D2

D2: All Coming Together

US 2014-90

NB. This is not a DAB radio. The picture above is of possibly the most beautiful radio I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s the Nocturne, made in 1935 by a US company called Sparton and designed in Art Deco style by Walter Dorwin Teague. This one sits in the Wolfsonian museum in Miami. If you want one, there’s a YouTube video showing a 2012 auction with one going for $34,000, so you may have to start saving. This radio has a whole website dedicated to it, where you’ll notice that teaser adverts for forthcoming new models are nothing new!

In my recent RAJAR post, I wrote a little about the second national commercial multiplex – Sound Digital – which is due to launch from the 29th February (with some services launching across the following month).

The full line-up of services has been announced, and we’re now getting a drip-feed of more details about who will be on those services.

First properly out of the gate is the new TalkRadio. I’ve long thought that UK radio is under-served by speech, with essentially four national speech services currently available. LBC was very late in the day in going national, but it has made a good fist of it, and in particular has delivered a lot of publicity by making a virtue of giving politicians of all hues their own shows.

TalkRadio looks like it’s going to be quite similar, but perhaps a little lighter in tone. Paul Ross, who seems to have had stints on just about every station going, but most recently on BBC Radio London’s breakfast show, will helm TalkRadio’s breakfast. Then comes Julia Hartley-Brewer, who has previously done a similar show on LBC. Sam Delaney moves over from TalkSport, and then there’s Iain Lee, who recently had a run-in with BBC Three Counties and left, with a return to late-night on TalkRadio being the obvious gig. However, I really could do without George Galloway though who I find abhorrent, and who has a tendency to take cash from the Iranian and Russian governments via their state broadcasters as well as say obnoxious things.

With LBC filled with ex-politicians like Iain Dale, occasional Newsnight presenter James O’Brien, former Five Live breakfast presenter Shelagh Fogerty and of course, Nick Ferrari, it feels like a slightly more current affairs driven service than TalkRadio.

The proof will be in the pudding of course, and with Dan Walker off from Five Live to BBC Breakfast, listeners may be exploring their dials to find something new to listen to.

Of course Five Live and TalkSport do have the advantage of analogue carriage. If you want TalkRadio, or LBC outside London, you do have to listen on a digital platform. That will affect audiences – particularly in-car because while new cars now nearly all come with DAB, the vast majority on the road don’t have it. But late nights in particular are going to be really interesting.

Next out the block is UTV’s other big new station, the reborn Virgin Radio. Considering I spent much of my working life at the original Virgin Radio (It launched in 1993, and I worked there from late 1996 until it re-branded in 2008), you might think that I have mixed views about this, but to be honest I don’t.

The big questions for me were always going to be: What kind of service would UTV offer, and was the Virgin Radio brand a bit passé in the UK? The new version of the station is interesting because UTV is a partner with Bauer Media (and Arqiva) in the multiplex, and Bauer’s Absolute Radio is the evolution of Virgin Radio. Christian O’Connell, Geoff Lloyd and Leona Graham are still there from the Virgin days, all in key shows. You would imagine that many of those legacy Virgin Radio listeners are now Absolute Radio listeners.

And whisper it, but I’m not sure Virgin is quite the sexy brand it once was. It’s a transport and finance brand these days, rather than record label and record store. Yes Virgin Atlantic is aspirational, and Virgin Media does a decent job. But it does feel a bit tarnished. Even the potential of Virgin Galactic has not been achieved.

Then there’s the marketplace for where a Virgin Radio music service might fit. While Virgin Radio isn’t a prescriptive service that comes with a set playlist – stations in Dubai and Thailand show that local Virgin Radios can be whatever the market dictates there’s a space for – there was a serious question about whether a relaunched Virgin should be recognisable from before, or something new. Should it just be Virgin Radio about ten years older? Well eight years on, anyway. Or do you disregard what Virgin Radio meant as a brand to listeners in the past, and do something new? If you choose the latter, what is the point of retaining the brand? I suppose the thinking is that like a movie studio relaunching a popular franchise for a new generation, the same can be true for a radio station.

Although I did see a UTV presentation recently that noted the continued strength of the Virgin Radio brand, that perhaps wasn’t surprising given the station’s previous life, and the fact that it had a very successful run with Chris Evans at the helm. And anyone who’s been through a station re-brand will know that old brands live on much longer in listeners minds than marketeers might perhaps hope.

Then there’s the question of the wider radio landscape and a new Virgin Radio’s place in it. As well as Absolute, in broadly the same musical area, there is the new Radio X with its massive marketing budget and big-name presenters, and BBC 6 Music which gets larger all the time and is undoubtedly the “cool” station of the day.

