Ofcom

Diversity in UK Media – Ofcom’s Report Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Last week Ofcom published the first in what it says will be a regular series of reports into diversity and equal opportunities in television. It focuses on the biggest UK television broadcasters: BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Sky and Viacom (owner of Channel 5 amongst others).

Diversity remains a key concern in the media industry, from representation throughout media organisations, to issues surrounding pay discrimination based on sex.

But I really do have a bone to pick with this, and nearly every report on diversity in UK broadcasting. They don’t go far enough.

Sharon White, Ofcom’s CEO says in her introduction to the report: “Too many people from minority groups struggle to get into television. That creates a cultural disconnection between the people who make programmes, and the many millions who watch them.”

This is undoubtedly true, despite schemes that are set up across the industry.

The report breaks employees into the following categories:

  • Gender
  • Racial group (BAME)
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion and belief

The report dutifully compares each of the measured broadcasters against both the population at large, UK based industry, and the average amongst the peers. From this we see, for example, that Channel 4 does well amongst BAME staff, while Viacom does well with women in leadership roles.

But there’s a glaring hole in this analysis, and it’s one that pervades UK media.

Social class.

It’s just not measured. And without that we’re missing something fundamental from our broadcasters.

I’m not saying the other factors aren’t important – they are. And sometimes those other measures can be indicative of social class. But while media has a widely acknowledged considerable issue with new entrants coming into the sector, unless they’re supported by family members (bank of mum and dad), and can support themselves in London while they do unpaid “work experience”, then for all those other measures, we’re going to only get people who come from wealthier backgrounds.

Everybody knows this. It was mentioned in a good episode of The Media Show from the RTS Cambridge TV Festival this week.

So I’m not at all sure why it’s not included in Ofcom’s report. It’s critical that this is measured to truly show diversity in the media.

[UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up to this piece, detailing some ways this data could actually be collated.]

Ofcom on Audience Attitudes to Broadcast Media

Ofcom, the UK broadcast regulator, carries out an awful lot of research, most of which it publishes on its website. But people are lazy, and they mostly just look at executive summaries and press releases.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. There are often copious appendices with much more detail, and beyond that there are tables – tables and tables of data (1429 pages in this instance). Because Ofcom carries out a number of regular “tracker” surveys. And although the data tends to get used in a variety of reports, there’s some that just sits there, online, awaiting someone to take a look.

Ofcom has just published a report on Audience Attitudes to UK Broadcast Media. This is largely distilled from its most recent “Media Tracker”, and you can find the report, an appendix and the data tables here.

Ofcom’s news release concentrates on what kind of hardware people now use for their media, and what people are taking offence at on television. But I’ll sidestep those a little and consider a few different findings.

I think the findings on Product Placement are particularly interesting. Only 36% of adults are aware of Product Placement according the research, with the perhaps more media-savvy 35-44s being most aware. Now I should say that the question is a little confusing asking about trailers and promotions as well – which is possibly a different sort of thing in a viewer’s mind. But nonetheless, that’s a low number.

Product Placement Awareness

Perhaps more concerning is the awareness of the “P” logo that it used to tell audiences that a programme contains product placement. Only 14% of respondents could correctly identify it. A further 19% said they recognised it, but couldn’t correctly identify what it means, while the remaining 67% couldn’t recall seeing it at all.

Awareness of PP Logo

That’s pretty damning.

Now it might be arguable that Product Placement hasn’t taken off in the UK to the extent it was expected to when the rules were relaxed to allow it. We don’t tend to see characters in dramas extolling the virtues of a particular vehicle (“Heroes” anyone?), and a lot of the more regular Product Placement has taken place has taken place in daytime TV. But ITV has used it regularly in series like The X-Factor and Coronation Street, and Channel 4 has used it in Hollyoaks and Sunday Brunch amongst others. So we’re talking about some of the biggest shows on those respective channels.

Ofcom takes the view these days that commercial activity is fine as long as the audience knows it’s being advertised to. And I think in some programmes it’s pretty clear, or even unsubtle. But at other times it’s built into the fabric of a programme to a greater extent – literally part of the scenery. And if audiences are not understanding the cues, then work needs to be done.

Back in 2011, there was a consumer advertising campaign to explain the concept, but that was a long time ago, and it’s message has not stuck. Perhaps a refresh is in order?

Elsewhere, Ofcom’s research suggests that 20% of households have a smart TV, with 70% having hooked their sets up to broadband. That does feel very low in overall terms. However viewers aren’t limited to using their TV for catch-up programming, and 51% of households have some kind of access to it on their TV screen, rising to 64% among 35-44s (but only 22% of 65+ households).

