January, 2015

D2 Bids: Further Thoughts

[Note: Updated following the publication of the detailed bid documents on the Ofcom website. Note that only parts of the applications have been made public. Other parts are confidential.

Sound Digital application hereListen2Digital application here.]

At a risk of boring everyone senseless about D2, I’ve got a few further thoughts that have come out of events and discussions since the big reveal yesterday:

  • Sound Digital is making a very big play of the fact that they have signed undertakings to ensure that, in the event that they win the licence, Bauer, UTV and Arqiva are financially on the hook for the full 12 years of their licence regardless of anything else. This provides Ofcom with certainty. Listen2Digital will need to similarly present a financial solid case.
  • Listen2Digital’s key point of difference is that it provides more choice in multiplex operator. i.e. Arqiva isn’t part of it. The question is whether or not Ofcom will take this into consideration.
  • Talkbusiness (I know UTV would prefer talkBUSINESS, but I capitalise proper nouns the correct way. It’s Easyjet as well on this blog!) has agreements with both Bloomberg and The Economist. Obviously there is currently Share Radio, available in London on DAB and part of Listen2Digital’s bid. And in the past there has been a Bloomberg radio service which was shut down (a US focused internet service lives on). This is a specialist area, and I suspect that it will be very hard to get ratings via RAJAR. I note that CNBC pulled out of BARB quite a few years ago.
  • I’m still unclear how Talksport 2 will fill all its hours. I’m sure that the radio rights for lower profile sports could be picked up relatively inexpensively, but there’s still a production cost. In a promotional video sports listed included rugby, cricket, F1, athletics and cycling. I wonder if horse racing is an interesting area with its obvious links with betting? (I’m not sure going exclusively with Channel 4 has worked well for the sport). Picking up radio rights to something like the IPL might be interesting though. Having two services could allow them to try interesting things with some of their commentaries though. If you had rights to, say, the Merseyside derby, could you put a Liverpool-skewed commentary on service and an Everton-skewed commentary on the other? To be fair, this sort of thing happens quite a lot in local radio where two local stations are broadcasting the same match for their respective supporters. And Absolute Radio, in the past, broadcast a comedy commentary for England rights that they had. The BBC has done the same with Chris Moyles and even a kids’ commentary.
  • Virgin Radio is going to target 25-44 year olds. Which is essentially the same target it had before. And is the same target that Absolute Radio has. I still see this as a direct competitor which makes things a bit strange, and perhaps uncomfortable in the bid meetings. We are promised some big names, although none have been proffered. The obvious radio personality currently without a berth is Chris Moyles. But prior to Bauer buying Absolute Radio there were rumours of a bid featuring Jonathan Ross going back to radio as well. But names like these aren’t cheap, and that’d be making a massive bet. It’s fair to say that most new digital-only music services rely heavily on pre-recorded voice links and generally cheaper talent. [See also the Updated section below]
  • Talkradio has an agreement with Comedy Central. How that will fit in will be interesting. Comedy has a strong radio heritage, but nobody really offers pure comedy for extended periods. Half hour shows are dropped in after the news. Presenters with comic chops still use lots of music in their shows. Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see what they do.
  • It does sound like there is still room on Sound Digital for some extra services. Their DAB+ slot has not been announced, and I’m not sure they’ve actually got a station lined up. And there could be more than one DAB+ service. They’re keeping their powder dry on this one. I still think that consumers will need quite a compelling option to actually replace older DAB radios with DAB+ capable models. But then as I’ve mentioned before, I think getting a really good handle on how many DAB+ sets are being used is really hard to do. Having at least one live service means that a mux owner could conduct extensive research to see who is able to hear it, using those findings to determine whether or not to later shift services from DAB to DAB+. Publicly at least, nobody has talked about making that transition over time, but it has to remain an option.
  • There is a significant difference in what each bid is offering in terms of coverage and a lot of people are confused about how Listen2Digital can have fewer transmitters but better coverage. Well I don’t know, but they’re not using all the same places. Fuller bid documents will be released later next week, and they may go some way to explaining that.
  • The more I think it about, the more dangerous it is that Bauer is proposing to move Absolute 80s from D1 to D2. I said prior to the announcement that I thought it’d be Absolute Radio 90s that’d make a reappearance nationally. Absolute 80s is a station with 1.4m reach and 6.8m hours. Not to be sniffed at. Yet the DAB coverage will be significantly worse, and that means listening will fall. Not everyone currently listening on DAB can be easily shifted to internet apps. On the other hand, it does provide a big draw for the bid.
  • Neither bid is making any commitment to extend their coverage beyond what they are saying in their bid documents. They could expand coverage, but it’ll be down to any agreements they have with their service providers, since each extra transmitter will end up costing service providers extra money.
  • Both groups have presented Ofcom with some comprehensive research backing up their bids and explaining why audience are interested in their offerings. Some of this research should become available next week on the Ofcom website, although some will remain confidential.
  • The new Magic spin-off station is definitely called “Magic Mellow” even though the programme strand it comes from is “Mellow Magic.” I think that’ll take quite a while for fans to adapt to!
  • I think a lot of people find the idea of a food radio station interesting. It’s easy to poo-poo the idea, but I was pointed towards Chef Radio by a commenter, and it’s worth noting that an awful lot of radio listening happens in the kitchen. Trying new formats is only to be encouraged.
  • If I’m honest, I’m disappointed that nobody is holding a space open for pop-up radio. I can think of all sorts of use cases, and commercially it could be a really interesting proposition. There are issues with the ease of getting new services on and off quickly with regard to the regulator, but Smooth Extra rebranding back to Smooth Christmas for a month isn’t really enough. Listen2Digital has the closest service to this with their Upload service which itself is interesting as I mentioned previously. But I’d love to see a permanent space carved out for pop-up services.
  • Anyone else notice that Global Radio, the UK’s biggest commercial radio group, isn’t anywhere in any of these groups (unless they’re a confidential supplier)? They have promised at least one further service on D1 though.
  • And perhaps less surprising, there’s nothing from the BBC. Last time around in 2007, BBC Asian Network was going to be on the NGW bid. Of course today there’s a tougher licence fee settlement and there’s the prospect of BBC Three going online only to save money, so the idea that the BBC might launch a new linear radio station is unlikely. Even though it could free up some space by moving a current channel over, you run into issues about reduced coverage. And with their Olympics, Eurovision and upcoming Country pop-ups, it has shown it can shift its “bits” around to accommodate services as need be (at a cost to stations like Radio 3 and Radio 4).
  • Finally, it’s worth noting that just because these stations are the ones that have gone in the bids, it doesn’t mean that things won’t change between now and launch. Come back in a year or so’s time to compare and contrast.