The announcement of the new Virgin Radio line-up suggests to me that they’re actually trying something a bit different! I will admit that I was surprised that UTV let Johnny Vaughan up and leave for Radio X, when they’d had him on contract for TalkSport, but budgets are always finite, and UTV will undoubtedly hae some realistic audience targets that take account of their distribution. So instead it looks like Liam Thompson, Virgin Radio’s Programme Director, is trying something much more interesting.

Having former Radio 1 presenter Edith Bowman at breakfast almost seems like a direct response to the “male-ness” of Radio X, or at least the marketing surrounding that station’s launch.

And putting Kate Lawler in the afternoon slot – formerly of Capital, Kerrang and more recently Bauer’s Big City network – compounds that feeling. National radio is certainly too male, remaining the Achilles heel of Radio 2. Of course it’s disappointing that it should even need to be noted that 2 out 4 daytime presenters are women, but that’s a reflection of our industry today.

Also in the line-up are people I’m less familiar with like Jamie East and Matt Richardson, neither of who’s output I’ve ever seen. This also suggests, that I’m outside the target market for the new Virgin.

Rounding things off is Tim Cocker, who many were disappointed to lose when Xfm rebranded, as he lost his Manchester breakfast slot.

Overall, this is a much more interesting Virgin Radio than I’d envisaged. Again, my fear is that there could be too much congestion for audiences, so marketing for this and the other new stations will be imperative. Cross promotion on Talk branded services might not be enough.

I’m still curious to see exactly what TalkSport 2’s schedule ends up looking like, and whether it’ll be closer to Five Live Sports Extra (some extra programming, but lots of filler/repeats when there’s nothing new), or whether it’ll be more of a full-service. The next UK radio rights package for the Premier League has yet to be announced, and TalkSport might try to take a little more to put something on their new service. But Championship football might be more affordable at a time when the company is making a lot of investment in UK radio, and ridding itself of television.

What press there has been for TalkSport 2 mentions cricket, football, golf, horse racing, tennis, rugby and US sport. They launch at the Cheltenham Festival, and that might suggest that afternoons will have a lot of racing. Putting US sport on overnight might be a smart idea. Five Live Sports Extra covered the NFL this season, and in the past, the World Series has been broadcast. The radio commentaries exist, and with baseball, NBA and NFL (maybe even MLS), it could be as simple as retransmitting those commentaries. I speak as someone who once upon a time used to tune into distant Armed Forces Network programmes on AM to drift off to sleep listening to baseball.

Overall though, UTV should have a much healthier network offering to sell to advertisers, and given that most of the market is driven by large “share deals” for Global and Bauer, this is imperative for them.

Elsewhere, it’s very sensible that instead of the originally planned TalkBusiness, UTV has done a deal for the slot with London station Share Radio. Their challenge will be finding that business niche and monetising it.

From Bauer, we have not one, but two Magic spin-offs. Mellow Magic (or, as it was briefly, and bizarrely known, “Magic Mellow”) is to be joined by Magic Chilled, perhaps a little bit of one-upmanship against the upcoming Heart Extra back on Digital One. I confidently expect these to work precisely as Absolute Radio’s digital brethren work with its main brand. While it remains to be seen whether that includes changing the breakfast show music as Absolute does for Christian O’Connell, I would expect the same Magic presenters to be voice-tracking some more specialist versions of the Magic oeuvre, with perhaps a couple of new names helping out. The Absolute Radio Network model has proved itself.

The rest of Bauer’s services are either stations shifted from Digital One, to a perhaps more cost-effective platform, or moved up from local DAB multiplexes, where Bauer has a substantial shareholding.

Nearly all the rest of the DAB services on D2 are spin-offs of existing services. So Premier gets a second service, Premier Praise, as its main brand shifts multiplexes too. UCB 2 is another Christian service, previously available in London, while Sunrise and Panjab move up to a national platform.

The only other completely new service seems to be Awesome Radio (previously called British Muslim Radio), coming from the people who run Asian Sound Radio in Manchester. You would imagine that they will be able to utilise existing studios and personnel to keep costs reasonable.

Finally there are the two other new DAB+ services. When Sound Digital won the multiplex, they only talked about a single DAB+ service, whereas rival bidder Listen2Digital was talking of offering 4 DAB+ services. The fact that the Sound Digital bid won without a named service in place, and that subsequently it was advertising for services willing to run in DAB+ was perhaps a little concerning.

DAB+ has always been a chicken and egg situation in the UK. Because DAB has been around since the end of the nineties, many radios in UK homes do not have DAB+ compatibility. In territories where digital has been adopted more recently, DAB+ was offered from the outset. While more recent models have included DAB+, if only because the radios were built for more than just the UK market, it isn’t clear what proportion of radio sets in use today are DAB+ compatible.

