DAB

DAB and DAB+: Some Testing Ahead of SDL/D2 Launch Next Week

125 DAB and DAB+ Services

Rupert Brun, expert on all things audio and late of the BBC, has been testing his radios at ahead of the Sound Digital (SDL) launch in a week’s time. The multiplex is in full test mode at the moment, so if you want to know if you can hear the new services, then a rescan of your radio may be in order.

Rupert first compiled his results on his blog (direct link), and has gone on to produce a Google Doc of the results including those of others.

So I’ve decided to test my own radios allowing Rupert to incorporate them into his results.

First of all I should note, as the photo above shows, that I’m in a rather fortunate location with regard to DAB/DAB+ radio. I live in north London, inside the M25, but close to the green belt. I’m also high up (at least for London) at somewhere around 70m above sea level. What that all means is that my radios will currently tune in 125 different services coming from the following multiplexes

  • BBC National
  • D1 National
  • SDL National
  • London 1
  • London 2
  • London 3
  • London Trial
  • Herts, Beds & Bucks
  • Essex
  • Kent
  • Surrey

I am somewhat surprised that I can get the Surrey multiplex, since it’s geographically the other side of London. And to be honest, reception is poor – but listenable. Kent might seem as far, but historically FM services have always reached this part of north London, and the closest transmitter for that mulitplex is actually in Benfleet in Essex.

Anyway, here are the results of my radios. I’ve included the number of services tuned into to give you an idea of the sensitivity of these sets. I tested them all with their own built in antennae, except the portable models where I used a set of ear-buds extended vertically.

BrandModelResultsRating (Based on Rupert Brun's Rating)Services Tuned
RobertsEco4 BTDisplays and plays DAB+ servicesGood125
RobertsEcologic 4Displays and plays DAB+ servicesGood125
RobertsStream 83iDisplays and plays DAB+ servicesGood125
RobertsGemini 59Shows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor125
GrundigOpusShows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor125
PureMove 1500Shows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor116
BushCDAB431RDoes not show or play DAB+ servicesAverage*122
GoodmansGHDAB101Shows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor125

*Note that Rupert measures both sets that present DAB+ services that can’t be tuned, and those who can’t tune them, so hide them, as both “Poor.” That’s true, but I think it’s a better user experience to hide services that can’t be tuned. It you see a service and tune to it, it looks like there’s either a problem with your radio, or perhaps the station is off-air.

In summary, the more expensive radios – the first three Roberts models – all did fine. Which is as well, since these are my most used radios, and also deliver by far the best sound. I’m unsurprised that none of the portable models tested works, but I do have a new Pure Move 2500 – untested because I left it at my parents’ house accidentally – which should give me DAB+. And none of my cheap models surprised me by revealing that they were indeed DAB+ compatible.

Two more thoughts on my testing:

– The test audio that SDL is currently broadcasting for Virgin Radio is truly awful in sound quality. While the service will only be 80k mono, it sounds like they’re playing a 32k mp3. Not the best way to show off a new service.

– My radios get a lot of Heart stations. And it’s not always easy to tell them apart. In order I get the following:

Heart – Herts, Beds & Buck
Heart – London 1
Heart Kt – Kent
Heart Su – Surrey
Heart Sx – Essex (esS eX – geddit!)

You’ll note that the first two are indistinguishable from the short version of the DAB label. I have to tune to one of them and then hit “info” a few times to determine which multiplex I’m listening to.

When Heart Extra launches in a few days that’ll be one more! (With the London breakfast show carried on the service competing with all the local Heart breakfast shows.)

I know that DAB labels aren’t easy to manage. I once battled with naming all the Absolute Radio services, trying to get radios to sort them in a logical order. Unfortunately, what’s logical on one radio, isn’t on another – different brands and models use different sorting algorithms! So trying to get Absolute Radio 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s, along with the main brand and classic rock, into a sensible order proved impossible.

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.

D2 Bid: Listen2Digital

Listen2Digital

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.

Further reading:
Listen2Digital website

My first take on the Sound Digital 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.

Radio Radio

A couple of interesting stories today with news that finally there’s a signed agreement to rollout local DAB coverage to 91.2% of FM equivalence. This has been a little while coming – to say the least – but now it’s here and the first of 182 new transmitters should be built in March.

Why 91.2% of FM equivalence? Well it’s a very nuanced balancing act with hundreds of transmitters required to cover every nook and cranny of the country. And the closer you get to 100% the gains disappear quickly. You might have to spend thousands of pounds on a transmitter that will only reach tens of people.

