Written by Radio

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.