Is DAB Dead? 

8 April 2008 tbs.pm/3233

There are technical reasons why DAB is not as good as it could be – low bitrates and outdated compression technology to name but two. But are implementation shortcomings enough reason to condemn the whole idea?

“Is digital radio the new Betamax?” asked Reuters. Is it a “bleak future for digital radio?” pondered Channel 4 News. “A poor reception” muttered the Guardian.

The Pure Digital Bug - a digital audio broadcasting radio reciever

Just three (of the more interesting) headlines relating to the news in February 2008 that GCap Media were to close two of the digital radio stations, and flog off their share in DAB multiplex operator DigitalOne.

The news was the latest in a series of high-profile departures from digital radio. Virgin decided not to launch their forthcoming Virgin Radio Viva service, and also to kill off the existing Virgin Radio Groove. Speech station Oneword had also closed its doors, and Global Radio pulled out of a joint venture to launch Sky News Radio.

For those with DAB sets, the future was not looking good, proclaimed the national press – you’ve been sold a dud.

But is DAB actually dead?

Closed for business

Station closures on DAB in the UK are nothing new. 2003 Transdiffusion article, “DABtastic?“, mentions a whole host of digital stations. Five years on, and it’s a veritable testament to radio stations long gone. Who can forget kids’ station, Capital Disney? Clear Channel’s WLON? Travel Now? And not to mention others since departed – Liquid, TAP, AbracaDABra…

In the early days, a whole host of stations were set up across the country as broadcasters rushed to deliver new concepts in radio delivery. The space is there? Lets fill it! And fill it they did. Naturally some worked, and some didn’t. Some were just another station competing for a market that was overcrowded. Smaller stations or those broadcasters without deep pockets tended to pull out earlier and in a much lower-key way.

All that happened towards the end of 2007 and early 2008 was that the big guns started reducing their interests. These were companies which had been in DAB for some time and had previously seen it as a long term game. So why the sudden change in heart? Can it really be because DAB is going nowhere? Or is there something else going on?

Looking at the background of the companies who have been strategically withdrawing, sheds some enlightenment on the whole process. Take Virgin Radio for example.

From the Groove to the Xtreme

Virgin has had several digital spin-off stations of varying degrees of success. The first, The Groove, launched in June 2002 playing playing classic soul and disco. The Britpop-esque Liquid arrived the following year (and closed in 2004). In recent years the company re-focussed its output, moving towards its “core” format with Virgin Radio Classic Rock and Virgin Radio Xtreme.

It’s also a company with a bit of a troubled history, partly due to problems at its parent company, SMG. Attempts to expand FM and digital operations outside London never succeeded, and SMG’s planned merger with fellow ITV and radio company, UTV, failed. Profits began to fall and SMG suddenly found itself with new management determined to concentrate on TV interests – and TV interests alone.

In April 2007, plans were made to float Virgin Radio on the stock market, although by January 2008 SMG formally announced it would be sold by an industry sale instead.

The rules had changed. Would SMG get the best price for Virgin Radio and its digital offspring? Xtreme and Classic Rock had done reasonably well, but The Groove had a small audience and (as any listener could tell you – and I was one) barely any advertising. Viva was of course un-launched, and to make any kind of headway, would have needed substantial support from any new owner. Would anyone want to take on two pieces of dead wood? Virgin’s station cull can be seen firmly in the arena of SMG insisting the company was in the best possible state, so it could get the best possible price.

Global takes on GCap

The withdrawal of Global Radio from Sky News Radio can also be seen in a similar context. Global had been formed by the sale of Chrysalis Radio, owners of Heart, Galaxy and LBC. The new owners immediately began to review the operations they’d bought.

It soon became apparent that Global were more interested in growth by acquisition rather than organically, with the company making an attempt to purchase EMAP’s radio business. After losing out to Bauer, Global went after a bigger target, taking on GCap Media.

The combined group of GWR and Capital Radio hadn’t been as successful as expected, and the merged entity soon saw the rapid departure of a number of key executives. Global’s offer would obviously tempt many shareholders, and GCap’s new chief executive, Fru Hazlitt, embarked on a drastic plan of cost-cutting in attempts to boost profits.

Whilst much emphasis was put by the media on GCap’s departure from digital radio (helped by key comments by Hazlitt proclaiming the platform was “economically unviable”), the company had also announced the sale (and possible closure) of most of the XFM family, the increasing of advertising time on Capital 95.8 and pretty much signed the death warrant of its Gold service by proclaiming that AM radio was dead and obsolete.

