Earlier in the week I put a bit of context into the background surrounding the advertising of a second national commercial multiplex. I plan to go through in a bit of detail what each of the bidders is proposing. As ever, these are my own views and don’t represent those of any employer, past or present.
Ofcom has published details of both bidders on its website.
Listen2Digital is an application coming from a consortium including Orion Media (owners of the Free Radio stations broadcasting in the Midlands), Babcock International (the engineering group, who amongst other things built many of the new TV transmitters that were required for digital switchover), Folder Media (owners of a numnber of local DAB muxes and Fun Kids) and Sabras Radio (owners of the Asian service, Sabras Radio).
Listen2Digital is promising no fewer than 18 new national digital radio services, including several broadcast in DAB+.
The stations promised, and taken directly from their release, are as follows:
- A food channel
- A national children’s station, Fun Kids, where children can learn and be entertained
- Wireless, a station aimed at older listeners, from Age UK
- A national station for financial and money news, Share Radio
- RTE1, a simulcast of the principal channel of Irish public-service broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann*
- Gem, a national version of Orion’s adult contemporary music station, featuring ‘Sam & Amy’
- Nation, a soft rock station
- Top 40, a contemporary hits station
- A modern rock, indie/alternative station for a trend-setting audience
- A specialist jazz, blues and soul station
- A new sports talk station
- A country music service, embracing the new energy surrounding the genre in the UK*
- Gaydio, targeting the LGBT community*
- Two Asian stations: Sabras Sound and Panjab Radio
- Two Christian stations from Premier Christian Radio
- Upload radio, an innovative channel for independent radio producers*
* Broadcasting in DAB+
Many of these services already exist, either locally, in other territories, or online, but in large part will be new to national listeners. These include Fun Kids, Wireless, Share Radio, RTE1, Gem, Nation, Chris Country, Gaydio, Sabras and Panjab.
The newer services are a bit different. Some are completely new formats such as their proposed food channel, while others aren’t specified and may or may not be new brands. It’s worth noting that the same stations could well show up in more than one bid – whether confidential or otherwise. If you definitely want to get your station national, it makes sense to back both horses!
Upload Radio is an interesting concept that Folder Media has been working on for a while, allowing anyone to essentially pay to get on-air. While local access TV channels are something that Americans have come to know from their cable providers (that’s what Wayne’s World was set in), we’ve not really had that kind of output. You could try to get a show on a local station, or help out at a community station or hospital radio. But you could potentially get significant exposure with Upload, at a cost.
An interesting idea might be the use that advertisers might want to put towards it. We’ve seen brands in the past spend money restricted service FM licences. But they tend to have very little coverage. Now a major brand could potentially buy a three hour block once a week and market it heavily.
Ofcom guidelines still need to be adhered to, and it’ll be interesting to see what the costs are in due course! Folder is promising to launch the concept locally later this year before a national roll-out should they win this licence.
The appearance of Premier Christian Radio isn’t too surprising since they’ve made it clear that they want national coverage after having to leave D1.
In offering a country service, Listen2Digital is perhaps filling the biggest hole we have in music radio. It’s notable that only this week, BBC Radio 2 announced a four-day pop-up country service.
Listen2Digital plans to reach 81.5% of the UK population through the buildout of 42 transmitters, optimised around the major metropolitan areas, and plans to achieve 94% coverage of motorways, with high penetration of A roads as well.
Based on Ofcom making an award in April, they plan to be on-air by Spring 2016.
Their proposed line-up does indeed look to broaden the range of services currently available. And they would also be keen to point out that they represent a broadening of ownership in UK DAB radio. Arqiva, who are part of other consortium, also own Digital One, and own or part-own the majority of local DAB multiplexes.
Some questions and thoughts that spring to mind:
- 18 services is an awful lot of stations to squeeze onto a single multiplex. Although a number of the services are speech focused, and there are four DAB+ services, I would expect lower rather than higher quality bitrates to get that many stations on air. The devil will be in the detail.
- Introducing widescale DAB+ is encouraging. It’s not clear how many sets there really are in the market that are DAB+ compatible, and it’ll be interesting to see if manufacturers who are able to offer an upgrade, begin to do so. By targeting more specialist stations, potential listeners to those services will clearly understand that they need compatible equipment to hear those services.
- Although Orion Media is a major backer, they don’t seem to be actually making all that many services themselves. Indeed from what I can see there’s only a re-version of their Gem format. Of course, depending on the outcome of negotiations with other providers, they may still end up broadcasting some of the other formats that don’t have a named provider.
- Giving wider access to some of the specialist stations like Fun Kids, Share Radio and Wireless from Age UK means that those stations can both be heard much more widely, and get a firmer footing commercially.
- If I’m being brutally honest, there’s no “killer” format that screams “I definitely want that.” On the other hand, last time around it was Channel 4 Radio that held that prize, and it was overly ambitious and the plans never came to fruition.
- Premier Christian Radio is the only named service to appear in both bids.
- The most intriguing service is undoubtedly the food station. I’m not clear how this will work, with food hitherto the domain of television and print media, and latterly digital media. Cooking on the radio is certainly not an obvious format!
- Listen2Digital is well aware that it has longer odds of winning that Sound Digital. Ofcom will undoubtedly not want to take many risks.
My first take on the Sound Digital bid can be read here.