And the good news is that on many of those local transmitters, there is space for new services. While it’s an expensive way to reach a national audience, it becomes more achievable if you want to reach a local audience (And yes, I appreciate that cost is in the eye of the beholder – for some smaller ILRs or community stations, local DAB remains beyond their means).

The other interesting news is that UTV is reported to be considering selling its portfolio of English local services to concentrate on Talksport and its TV services including the just-launched Ireland Live, which has snaffled many of TV3’s ITV shows.

Media Guardian speculates that UKRD or Orion might be interested. I think it’s less likely that Bauer or Global will be rushing out because there are probably some ownership issues with either group snapping them up. And following Global’s tortuous negotiations over its GMG acquisition and subsequent sale, they’re probably not up for the fight. Bauer already has a position of strength in the north of England, and while it could strip costs out of the

What’s perhaps more interesting is who ends up selling the services, and do they do a licencing deal and re-brand? The former is especially important because Bauer and Global have the radio marketplace sewn up between them. The stations would instantly have improved revenues if either sales house represented them. If Communicorp bought them, then expect the services to quickly adopt Global brands and for Global to sell their national advertising.

The irony is that a sale to a group that hands the national sales contract to Global or Bauer, will only make life a little more difficult for Talksport who effectively stands alone in the radio marketplace. They have a strong proposition, but share deals mean that no matter how good that might be, they’re left with a diminished share to fight for.

Mono

With great fanfare, EMI released The Beatles in Mono on CD back in 2009, and on vinyl last year. This, we were told, was the way that The Beatles should heard. These albums had been mixed and released in mono because that was the prevailing technology of the day. In due course, stereo mixes were created, and latterly albums were mastered in stereo. But I’ll leave The Beatles alone as I suspect this is the sort of thing that keep enthusiasts up all night talking.

What did happen is that stereo became the default recording format from the late sixties onwards. “Music centres” came along, and people began to separate their speakers. Indeed quadrophonic came along too, but not many people bothered with that.

Latterly we’ve had a home cinema revolution with surround sound, Dolby 5.1, Dolby 7.1 and beyond.

Of course all that wonderful sound doesn’t mean it has been adopted everywhere. Many stereo sets have so little speaker separation as to make no difference. Flat screen TV are so thin these days that the included speakers are much worse than twenty year old cathode ray sets, and sound bars can only give a pseudo representation of surround sound.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is DAB, where the majority of “kitchen” radios – ie. the standard Roberts and Pure radios you see in John Lewis, Argos or your local supermarket – are mono models. And that’s the argument that stations use when they only broadcast their DAB services in mono. Nobody except for some hardened anoraks will complain if we drop to mono because they’re listening in mono.

LBC and Capital Radio began the commercial radio revolution in the UK in 1973, and they both launched in stereo on FM (or VHF as it was more commonly known at the time). Commercial radio has always been a stereo property. It was the BBC who had to play catchup with pop music – Radio 1 only going onto FM in the late eighties when it was given FM space. It was essentially medium wave only prior to then.

Yet if you look at the national commercial multiplex now – the following comes from the excellent Wohnort – it’s not a great advert for stereo:

mono

This is down to a combination of two things: the lack of available space as national DAB spectrum has suddenly (finally?) become a valuable commodity, and the cost of said space. At this point in time, with Global’s burgeoning DAB plans, it’s probably fair to say that the former is the bigger driver.

I write all this because I’m sorry to report that Absolute Radio has just dropped from stereo to mono on national DAB. It has been a slow process. For many years Absolute Radio (and Virgin Radio before that) broadcast at 160kbps stereo. All you really need to know is that the higher the number, broadly speaking, the better the quality.

Over time that fell to 128kbps, and later, using newer encoding techniques, to 112kbps – the minimum for a stereo signal to be maintained. The reasons were many – but were mostly to do with costs surrounding transmission, and the need for spectrum to allow the launch of new services like Absolute 80s and Absolute Radio 90s.

But national brands have increased in importance, and so from the start of this year, Bauer has moved Magic onto national DAB. To do that within its current DAB capacity, that has meant removing Absolute Radio 90s which was broadcasting at 64kbps (the minimum viable mono bitrate for a music service), and taken a bit of Absolute Radio’s capacity. That means that all of Bauer’s D1 properties – Absolute Radio, Absolute 80s, Kiss, Magic and Planet Rock – are now broadcasting at 80kbps mono. That leaves just Classic FM (128kbps) and Capital Xtra (112kbps) as the sole stereo broadcasters on the national multiplex.