So while I’ve no doubt there’ll be some rough numbers kicking around, produced with the help of manufacturers, it’s still a leap of faith for a broadcast who wants to go DAB+ only. Some radios might be upgradeable, since the choice about whether to include the DAB+ codec was really more about the intellectual property licences payable rather than the hardware required. But how many consumers will actually seek out that information, and go to the effort of plugging memory sticks into USB ports?

Sound Digital’s solution is to offer two existing relatively niche services in DAB+, as well as the new Magic Chilled. Jazz FM’s was once available on Digital One, but latterly it was largely available online, with only some local DAB coverage. Getting national coverage is good for the service.

It’s a similar story with Fun Kids. They target an audience that even RAJAR doesn’t properly measure, and so they need to be careful about how they spend money on broadcast transmission.

You would imagine that all three services are getting a “good deal” from Sound Digital, with everyone watching with interest to see how successful the services are. Because if DAB+ is actually available more widely than previously realised, then we can expect more services to switch to it. It’s a more efficient use of the limited data available in DAB multiplex, and can offer – shock – stereo sound at a more affordable price to stations. Stereo is especially important to Jazz aficionados!

For what it’s worth, I’ve been retuning some of my own DAB sets at home, which are largely Roberts models, to receive the test Waves and Waves+ test stations. All three of my main radios are DAB+. But none of them are especially old. Other, older radios await a retune.

[Updated to reflect that Magic Chilled is also in DAB+]

[Update: I’ve now tested all my radios and the results are here.]

D2 Bids: Further Thoughts

[Note: Updated following the publication of the detailed bid documents on the Ofcom website. Note that only parts of the applications have been made public. Other parts are confidential.

Sound Digital application hereListen2Digital application here.]

At a risk of boring everyone senseless about D2, I’ve got a few further thoughts that have come out of events and discussions since the big reveal yesterday:

  • Sound Digital is making a very big play of the fact that they have signed undertakings to ensure that, in the event that they win the licence, Bauer, UTV and Arqiva are financially on the hook for the full 12 years of their licence regardless of anything else. This provides Ofcom with certainty. Listen2Digital will need to similarly present a financial solid case.
  • Listen2Digital’s key point of difference is that it provides more choice in multiplex operator. i.e. Arqiva isn’t part of it. The question is whether or not Ofcom will take this into consideration.
  • Talkbusiness (I know UTV would prefer talkBUSINESS, but I capitalise proper nouns the correct way. It’s Easyjet as well on this blog!) has agreements with both Bloomberg and The Economist. Obviously there is currently Share Radio, available in London on DAB and part of Listen2Digital’s bid. And in the past there has been a Bloomberg radio service which was shut down (a US focused internet service lives on). This is a specialist area, and I suspect that it will be very hard to get ratings via RAJAR. I note that CNBC pulled out of BARB quite a few years ago.
  • I’m still unclear how Talksport 2 will fill all its hours. I’m sure that the radio rights for lower profile sports could be picked up relatively inexpensively, but there’s still a production cost. In a promotional video sports listed included rugby, cricket, F1, athletics and cycling. I wonder if horse racing is an interesting area with its obvious links with betting? (I’m not sure going exclusively with Channel 4 has worked well for the sport). Picking up radio rights to something like the IPL might be interesting though. Having two services could allow them to try interesting things with some of their commentaries though. If you had rights to, say, the Merseyside derby, could you put a Liverpool-skewed commentary on service and an Everton-skewed commentary on the other? To be fair, this sort of thing happens quite a lot in local radio where two local stations are broadcasting the same match for their respective supporters. And Absolute Radio, in the past, broadcast a comedy commentary for England rights that they had. The BBC has done the same with Chris Moyles and even a kids’ commentary.
  • Virgin Radio is going to target 25-44 year olds. Which is essentially the same target it had before. And is the same target that Absolute Radio has. I still see this as a direct competitor which makes things a bit strange, and perhaps uncomfortable in the bid meetings. We are promised some big names, although none have been proffered. The obvious radio personality currently without a berth is Chris Moyles. But prior to Bauer buying Absolute Radio there were rumours of a bid featuring Jonathan Ross going back to radio as well. But names like these aren’t cheap, and that’d be making a massive bet. It’s fair to say that most new digital-only music services rely heavily on pre-recorded voice links and generally cheaper talent. [See also the Updated section below]
  • Talkradio has an agreement with Comedy Central. How that will fit in will be interesting. Comedy has a strong radio heritage, but nobody really offers pure comedy for extended periods. Half hour shows are dropped in after the news. Presenters with comic chops still use lots of music in their shows. Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see what they do.
  • It does sound like there is still room on Sound Digital for some extra services. Their DAB+ slot has not been announced, and I’m not sure they’ve actually got a station lined up. And there could be more than one DAB+ service. They’re keeping their powder dry on this one. I still think that consumers will need quite a compelling option to actually replace older DAB radios with DAB+ capable models. But then as I’ve mentioned before, I think getting a really good handle on how many DAB+ sets are being used is really hard to do. Having at least one live service means that a mux owner could conduct extensive research to see who is able to hear it, using those findings to determine whether or not to later shift services from DAB to DAB+. Publicly at least, nobody has talked about making that transition over time, but it has to remain an option.
  • There is a significant difference in what each bid is offering in terms of coverage and a lot of people are confused about how Listen2Digital can have fewer transmitters but better coverage. Well I don’t know, but they’re not using all the same places. Fuller bid documents will be released later next week, and they may go some way to explaining that.
  • The more I think it about, the more dangerous it is that Bauer is proposing to move Absolute 80s from D1 to D2. I said prior to the announcement that I thought it’d be Absolute Radio 90s that’d make a reappearance nationally. Absolute 80s is a station with 1.4m reach and 6.8m hours. Not to be sniffed at. Yet the DAB coverage will be significantly worse, and that means listening will fall. Not everyone currently listening on DAB can be easily shifted to internet apps. On the other hand, it does provide a big draw for the bid.
  • Neither bid is making any commitment to extend their coverage beyond what they are saying in their bid documents. They could expand coverage, but it’ll be down to any agreements they have with their service providers, since each extra transmitter will end up costing service providers extra money.
  • Both groups have presented Ofcom with some comprehensive research backing up their bids and explaining why audience are interested in their offerings. Some of this research should become available next week on the Ofcom website, although some will remain confidential.
  • The new Magic spin-off station is definitely called “Magic Mellow” even though the programme strand it comes from is “Mellow Magic.” I think that’ll take quite a while for fans to adapt to!
  • I think a lot of people find the idea of a food radio station interesting. It’s easy to poo-poo the idea, but I was pointed towards Chef Radio by a commenter, and it’s worth noting that an awful lot of radio listening happens in the kitchen. Trying new formats is only to be encouraged.
  • If I’m honest, I’m disappointed that nobody is holding a space open for pop-up radio. I can think of all sorts of use cases, and commercially it could be a really interesting proposition. There are issues with the ease of getting new services on and off quickly with regard to the regulator, but Smooth Extra rebranding back to Smooth Christmas for a month isn’t really enough. Listen2Digital has the closest service to this with their Upload service which itself is interesting as I mentioned previously. But I’d love to see a permanent space carved out for pop-up services.
  • Anyone else notice that Global Radio, the UK’s biggest commercial radio group, isn’t anywhere in any of these groups (unless they’re a confidential supplier)? They have promised at least one further service on D1 though.
  • And perhaps less surprising, there’s nothing from the BBC. Last time around in 2007, BBC Asian Network was going to be on the NGW bid. Of course today there’s a tougher licence fee settlement and there’s the prospect of BBC Three going online only to save money, so the idea that the BBC might launch a new linear radio station is unlikely. Even though it could free up some space by moving a current channel over, you run into issues about reduced coverage. And with their Olympics, Eurovision and upcoming Country pop-ups, it has shown it can shift its “bits” around to accommodate services as need be (at a cost to stations like Radio 3 and Radio 4).
  • Finally, it’s worth noting that just because these stations are the ones that have gone in the bids, it doesn’t mean that things won’t change between now and launch. Come back in a year or so’s time to compare and contrast.

[Additional thoughts, post publication of the bid documents]

