(First off, it’s worth me reiterating that these are my personal views and don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer)
The following is a revision of a comment I made to a blog posting by The Guardian’s Matt Wells last week. I think it largely addresses the issues of where radio – and commercial radio in particular – needs to move to today:
There’s been a lot of talk about how technology has really been the main failing of DAB, with commentators continually addressing issues like the emergence of a successor to DAB, DAB+, and low broadcast bitrates of DAB stations as being reasons behind the lack of explosive success of DAB digital radio in the UK.
I think the technology arguments are a little specious. Sure, if you were launching digital radio in the UK today, you might well choose DAB+. But the only real difference with that is that you can squeeze more stations into the same space – and one thing we currently don’t have is a shortage of space. With technology we’re going to be constantly playing a catch-up game. If we backed DAB+ today, “DAB++” would be announced tomorrow and we’d be back to square one.
DAB essentially works on MPEG2 which is the same system that Freeview uses – the phenomenally successful Freeview that is – now in more homes than any other digital platform. What’s under the bonnet doesn’t really matter. In this instance, it’s programme or station choice, audio clarity and usability that count.
Sound quality is a well trodden argument. Radio 3 has a high bitrate and needs it. Pop stations tend to be lower – yet even the original recordings these days, are compressed enormously (ironically, so that they sound “loud” on mp3 players and FM radio), so there’s not a lot to be gained or lost, for many pop stations. I agree that mono is not the best option for music stations, but much listening is done in non optimal conditions on kitchen radios.
Now I wouldn’t for one second say that DAB could replace FM or AM today, tomorrow, or perhaps even ever. But what it does, it does pretty well. It has the ability to give us more choice in a format that for most people is an improvement in quality. Like all digital technologies, you either get a good signal, or you don’t get one at all.
If you want to listen in home or at work, then as long as you can get a signal, it’s a perfectly viable replacement. If you want to listen in car, it is a problem – largely because you almost certainly don’t have an in-car radio. There are rumours that Ford will start fitting DAB radios as standard is some models soon, but we’re heard these stories for a long time. I suspect that the profit on every new car sold is very tight, and if a car manufacturer can get away with fitting an FM radio, they will.
Out and about? Well portables are pretty good and improving all the time. They don’t work well in shops where my AM radio still lets me listen to the football when I’m out shopping on a Saturday afternoon, and battery life is poor. But overall, I can listen fine on my daily commute into work, again, as long as you have a decent signal along your journey.
There’s now an EPG on DAB, and the recent Roberts MP-Sound 41 allows you to programme your radio to record shows in advance straight to an SD card. In other words, exactly what you can do with your Sky+ – except that Sky doesn’t offer a full radio EPG because their early digiboxes have run out of memory so they don’t bother (this is also the reason why the list is now closed to new Sky launches).
The internet is not going to be a replacement for a while to come. You can’t stream radio in your car, and you’re not likely to be able to for some time. But it’s worth noting that not as much listening takes place in car as you might think. According to the most recent RAJAR figures, only 21% of radio listening is in car; most of it, 63%, is at home – the remainder is largely at work.
When you are able to receive a viable internet connection in your car, via WiMax, 3G or whatever, it’ll almost certainly cost you. And the infrastructure of internet broadcasting is not yet in a position that radio broadcasters would be able to serve the current broadcast audience via the internet. The bandwidth isn’t there. Putting a tall tower up and broadcasting the signal to anyone who cares to tune in, is still the most efficient way to get radio to the listener.
One of the more interesting numbers propogated by GCap is their claim that they have 15 million FM listeners and 1.7 million online. 15 million represents GCap’s weekly reach across the group on RAJAR – and it includes digital listening (including online). But their online audience, at least according to RAJAR, is not 1.7 million. It’s significantly less than that – at least for one week’s reach (RAJAR agreements mean that I can’t publish another station’s platform listening figures here). Now different measurement systems produce different results, and the online world has many different systems including a site’s own analytics software, but I’d be very interested to learn where this figure was derived from. 15 million represents one week’s listening to the network. Does 1.7 million also represent one week’s listening?
Podcasting certainly has a place in the landscape, but they don’t have the immediacy of radio, and can’t offer the choice of entertainment that broadcast radio can offer. If I want to listen to music, I listen to the radio. When I heard about the Camden fire a week ago, I turned on LBC to find out what was going on. The same goes for football, coverage of the BAFTAs, or even, god help us, the Brits.
So you’re left with what? A choice between the status quo, and the stations we have currently, or a digital platform that has space for new entrants. Indeed, for reasons I don’t understand, GCap’s new Chief Executive, and previously my ultimate boss, is arguing for switching off AM radio too. Obviously she hasn’t spent enough time in Snowdonia or the Highlands, where AM is the only radio option at all in many places.
DAB has to overcome some hurdles – principly the cost of transmission needs to come down, so that an econimically viable model can be found for some of the niche stations like Planet Rock and theJazz. But it’s not as though the wrong horse has been backed. There isn’t another horse anywhere else in the world that’s looking a likelier bet.
So is GCap pulling out of DAB a threat or an opportunity? It’s both. Channel 4 can’t launch soon enough for the good of the platform, although the latest we hear is that it won’t be up and running until the autumn. But if under the new Arqiva ownership, Digital One can arrive at a charging model that allows for some sustainable business models for smaller stations, then there is surely an opportunity for some new radio services programmed by people who care about the product?
In the meantime, the Digital Radio Working Group has begun to meet to try to determine what should happen next. But will the market end up making that decision for them?