Now it’s fair to point out that Absolute Radio has popped up on the London 1 multiplex at 112kbps stereo (and indeed Absolute Radio 90s can also be found there at an increased bitrate of 80kbps mono). That’s certainly good news for Londoners, although they’ll have to navigate carefully between two Absolute Radios (as well as two Magics). But if you’re outside London? Well it’s the internet for you, where quality is excellent, and easily trumps broadcast. That doesn’t work so well in cars though. And that’s the danger.

If everyone is only listening on their mono kitchen radios, what does it matter? They’re not going to notice the difference? Indeed a 112kbps joint stereo signal is arguably worse than an 80kbps mono signal is some respects.

The music is stereo though, and we’re degrading it. Listen via headphones, and it’ll sound worse. Perhaps the most important place is the car. You do get good stereo separation in cars. A good stereo signal fills a car’s interior even on quite basic equipment. With DAB being fitted as standard on the majority of new cars now, the immediate issue for operators should be that their signals are going to sound worse than the BBC’s. The BBC has maintained stereo for all its music services. As a result, 6 Music is now going to sound an awful lot better than Absolute Radio; Radio 2 sounds much better than Magic; and so on.

Programme Directors of old used to play a processing game (they still do to an extent). The idea was that you made your station sound “louder” than the competition by employing audio processors that made the music you played sound “bigger”. Various techniques were used, but of course it really meant reducing dynamic range – the differences between different parts of the music. Again this is an area that people will argue for hours so I’ll leave you to Google it if you want to know more. But the idea was that a listener on their FM dial would stop at the station that sounded louder and bigger than all the rest. To an extent, the competitive edge these techniques might have given a station has been diminished by the lack of dynamic range in pretty much all pop music today (Essentially, studios mastering the songs are playing the same game).

But while in the past those PDs might have “won” the loudness war, they’re losing the stereo one. And there’s no post-processing available to give it a leg up.

Stereo stations sound better than mono ones – especially in the car. If you’re mono on DAB, then you sound worse than your stereo competitors.

To be clear, this isn’t a technology issue. DAB is perfectly capable of broadcasting an excellent stereo signal. And all digital technologies are capacity constrained in some way. That’s because there’s usually a price/quality issue to address. Flick around channels on Sky and see the different levels of quality for SD or HD channels. It’s highly variable, even between channels owned by the same broadcasters. Not all SD is the same, and neither is HD. There are suspicions that some SD channels have been degraded to “encourage” viewers with ever bigger sets to upgrade to HD. It’s usually an economic/capacity argument.

DAB+ is more efficient, and could improve things. But there’s a complicated equation based around distribution costs, sound quality and audience reaction. A service using DAB+ uses less capacity than the equivalent quality DAB service. So as a broadcaster do you bank the savings from your reduced distribution costs using DAB+, or pay the same and improve the quality? Let’s just say we’ve not seen many people do the latter.

The closing date for applications for the second national digital radio multiplex is soon, and we can hope that the winning bid means a bit more space for stations to breathe. Maybe a broadcaster might be willing to move a current service across from D1 to D2 and give it more bandwidth? The flipside is that D2 – certainly at launch – won’t have anything like the coverage of D1. And depending on the plans of the winning bidder, it may never get that coverage.

While the picture is a little gloomy nationally, it should be noted that these space constraints don’t tend to be as much of an issue locally. If you look around the country, your local commercial services are usually in stereo. But then stereo radio has been around since the 70s in this country, and we should be looking beyond stereo, and not backwards to mono.

Radio Extra

Earlier this week, Global announced that it would soon be launching Heart Extra on national DAB. This is the first of a big DAB push.

They already have Smooth Christmas running on the platform, and that rebrands as Smooth Extra from December 27th. They also have Capital XTRA, LBC and Classic FM all on the same DAB multiplex. The press release also promises “more to come,” although it’s not clear how many more stations “more” means.

Anyway, for Global to add one additional station to the D1 line-up, something has to give. That means one current station has to go to make way for Heart Extra. We know a Global station isn’t going. And Bauer has announced longer term plans for its digital portfolio, including replacing Absolute Radio 90s with Magic.

And we can be certain too that Talksport isn’t going anywhere.

So that leaves three independent services: BFBS, Premier Christian Radio and UCB Christian radio. I believe that at least one of those has to go to make room for Heart.

Furthermore, depending on what kind of bitrate Global wants to run Heart Extra at, they may have to play around with the bitrates of their other stations if they want to broadcast Heart Extra at 80k mono.

For all things bitrate and multiplex related, the go-to site is Wohnort DAB, so I’ve used their reports of the current state of play as a jumping off point.