[Additional thoughts, post publication of the bid documents]

  • Stereo? What is this stereo you’re talking about? None of the regular DAB services offered by either Sound Digital or Listen2Digital will be stereo. Every service on Sound Digital will be mono – 64k mono for speech services, and 80k mono for music services. With Listen2Digital, they’re promising stereo for their four DAB+ services. Their regular DAB services will likewise mostly be in 80k mono for music, and 64k mono for speech. Notably a couple of the services – the sports service and Share Radio – will be in 48k mono. No current national service is broadcasting in this format, although previously Traffic Radio used it. Expect quality closer to AM for these.
  • DAB+ mono? Well that’s what Sound Digital are saying. Noticeably, they’re using fewer CUs for their DAB+ service that Listen2Digital is suggesting. That limits them to a mono service. Like DAB, DAB+ is only as good as the bit-rate you give it.
  • There’s still space for services on Sound Digital as I hypothesised above. Every DAB multiplex is divided into 864 “capacity units” (or CUs). You can allocate these as you need, which in turn determines your audio bitrate (and error correction level). As it stands, Listen2Digital is essentially full, with just 8 spare units – which could only be used for data purposes. Whereas Sound Digital has 98 spare units, which could accommodate, say, two speech services (64k mono), or one music service (80k mono) and a DAB+ service (mono or stereo).
  • Listen2Digital says that for the services it has not named, there may be either a confidentiality clause preventing them from naming the service at this time, or they may not have a service lined up or, “to
    allow third-parties who may be currently constrained from working with us to be able to come forward in due course.” They would advertise for such services on winning the bid.
  • Only Listen2Digital has allocated space for an EPG. Sound Digital has no plans “at this time.” Few radios in the market currently use EPGs because they have mostly only been furnished with relatively small LED screens. Devices like the Pure Sensia have been few and far between – with colour screens that could show either Slideshow imagery, or pull other information from via IP. As Listen2Digital note, with expanded choice, it does become harder for listeners to navigate between services. (I retuned a DAB radio at home recently, and ended up with 79 services across national, London, and nearby local mulitplexes – I live on a hill). I would hope that in future more devices (not “radios”, but multi-functional “devices” that have radio tuners embedded) will have bigger screens, so an EPG makes sense. As noted above, Sound Digital has the capacity to include one, they’ve just chosen not to at the moment.
  • Sound Digital includes a table (Table 11.5) that details potentially overlapping stations for each of its proposed services. Curiously, the potentially overlapping services for Virgin Radio are Team Rock, Planet Rock, Absolute 80s, Absolute Radio 90s, Kiss, and Capital Xtra. Spot the missing station? The main Absolute Radio service isn’t mentioned. If Virgin Radio is going to overlap with all those other services – suggesting a fairly varied mix of rock and pop, then surely it must also overlap with Absolute Radio? “The all new Virgin Radio will play a range of the best rock and pop music from the 1980s to the present day, appealing particularly to those aged 25-
    44 and with a clearly defined slight bias towards male listeners. Programming will be carefully tailored to what this target audience wants to hear.” That all sounds familiar to me…
  • Talksport 2’s programming will include additional sports coverage for which rights would probably be cheap to acquire, and reruns of popular Talksport shows. Interestingly it also says: “It is expected that this will include independently produced content.” I wonder if this might include broadcast opportunities for, say, popular football podcasts? An interesting thought. And it will also work with William Hill who provide internet audio streams for horse racing and darts coverage. Again a good way to fill the station.
  • For both Planet Rock and Absolute 80s, Bauer is promising to write to Ofcom with the rationale behind moving them over from D1. Beyond that, there’s no public explanation.
  • Sound Digital says that it will formally advertise its DAB+ spot subject to winning the award. However a service could jump in and do a deal with them in the meantime. They say that they’re looking for a service that will drive uptake of DAB+ sets. If the advertisement doesn’t get the desired result, then the consortium will create a new service themselves.
  • Sound Digital includes some really interesting research from Mediatique, commissioned by Arqiva, to determine how many DAB+ sets are currently in the market. This report claims that by the end of 2013, 2.9m sets were DAB+ compatible out of a total of 20m sets in the market – 14.5%. Further, by the end of 2020, the majority of radios in car and home will be DAB+. Unsurprisingly, their work also found that DAB+ stations would need to be “highly appealing” to accelerate DAB+ ownership. (Unfortunately, the full research document doesn’t appear on Ofcom’s website as it’s probably considered to be a confidential part of the bid.)
  • Both Listen2Digital and Sound Digital are effectively subsidising DAB+ capacity at launch. However Listen2Digital is offering substantially more space at the start – six times as much space.
  • Both bids will use the same error protection level (3) for their services. You can get more error protection, but that uses up more space. You can also get lower error protection, but that makes signal break-up likelier. Both groups have taken the middle ground on this – which is what most multiplexes do.

