Radio Today is reporting that Absolute Radio is set to come off its AM frequencies later this month. The station, which first launched as Virgin Radio, has been broadcasting since April 1993 on 1215, 1197 and other adjacent frequencies . It was licenced as one of the three “INR” stations – Independent National Radio stations – brought about by the 1990 Broadcasting Act. The frequencies it was granted at the time, back in Radio Authority days, had previously been used by Radio 3, and had been notably the home of Test Match cricket.
It’s not remotely surprising to me that Bauer has finally handed in the towel on AM, because when I worked at Absolute Radio under the previous ownership, we had approached Arqiva and told them that we no longer wanted to broadcast on the AM transmitter network even then. The cost was too high to justify given that Virgin and then Absolute had worked hard to transition audiences to digital platforms like DAB. AM radio was really no longer suited to music radio – at least not amongst the audiences that we were targeting.
The reason the station didn’t come off AM at the time was because we got a very good deal from the network provider Arqiva. The actual figures are probably not right for me to share here, but you just need to know that AM is expensive. A national network costs a healthy six figure sum.
A large part of that expense is the electricity required to power the transmitters. AM is power hungry, and while the signal is efficient in that it propagates reasonably well geographically, when you factor in declining audiences to music radio service on the platform, and then consider the significant recent increase in electricity costs, Bauer handing back the the transmitters is a no-brainer from their perspective.
A Tweet posted by Matt Deegan last autumn has been doing the rounds again in the last couple of days which really highlights this cost:
The most recent Q3 2022 RAJAR figures suggest that 623,000 people (25%) listen at least some of the time to Absolute Radio on ‘AM or FM,’ spending 4.5m hours which represents 25% of all of Absolute Radio’s listening hours. Recall that the station is no longer on FM in London, having given up the 105.8 slot to Greatest Hits Radio back in 2021. And the 105.2 frequency it occupied for a few years in the West Midlands was likewise passed over to Greatest Hits in 2018. So the only analogue broadcasts of Absolute Radio today are on AM.
But those would seem to be some substantial numbers that Bauer is potentially giving up – although their website points out a number of ways AM listeners can continue to hear the service.
So are those RAJAR numbers accurate?
It’s important to note that the listening platforms people say they’re using are self-reported. If you’re listening in a modern car with an FM/DAB radio, are you really certain whether the station you’re hearing is on FM or DAB?
It’s pretty obvious for digital-only stations like BBC 6Music or Absolute 80s. Indeed, even if you tell RAJAR that you’ve been listening to 6Music on FM, RAJAR will recode that listening to a digital platform because you couldn’t have been listening on FM regardless of what you said in the diary!
But think about the long-term listener who for years listened to Absolute on FM in London. Their car’s radio also gets DAB, but they just know that they tune to their favourite station on a preset. Do they really know if they’re listening on FM or DAB?
In other words, I suspect that the true analogue figure that Bauer is giving up will be smaller than the 25% of hours the numbers above suggest. Exactly how much smaller those numbers truly are remains to be seen. It’ll probably take until the Q2 2023 RAJAR release to get a proper idea.
But there certainly are still AM listeners to the station.
As mentioned above, AM signals travel significant distances and mean that it’s still a useful way to reach very remote communities, particularly in mountainous areas where FM and DAB signals are challenged. Analogue listeners are probably likely to be members of disadvantaged social groupings – audiences that the BBC in particular needs to be able to continue to reach. The BBC maintains a bigger FM/DAB network than any of the commercial operators do, and there’s the potential for some of that Absolute Radio listening to be lost to a station like Radio 2. But that will be nearly impossible to measure.
There is one interesting question as a result of Bauer’s actions beyond any potential audience loss for Absolute Radio: will Ofcom readvertise the licence for INR2?
I’m not certain whether or not they are required to, and they may prefer not to, speeding along a transition from analogue to digital for all radio services. Holding an INR licence does allow the licence holder to get a spot on the D1 national DAB multiplex. You can be sure that Bauer already has agreements in place to maintain its DAB capacity, so losing INR status won’t affect that. But it could let someone else on.
But would anyone else think the costs would be worth it for the audiences? I’m sure that there are a few people putting together some topline spreadsheets, although it’s almost certainly cheaper today to get a national DAB slot than pay for those AM transmitters. So it’s probably more of a question for services that are targeting audiences that might not have as much digital access. There aren’t any limits on what the INR2 format might be (although it couldn’t replicate those of Classic FM or talkSPORT). Historically I’d have said that the likeliest groups to look at a licence might have been a group targeting an ethnic minority. We’ve had a number of Asian-targeted radio stations on local AM frequencies in the past. But again, I’m not sure that it wouldn’t be cheaper and easier to reach those audiences via DAB or IP.
There are a couple of requirements for INR bidder. Ofcom, certainly in the past, won’t just let you broadcast on a couple of transmitters to keep costs down. They had a list of required sites that a licence holder needed to operate from. Absolute Radio actually exceeded that minimum number.
Of course, Ofcom may be able to come up with a reason not to go back to market with the licence, although the INRs do sit under primary legislation, so potentially their hands are tied whatever they’d actually prefer to do. We’ll have to wait and hear an official announcement from them.
A little known fact about INRs is that they have to carry Party Election Broadcasts during General Election periods. In the past not every political party made full use of that facility, but it’s worth noting. Otherwise, there are relatively few things being given up by Bauer as a result of handing back the licence.
Finally, it’s worth considering the impact that this may have on BBC Radio Five Live and talkSPORT, the two other national stations with AM networks. Both use Arqiva’s AM network to broadcast their services, and although each station has a slightly different mix of sites that they use, there are some flat shared costs that Arqiva will have in effect been splitting across the current three stations. For example, all the sites need regular maintenance, and if you can split those costs three ways rather than two, it’s cheaper for all parties. In other words, it’s possible that both the BBC and Wireless Group might see some increased costs as a result. The small print of their individual contracts will determine that.
The BBC has been closing a number of its own local AM sites over recent years, but again looking at RAJAR numbers, BBC Radio Five Live still has 35% of its audience listening to at least some of the time on AM, accounting for 30% of listening hours. For talkSPORT those numbers are very similar, with 34% of its reach listening at least partially on AM, and 31% of listening hours.
As with Absolute Radio, I suspect that those numbers are slightly over-stated, particularly by long-term older listeners who maybe aren’t quite as aware of which band they’re listening to services on. But speech radio, and live sport in particular, isn’t nearly as diminished by AM as music radio is, so there almost certainly are bigger audiences sticking around on AM.
I would suggest that both the BBC and Wireless Group will be examining the impact of this move on Bauer very closely before they shut down any of their own national AM networks.