Here’s a view of what the radio services look like currently, and what they’ll possibly look like in 2015 once Heart Extra is on-air.

Current StationOwnerCurrent Bitrate Possible Station 2015OwnerPossible Bitrate
Absolute RadioBauer112 kbit/sAbsolute RadioBauer112 kbit/s
Absolute 80sBauer64 kbit/sAbsolute 80sBauer64 kbit/s
Absolute Radio 90sBauer64 kbit/sMagicBauer64 kbit/s
KISSBauer80 kbit/sKISSBauer80 kbit/s
Planet RockBauer80 kbit/sPlanet RockBauer80 kbit/s
Capital XTRAGlobal112 kbit/sCapital XTRAGlobal112/80 kbit/s
Classic FMGlobal128 kbit/sClassic FMGlobal128/112 kbit/s
LBCGlobal64 kbit/sLBCGlobal64 kbit/s
Smooth XmasGlobal80 kbit/sSmooth ExtraGlobal80 kbit/s
Heart ExtraGlobal80/64 kbit/s
talkSPORTUTV64 kbit/stalkSPORTUTV64 kbit/s
BFBS RadioBFBS80 kbit/sBFBS RadioBFBS80 kbit/s
Premier Christian RadioPremier64 kbit/sPremier Christian RadioPremier64 kbit/s
UCB UK ChristianUCB64 kbit/sUCB UK ChristianUCB64 kbit/s

The three at risk stations are italicised at the bottom of the right hand side of the table.

Furthermore, for Global to launch another DAB service right now, then a second of these stations would need to go as well.

Another thing to consider is the forthcoming “D2” multiplex. There was a late extension from Ofcom for applications, strongly suggesting that we will see at least two competitive bids by the closing date at the end of January. That said, you may see some of the same services crop up on both bids.

The timetable from the end of January is for Ofcom to look at the applications, fire lots of questions at the applicants and generally put everyone through the mill. Ofcom says that it will announce an award “as soon as practicable thereafter.” I would anticipate an announcement sometime during the summer. In reality, that means the earliest new services could get up and running would be sometime in early 2016, so there’s a while to go before any more new space appears.

What all this means is that if a service gets bumped off Digital One today (or outbid anyway), then it’s going to take them a while to get back onto a national DAB multiplex, because it’ll be another year before more space is available.

It’ll be interesting to see what Global and others do in the meantime.

[Update: 16 December 2014] It’s now official that Premier Christian Radio hasn’t secured an extension to its place on Digital One. Radio Today reports that Premier has a temporary extension allowing them to run from this weekend through Christmas until February. But it’s clear that Premier wants to remain on the multiplex, while Global claims to have “more to come.” Arqiva won’t be complaining then…

On DAB and Five Live

It was a really interesting day for radio today with several important announcements.

Of most interest to me was the formal announcement of the advertisement for a second national DAB multiplex. You may remember that back in 2007, this multiplex was previously advertised with Channel 4 winning it ahead of NGW the transmission supplier (since bought by Arqiva). Channel Four promised a lot, but after winning the bid, the whole thing fell apart when Channel 4 decided it needed to shore up its television offering without heading out into the great unknown of radio. The timing probably wasn’t great, just ahead of the 2008 downturn. And indeed, shortly thereafter, the existing national DAB operator, Digital One, was struggling to fill its capacity.

Ofcom went away a bit battered and bruised from the experience, and it’s clear that they weren’t going to return to the field of play until they could be certain that a new licensee would launch successfully with a range of services.

Flash forward to today and Ofcom is again announcing a second national multiplex. Given where we are today, and the fact that Digital One is full, I don’t anticipate any problems finding bidders and filling this multiplex with services.

As is required by law, the winner will be awarded the multiplex via a “beauty contest.” That is, what in Ofcom’s view is the best mix of services appealing to a wide range of audiences, as well as having a sound business plan and a plan to roll out the service to a good proportion of the population.

Interestingly, while the multiplex as a whole needs to be complementary – i.e. services all need to be a bit different – you can directly target services carried on Digital One.

One other thing I noticed is that in Annex I of the announcement, Ofcom lists the currently licenced services on Digital One. These include:
“TBA: A service featuring music from the 70s, 80s and early 90s with particular appeal to audiences aged 35-54.”

The mooted Heart Club Classics/Heart Extra that has yet to launch from Global? Or the also mooted move of Magic to a national DAB platform? [See comments below]

Allied with this announcement is a revised set of technical requirements for DAB. They’re mostly important but minor things that I won’t comment on further here. But of particular note is the fact that D2 can use up to 30% of the new multiplex’s capacity for DAB+ broadcasts. What’s really strange is that they’ve limited it at all. It seems that pretty much everyone who responded to Ofcom’s initial consultation on this matter thought that there really shouldn’t be a limit to this and the market will dictate it.