As to which of these bids will win? Well the safe option is Sound Digital – whatever your personal choice, they’re the consortium with two big broadcasters and the tried and tested transmission supplier. But what will Ofcom do? I did have a quick look over at the “special bets” on Betfair, but it seems that there’s not sufficient demand for a betting market on who wins the D2 licence.

Read my initial thoughts on Listen2Digital and Sound Digital.

Disclaimer: These are my personal views, and don’t represent those of my current or past employers. Probably not any future ones either!

D2 Bid: Sound Digital

sounddigital

Earlier in the week I put a bit of context into the background surrounding the advertising of a second national commercial multiplex. I plan to go through in a bit of detail what each of the bidders is proposing. As ever, these are my own views and don’t represent those of any employer, past or present.

Ofcom has published details of both bidders on its website.

Sound Digital is a consortium made up of Arqiva (the major UK transmission provider, and owner of the Digital One multiplex amongst others), Bauer Media (the second largest commercial radio group in the UK, and owner of brands including Kiss, Magic, Absolute Radio and Planet Rock) and UTV (owner of the ITV franchise in Northern Irleand, Talksport, some local UK radio services, as well as significant assets in the Republic of Ireland).

The services, as described in Sound Digital’s press release, are as follows:

  • UTV will launch three original speech stations – talkRADIO, talkSPORT 2 and talkBUSINESS – significantly extending choice and plurality in a sector currently dominated by the BBC.
  • Bauer will offer high quality music stations catering to a broad spectrum of musical taste, including Magic Mellow, KISSTORY and heat radio, along with highly successful digital stations Absolute 80s and Planet Rock.
  • Virgin Radio will return to the UK airwaves under a partnership between the Virgin Group and UTV.
  • Sound Digital will also offer a non-mainstream music station, which Jazz FM has signed an agreement to provide.
  • Stations will also cater to specific areas of interest for which there is additional national demand: UCB Inspirational and Premier Christian Radio for Christian audiences, Sunrise Radio and British Muslim Radio.
  • To lay the foundation of a future migration to DAB+ and accelerate take-up of DAB+ compatible radios, Sound Digital will launch a DAB+ channel. The programming content of this ground-breaking channel will be revealed ahead of launch.

With a rumoured sale of its local radio services, UTV is the standout here, launching four new services, three speech and one music.

Bauer is offering five music services, four of which already exist, and two of which are already available nationally. Only Magic Mellow is completely new.

Jazz aficionados will be pleased to see the return, nationally of Jazz FM. They previously had a slot on D1, but currently can only be heard in London on DAB.

Three of the four special interest stations are currently broadcasting locally, meaning that this bid would bring them national broadcast coverage. British Muslim Radio is the new service.

Sound Digital claims that it will reach 73% of households and 63% of major roads (increasing to 75% and 65% if international agreements are met), with a network of 45 transmitters.

