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24 September 2014
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Jenny Abramsky

Director of Radio & Music

The future of digital radio in Europe

Monday 20 October 2003
Printable version

Speech read by Simon Nelson, Controller of Radio & Music Interactive, on behalf of Jenny Abramsky, Director of BBC Radio & Music, to the National Association of Broadcasters

Press release available

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting the BBC to come and talk to you today about the future of digital radio in Europe.

Jenny Abramsky is very sorry that she cannot be here today – so I am the poor substitute. I'm Simon Nelson and I run BBC Radio & Music Interactive, a unit set up to take the BBC's radio and music brands and content on to digital platforms, such as DAB digital radio, digital television and the internet, and showcase them to their best advantage there, making use of each platform's particular strengths.

It feels like a good time for us to reflect and consider the bigger picture as we near the end of a hectic year at the BBC in digital radio terms.

Our family of five new digital radio services is in its first year of life and they are finding their voices with increasing confidence - and we are enabling millions more to hear them as we switch on new BBC DAB digital radio transmitters around the UK.

To get to this point has not been easy by any means. It has taken years of informed and committed advocacy, first inside the BBC, and then to Government, which granted us permission to launch our new services in 2001.

It has also meant considerable risk – of investment, of reputation and, most importantly, creativity.

So in talking to you about the future for digital radio in Europe, please be assured that, at the BBC, we are under no illusion as to just how difficult realising that future can be.

However, we are convinced of the need for us as broadcasters in Europe to undertake that advocacy, to take that risk.

Large organisations can be culturally risk averse – even more so in these uncertain times - but with the future of radio as a medium at stake, it has never been more important for us to be bold, and for broadcasters in particular to show leadership. For it is, in our view, nothing less than the future of radio that is at stake here.

For us here today, for our listeners across Europe, it may seem far-fetched to conceive of a time when radio might play little more than a bit part in the media lives of millions of Europeans. After all, radio is thriving in Europe, with tens of thousands of stations and over two hundred million listeners who spend about three hours every day with them.

For Europe, radio is a vibrant cultural force to be celebrated and nurtured, which brings together the many peoples of Europe and enables them to find out about one another, their societies, their world. But we can't take this for granted in a future where the next generation of radio listeners faces more choices about their media and the way they consume it than ever before.

For radio must go digital if it is not to go into long term decline. If radio were the only medium not to go digital it would soon become obsolete for younger audiences and future generations accustomed to a vast array of digital choices when it comes to their media experiences.

A public sector and commercial market that did not have the space to expand with new services in the digital space would stagnate and become less relevant to new audiences. And less able to compete with that huge range of choice in other media.

And while we might be used to listening to a very limited choice of radio stations on crackly transistor radios to which we navigate by means of incomprehensible numbers, future generations will increasingly see this as an archaic medium.

But it isn't just threats that make the digital transition so important – it's the opportunities as well. Opportunities to take the best of the medium, make it thrive in the digital environment and enable it to grow and become an even more important part of everyone's lives – current and future audiences.

Today, I'm going to frame some thoughts on the digital future for radio in Europe in four sections: choice, enhancement, control and ubiquity.

It is a digital future that sees radio securely positioned and thriving as never before.


Let me start with choice because it is at the heart of the BBC's digital radio strategy. We also believe it is the key to driving take-up of digital radio in many parts of Europe, though not all.

One of the key benefits of digital technology is that suddenly broadcasters and audiences alike are freed from their analogue straitjackets. At the BBC, it means that we no longer have to corral all available listeners into five national radio options plus a local radio option.

Just over half of all radio listening in the UK is to BBC stations - local and national. However, we have long been aware that while we offer an excellent service to many people in the UK, there are many licence fee payers whom we underserve, notably young people and ethnic minorities.

They have little or no relationship with BBC Radio and we wanted to use digital as an opportunity to change that. In developing the five new digital stations that we launched in 2002, we aimed to reach some of those underserved audiences as well as our heartland and, in so doing, release more value from licence fee payers' investment in radio sports rights and our world famous archives of music and speech programmes.

First to launch in February last year was Five Live Sports Extra, a part-hours overspill service that can offer uninterrupted or additional commentary on sporting events when Radio Five Live, our existing news and sport station, cannot.