For a company built on takeovers and acquisitions, the battle by GCap to remain independent is a clear-cut case of poacher turned gamekeeper. Its DAB station, Planet Rock, may have been profitable, but small profits don’t interest big companies who are fighting for their own survival.

But is it dead?

Whilst there have been a number of high profile departures from DAB, it’s not been a complete evacuation. Indeed GCap will continue to broadcast on the platform (although mainly due to contractual and licence obligations) despite ClassicFM dropping the platform from its jingles, and it retains digital-only station, Chill, as well as having a share in AbracaDABra’s successor, Fun Radio.

Meanwhile another large radio group continues to place a huge emphasis on its digital operations. Bauer Radio – formerly Emap – owns a large number of radio and TV stations using formats and audiences from its magazine empire which saw, amongst others, Kerrang, Heat and Smash Hits all make the transition from paper to broadcast with great success. A new format, based on magazine Closer, will launch on the second national multiplex and the company have emphasised their commitment to the digital propositions.

The second national multiplex will also see three new stations from Channel 4 Radio – including a new speech station – UTV Radio and Disney.

DAB continues to be home to a number of smaller broadcast groups too, filling various gaps not generally provided by the big operators. Who would really have thought that world music and environmental issues station, Passion for the Planet, would have lasted this long? Or that DAB would see a home in London for a station aimed at Polish immigrants?

Whilst some have publicly mocked this state of affairs, arguably it’s the smaller operators who could play a key part of the future of DAB, and can do so by seeking out smaller audience groups, providing programming not currently provided by the larger media groups.

Whilst big media groups tend to expect a large rate of return on their investment – that is, after all, how they came to be large companies in the first place – smaller organisations are more able to take the risks, and are often happy to continue services with more modest profits.

And there are plenty of formats for smaller companies to take on – a prime example is the concept of a national jazz station, along the lines of theJazz. Launched by GCap on Christmas Day 2006, the station quickly grew an audience of 364,000 a week – with the average listener tuning in for 5.2 hours.That its owners couldn’t see a way of making huge profits from it doesn’t mean there’s not money to be made by someone.

Some commentators have suggested that digital radio merely cannibalises existing analogue radio audiences, and that therefore, there is only so much money to go round. Whilst true for some stations, one only has to look at theJazz to know it’s not true for all. Just what were those 364,000 jazz listeners tuning into beforehand? Radio 1? Virgin Radio? TalkSport?

The “ITV Digital” Moment?

So is GCap’s departure from DAB is actually a signal of the end of digital radio? Some believe that DAB is reaching its “ITV Digital” moment – the time when the great phoenix will rise out of the ashes to the consternation of those have predicted doom and gloom.

Others believe that, thirteen years after DAB formally launched in the UK, it’s got nowhere, and has got there fast.

There are of course differences between the two, but a more interesting parallel might be drawn with the launch of FM radio in the UK.

FM signals were first launched in the country in 1955, with commercial radio starting in 1973. But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that it slowly but surely became the platform for choice for the listening public.

Where DAB will be in twenty years time? Well, only time will tell.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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3 responses to this article

Joanne Gray 24 September 2015 at 5:28 pm

I bought a DAB radio about 10 years ago now, and what a waste of good money. The reception is so bad that one dare not move, or breathe too deeply for fear of the signal dropping, resulting in that irritating popping and “under the water” effect. Sadly, I have grown rather fond of Absolute 80s, so – as I don’t have Sky, I’ve had to download the app onto my tablet and listen via a hit and miss broadband connection with limited sound quality on a bottom of the range mobile device (which is still infinitely better than trying to listen on DAB).

gary dobbs 6 March 2016 at 2:19 pm

I still love DAB because of the choice it offers as opposed to FM, but it must be said that a lot of good channels have vanished. That is annoying.

Anthony 14 November 2016 at 12:38 am

DAB is absolute rubbish : it uses an outdated MP2 codec and the antiquated Musicam digital encoding system, it suffers when you don’t get a good reception signal (bubbling and burbling like boiling mud and sounding horrid) and it requires hundreds of low power transmitters around to achieve national coverage and because of the number of station squeezed into the bandwidth the quality is incredibly inferior with it…

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