This is certainly true. Trials aside, a broadcaster is very unlikely to broadcast in DAB+ until they are certain that there are a decent number of potential listeners in the marketplace with compatible sets. If nobody can hear you, then you can’t make your commercial station work. Broadcasters can make that decision for themselves.

Ofcom is going to look again at the limit in 2018. Which is fine, but feels like it’s making work where none is really necessary and overall is a little nannyish.

And DAB+ is only going to be initially allowed on D2. For everyone else, you have to apply to Ofcom on a case by case basis if you want to either launch a new service in DAB+ on your existing multiplex, or switch your current one to the new technology. Again it feels over-regulated. If allowed to do as they liked, broadcasters would very carefully weigh up the pros and cons of switching technologies, well aware of the fact that they would almost certainly lose audience at this stage. Ofcom somehow thinks that broadcasters might deprive listeners of current DAB services by replacing them with DAB+ ahead of consumer uptake. Again, that’s wrong thinking.

That all said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a test here or there on a multiplex that otherwise has plenty of space.

Let’s not get too side-tracked about the relative merits of DAB and DAB+. I always feel that it should be likened to Freeview and Freeview HD. If you’re still watching digital television using a first generation OnDigital box, then your viewing is pretty limited now [Update: Thanks to James Hamilton for letting me know that those old OnDigital boxes were completely broken by DSO if they hadn’t been already]. Today, however, pretty much every television comes with Freeview HD built in, and many can also receive Freeview Connect and similar streaming services. As for the range of channels? Well nobody is going to get too excited by Channel 4+1 HD or 4seven HD which were recently announced as coming soon to Freeview. But that’s a commercial decision for channel operators and multiplex owner Arqiva.

Anyway, if you want to bid for the second national DAB multiplex, you have until the end of October to get your application in with your £50,000 application fee.

The other big news was the announcement of major changes across BBC Radio Five Live’s weekday daytime output. This sees the departure of big hitters like Victoria Derbyshire, Shelagh Fogarty and Richard Bacon.

The station is shrinking three shows down to two – which I imagine is part of their DQF savings – with the multiple-award winning Derbyshire being replaced by Adrian Chiles for part of the week and Peter Allen for the other part of the week. Once ITV’s contract with the Champions’ League has ended, Chiles is going to have more time to do things like radio, although there’s still a season of that to run, so Chiles may be heading to Manchester airport sharpish on Tuesdays if he’s still in the chair for away games next season.

The morning show extends to three hours, and then an extended afternoon show begins with Dan Walker and Sarah Brett replacing Richard Bacon. I’ve always liked Richard Bacon, as he knows his stuff – but he’s perhaps not the world’s greatest sports fan which can be a problem on Five Live. And sometimes he feels a little uncomfortable during breaking news when he has to segue seamlessly from what’s on TV this week to some court case verdict. There were rumours that he was up for ITV’s breakfast relaunch. One way or another, he’s going to pop up somewhere else fairly soon, I’ve no doubt. On Twitter this afternoon, Bacon said that it was his choice to leave Five Live.

I’d also imagine that Victoria Derbyshire and Shelagh Fogarty will show up either on Radio 4 or TV fairly soon, with an unnamed TV news project for Derbyshire first up.

Perhaps, because this would seem to remove some high profile women from the schedule, as well as Sarah Brett co-presenting afternoons with Dan Walker, Eleanor Oldroyd gets a Friday lunchtime show ahead of the still-two-hours Mayo and Kermode Film Review.

The lack of solo female shows is also going to be highlighted, with two staples disappearing, especially following previous announcements that suggested the BBC wanted a much more even male/female presenting split. I’d also argue that lack of racial diversity might also be an issue.

Tony Livesey is perhaps the big winner. He’s progressed from late nights, to weekend breakfast, and now taking over Drive with Anna Foster. While I can never quite forget that he was once the editor of the Sunday Sport and famously appeared in a Channel Four Cutting Edge documentary about the paper. But he’s very good, and will slide pretty comfortably into the role.

There are a range of other changes including a new pair of Fighting Talk presenters for next season, as well as some other presentational changes. Five Live certainly doesn’t do things by halves.

As a fairly regular listener – it’s my default station – I’ll be paying close attention!

Disclaimer: As always, these are my views, and they do not reflect those of any past or current employer. They are mine alone. Just so we’re clear! Also, I listen to a lot of Five Live.