Choice, but not too much of it 

27 April 2009

Government must be bolder on digital radio, says Global chief Stephen Miron

You can clearly hear the sound of desperation in Stephen Miron’s voice as he pleads to central government for urgent action to be taken on that hot potato known as the analogue radio switchoff. But why this urgency at a time of other distractions, since surely more listening choice via digital radio equals fewer listeners for the commercial sector?

A recession means that the Government loses one of its prime motives for analogue radio switchoff, namely to make money, because for the time being the usage of the 88-108MHz spectrum was always going to have a relatively limited application unless someone can think of a really compelling alternative use for it.

Therefore the UK commercial radio sector has to try to maintain any momentum towards a transition to digital radio whilst the digital television switchover is in progress and other incentives are in short supply.

But why the sudden push for major change? Put simply it isn’t just about the fear of losing what has already been invested in DAB; it also involves a window of technological change that threatens to close if nothing is done about it, and once that opportunity is lost it could sound the death knell for much of commercial radio in the UK.

The takeup of DAB digital radio in the UK has been relatively quick compared with some other new technologies but still hasn’t been swift enough for commercial radio to recoup costs and establish large enough listener bases for digital-only radio stations, and now a recession has come along to make the agony ten times worse for the commercial sector.

What’s more important in this case is something that the radio industry dare not state openly in public, namely that if DAB doesn’t properly entrench itself within the next couple of years it could be made obsolete by other technologies. This fear has to be kept publicly concealed so as not to put off potential purchasers of DAB radios.

Therefore if “Digital Britain” isn’t acted upon sooner rather than later, the commercial radio sector stands not only to lose the investment in DAB made so far but could also lose many of its listeners if (say) wireless internet access were to become a widespread means of listening to digital radio before DAB gains the chance to become truly ubiquitous.

The best scenario for UK commercial radio entails getting the average radio listener used to DAB as their prime source, because even if it is then supplanted by wireless internet access those listeners would have been accustomed to hearing a small(er) number of UK commercial radio stations and in turn may crucially transfer some of their loyalty to them.

Because if people are suddenly confronted with thousands of internet radio stations before DAB has totally captured the radio listening market, they may well choose to listen to BBC stations and other foreign broadcasters as opposed to a combination of UK commercial broadcasters plus foreign stations.

Those UK commercial brands would then have to compete alongside thousands of other radio stations worldwide, so if the majority of DAB listeners were to remain ambivalent in regards to listening to UK commercial radio stations, what chance do those UK stations have against what the rest of the world has to offer?

So now the race is on for companies like Global to wean listeners off the BBC stations – which already count for the majority of DAB radio listening, to make matters worse – before it is literally too late to do anything, and delaying the analogue radio switchoff just makes matters worse for the UK commercial radio sector as each month passes.

However there is perhaps one area that the UK commercial sector could still specialise in, and that is providing a truly local radio service. Unfortunately this seems farthest from the minds of much of UK commercial radio at present whilst they chase short-term profits, which could theoretically lead to their undoing in the long term.

What the commercial sector would dearly love is for the BBC to be forced to withdraw one of its national stations from the FM wavelength within the next five years, but such a move would be deeply unpopular with almost everyone else unless that station happened to be Radio 3 (which wouldn’t have too much of an effect anyway).

However that would require major legislation, which requires extensive Parliamentary time during a period that leads up to the next election; something that’s basically out of the question especially as the rest of “Digital Britain” has to be somehow shoehorned into the allotted schedule as it is.

So any radical radio change(s) will have to wait until after the next election, and by then it could well be too late to give what the large UK commercial radio groups really want.