Here are some initial thoughts on the Sound Digital bid:

  • The assumed big story here is that Virgin Radio is coming back as part of a UTV licence deal with Virgin Group. But I’m a little confused about how that fits in since it promises to once again be a rock and pop station. As regular readers will know, I worked for a long time at the original Virgin Radio, but I was very supportive of the rebranding of the service when SMG sold it to The Times of India in 2008. What seems strange to me in 2015 is that Bauer would be happy with a consortium that seems to be directly targeting its own 2013 acquisition, Absolute Radio. Media Guardian even illustrated their report of the D2 story with a picture of Christian O’Connell from back in the Virgin Radio days. The station will of course live and die on how it’s programmed and resourced of course. But Bauer had essentially taken “ownership” of rock in this country with the Absolute branded stations including Absolute Radio and Absolute Classic Rock, as well as Planet Rock and Kerrang!
  • I actually think the bigger story is the significantly increased amount of speech that is being promised by Sound Digital. We’re seeing the return of Talk Radio (as “talkRADIO”), alongside a sister station for Talksport and a new business service. The UK is underserved with speech radio, and it’ll be interesting to see how Talk Radio takes on LBC (and Five Live). Their business service is also interesting, although I find that to be a harder one to justify. And it’ll be interesting to hear how they plan to programme Talksport 2 – whether that means buying more sports rights, or broadening away from mostly football. But UTV is definitely delivering the most creative offering in this bid.
  • Bauer seems to be moving across Absolute 80s and Planet Rock from D1. Does that mean that it will be able to bring some of its other stations over on Digital One back up to stereo with the increased bandwidth? Or can we expect new services to launch on Digital One too?
  • It’s worth noting that coverage of D2 will not be as great as D1 (upwards of 90% coverage), therefore some current listeners to Absolute 80s and Planet Rock are likely to lose coverage.
  • On the other hand 15 services (including one DAB+ service) is also a lot for a single multiplex, even taking account for at least three predominantly speech services. Again, lovers of stereo might be a bit disappointed.
  • Arqiva has a 40% shareholding in this consortium (the largest shareholding), and it’s also the owner of Digital One and the majority of local DAB multiplexes. As such, were it to win, Arqiva would have a hand in most of UK DAB radio.
  • Sound Digital is offering a single, as yet un-named DAB+ service with no hint as to what kind of format it might be. That’s perhaps a little disappointing since it’s not going to easily kick start a DAB+ revolution. But obviously it depends what the service is.
  • I’m somewhat surprised that Sound Digital seems to be offering significantly less coverage with slightly more transmitters than Listen2Digital. A detailed look at the non-confidential parts of their bids may be in order to see why this is when Ofcom publishes them next week.
  • In many respects, this is the “safe” bid – the existing, almost sole, transmission provider allied with two of the top three biggest UK radio groups building on solid brands for most of its services. However it doesn’t obviously bring many exciting new services to the market – with the notable exception of what UTV is offering.

Further reading:
Sound Digital website

My first take on the Listen2Digital bid can be read here.

D2 Bid: Listen2Digital

Listen2Digital

Earlier in the week I put a bit of context into the background surrounding the advertising of a second national commercial multiplex. I plan to go through in a bit of detail what each of the bidders is proposing. As ever, these are my own views and don’t represent those of any employer, past or present.

Ofcom has published details of both bidders on its website.

Listen2Digital is an application coming from a consortium including Orion Media (owners of the Free Radio stations broadcasting in the Midlands), Babcock International (the engineering group, who amongst other things built many of the new TV transmitters that were required for digital switchover), Folder Media (owners of a numnber of local DAB muxes and Fun Kids) and Sabras Radio (owners of the Asian service, Sabras Radio).

Listen2Digital is promising no fewer than 18 new national digital radio services, including several broadcast in DAB+.

The stations promised, and taken directly from their release, are as follows:

  • A food channel
  • A national children’s station, Fun Kids, where children can learn and be entertained
  • Wireless, a station aimed at older listeners, from Age UK
  • A national station for financial and money news, Share Radio
  • RTE1, a simulcast of the principal channel of Irish public-service broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann*
  • Gem, a national version of Orion’s adult contemporary music station, featuring ‘Sam & Amy’
  • Nation, a soft rock station
  • Top 40, a contemporary hits station
  • A modern rock, indie/alternative station for a trend-setting audience
  • A specialist jazz, blues and soul station
  • A new sports talk station
  • A country music service, embracing the new energy surrounding the genre in the UK*
  • Gaydio, targeting the LGBT community*
  • Two Asian stations: Sabras Sound and Panjab Radio
  • Two Christian stations from Premier Christian Radio
  • Upload radio, an innovative channel for independent radio producers*

* Broadcasting in DAB+

Many of these services already exist, either locally, in other territories, or online, but in large part will be new to national listeners. These include Fun Kids, Wireless, Share Radio, RTE1, Gem, Nation, Chris Country, Gaydio, Sabras and Panjab.

The newer services are a bit different. Some are completely new formats such as their proposed food channel, while others aren’t specified and may or may not be new brands. It’s worth noting that the same stations could well show up in more than one bid – whether confidential or otherwise. If you definitely want to get your station national, it makes sense to back both horses!

Upload Radio is an interesting concept that Folder Media has been working on for a while, allowing anyone to essentially pay to get on-air. While local access TV channels are something that Americans have come to know from their cable providers (that’s what Wayne’s World was set in), we’ve not really had that kind of output. You could try to get a show on a local station, or help out at a community station or hospital radio. But you could potentially get significant exposure with Upload, at a cost.