Connected Devices

(Note that people can obviously connect more than one device to a TV, so the sum of the parts add up to more than 51% here).

I think the biggest takeout from this question is the amount of use people get from games consoles to receive smart TV. As someone who hasn’t switched on his dusty Xbox 360 in perhaps two years, you can sometimes forget the importance of these.

It also seems that’s a lot of work to be done for homes that aren’t yet connecting up their TVs with on demand television. It’s no wonder that a lot of Sky’s growth is coming from Now TV, and that Chromecast should still be important for Google. And with Apple now reported to have ditched plans for a TV, they’re now said to be concentrating again on an updated Apple TV device.

What about radio? While Ofcom leads points out the varying degrees of offence taken at bad language, violence and sex on television, radio is practically completely inoffensive.

offence

I must admit – I’m not completely certain that this is a good thing. I’m not asking for lots of shock jocks, or the replacement of song’s “radio edits” with their unexpurgated versions at breakfast, I do sometimes think that boundaries need to be pushed a little. Radio can sometimes be too safe. Audiences should be challenged.

The other interesting slide is on the amount of advertising carried by radio.

advertising

Now to be fair, I find it staggering that 15% of respondents wouldn’t mind a bit more advertising. Although this question is asked of commercial radio listeners, I wonder if they don’t skew a bit more BBC. Anyway, a rather chunkier 29% of listeners think there’s already too much advertising. And I think that becomes a bigger problem as subscription audio services begin to build. We’ve seen Apple poaching not just Zane Lowe, but other radio producers, suggesting they at least are going to build a product that’s closer to traditional radio. If your station’s clock is so crammed full of advertising, promotions, promotional trails and jingles, that you barely have time left for your presenter to say something, then you might want to have another look at what you’re doing.

Finally a couple of slides highlighting newspapers. And not in a good way. The most intrusive medium? Not very surprising.

intrusive

And then there’s accuracy in the news. Before the election, I argued that newspapers’ influence was greatly over-exaggerated. And even post an election with a result that nobody was expecting, and with commentators broadly agreeing that the newspapers (who were largely pro-Conservative) must have had an effect, I still disagree. I think there were larger issues at play.

Take a look at this slide on who people think present news the most accurately.

most accurate news

Only 6% of people say that newspapers are the most accurate source of news. So that’s the media that determines a voter’s mind?

And broadcasters are seen as much more impartial than newspapers.

impartiality

So newspapers are neither accurate nor impartial. Even allowing for the fact that they’re much more opinionated, that really doesn’t suggest to me that voters switched because of what a newspaper told them to do.

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!

On DAB and Five Live

It was a really interesting day for radio today with several important announcements.

Of most interest to me was the formal announcement of the advertisement for a second national DAB multiplex. You may remember that back in 2007, this multiplex was previously advertised with Channel 4 winning it ahead of NGW the transmission supplier (since bought by Arqiva). Channel Four promised a lot, but after winning the bid, the whole thing fell apart when Channel 4 decided it needed to shore up its television offering without heading out into the great unknown of radio. The timing probably wasn’t great, just ahead of the 2008 downturn. And indeed, shortly thereafter, the existing national DAB operator, Digital One, was struggling to fill its capacity.

Ofcom went away a bit battered and bruised from the experience, and it’s clear that they weren’t going to return to the field of play until they could be certain that a new licensee would launch successfully with a range of services.

Flash forward to today and Ofcom is again announcing a second national multiplex. Given where we are today, and the fact that Digital One is full, I don’t anticipate any problems finding bidders and filling this multiplex with services.

As is required by law, the winner will be awarded the multiplex via a “beauty contest.” That is, what in Ofcom’s view is the best mix of services appealing to a wide range of audiences, as well as having a sound business plan and a plan to roll out the service to a good proportion of the population.

Interestingly, while the multiplex as a whole needs to be complementary – i.e. services all need to be a bit different – you can directly target services carried on Digital One.

One other thing I noticed is that in Annex I of the announcement, Ofcom lists the currently licenced services on Digital One. These include:
“TBA: A service featuring music from the 70s, 80s and early 90s with particular appeal to audiences aged 35-54.”

The mooted Heart Club Classics/Heart Extra that has yet to launch from Global? Or the also mooted move of Magic to a national DAB platform? [See comments below]

Allied with this announcement is a revised set of technical requirements for DAB. They’re mostly important but minor things that I won’t comment on further here. But of particular note is the fact that D2 can use up to 30% of the new multiplex’s capacity for DAB+ broadcasts. What’s really strange is that they’ve limited it at all. It seems that pretty much everyone who responded to Ofcom’s initial consultation on this matter thought that there really shouldn’t be a limit to this and the market will dictate it.