  • Stereo? What is this stereo you’re talking about? None of the regular DAB services offered by either Sound Digital or Listen2Digital will be stereo. Every service on Sound Digital will be mono – 64k mono for speech services, and 80k mono for music services. With Listen2Digital, they’re promising stereo for their four DAB+ services. Their regular DAB services will likewise mostly be in 80k mono for music, and 64k mono for speech. Notably a couple of the services – the sports service and Share Radio – will be in 48k mono. No current national service is broadcasting in this format, although previously Traffic Radio used it. Expect quality closer to AM for these.
  • DAB+ mono? Well that’s what Sound Digital are saying. Noticeably, they’re using fewer CUs for their DAB+ service that Listen2Digital is suggesting. That limits them to a mono service. Like DAB, DAB+ is only as good as the bit-rate you give it.
  • There’s still space for services on Sound Digital as I hypothesised above. Every DAB multiplex is divided into 864 “capacity units” (or CUs). You can allocate these as you need, which in turn determines your audio bitrate (and error correction level). As it stands, Listen2Digital is essentially full, with just 8 spare units – which could only be used for data purposes. Whereas Sound Digital has 98 spare units, which could accommodate, say, two speech services (64k mono), or one music service (80k mono) and a DAB+ service (mono or stereo).
  • Listen2Digital says that for the services it has not named, there may be either a confidentiality clause preventing them from naming the service at this time, or they may not have a service lined up or, “to
    allow third-parties who may be currently constrained from working with us to be able to come forward in due course.” They would advertise for such services on winning the bid.
  • Only Listen2Digital has allocated space for an EPG. Sound Digital has no plans “at this time.” Few radios in the market currently use EPGs because they have mostly only been furnished with relatively small LED screens. Devices like the Pure Sensia have been few and far between – with colour screens that could show either Slideshow imagery, or pull other information from via IP. As Listen2Digital note, with expanded choice, it does become harder for listeners to navigate between services. (I retuned a DAB radio at home recently, and ended up with 79 services across national, London, and nearby local mulitplexes – I live on a hill). I would hope that in future more devices (not “radios”, but multi-functional “devices” that have radio tuners embedded) will have bigger screens, so an EPG makes sense. As noted above, Sound Digital has the capacity to include one, they’ve just chosen not to at the moment.
  • Sound Digital includes a table (Table 11.5) that details potentially overlapping stations for each of its proposed services. Curiously, the potentially overlapping services for Virgin Radio are Team Rock, Planet Rock, Absolute 80s, Absolute Radio 90s, Kiss, and Capital Xtra. Spot the missing station? The main Absolute Radio service isn’t mentioned. If Virgin Radio is going to overlap with all those other services – suggesting a fairly varied mix of rock and pop, then surely it must also overlap with Absolute Radio? “The all new Virgin Radio will play a range of the best rock and pop music from the 1980s to the present day, appealing particularly to those aged 25-
    44 and with a clearly defined slight bias towards male listeners. Programming will be carefully tailored to what this target audience wants to hear.” That all sounds familiar to me…
  • Talksport 2’s programming will include additional sports coverage for which rights would probably be cheap to acquire, and reruns of popular Talksport shows. Interestingly it also says: “It is expected that this will include independently produced content.” I wonder if this might include broadcast opportunities for, say, popular football podcasts? An interesting thought. And it will also work with William Hill who provide internet audio streams for horse racing and darts coverage. Again a good way to fill the station.
  • For both Planet Rock and Absolute 80s, Bauer is promising to write to Ofcom with the rationale behind moving them over from D1. Beyond that, there’s no public explanation.
  • Sound Digital says that it will formally advertise its DAB+ spot subject to winning the award. However a service could jump in and do a deal with them in the meantime. They say that they’re looking for a service that will drive uptake of DAB+ sets. If the advertisement doesn’t get the desired result, then the consortium will create a new service themselves.
  • Sound Digital includes some really interesting research from Mediatique, commissioned by Arqiva, to determine how many DAB+ sets are currently in the market. This report claims that by the end of 2013, 2.9m sets were DAB+ compatible out of a total of 20m sets in the market – 14.5%. Further, by the end of 2020, the majority of radios in car and home will be DAB+. Unsurprisingly, their work also found that DAB+ stations would need to be “highly appealing” to accelerate DAB+ ownership. (Unfortunately, the full research document doesn’t appear on Ofcom’s website as it’s probably considered to be a confidential part of the bid.)
  • Both Listen2Digital and Sound Digital are effectively subsidising DAB+ capacity at launch. However Listen2Digital is offering substantially more space at the start – six times as much space.
  • Both bids will use the same error protection level (3) for their services. You can get more error protection, but that uses up more space. You can also get lower error protection, but that makes signal break-up likelier. Both groups have taken the middle ground on this – which is what most multiplexes do.

As to which of these bids will win? Well the safe option is Sound Digital – whatever your personal choice, they’re the consortium with two big broadcasters and the tried and tested transmission supplier. But what will Ofcom do? I did have a quick look over at the “special bets” on Betfair, but it seems that there’s not sufficient demand for a betting market on who wins the D2 licence.

Read my initial thoughts on Listen2Digital and Sound Digital.

Disclaimer: These are my personal views, and don’t represent those of my current or past employers. Probably not any future ones either!

D2 Bid: Sound Digital

sounddigital

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.

Sound Digital is a consortium made up of Arqiva (the major UK transmission provider, and owner of the Digital One multiplex amongst others), Bauer Media (the second largest commercial radio group in the UK, and owner of brands including Kiss, Magic, Absolute Radio and Planet Rock) and UTV (owner of the ITV franchise in Northern Irleand, Talksport, some local UK radio services, as well as significant assets in the Republic of Ireland).