An interesting idea might be the use that advertisers might want to put towards it. We’ve seen brands in the past spend money restricted service FM licences. But they tend to have very little coverage. Now a major brand could potentially buy a three hour block once a week and market it heavily.

Ofcom guidelines still need to be adhered to, and it’ll be interesting to see what the costs are in due course! Folder is promising to launch the concept locally later this year before a national roll-out should they win this licence.

The appearance of Premier Christian Radio isn’t too surprising since they’ve made it clear that they want national coverage after having to leave D1.

In offering a country service, Listen2Digital is perhaps filling the biggest hole we have in music radio. It’s notable that only this week, BBC Radio 2 announced a four-day pop-up country service.

Listen2Digital plans to reach 81.5% of the UK population through the buildout of 42 transmitters, optimised around the major metropolitan areas, and plans to achieve 94% coverage of motorways, with high penetration of A roads as well.

Based on Ofcom making an award in April, they plan to be on-air by Spring 2016.

Their proposed line-up does indeed look to broaden the range of services currently available. And they would also be keen to point out that they represent a broadening of ownership in UK DAB radio. Arqiva, who are part of other consortium, also own Digital One, and own or part-own the majority of local DAB multiplexes.

Some questions and thoughts that spring to mind:

  • 18 services is an awful lot of stations to squeeze onto a single multiplex. Although a number of the services are speech focused, and there are four DAB+ services, I would expect lower rather than higher quality bitrates to get that many stations on air. The devil will be in the detail.
  • Introducing widescale DAB+ is encouraging. It’s not clear how many sets there really are in the market that are DAB+ compatible, and it’ll be interesting to see if manufacturers who are able to offer an upgrade, begin to do so. By targeting more specialist stations, potential listeners to those services will clearly understand that they need compatible equipment to hear those services.
  • Although Orion Media is a major backer, they don’t seem to be actually making all that many services themselves. Indeed from what I can see there’s only a re-version of their Gem format. Of course, depending on the outcome of negotiations with other providers, they may still end up broadcasting some of the other formats that don’t have a named provider.
  • Giving wider access to some of the specialist stations like Fun Kids, Share Radio and Wireless from Age UK means that those stations can both be heard much more widely, and get a firmer footing commercially.
  • If I’m being brutally honest, there’s no “killer” format that screams “I definitely want that.” On the other hand, last time around it was Channel 4 Radio that held that prize, and it was overly ambitious and the plans never came to fruition.
  • Premier Christian Radio is the only named service to appear in both bids.
  • The most intriguing service is undoubtedly the food station. I’m not clear how this will work, with food hitherto the domain of television and print media, and latterly digital media. Cooking on the radio is certainly not an obvious format!
  • Listen2Digital is well aware that it has longer odds of winning that Sound Digital. Ofcom will undoubtedly not want to take many risks.

Further reading:
Listen2Digital website

My first take on the Sound Digital bid can be read here.

Looking Ahead to the Second National Digital Radio Multiplex

DAB Radio

Ofcom is finally closing its doors on applications for a second national commercial radio digital radio multiplex. Originally bids had to be in by the end of October 2014, but Ofcom extended its application period to the end of January 2015 when a potential bidder sought a Network Access-only reference offer from Arqiva. (Since Arqiva is provides transmission for the majority of radio services in the UK, a third party bidder would probably need to use Arqiva’s sites to broadcast from. As such, it has to provide third parties with separate costs, and until the third parties have put into place their broadcasting plans, Arqiva can’t provide those costs. Hence the delay.)

It’s thought that there will be two bidders – Sound Digital (an alliance of Arqiva, Bauer Media and UTV) and, potentially, a second group that has not yet been publicly announced.

Up until relatively recently national digital radio has had a bit of a roller-coaster existence. When national commercial DAB launched in 1999 the key stations to be found on it were the three analogue INRs: Classic FM, Virgin Radio (now Absolute Radio) and Talk Radio (now Talksport). Alongside were a number of new services that multiplex (“mux”) owners GWR Group and transmission supplier NTL, brought afresh. And so we had services with new brand names like Core, Capital Life and OneWord.

DAB set ownership was low, and while the INRs had all built analogue businesses to help them with the additional DAB transmission costs, the new brands struggled. Their owners were far more interested in their highly profitable local FM stations. Why waste marketing budget on new services that might actually cost you listeners?

In due course brands would come and go on Digital One. It was quite expensive to get carriage, but if you had the money, there was space available.

That ceased to be the case to an extent around 2006 when BT Movio launched. The mux’s licence allowed a proportion of the available space to be used as data – about 30%. BT Movio was an attempt to launch a mobile TV service using that space. Crucially though, it was a paid for service, and the only phone that was ever built that was capable of watching the service came from Virgin Mobile – the Lobster phone.

It was fine as far as it went, but the fact is that with few television choices, there was limited appeal for subscribers, so unsurprisingly BT announced the end of the service in 2007. The phone was reasonably decent though – at least as a phone with a DAB radio built in! (We’ve yet to see another phone come with DAB since then – although there are reports that LG might release a device).

