the number of people listening still isn’t that big and as such, most digital-only stations use a lot of automation. Many are little more than jukeboxes interspersed with adverts and jingles. Even those that do feature presenters don’t have many – and most aren’t live in the studio.

Out of the new stations, a substantial chunk are available nationwide on the BBC and Digital One multiplexes. There are then a number of pseudo-national stations, using regional multiplexes in a bid to form a semi-national network in the same way that Classic Gold and Capital Gold have spread across the UK on medium wave. Several well-known radio formats like Magic, XFM and Century are all using DAB to get their brand to an enlarged audience.

Such reliance on big name brands does mirror the current situation on analogue, but is rather disheartening to those of us who prefer a bit more adventure and variety in our radio stations.

Given the limited audience currently available, and the fact that most of the local DAB multiplexes are owned by the big guns, mainly interested in pushing their main brands to as many listeners as they can, it’s not that surprising. DAB is a long-term game, which means whoever enters the market are going to have to have deep pockets, which rules out most of the smaller operators.

Some of those with the pockets aren’t exactly taking risks either. London station WLON has taken that well-worn format of 70s, 80s, and 90s music that you can find on countless radio stations across the UK. It’s a very crowded market with the capital also having Magic, Capital Gold, Heart and Century all fighting for exactly the same market.

Neither does Capital Disney inspire much confidence. Aimed at teenagers, it sounds pretty much like any other ILR station but without the aging rock stars. About the only reason why Capital Disney stands out is because of its appallingly low bitrate, which makes it sound like it’s being broadcast inside a tin can.

Thankfully DAB has brought some new ideas, like London station AbracaDABra. Dedicated to pre- and primary school children and their parents, the station’s aim is to stimulate imagination, nurture concentration, develop co-ordination, improve concentration and expand creativity.

Not being a parent, I can’t do any research to find out what the target audience thinks of it, but AbracaDABra’s output is defiantly eclectic. The music includes a mixture of songs from musicals and other songs (many of which would probably fit into the “novelty record” category for adult listeners), which are just perfect for singing, and indeed dancing along to.

It was all I could do to stop myself from bursting out a blast of “Pick a pocket or two” as it blasted out my speakers. AbracaDABra is a wonderful example of a music station that’s original and distinctive, in a market where innovation seems to be avoided at all costs.

Whilst music forms the basis of most of the digital stations (after all, it’s much cheaper to shove some songs into a computer and play than to actually hire presenters) there have been the odd speech stations launching, like Passion for the Planet (available in London and many parts of the south of England) which mixes world music up with news and features on the environment and health. Rather a bizarre sounding mix, so it will be interesting to see how well the station does in the future.

London also has Travel Now, a dedicated traffic and travel news service. The presenters often sound like they’re reading their scripts from a variety of busy offices, and in the case of the London Underground news, it’s hard not to believe that they’re just reading it from the Tube’s website.

The station doesn’t exactly give the impression of being high budget. However, for a city constantly in near-gridlock conditions, Travel Now is obviously banking that there will be a market in the long run. How long (if ever) before it displaces LBC as the cabbie’s choice remains to be seen. Such is the confidence of its owners there are plans to roll out the format to other parts of the country.

Whilst the current economics of DAB means that new ideas for stations are pretty rare on the ground, it is at least encouraging to see that companies are trying something new.

The capacity of DAB means there is much more room on the spectrum for niche players. In London, the biggest market for radio in the UK, there are around 60 stations, national and local, spread over six multiplexes fighting for your attention.

Most parts of the country won’t have such a large number of stations to choose from, but there is the potential to broadcast stations such as AbracaDABra and Passion to different parts of the country, providing niche market stations to a wider audience, where a separate station could be unviable.

Still, it’s early days for DAB. It has taken a few years to even get to the position where people can buy mass-market radios at reasonably affordable prices. Building the replacement for analogue radio hasn’t been easy so far, and that’s not a situation that’s going to change.

There are a lot of issues still to be addressed, like sound quality and coverage – there are still large parts of the UK which cannot get even the two national multiplexes, let alone any regional ones.

And as for the stations themselves – well, how they do in the future remains to be seen. It’s clear that some media groups aren’t exactly rushing out to set up some new formats, but some do exist, and will hopefully grow.

The analogue radio market hasn’t exactly been bursting to the seams with unique propositions and DAB probably won’t have that many either. But some do exist, and as more people get digital, more may arrive. It looks like it might be an interesting journey.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

keith 9 January 2012 at 3:41 pm

i bought my first dab in 2003 im a big fan because it gives more choice i have just bought a standalone internet dab radio most technology goes through teething problems at least there is no crackling like there used to be long live dab and the internet radio because of the choice there is and thats what matters i choose this medium over the fm format i wish dab had been around 30 40 years ago when i was growing up i had my doubtts at first but now i cant get enough so as i say long live dab and good luck for the future from one of your biggest fans

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