The services, as described in Sound Digital’s press release, are as follows:

  • UTV will launch three original speech stations – talkRADIO, talkSPORT 2 and talkBUSINESS – significantly extending choice and plurality in a sector currently dominated by the BBC.
  • Bauer will offer high quality music stations catering to a broad spectrum of musical taste, including Magic Mellow, KISSTORY and heat radio, along with highly successful digital stations Absolute 80s and Planet Rock.
  • Virgin Radio will return to the UK airwaves under a partnership between the Virgin Group and UTV.
  • Sound Digital will also offer a non-mainstream music station, which Jazz FM has signed an agreement to provide.
  • Stations will also cater to specific areas of interest for which there is additional national demand: UCB Inspirational and Premier Christian Radio for Christian audiences, Sunrise Radio and British Muslim Radio.
  • To lay the foundation of a future migration to DAB+ and accelerate take-up of DAB+ compatible radios, Sound Digital will launch a DAB+ channel. The programming content of this ground-breaking channel will be revealed ahead of launch.

With a rumoured sale of its local radio services, UTV is the standout here, launching four new services, three speech and one music.

Bauer is offering five music services, four of which already exist, and two of which are already available nationally. Only Magic Mellow is completely new.

Jazz aficionados will be pleased to see the return, nationally of Jazz FM. They previously had a slot on D1, but currently can only be heard in London on DAB.

Three of the four special interest stations are currently broadcasting locally, meaning that this bid would bring them national broadcast coverage. British Muslim Radio is the new service.

Sound Digital claims that it will reach 73% of households and 63% of major roads (increasing to 75% and 65% if international agreements are met), with a network of 45 transmitters.

Here are some initial thoughts on the Sound Digital bid:

  • The assumed big story here is that Virgin Radio is coming back as part of a UTV licence deal with Virgin Group. But I’m a little confused about how that fits in since it promises to once again be a rock and pop station. As regular readers will know, I worked for a long time at the original Virgin Radio, but I was very supportive of the rebranding of the service when SMG sold it to The Times of India in 2008. What seems strange to me in 2015 is that Bauer would be happy with a consortium that seems to be directly targeting its own 2013 acquisition, Absolute Radio. Media Guardian even illustrated their report of the D2 story with a picture of Christian O’Connell from back in the Virgin Radio days. The station will of course live and die on how it’s programmed and resourced of course. But Bauer had essentially taken “ownership” of rock in this country with the Absolute branded stations including Absolute Radio and Absolute Classic Rock, as well as Planet Rock and Kerrang!
  • I actually think the bigger story is the significantly increased amount of speech that is being promised by Sound Digital. We’re seeing the return of Talk Radio (as “talkRADIO”), alongside a sister station for Talksport and a new business service. The UK is underserved with speech radio, and it’ll be interesting to see how Talk Radio takes on LBC (and Five Live). Their business service is also interesting, although I find that to be a harder one to justify. And it’ll be interesting to hear how they plan to programme Talksport 2 – whether that means buying more sports rights, or broadening away from mostly football. But UTV is definitely delivering the most creative offering in this bid.
  • Bauer seems to be moving across Absolute 80s and Planet Rock from D1. Does that mean that it will be able to bring some of its other stations over on Digital One back up to stereo with the increased bandwidth? Or can we expect new services to launch on Digital One too?
  • It’s worth noting that coverage of D2 will not be as great as D1 (upwards of 90% coverage), therefore some current listeners to Absolute 80s and Planet Rock are likely to lose coverage.
  • On the other hand 15 services (including one DAB+ service) is also a lot for a single multiplex, even taking account for at least three predominantly speech services. Again, lovers of stereo might be a bit disappointed.
  • Arqiva has a 40% shareholding in this consortium (the largest shareholding), and it’s also the owner of Digital One and the majority of local DAB multiplexes. As such, were it to win, Arqiva would have a hand in most of UK DAB radio.
  • Sound Digital is offering a single, as yet un-named DAB+ service with no hint as to what kind of format it might be. That’s perhaps a little disappointing since it’s not going to easily kick start a DAB+ revolution. But obviously it depends what the service is.
  • I’m somewhat surprised that Sound Digital seems to be offering significantly less coverage with slightly more transmitters than Listen2Digital. A detailed look at the non-confidential parts of their bids may be in order to see why this is when Ofcom publishes them next week.
  • In many respects, this is the “safe” bid – the existing, almost sole, transmission provider allied with two of the top three biggest UK radio groups building on solid brands for most of its services. However it doesn’t obviously bring many exciting new services to the market – with the notable exception of what UTV is offering.

