Written by Media

The Future of Radio

Today was an important day in radio, as Ofcom reported its statement on the future of commercial radio in the UK.
As most of the country is probably aware – certainly readers of this blog should be – we are just beginning a massive five year switchover from analogue to digital TV. By 2012 the analogue tuner in your TV won’t work, and if you live in the small town of Whitehaven, it’s already stopped working.
Instead, you’ll have to use either a satellite dish, cable decoder, or most likely, a Freeview box (more correctly a DTT box) to watch television. Indeed, with the BBC recently getting Trust approval for a full HD service, Ofcom has announced that by 2012 we should be able to get a Freeview HD signal too for at least three or four services.
For consumers there’s a gain to be had by going through this pain. You can get widescreen pictures, and many additional channels. The value of some of these channels may be a little questionable, but they’re undoubtedly additional. And I like BBC Four anyway.
So what should happen to radio?
Earlier this year, Ofcom consulted with the public and commercial radio, having set out a group of proposals. Some areas were more contentious than others. Most radio groups and other interested parties responded to the proposals over the summer, and today Ofcom came back with its findings.
If you listen to commercial radio on your analogue set, there’s a high probability that it’s a local service. There are some very fine national commercial services of course (ahem), but there are many more local services. A large number of these services belong to larger groups, such as GCap (who own Capital FM, BRMB, GWR and Red Dragon amongst many others) or EMAP (who own Radio City, Key 103, Clyde One and Kiss 100, again amongst many others). Each of these stations is operated locally, usually in studios in or around the centre of their transmission area, and the DJs broadcast to the local community. There are shared “networked” programmes of course – for example, the Hit 40 UK chart which goes out as a commercial alternative to BBC Radio One’s Sunday chart, or the recently launched Ryan Seacrest show on GCap stations.
Many of these radio groups have argued that they should be allowed to “network” more of their programmes, which would reduce costs of course, but perhaps lead to more “professional” sounding broadcasts with bigger names. Ofcom has decided that stations shouldn’t be able to network as much programming as station groups might want, since they are primarily licenced as “local” services, and that they should have to broadcast at least ten hours of locally produced programming each weekday, which should specifically include breakfast, with the other hours being in daytime. This could open the door for a networked drivetime show – undoubtedly featuring a big name presenter.
The rules are more relaxed at weekends with just four hours per day needing to be broadcast, although there’s probably less room for big new networked shows, since many stations still have local football coverage on Saturdays (if not actually commentary) and the aforementioned chart show is already networked on a Sunday.
Your local station may not necessarily rush to run networked shows because research from Ofcom seems to show that people do appreciate the local nature of their radio services, particularly with regard to news, phone-ins and local sports. But expect to see some changes in the future, possibly including some big names.
Other changes announced today by Ofcom include a relaxation of formats for stations. If you’re a fan of Frasier, you may remember that in one episode at the end of the fifth season, Frasier’s Seattle station management suddenly decided that the speech format should be changed to an all-Latino format putting the entire staff out of a job (this was obviously changed back at the start of season six). In the US, stations can and do make changes like this. But in the UK, stations have a “Character of Service” which determines what kind of music or speech they’re allowed to broadcast. Virgin Radio couldn’t suddenly become a Jazz station – at least not without getting Ofcom’s permission. Beyond that broad character of service, stations also have to adhere to some very specific requirements – perhaps broadcasting at least 20% speech in breakfast, or playing at least 30% of music from the seventies. That kind of detail will be removed, although Ofcom warn that stations that stray beyond their official station’s character of service will be punished. Don’t expect too much R’n’B on Magic anytime soon.
Another issue addressed involved ownership rules, which are still quite complicated with radio, whereas nearly every other media either has very simple rules or no rules at all beyond what the Competition Commission legislates. And looking forward, Ofcom is concerned that if stations’ licence renewals are placed at 12 years, there will never be a chance to reuse the FM or AM bandwidths in new – perhaps digital ways. Since stations were licenced in a piecemeal manner, so they expire similarly. But we don’t want to have to wait for the last FM licence to expire before we re-use FM in some new digital manner in the future. So limits on how long station renewals can be made for have been put in place.
But perhaps the big story is digital.
When Ofcom first published its thoughts earlier in the year, it acknowledged that it was too early to set a definitive roadmap to a radio digital switchover. DAB is not nearly as far down the road as Freeview is, and there are some significant issues that the radio industry has yet to overcome. For example, while so-called “kitchen” DAB radios are very common (those trendy wood-effect sets that tend to look nice in, well, your kitchen), other areas were not as well served. In particular, in-car DAB sets are few and far between.
Of course the future might not necessarily be simply DAB. There’s a strong likelihood that the internet is going to become ever more important in the transmission of what we currently think of as radio services. We’re seeing mobile data plans finally fall to a fair and equitable price point (even if streaming seems to be verboten on some plans), with Ofcom planning on auctioning the spectrum where analogue television currently sits, there is plenty of possibility that even higher bandwidth services may be available in the future.
But Ofcom has also realised that there isn’t yet a full replacement for AM and FM in the digital realm. If you happen to live in the Highlands of Scotland or Snowdonia in Wales, you’re quite possibly not getting much in the way of FM services anyway – let alone DAB ones. AM, which propagates well over long distances, is very important in these areas. Sadly, DAB doesn’t work well over such distances, and instead would require many hundreds of masts to meet the same transmission area, something that’s simply not economically viable.
There are other technologies out there, such as DRM, but so far it has yet to be used by any major market in the world for regular broadcast, so is too early to look at seriously.
Small stations can’t easily get onto DAB platforms even if they want to, which makes a nonsense of shutting down FM or AM until they’re given a possible future, but some companies have spent a lot of money on these new technologies and know that consumers will never fully adopt them until they’re placed onto a path (like they have been with television) with a Government led timetable. And all stations face much higher transmission costs, having to pay to broadcast, perhaps, on FM/AM, DAB, the internet, Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media. In the long term, that kind of platform spread is almost certainly economically unsustainable.
Digital is a big tangle, and Ofcom has sidestepped this issue to a certain extent by getting the DCMS to form the Digital Radio Working Group. Who will sit on this body is as yet unclear, but they’ve undoubtedly got a very fine line to walk along. There are many interested parties, and not all their aims are clear. The working party will meet over the course of 2008 and will report at the end of the year.
It’s not even as though we can look to another country and say “We’ll just do what the Germans/Americans/Japanese are doing” because none of them are there either.
Overall, I was relatively pleased with Ofcom’s findings today. I think that they did a fair job for both radio groups and consumers. There is no easy “going digital” answer for radio, and it certainly isn’t something to be rushed into when we’re still learning.
In the end, as is the way of these things, the technology will probably beat everyone to the punch, and no matter what is legislated, we’ll all be listening to our radio services in a manner that suits us based on what becomes available technologically and what’s practical.
Radio remains, however, a very important part of our lives.
[UPDATE] Being a 21st century regulator, Ofcom has put the video from yesterday afternoon’s presentation on YouTube for you to watch!