On the wrong wavelength 

28 April 2008 tbs.pm/889

Digital radio needs a makeover, says Ofcom

According to Peter Davis who is Ofcom’s director of radio and multimedia, DAB just requires a “Freeview-style relaunch” and also claims that “It’s not Ofcom’s role to save DAB”. That last comment may come back to haunt him in the future, depending of course on how DAB progresses in the next year or two.

The commercial radio industry also apparently “missed a trick” by not investing in new digital radio brands; a comment perhaps intended as a sideswipe directed towards GCap’s recent withdrawal of most of its digital-only services from DAB. But that comment assumes that the trick was there in the first place.

Can DAB still succeed in the UK despite the odds now being stacked against it? DAB now needs new stations and new ideas for content as a bare minimum, but with GCap closing stations and Channel 4 Radio scaling down its future plans, that prospect is looking very unlikely in the short term.

With regards to in-car radio systems, there is hope that the rise of DAB+ (the system that the UK should perhaps be adopting instead) in other countries could result in Far Eastern radio makers such as Pioneer and Sony making car radios that are compatible with both DAB+ and DAB, but this won’t happen for at least another year or two.

Whilst the industry waits for something like that to happen, there’s always the prospect of in-car DAB radio adapters such as the Pure Highway, but it’s yet another adapter to hide in the glovebox along with the sat nav and the iPod; that in turn may be too much for the average driver to cope with on a regular basis.

What mitigates against a Freeview-style relaunch for DAB in the UK is the fact that DAB digital radio has already been extensively promoted as being a new means of receiving more free radio stations, so any relaunch would require a reluctant commercial sector to come up with new content as well as more money for a new marketing push.

In the UK, radio stations have generally been perceived as being free to listen to, even though there have been subscription-only alternatives available via satellite reception; this fact alone makes any potential rebranding exercise for DAB radio an uphill struggle, and that’s before you reach the hurdle of finding more free digital radio content.

Freeview was successful because it moved the digital terrestrial platform away from the general public perception of being a second rate pay-TV alternative to Sky satellite television (and cable) into a completely new proposition where you could get a better choice of channels without paying extra for them.

And there are plenty of free radio stations already available on FM and AM frequencies that are receivable using cheap pocket radios, meaning that the disparity of station choice that exists between analogue and digital TV that in turn drove the adoption of digital TV doesn’t exist with radio.

Unfortunately for Ofcom and the government, now is not the right time to ask the radio industry to come up with new ideas for digital radio stations, and with Channel 4 Radio now trying to economise its future plans with various proposals to team up with Global Radio, the prospect of this happening is virtually nonexistent at present.

So in the meantime there’s a definite risk of “treading water” syndrome, and DAB could well end up sinking under a weight of apathy if Ofcom does absolutely nothing. Then Ofcom will be forced to intervene in order to try to save digital radio, but its options may end up being limited to the more unpalatable ones.