Further reading:
Sound Digital website

My first take on the Listen2Digital bid can be read here.

Looking Ahead to the Second National Digital Radio Multiplex

DAB Radio

Ofcom is finally closing its doors on applications for a second national commercial radio digital radio multiplex. Originally bids had to be in by the end of October 2014, but Ofcom extended its application period to the end of January 2015 when a potential bidder sought a Network Access-only reference offer from Arqiva. (Since Arqiva is provides transmission for the majority of radio services in the UK, a third party bidder would probably need to use Arqiva’s sites to broadcast from. As such, it has to provide third parties with separate costs, and until the third parties have put into place their broadcasting plans, Arqiva can’t provide those costs. Hence the delay.)

It’s thought that there will be two bidders – Sound Digital (an alliance of Arqiva, Bauer Media and UTV) and, potentially, a second group that has not yet been publicly announced.

Up until relatively recently national digital radio has had a bit of a roller-coaster existence. When national commercial DAB launched in 1999 the key stations to be found on it were the three analogue INRs: Classic FM, Virgin Radio (now Absolute Radio) and Talk Radio (now Talksport). Alongside were a number of new services that multiplex (“mux”) owners GWR Group and transmission supplier NTL, brought afresh. And so we had services with new brand names like Core, Capital Life and OneWord.

DAB set ownership was low, and while the INRs had all built analogue businesses to help them with the additional DAB transmission costs, the new brands struggled. Their owners were far more interested in their highly profitable local FM stations. Why waste marketing budget on new services that might actually cost you listeners?

In due course brands would come and go on Digital One. It was quite expensive to get carriage, but if you had the money, there was space available.

That ceased to be the case to an extent around 2006 when BT Movio launched. The mux’s licence allowed a proportion of the available space to be used as data – about 30%. BT Movio was an attempt to launch a mobile TV service using that space. Crucially though, it was a paid for service, and the only phone that was ever built that was capable of watching the service came from Virgin Mobile – the Lobster phone.

It was fine as far as it went, but the fact is that with few television choices, there was limited appeal for subscribers, so unsurprisingly BT announced the end of the service in 2007. The phone was reasonably decent though – at least as a phone with a DAB radio built in! (We’ve yet to see another phone come with DAB since then – although there are reports that LG might release a device).

It was also around this time that Ofcom decided to licence the second national digital radio multiplex for the first time. There were two bidders – 4 Digital*, a consortium led by the public sector broadcaster Channel 4, and National Grid Wireless. The 4 Digital bid was considered much more attractive and it was duly awarded the licence with planned new services including the flagship Channel 4 Radio (described as a Radio 4 competitor!), E4 Radio, Sky News Radio amongst others. But Channel 4 had over-expanded in television, and was having financial difficulties. So in 2008 it scrapped its plans to launch despite having won the licence. Ofcom was not happy, and although they held onto the frequencies, it took quite a few years before they could be persuaded to try licencing the mux once more.

So by 2008 with BT Movio having closed, and GCap (formed from the merger of GWR and Capital Radio) pulling off the platform, space had been freed up and was available. Few seemed interested in national DAB. The mux owners would broadcast Birdsong as a holding station when capacity wasn’t being fully utilised. And the mux was bought outright by Arqiva, the transmission provider that had become the defacto sole supplier in the UK having bought up its rivals.

But people were still buying DAB sets, and notably Absolute Radio, under new ownership and rebranded from Virgin Radio, jumped in at about this point. It first launched Absolute 80s and later Absolute Radio 90s on the national mux. It also played around with station labels when it first bought Premier League rights, and created Absolute Radio Extra.

All the while DAB penetration and listening had been creeping up, and more transmitters had been built. DAB was now working. Absolute 80s became the biggest commercial digital only station, and importantly it was sold on a network basis – advertisers buying across the whole suite of Absolute brands. There were fewer brands that existed solely as standalone DAB services.

In the last year or so, we’ve seen a number of bigger brands coming onto the platform and duplicating that work. Global has got fully behind national DAB – previously it had mostly concentrated on local multiplexes often part owned by them, its predecessor GCap having just about abandoned it. It launched Smooth Extra, Capital Xtra and LBC nationally. Bauer has bought Absolute Radio, and although Absolute Radio 90s got shifted off the platform, it now has Kiss, Magic and Planet Rock alongside the remaining Absolute stations on the mux.

Indeed at time of writing, the only remaining non-Global or Bauer stations still on the multiplex are BFBS (aimed at the armed forces and their families, and effectively an extension of the MOD), Premier Christian Radio, TeamRock and UCB UK. And it’s reported that Premier Christian Radio will have to make way for Global’s Heart Extra at some point.