It was also around this time that Ofcom decided to licence the second national digital radio multiplex for the first time. There were two bidders – 4 Digital*, a consortium led by the public sector broadcaster Channel 4, and National Grid Wireless. The 4 Digital bid was considered much more attractive and it was duly awarded the licence with planned new services including the flagship Channel 4 Radio (described as a Radio 4 competitor!), E4 Radio, Sky News Radio amongst others. But Channel 4 had over-expanded in television, and was having financial difficulties. So in 2008 it scrapped its plans to launch despite having won the licence. Ofcom was not happy, and although they held onto the frequencies, it took quite a few years before they could be persuaded to try licencing the mux once more.

So by 2008 with BT Movio having closed, and GCap (formed from the merger of GWR and Capital Radio) pulling off the platform, space had been freed up and was available. Few seemed interested in national DAB. The mux owners would broadcast Birdsong as a holding station when capacity wasn’t being fully utilised. And the mux was bought outright by Arqiva, the transmission provider that had become the defacto sole supplier in the UK having bought up its rivals.

But people were still buying DAB sets, and notably Absolute Radio, under new ownership and rebranded from Virgin Radio, jumped in at about this point. It first launched Absolute 80s and later Absolute Radio 90s on the national mux. It also played around with station labels when it first bought Premier League rights, and created Absolute Radio Extra.

All the while DAB penetration and listening had been creeping up, and more transmitters had been built. DAB was now working. Absolute 80s became the biggest commercial digital only station, and importantly it was sold on a network basis – advertisers buying across the whole suite of Absolute brands. There were fewer brands that existed solely as standalone DAB services.

In the last year or so, we’ve seen a number of bigger brands coming onto the platform and duplicating that work. Global has got fully behind national DAB – previously it had mostly concentrated on local multiplexes often part owned by them, its predecessor GCap having just about abandoned it. It launched Smooth Extra, Capital Xtra and LBC nationally. Bauer has bought Absolute Radio, and although Absolute Radio 90s got shifted off the platform, it now has Kiss, Magic and Planet Rock alongside the remaining Absolute stations on the mux.

Indeed at time of writing, the only remaining non-Global or Bauer stations still on the multiplex are BFBS (aimed at the armed forces and their families, and effectively an extension of the MOD), Premier Christian Radio, TeamRock and UCB UK. And it’s reported that Premier Christian Radio will have to make way for Global’s Heart Extra at some point.

Indeed there are now so many radio services on the mux, that only Classic FM and Capital Xtra are still broadcasting in stereo, since a multiplex has a limited amount of bandwidth and it can only be cut so many ways.

And so, finally, we reach the present day, and a second attempt to licence a second national DAB multiplex. Exactly what the winning group wants to do with the space remains to be seen. We’ll learn later this week what the respective plans are of the bidders.

Possibilities include:

– the launch of brand new services and formats
– the UK launch of international brands and stations
– additional sub-brands of existing properties (although arguably we’ve stretched these as far as they’ll go)
– national coverage for stations that haven’t found space on Digital One, or have had to make way for sister stations
– the opportunity to launch some services in DAB+ (see below)
– space for pop-up DAB services to run over short periods
– some clever mobile data usage

I would certainly expect the announcement of at least one new speech station – most other radio markets globally are able to sustain many more speech services than we have in the UK.

Of crucial importance for any standalone brands that launch will be their advertising sales strategy. Who will be selling their advertising for them?

And the other thing to look out for will be transmission plans. Rolling out new transmitters is an expensive business. The BBC continues to rollout masts for its national DAB mux to reach ever more of the population. Digital One reaches somewhere around 90% of the population, but the diminishing returns of population versus cost means that it’s unlikely to go much further. It seems likely that whoever wins the new mux won’t be so ambitious. Look for a potentially phased rollout that may never reach more than 75% or so of the population – i.e. the major towns and cities, and key trunk routes.

But perhaps the launch of some services in DAB+ is perhaps the most interesting prospect. DAB+ uses much more up to date audio compression meaning that lower bandwidths are capable of broadcasting higher quality audio than vanilla DAB can use.

In reality that means one of two things:

– a station can broadcast at a higher quality using its equivalent current capacity;
– or you can squeeze even more lower quality stations into the same space

As with DAB originally, there’s also a chicken and egg situation with DAB+ in that probably the majority of DAB sets in the UK marketplace today are not DAB+ enabled. That means that they can’t receive DAB+ services. Some of them will be up-datable with a firmware upgrade. But that’s not as easy to do with a radio as it is, say, with a PC or smartphone. You can’t just roll-out an update that users click on. It tends to involve downloading files to USB sticks from PCs and going into unusual menus on radio sets.

Most DAB sets currently in the market are DAB+ compatible, but given the slow replacement cycle of radios compared with many other consumer electronic goods, getting everyone over to DAB+ will take some time.

