Digital radio: Signs of a tipping point?

Monday 24 October 2011, 18:53

Tim Davie Tim Davie Director of Audio & Music

Tim Davie

With the completion of a full switchover to digital television now imminent, focus is likely to increase on radio and its progress in the digital world. The story of digital radio in the UK is one of slow, steady progress, and lively debate, rather then breakthrough.

We have reached a point where over a quarter of all listening is via digital but there is a lot to do before the majority of listening moves off analogue, and a switchover would be accepted, and welcomed, by listeners.

As most people are aware, there are significant barriers to change.

Firstly, many listeners remain very content with their current analogue radios and see no real need to change. Indeed, radio listening has held up rather brilliantly in recent years despite the explosion of choice in a digital world.

Secondly, even if people have shown interested in upgrading radios, coverage has remained too patchy to guarantee a robust signal when travelling across the country.

Thirdly, digital radio has lacked unified, knockout communication which has made a compelling case for the benefits of digital radio.

Finally, there has not been broadscale industry, political and industry consensus about the way forward. Indeed, many people still believe that DAB is a technology that is unnecessary because internet enabled devices will make broadcast technology redundant. It is a question that I asked hard on taking this job but it is clear that radio, like television, will need a broadcast "backbone" for many years to come if it is to deliver robust free reception to a morning traffic jam on the M6. There is much comment on the BBC's obsession with DAB but our objectives are simple: ensure cost effective, universal access to our services (including the digital stations) while stimulating competition and innovation which helps grows radio as a whole.

Last week we hosted a meeting of car manufacturers at the BBC and we heard from Ed Vaizey, Minister of Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, as well as other senior industry voices.

Even hardened cynics saw that progress has been made since we started pulling together as an industry to build a digital future.

Specific news included:

  • The government confirmed its commitment to move radio to digital and to plan the move towards a switchover via a Digital Radio Action Plan which is endorsed by the BBC and the major commercial radio companies.
  • We announced that we would build out DAB coverage for our national stations from just over 90% to 97% of the UK population between now and 2015. This will cover all towns with a population of 5000 or more as well as delivering more robust coverage of the 25 large cities and towns. The whole motorway network will have very good coverage, and we are aiming to get close to FM for all primary roads.
  • The car industry indicated that DAB will (or has) become part of the standard spec in all new cars by the end of 2103 at the latest. (So far this year, 18% of new cars have DAB as standard versus 5% last year)
  • Absolute Radio announced two more new digital stations (Absolute 60s and 70s) and the BBC confirmed that as well as supporting current digital stations, it would launch a special temporary digital service to provide increased coverage of the Olympics.
  • Finally the industry confirmed that it would launch a much more unified approach to marketing digital radio.

There is much to do, but radio deserves to benefit from a digital future with increased choice and better functionality.

DAB is part of the story, not all of it, as we must innovate on the internet and ensure that listeners can benefit from the better digital functionality (catch-up, programme information etc).

As for an FM switchover, it will only happen if we make a clear case to listeners on the benefit of change, because evidence shows that when they switch to digital they like it and don't want to go back.

However, my sense is that what seemed unlikely to most people two years ago is now looking possible and may well become inevitable.

Tim Davie is Director of Audio & Music


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    After three progressively more expensive DAB radios I have gone back to analogue radio.My reasons for this are inconsistency of signal affecting quality of reception,the annoyingly long aerials in my kitchen,the inferior quality of a Roberts very expensive radio.
    In addition the fact that digital radios can use up to 3 or 4 times the energy of an analogue radio makes it far less viable.
    Why do no mp3 players feature DAB radio?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    And there is the time delay whilst the signal is processes which is apparent when listening in one room on good old VHF and in another with DAB - so who can trust the time signal's pips on DAB?
    And the sound quality is not so hot either

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    If it weren't for the extra stations - both BBC and other broadcasters - there wouldn't be any point in having a DAB radio.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    DAB is a swing and a miss for me. With several years' head start on Digital TV, it has nowhere near the take-up that allowed analogue switch-off to proceed, and no sign that users will voluntarily start buying in enough quantities to allow compulsion.

    We have to abandon DAB. It will break every device that has already been bought, but we can't continue with a system that just isn't going to get there. A decision has to be taken on what to use instead. DAB+ - which can be employed piecemeal, part of an ensemble at a time - is an obvious step, but we can't simulcast a station in both DAB and DAB+ because there isn't space, without increasing compression on all stations.

    Or, we could go the radical approach and change over to DVB-T2 in 1.7MHz channels, replacing existing DAB allocations, giving much more capacity. Freeview HD boxes are down to an impressive £27 (Tesco are clearing old stock at £15) and that includes an MPEG-4 AVC decoder which the radio obviously wouldn't need. But the Government would have to assign the BBC a new frequency allocation to build-out a new network.

    Or, we could go another way entirely, following the Digital TV model in a different way: providing the replacement in the same frequency band as the service it's replacing. Digital Radio Mondiale plus (DRM+) can operate in VHF Band II along with FM services, as a replacement for an FM service. Single-frequency nets are possible with a transmitter spacing of 75 km. A bit of reshuffling of current BBC FM radio frequencies might make SFNs possible. Another approach might be to relieve commercial radio from some of the frequencies they no longer need, considering they now run pseudo-national services. One of the sticking points for DAB is the need for truly local radio stations to come together into one ensemble, while DRM+ would offer a straightforward one-for-one replacement.

    The radio planners really ought to read Michael Starks' book "Switching to Digital Television: UK Public Policy and the Market", covering how Digital TV switchover was achieved - and of course, how it nearly wasn't.

    ANY of these options is an improvement on sticking with DAB. DAB is just too inefficient.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Oops - somewhat longer than expected ... "standard spec in all new cars by the end of 2103 at the latest".


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