Indeed there are now so many radio services on the mux, that only Classic FM and Capital Xtra are still broadcasting in stereo, since a multiplex has a limited amount of bandwidth and it can only be cut so many ways.

And so, finally, we reach the present day, and a second attempt to licence a second national DAB multiplex. Exactly what the winning group wants to do with the space remains to be seen. We’ll learn later this week what the respective plans are of the bidders.

Possibilities include:

– the launch of brand new services and formats
– the UK launch of international brands and stations
– additional sub-brands of existing properties (although arguably we’ve stretched these as far as they’ll go)
– national coverage for stations that haven’t found space on Digital One, or have had to make way for sister stations
– the opportunity to launch some services in DAB+ (see below)
– space for pop-up DAB services to run over short periods
– some clever mobile data usage

I would certainly expect the announcement of at least one new speech station – most other radio markets globally are able to sustain many more speech services than we have in the UK.

Of crucial importance for any standalone brands that launch will be their advertising sales strategy. Who will be selling their advertising for them?

And the other thing to look out for will be transmission plans. Rolling out new transmitters is an expensive business. The BBC continues to rollout masts for its national DAB mux to reach ever more of the population. Digital One reaches somewhere around 90% of the population, but the diminishing returns of population versus cost means that it’s unlikely to go much further. It seems likely that whoever wins the new mux won’t be so ambitious. Look for a potentially phased rollout that may never reach more than 75% or so of the population – i.e. the major towns and cities, and key trunk routes.

But perhaps the launch of some services in DAB+ is perhaps the most interesting prospect. DAB+ uses much more up to date audio compression meaning that lower bandwidths are capable of broadcasting higher quality audio than vanilla DAB can use.

In reality that means one of two things:

– a station can broadcast at a higher quality using its equivalent current capacity;
– or you can squeeze even more lower quality stations into the same space

As with DAB originally, there’s also a chicken and egg situation with DAB+ in that probably the majority of DAB sets in the UK marketplace today are not DAB+ enabled. That means that they can’t receive DAB+ services. Some of them will be up-datable with a firmware upgrade. But that’s not as easy to do with a radio as it is, say, with a PC or smartphone. You can’t just roll-out an update that users click on. It tends to involve downloading files to USB sticks from PCs and going into unusual menus on radio sets.

Most DAB sets currently in the market are DAB+ compatible, but given the slow replacement cycle of radios compared with many other consumer electronic goods, getting everyone over to DAB+ will take some time.

Additionally, Ofcom has placed some odd limitations on what mux owners can do with DAB+. It has said that no more than 30% of the new mux’s capacity should be used for DAB+ stations. It wants to make sure new services are mostly available to all.

In other words, a new bidder would be unable to launch with a complete roster of DAB+ stations even if it wanted to.

That feels wrong to me. This seems like it is something the commercial broadcasters, set manufacturers and the marketplace can sort out between themselves. The market will dictate the speed of DAB+ roll-out.

If a a service provider chooses to broadcast in DAB+ then it is up to them to make the gamble that they can achieve a big enough audience to sustain such a service. Indeed, if a broadcaster chooses to make a particularly attractive range of options behind a DAB+ “wall” then it might be able to drive DAB+ uptake on its own.

Realistically, no bidder is going to limit listeners unless they can make a commercial argument to do so. Intervention feels unnecessary.

Looking across the Atlantic is instructive. When Sirius (now Sirius XM) signed Howard Stern away from free-to-air radio to their then new subscription satellite radio service, they made the gamble that he was a big enough name to motivate his listeners into both investing in new hardware and paying a subscription to carry on listening to his show. Would enough people be prepared to upgrade to DAB+ to hear, ooh, let’s say Chris Moyles? I don’t know, but I think it should be for broadcasters to make that judgement, not the regulator.

Ofcom has said it will review the limit in 2018.

In any case, right now this is all moot. We’ll find out what the broadcasters have come up with later this week!

* At time of writing, the 4Digitial site is still there, buried away on the Channel 4 website – proudly proclaiming their winning bid!

[Updated to include reference to pop-up DAB services which I forgot to mention initially, and was in no way prompted to add after the BBC announced a pop-up Country radio service]

Disclaimer: These are my own views, and do not represent those of my current or former employers. I did work at Absolute Radio at the time it launched its digital sub-brands, and I helped with the Virgin Radio proposed service – Virgin Viva – as part of the 4 Radio bid back in 2007. SMG, then owners of Virgin Radio, never signed on the line, hence Viva wasn’t formally listed as part of the bid.