This is certainly true. Trials aside, a broadcaster is very unlikely to broadcast in DAB+ until they are certain that there are a decent number of potential listeners in the marketplace with compatible sets. If nobody can hear you, then you can’t make your commercial station work. Broadcasters can make that decision for themselves.

Ofcom is going to look again at the limit in 2018. Which is fine, but feels like it’s making work where none is really necessary and overall is a little nannyish.

And DAB+ is only going to be initially allowed on D2. For everyone else, you have to apply to Ofcom on a case by case basis if you want to either launch a new service in DAB+ on your existing multiplex, or switch your current one to the new technology. Again it feels over-regulated. If allowed to do as they liked, broadcasters would very carefully weigh up the pros and cons of switching technologies, well aware of the fact that they would almost certainly lose audience at this stage. Ofcom somehow thinks that broadcasters might deprive listeners of current DAB services by replacing them with DAB+ ahead of consumer uptake. Again, that’s wrong thinking.

That all said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a test here or there on a multiplex that otherwise has plenty of space.

Let’s not get too side-tracked about the relative merits of DAB and DAB+. I always feel that it should be likened to Freeview and Freeview HD. If you’re still watching digital television using a first generation OnDigital box, then your viewing is pretty limited now [Update: Thanks to James Hamilton for letting me know that those old OnDigital boxes were completely broken by DSO if they hadn’t been already]. Today, however, pretty much every television comes with Freeview HD built in, and many can also receive Freeview Connect and similar streaming services. As for the range of channels? Well nobody is going to get too excited by Channel 4+1 HD or 4seven HD which were recently announced as coming soon to Freeview. But that’s a commercial decision for channel operators and multiplex owner Arqiva.

Anyway, if you want to bid for the second national DAB multiplex, you have until the end of October to get your application in with your £50,000 application fee.

The other big news was the announcement of major changes across BBC Radio Five Live’s weekday daytime output. This sees the departure of big hitters like Victoria Derbyshire, Shelagh Fogarty and Richard Bacon.

The station is shrinking three shows down to two – which I imagine is part of their DQF savings – with the multiple-award winning Derbyshire being replaced by Adrian Chiles for part of the week and Peter Allen for the other part of the week. Once ITV’s contract with the Champions’ League has ended, Chiles is going to have more time to do things like radio, although there’s still a season of that to run, so Chiles may be heading to Manchester airport sharpish on Tuesdays if he’s still in the chair for away games next season.

The morning show extends to three hours, and then an extended afternoon show begins with Dan Walker and Sarah Brett replacing Richard Bacon. I’ve always liked Richard Bacon, as he knows his stuff – but he’s perhaps not the world’s greatest sports fan which can be a problem on Five Live. And sometimes he feels a little uncomfortable during breaking news when he has to segue seamlessly from what’s on TV this week to some court case verdict. There were rumours that he was up for ITV’s breakfast relaunch. One way or another, he’s going to pop up somewhere else fairly soon, I’ve no doubt. On Twitter this afternoon, Bacon said that it was his choice to leave Five Live.

I’d also imagine that Victoria Derbyshire and Shelagh Fogarty will show up either on Radio 4 or TV fairly soon, with an unnamed TV news project for Derbyshire first up.

Perhaps, because this would seem to remove some high profile women from the schedule, as well as Sarah Brett co-presenting afternoons with Dan Walker, Eleanor Oldroyd gets a Friday lunchtime show ahead of the still-two-hours Mayo and Kermode Film Review.

The lack of solo female shows is also going to be highlighted, with two staples disappearing, especially following previous announcements that suggested the BBC wanted a much more even male/female presenting split. I’d also argue that lack of racial diversity might also be an issue.

Tony Livesey is perhaps the big winner. He’s progressed from late nights, to weekend breakfast, and now taking over Drive with Anna Foster. While I can never quite forget that he was once the editor of the Sunday Sport and famously appeared in a Channel Four Cutting Edge documentary about the paper. But he’s very good, and will slide pretty comfortably into the role.

There are a range of other changes including a new pair of Fighting Talk presenters for next season, as well as some other presentational changes. Five Live certainly doesn’t do things by halves.

As a fairly regular listener – it’s my default station – I’ll be paying close attention!

Disclaimer: As always, these are my views, and they do not reflect those of any past or current employer. They are mine alone. Just so we’re clear! Also, I listen to a lot of Five Live.

A Digital Radio Future

This morning, I was in the BBC Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House along with several hundred colleagues who work for broadcasters, regulators, hardware manufacturers, car manufacturers and assorted others to hear Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, stand up and talk about the future of digital radio in this country. The event was DRUK’s Go Digital conference – their third annual get together.

