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Digital radio moves on but resistance remains

Digital radio has had a good few weeks on the face of it, but, as Kevin Hilton reports, public support is still in short supply and the problems that have dogged the technology over the years have not gone away.

Digital radio has had a good few weeks on the face of it: Germany and Sweden committed to rolling out DAB-based networks; the auto industry and broadcasters came to an agreement at the WorldDMB Car Manufacturers Workshop; and the new coalition government in the UK issued an Action Plan that will determine whether there will be a switch-over to digital. But, as Kevin Hilton reports, public support is still in short supply and the problems that have dogged the technology over the years have not gone away.

Radio listeners are fiercely loyal and consider themselves members of an exclusive club. That loyalty and passion is clear on both sides of the digital radio argument. Fans of the digital station BBC 6Music, which has an alternative, less mainstream output, organised a successful campaign to save it from closure. The proposal was part of a strategy review by the BBC’s Director-General, Mark Thompson, who recommended shutting both 6Music and the Asian Network as a way to “do fewer things better” and provide better value (that is, save money). Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC’s governing body, the BBC Trust, said a case for closing 6Music had not been made, although he did confirm that the Asian Network would close. This illustrates a high level of enthusiasm and goodwill towards digital services. But there is an equally strong, if not stronger, section of the radio audience that wants no part of the digital future. Listeners complain of being bullied away from FM radio, which they feel is good quality and provides all the services they need, and forced to buy new receivers that offer lower quality and stations no one wants to listen to. Campaigning website calls on consumers to stay away from DAB and use the internet for home listening instead. Its position is that the BBC and UK commercial broadcasters are using DAB to prevent the growth of internet radio. In doing this, it is claimed, the BBC is underestimating the cost of digital transmission; £50 million to £100 million for full switch-over, despite the BBC Trust quoting independent figures of £40 million a year to match FM coverage. The UK has been at the forefront of digital radio since the mid-1990s, launching a DAB network to simulcast existing channels and later introducing new services. The commercial sector followed with the Digital One multiplex and, for a while, had greater digital penetration than the public broadcaster. Sweden introduced a DAB network within days of the BBC but enthusiasm for the format waned and eventually the government suspended further development. At the end of June this year a new Radio and TV Act was passed in the Swedish parliament, allowing commercial radio companies to apply for digital licences for the first time. Sweden is now adopting DAB+, the second generation version of the original Eureka 147 DAB specification, which has improved coding for more efficient use of spectrum. Germany has also opted for DAB+, with the country’s public service financing committee, the KEF, unanimously agreeing to provide funding for the roll out of national digital radio. Dr Gerd Bauer, Radio Supervisor at the Association of State and Media Authorities, comments, “Today’s decision by the KEF signals a restart of digital radio in 2011 with the good will of all parties, not least the station operators.” Bauer’s remarks imply a process that became stalled, certainly one that, in most European countries, has taken time to get going. This is blamed partly on car manufacturers not installing digital radio receivers in new models as standard. WorldDMB, which promotes digital radio and mobile TV for the DAB platform, held its second Car Manufacturers Workshop in Munich on 13th July. On the agenda was TMC/TPEG, which carries “multi-modal” traffic and travel information on an international basis, independent of language. This is the digital version of RDS, which for years has given motorists details of road hold-ups by interrupting what they want to listen to with traffic bulletins. Jay Hackett of Jaguar Land Rover called for RDS and TPEG to co-exist “until the automotive industry has successfully caught up with the broadcasting industry”. The UK government sees the in-car market as essential to the growth of digital radio. In a speech to the Intellect Consumer Electronics Conference on 8th July Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said he intended to hold meetings with the major car manufacturers to restate the view that digital radio should be standard in all cars by the end of 2013. As for cars already on the road Vaizey said converter kits were already on the market but that there should be a “joined up and concerted effort” to provide a general solution to the problem, although he did not say where this would come from. Much of the digital radio policy of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government merely reiterates proposals by the previous Labour administration. However, Vaizey did soften the approach on a Digital Radio Switchover. While Labour’s target of 2015 remains, Vaizey said “a lot more work needs to be done before we can make it a cast-iron commitment”. Mindful of comments from colleagues that switching off analogue could “cause a major row”, Vaizey emphasised that FM would not disappear but would become “a platform for small local and community radio as long as these services want it”. In this spirit the government’s Digital Radio Action Plan makes a commitment to the technology but does not set a date for change. Instead the Plan will be used to decide whether to go ahead with a switchover, based on assessing the costs compared to the benefits for both consumers and the radio industry; ensuring rural areas are not disenfranchised; proposing minimum specifications for receivers; and developing a marketing and communications plan. Broadcast regulator Ofcom is preparing statistics and other information as part of this Plan and, according to a spokesman, is due to deliver it to the government “imminently”. The director of BBC Audio and Music, Tim Davie, used the Intellect Conference to outline how the Corporation will support the government’s Action Plan. This includes improving DAB coverage, with 61 new national transmitters to be installed by the middle of 2011. This, Davie said, will cover at least 92 percent of the UK population, compared to 85 percent now. “Good in-car coverage” will rise from 83 percent to approximately 93 percent of the UK’s motorway network. Back in 1995 the BBC was hoping to spread digital reception beyond London and reach the remaining 60 percent of the UK by 1998, although that would be centred on major towns and motorway routes. Independent radio analyst Grant Goddard is not convinced that digital is the future for radio. In a submission to the House of Lords Select Committee on communications Goddard outlined several factors working against the technology: the characteristics of radio making the logistics of switchover a very different proposition to television; the robustness of the existing analogue FM radio broadcasting system; and DAB’s shortcomings. The tricky job of convincing British listeners that they should make the move from their trusted analogue sets lies with Digital Radio UK, which is backed by the BBC, transmission company Arqiva, commercial groups GMG Radio, Bauer and Global and trade association RadioCentre. Chief executive Ford Ennals was involved in the Digital TV Switchover and encountered the same resistance as he is now in radio. “People would say that they only watch BBC1 or BBC2, so didn’t need any new channels,” he explains. “But the government made a policy decision and set a date and we got the message across.” Ennals admits, however, that radio listeners may be even more difficult to convince: “The anti-DAB lobby is more vocal than those that like it, so we should be better at using the kind of support we saw for 6Music.” Many of the proposals made by the government and the BBC have echoes of suggestions made nearly ten years ago, when digital radio was trying to establish itself. Ennals acknowledges this but says the difference today is that there is a “critical mass”, with 43 percent of listening now done digitally. Ennals agrees that the new government’s Action Plan restates what went before but feels it is positive and not a softening in position regarding commitments to digital. Ennals views the in-car market as an area where progress has not been made as fast as it should have been but sees that changing now. In Ennals’ view DAB will remain the core of digital radio in the UK, although Ed Vaizey has called for DAB+ capability to be a feature of any future receivers. Ennals sees the listening landscape becoming a hybrid, with people using both digital radio and the internet on mobile phones and handheld devices. “We’re now beginning to see some momentum,” is Ford Ennals optimistic conclusion. While that might be true there is inertia of almost equal force from die-hard FM listeners, who clearly see being able to listen to their favourite programmes how they want as a right they won’t give up easily.