Everything happens at once. Yesterday, saw the publication of Q4 2008’s RAJAR results, and the eagerly awaited Digital Britain report.
They’re not really related, but I should probably say something about both. From close to home, my employer, Absolute Radio, published its first results, and they clearly don’t make for comfortable reading. The numbers show significant falls in most measures, but it’s to be expected. As James Cridland notes, RAJAR diaries require recall of station brands, and that’s not something that’s easy to do when a service has been on air for such a short period of time. In spite of marketing, it takes time for a new brand to seep into public consciousness.
There’s a lot of rebranding happening out there at the moment. Global has rebranded most of its FM services in the East of England from the start of this year. Broadland, Chiltern, SGR et al are now called Heart. And at the end of March, the next tranch of services will get the rebranding treatment – this time in the West of England, from 2-Ten and Fox FM to GWR and Plymouth Sound. Again they’ll form part of the Heart network. It’ll be worth watching RAJAR results for these services too in coming quarters to see how figures change. I know what I think will happen.
But there were some very positive signs to be found in RAJAR. Despite continued negative press surrounding DAB, the news is encouraging. Ownership of DAB digital radios has increased to 29.7%. So getting on for one in three homes has at least one DAB radio in it. That’s a great start, but I don’t think anyone believes that it’s anything more than a start. That’s in line with the 32.2% of the population who’ve listened to at least some radio via a digital platform (DAB/DTV/Internet), accounting for 18.3% of all radio listening.
The disparity between those figures is explained by the vast number of radios that still need replacing.
I should at this point also point out that Absolute Radio is doing enormously well in the digital sphere, which explains why my employer remains a very keen supporter of digital, and DAB in particular. Let’s face it – you don’t want to listen to a music radio service on AM do you? Our national service now has 45% of its listening via a digital platform compared with that All Radio average of 18.3%.
And that digital listening is predominantly DAB. Of that 18.3%, 11.4% is DAB, with 3.2% DTV, and 2.0% via the internet (the other 1.7% of hours aren’t stated). In other words, roughly two thirds of all digital radio listening is via DAB.
The same is true for Absolute Radio. For our national service, that 45.0% is made up of 32.0% DAB (71% of all digital listening), 6.8% via DTV and 5.8% via the internet. Even if you look at our overall service which includes London and so has lower overall figures since the service is also available via FM, digital listening overall still accounts for a very impressive 28.8% of all listening. That’s made up of 20.6% DAB (72% of digital listening), 4.4% via DTV and 3.8% over the the internet.
If that jumble of numbers has left you a little confused, it just shows that DAB is by far the most popular digital format to listen to the radio. And for Absolute Radio in particular, it’s a vital service accounting for a very significant proportion of all listening to the service.
And the DRDB has just released data indicating that by the end of 2008, the total number of DAB sets sold had reached 8.53m.
I’ve highlighted DAB to this extent because yesterday saw the launch of the draft Digital Britain report. I somehow expect that you know this already, because there’s been lots of coverage of it all over the place. Stephen Carter used to head up Ofcom, but he was enobled and now he’s been tasked with the job of building a blueprint for ensuring that we have a fully digital economy. With our manufacturing industry growing more defunct by the day, digital is an opportunity too good to miss. Indeed the report makes clear that if we don’t do something, countries like the US and France will overtake us.
Obviously the major story is about the provision of broadband internet access to “every home by 2012” with a speed of at least 2 Mbps. Seemingly, this will be paid for by the £130m a year “digital switchover surplus.”
Anyway, more of this anon, but let’s get back to radio, and see what the Digital Britain report has to say about a medium very close to home for me at least.
Last year’s DRWG report was fed directly into Digital Britain, so unsurprisingly this new report speaks of DAB as having become “the platform of choice for digital radio listening.”
In truth, I’m not sure that the Digital Britain report really goes a great deal beyond what the DRWG report before it suggested. But those plans are now to be implemented.
Specifically, the actions the report outlines for radio are as follows:
We will take action to support DAB digital radio in seven areas:
a. We are making a clear statement of Government and policy commitment to enabling DAB to be a primary distribution network for radio;
b. We will create a plan for digital migration of radio, which the Government intends to put in place once the following criteria have been met:
– When 50% of radio listening is digital;
– When national DAB coverage is comparable to FM coverage, and local DAB reaches 90% of population and all major roads.
c. We will create a Digital Radio Delivery Group which includes the retailers, the Transmission Networks, the BBC, the Commercial Radio Companies, the Car Manufacturers, consumer representatives and the device manufacturers whose role would be to increase the attractiveness, availability and affordability of DAB and to advise on the Digital Migration Plan.
d. We will work with the BBC to explore how they could extend their digital radio coverage to replicate at least current FM analogue coverage.
e. As recommended by the Digital Radio Working Group, we will conduct a cost-benefit analysis of digital migration.
f. We will consult on new legislation to allow a one-off five-year extension of existing community radio licences, to bring them in line with other radio licences and recognise the important role they have in delivering social gain. We also intend to re-consider the rationale for the current restriction of 50% of funding from any one source.
g. We will commission an independent expert examination of the economic viability, continuing social contribution of, and most effective delivery methods for, local radio services and existing localness legislation.
a and b above are directly from the DRWG report. The creation of a Digital Radio Delivery Group is to be welcomed, although we’ve had a number of groups over the last few years. We do need the will of all concerned to drive this forward.
Extending DAB coverage to meet current FM coverage is essential – especially for BBC licence payers. But as the population gets more spread out, the harder and more expensive this becomes. Nick Piggott has a great explanation of how DAB was launched in the UK and why this has been made harder, and therefore more expensive than was perhaps necessary.
One key area that still needs addressing is how some of this will be achieved. As mentioned before, the only cash “swilling” around is the BBC’s switchover surplus, but broadband is getting this.
The report rejects a proposal to allow an automatic further extension of analogue and multiplex licences, but will keep this under review if the industry is able to come up with a compelling and agreed “drive to digital” plan. In other words: it’s up to the radio industry to show Ofcom what it can offer for this incentive.
But Ofcom is carrying out a cost-benefit analysis of digital migration, and it’s some of those costs that still need addressing.
The full Digital Britain report is now in due in May, and there are likely to be changes before then: not just in radio, but in some of the other industries it covers. I’ll try to put together a wider summary of my thoughts coming out from this report later.