It’s a subject spoken about with a lot of passion by a lot of people. And it’s undoubtedly true that there are some profound disagreements from different operators across the spectrum.

In general, I think I came out quite enthused by what the minister and many of the other speakers said:

– near commercial FM equivalency by 2016 for local DAB digital radio, bringing many local services to more people, and improving the in-car listening experience, and funded by the DCMS, BBC and commercial radio.
– a second national commercial digital multiplex, potentially allowing ten or so new national services to launch.
– improved D1 coverage to Classic FM equivalency by 2016, so more people can hear services like Absolute Radio on DAB.
– consultations on relaxed music formats.
– consultations on community radio funding opportunities.
– further investigation into hyper-local DAB potential following the Ofcom test in Brighton.
– the launch of a digital tick for consumers to be satisfied that what they buy today will still receive all their services tomorrow.
– the Department of Transport using the DVLA to alert motorists to digital radio in car (I assume while there’s still actual paperwork coming from the DVLA!)
– a new 4th generation Frontier Silicon chipset that includes every global digital and analogue radio form factor in a single chip that now costs 10% what the 1st generation did, using the same power as today’s FM, and crucially, that will work in mobile phones.
– the prospect of £10 DAB radios.
– new services coming to DAB in 2014 including Kisstory.
– the entire Halfords radio range being digital by 2015.
– Kwik Fit entering the digital radio fitting marketplace in 2014 – get a DAB radio while you have your MOT done.
– a demonstration of RadioPlayer working on a mobile phone hooked into Ford’s Sync Applink.

All really quite positive announcements.

Is it all plain sailing from here? No. Of course not. But then it hasn’t been plain sailing getting to this point as Matt pointed out in an excellent post yesterday.

There are plenty of hurdles to overcome. Some radio stations still don’t have an obvious route to a digital broadcast platform. There are 30m or so cars in the UK that need an affordable digital solution. And there are still lots of people who have yet to be sold on the real benefits digital radio brings.

But this movement is all in the right direction, and I think most people in the industry appreciate those challenges.

Because the reality is that if the industry doesn’t evolve, then consumers will evolve without us.

Off the top of my head, here are just a few of challenges, the radio industry faces in the coming months and years regardless of what we do:

– Getting anyone under 25 to actually listen to the radio at all (And those under 25s very quickly become under 35s and so on).
– Avoid having radio appear on a sub-menu in car. That real estate between the driver and passenger in the front of a car is being fought over an awful lot, and there are plenty of non-broadcast radio “solutions” being offered to manufacturers who’s primary focus is still engineering metal boxes to move us around.
– Bringing our radio services to devices that people want to buy. A common anti-digital issue that gets raised is the stagnation of DAB set sales (against an economic collapse no less). But the problem is less that they don’t want DAB, as much as ignoring radio in general. Is radio a “sexy” device? I suspect that most teens or twenty-somethings are less after a DAB radio than a Bluetooth connected speaker of some sort. And yes, I know you can get DAB radios with Bluetooth connectivity. Oh and let’s not get into all those supposed analogue radio sales – they’re in the most part analogue radios built into devices that do other things. Many smart- and non-smartphones for starters. The one key exception here is the sub-£10 clock radio, which needs a cheap digital solution.
– Bringing to market in-car solutions that don’t represent a sizeable percentage of the car’s overall value (a £200 radio isn’t much use in a £500 car).
– Competing with new services, and not either pretending they don’t exist, or that our listeners aren’t using them. Can your radio station offer things that Spotify or iTunes Radio can’t? Certainly. Are you sure you’re doing it? If all you’re doing is playing the same tracks back to back with minimal presenter interaction, and somehow wanting to get 15 minutes of ads out an hour, then you’re probably on borrowed time. Did Radio 1, Kiss or Capital have the exclusive on the new Beyoncé album at the weekend? No. It was iTunes. This is what we’re up against. And pretending these interlopers haven’t parked their tanks on our lawns is a certain way to bring about the beginning of the end. But we also need to sell our services to listeners. Explain to them why we offer what they can’t get from a streaming service. And then we have to deliver on that promise. We need to up our games. Bad radio won’t cut it anymore.

Overall, this will be a consumer-led revolution. But you know what? It’s already happening. It’s not a question of radio going digital, it’s a question of whether or not we as an industry are providing the right services to consumers in the places that they’re already going.

They already are going digital. All of them. Like your local newspaper wasn’t, your station is not going to be a special case.

Here’s a Media Guardian report from this morning, and here’s a DCMS press release and the full speech from Ed Vaizey. And here’s a link to a video explaining how Ford Sync works with Radioplayer.