Additionally, Ofcom has placed some odd limitations on what mux owners can do with DAB+. It has said that no more than 30% of the new mux’s capacity should be used for DAB+ stations. It wants to make sure new services are mostly available to all.

In other words, a new bidder would be unable to launch with a complete roster of DAB+ stations even if it wanted to.

That feels wrong to me. This seems like it is something the commercial broadcasters, set manufacturers and the marketplace can sort out between themselves. The market will dictate the speed of DAB+ roll-out.

If a a service provider chooses to broadcast in DAB+ then it is up to them to make the gamble that they can achieve a big enough audience to sustain such a service. Indeed, if a broadcaster chooses to make a particularly attractive range of options behind a DAB+ “wall” then it might be able to drive DAB+ uptake on its own.

Realistically, no bidder is going to limit listeners unless they can make a commercial argument to do so. Intervention feels unnecessary.

Looking across the Atlantic is instructive. When Sirius (now Sirius XM) signed Howard Stern away from free-to-air radio to their then new subscription satellite radio service, they made the gamble that he was a big enough name to motivate his listeners into both investing in new hardware and paying a subscription to carry on listening to his show. Would enough people be prepared to upgrade to DAB+ to hear, ooh, let’s say Chris Moyles? I don’t know, but I think it should be for broadcasters to make that judgement, not the regulator.

Ofcom has said it will review the limit in 2018.

In any case, right now this is all moot. We’ll find out what the broadcasters have come up with later this week!

* At time of writing, the 4Digitial site is still there, buried away on the Channel 4 website – proudly proclaiming their winning bid!

[Updated to include reference to pop-up DAB services which I forgot to mention initially, and was in no way prompted to add after the BBC announced a pop-up Country radio service]

Disclaimer: These are my own views, and do not represent those of my current or former employers. I did work at Absolute Radio at the time it launched its digital sub-brands, and I helped with the Virgin Radio proposed service – Virgin Viva – as part of the 4 Radio bid back in 2007. SMG, then owners of Virgin Radio, never signed on the line, hence Viva wasn’t formally listed as part of the bid.

Things I’m Not Going to Embark on this January

This isn’t a blog about New Year’s resolutions. I’d be a few weeks’ late if it was.

But January is an interesting time for another reason – it’s when those curious partwork publications kick off their new runs.

You know the sort: often advertised heavily on TV, with cheap first issues (although much more steeply priced in subsequent weeks) and although there’s a magazine to collect, it’s more about the “thing” attached. They tend not to spend too much time telling you how many parts it’s going to take before your “thing” is complete, although the answer is often between 90 and 100 if they’ve even determined it at the start.

So here is a not-comprehensive list of things I won’t be embarking on:

The whole partwork business is something that fascinates me. WH Smith and other independent retailers give away lots of rack space to the launch editions of the publications that people will necessarily need to subscribe to. Readers are heavily incentivised to subscribe direct, meaning that there’s little reason for repeat weekly trips to Smiths to complete the collection. And yet seemingly half of the sector’s revenues come via those independent retailers. Perhaps it has to do with the demographic of those who subscribe?

The magazines are very profitable – companies like Deagostini, Eaglemoss and Hachette gently sipping from your bank account via Direct Debit as you slowly build a somewhat-more-expensive-than-you-realised U-Boat over two years (I mean – where do you even put it when you’re finished?).

And why are they all launched at the same time of year? Well I suppose some people make New Year’s resolutions to learn a new hobby. But post-Christmas advertising is usually a bit cheaper, and TV ads seem to work.

Once upon a time, it really was about the magazines, and the printed material. For a while, there were plenty of partworks that dripfed longer running TV series on DVD. But these days box sets and Netflix has put paid to them. So like kids’ comics, these days it’s all about the “things” that come attached – be they balls of wool or pieces of the Mallard.

There’s a healthy online community to discuss them. The major companies behind them develop them in some markets (including the UK) and then roll them out globally, seriously backing them with TV advertising (this piece goes into it a bit more).

When I was younger, I was caught up by it a couple of times. Once I subscribed to a Jazz partwork that once started I never really got around to stopping. I ended up with over 100 CDs (many of which I suspect were out of copyright), and binders full of magazines I never read. Then there was the Robot-Wars style remote controlled vehicle that kept coming long after I’d lost interest. I think it stopped eventually.

(And although I’m ever intrigued by 3D printers, I still can’t find a rational reason to buy one.)

The Day We Phoned Maggie

One of the big stories in the news today is that someone somehow got through to David Cameron on the phone, and pretended to be the head of GCHQ. Cameron says that he realised that it was a hoax fairly quickly and hung up.

I suspect that a lot of people are wondering: “Surely it can’t be that easy to get put through to the Prime Minister can it?”

Well let me take you back a few years. I couldn’t put a firm date on when we did this, but I’d hazard a guess that it was sometime around 1983 or 1984. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and it was a school holiday – perhaps half-term.

My friend Patrick and I were around 13 or 14, and we were a bit bored. We both had ZX Spectrums which ate up a lot of our time. And that also meant we had cassette players which you didn’t have to just use for loading and saving programs. Around at my friend’s house, they were far freer with letting us use the phone; my parents counted the minutes like hawks at home.

So we had a heady mix of time, a cassette player and microphone, and free access to the phone. Who could we call?

We decided to call Maggie herself.

I can’t say that we had anything specific to say to her. Yes, the Falklands were over, no the miners’ strike probably wasn’t. But aside from having previously lived next door to a Conservative councillor, I can’t say that I was especially politically aware at that age.

How would you start if you wanted to phone the PM? Well today it might involve a bit of searching on the internet. But in those days it made sense to call Directory Enquiries. Which is what we did.

There then followed a series of calls as different people either gave us different numbers or occasionally transferred us.

I think we started with a generic Houses of Parliament number that Directory Enquiries had furnished us with. Then we moved onto a Commons specific number. Then we got put through to an internal switchboard, until we got the news that Mrs Thatcher was not in Parliament that day. Had we tried Downing Street?

Another number was given out, and before long we had got through to her office.

I don’t recall at any point, anyone asking us what we wanted her for. Just helpful people giving us helpful information. In truth, we had no idea what we’d say if we got hold of her. Patrick was doing the talking, and his tone of voice was quite authoritative. He spoke “the Queen’s English.”

Finally we got through to someone who left us on hold as he went to find her! A few moments passed.

Alas, she wasn’t available. Sorry.

And that was it. So near, and yet, so far.

Now in truth, someone might have caught onto us in the end, and humoured us by putting us on hold before politely getting rid of us. But at the time, it felt very real, and at the time, we were pretty certain that some Private Secretary had gone to look (we watched Yes Minister). What was very apparent was that if you spoke with enough conviction, people didn’t ask questions.

I think that remains true.

We played quite a few prank calls at the time, usually recording them (Though I don’t believe a tapes of any of these, including the Maggie call exist now). We pretended to be DJs on air with Capital Radio, phoning a woman at random and saying that she was live on air and had won a competition. We tried to recruit a plumber we found in the Yellow Pages into MI5 – plumbers were useful for gaining entry to plant bugs of course! We phoned a zip company telling them we had an emergency: one of their zips had got “caught” in the flies of our jeans and we needed emergency help to free it up.

But it was the Maggie calls that were the most memorable.

Refurbishment

Refurbishment

This premises on Great Portland Street is using pop-culture magazines to black out its windows while it undergoes refurbishment.

I can’t decide if it’s cool or sacrilegious!

The naive person within me thinks that they found some magazines under some stairs somewhere and decided to use them to cover up the windows.

The realist in me knows that they bought these magazines on eBay specifically for this purpose.

I spotted Wham, Elvis, Paula Yates, Genesis, Bananarama and Cliff Richard. There are plenty more in the window.

Taken with a particularly average phone camera.

On a Canal in a Canoe – Secret Adventures

Secret Adventures Canoe at Night-18

It being the middle of January, and therefore getting quite cold, what better way of spending a Monday evening could there be than paddling a canoe around London?

This was an organised trip via “Secret Adventures“, an internet Meetup group. We set off from Moo Canoes’ base in Limehouse, heading up Limehouse Cut heading in the direction of Stratford, before passing 3 Mills Studios, continuing up the Lee Navigation, ignoring turn-offs that are still closed due to post-Olympic development until we reached the lock just adjacent to the back of the Olympic stadium near Fish Island, before continuing a little further up to Crate Brewery & Pizzeria.

It was good fun, and not too hard on the upper body! The well organised event did a good job pairing people up for the boats and ensuring we had the basics before hitting the water. I did manage to fairly soak my legs however – something to do with being 6’2″ and not being able to canoe with my legs flat. And although I kept the camera dry, I fear the Lee Navigation must now have a Lowe Pro camera case (thankfully otherwise empty) to add to its disturbingly large collection of junk.

The pictures I took tended to look better on the back of my camera than they did on a 23” monitor. Using ISO 6400 quite a lot, a certain amount of noise reduction has needed to be applied.

Anyway, as well as these photos, there are more over on Flickr.

Highly recommended!

Secret Adventures Canoe at Night-19

Secret Adventures Canoe at Night-5

Secret Adventures Canoe at Night-9

Secret Adventures Canoe at Night-13

Amazon’s App Notifications

As I buy a reasonable amount of stuff from Amazon, I use their mobile app a bit. It’s a relatively convenient way to manage my Amazon transactions.

It also usefully sends you updates, using Android’s notifications system, to let you know when your items have been shipped, or if they’re available for collection should you use Amazon Lockers.

In other words, if you see the tell-tale lowercase “a” on your device, it’s worth checking out.

Speaking of which, they’ve just sent me an alert. Let’s see what’s happening…

Screenshot_2015-01-08-16-01-53

Um thanks, but no thanks Amazon. I didn’t order that, and nor do I want it. And that’s apparently a “personalised” recommendation!

Note: In your app go to Notifications and switch Personalised Notifications off. Then you just get the more useful ones should you need them.