It was followed in spring by 6 Music, the BBC's first new music station in thirty-two years. It is a showcase for the gems of the BBC's popular music archive, with opinionated presenters breathing new life into them and juxtaposing them with the influential music and musicians of today and tomorrow.

1Xtra, a cutting edge black music and speech station for a young, multi-ethnic audience, was born in the summer and in autumn, it was the turn of the Asian Network. Our regional service became a national one, offering music, news and speech to a young British Asian audience.

Just in time for Christmas came BBC7, packed with a wealth of archived comedy, drama, readings and serials - and providing a home for children's programmes. It was an instant listener success and has already scooped its first prestigious Sony award.

For those of you who are visiting the UK, if you would like to find out more about this content, please do speak to BBC Radio International, the hosts of this evening's reception.

The five new stations double the BBC's portfolio of national stations to ten at a cost of twenty million pounds – or thirty million euros every year.

Our local stations are going digital too and we are also able to make the World Service easily available to a UK audience for the first time.

All ten national stations and the World Service are available on DAB digital radio, on digital television and the internet so that we can reach the widest possible audience.

So who's listening? And what does this mean for the future of BBC Radio? Well, on Thursday, the first set of industry standard audience figures for our new services is published by RAJAR and we will be able to see what sort of impact our new services have made.

We expect it to be a modest one – these are very early days. There are no targets at this stage – these stations need time to find their voices, to grow their production and presentation talent, to build – and build an understanding of – their audiences.

The BBC will provide an environment for these stations to do just that by investing for the long term and ensuring that they do not wilt, neglected in the shadow of the five established networks.

One way we have tried to do that is by investing in marketing. Our investment in content would be squandered otherwise. As well as dedicated campaigns on television, radio and the internet for the individual services, in the summer, we ran a campaign promoting digital radio via our portfolio of new services.

The response from potential DAB digital radio consumers has been very encouraging and retailers have reported dramatically increased set sales in the month during and after the campaign.

Before Christmas, we will run an even bigger cross-media campaign and we hope that by the end of the year, around three hundred and fifty thousand sets will have been sold.

The range of new radio services available is the main reason cited by digital radio buyers for their purchase. In a recent joint industry survey, one in five purchasers actually cited BBC7 as the reason for their purchase.

Whatever audiences our new services achieve come Thursday, they will be many times greater than those envisaged when the stations were in development. Then we were prepared for audiences of a few thousand in the early years – but the phenomenal growth of listening through the internet and digital television as well as the recent, rapid rise in sales of DAB digital radio sets means that we will surpass those original expectations by a huge margin.

And as for what this means for BBC Radio – well, it's not just the BBC which has seen the enormous potential of increasing listener choice.

Our colleagues in commercial radio have also launched a plethora of national and local services, across a range of genres.

This has seen new brands come to the airwaves – seizing the opportunity for established brands, such as music magazines, to translate to radio; or enabling successful local brands to find a new national audience; or inspiring the creation of entirely new radio brands.

It's fantastic news for the radio industry, radio professionals, advertisers and, most importantly, listeners.

The increased choice will mean increased competition, of course, and we don't expect that the BBC will start the next decade as it started this one – with over half of all radio listening to its stations.

We expect that our share of listening will fall but increased choice is the right strategy because we know that is right for audiences – it is what sells sets and is what will take radio digital.

Despite falling share, we believe that we will still be able to offer something of value to millions of radio listeners – not just by means of the quality of our pure radio offering, but also by making use of one of the other benefits of technology: the ability to enhance the listening experience for those who want to do so.


As well as offering choice in the number of stations available to listeners, we can also offer ways of enhancing that listening experience.

A simple yet effective illustration of this is provided by the text display on a digital radio set. Suddenly, the pain goes out of tuning. No need to remember a frequency – you can tune by name. Once you've tuned in, the text display enables you to find out the name of the programme that you are listening to, the song that is playing, the guest being interviewed, the helpline number, the website address – and much more.

Instead of a blank screen when you tune into BBC Radio on Freeview, the UK's digital terrestrial TV platform, you see the station branding – which is particularly important for our new service brands which are still trying to establish themselves – the website address and the station strapline.

Last month, we added the live text that we produce for digital radio, thus releasing a wealth of additional information. You can listen to a symphony in digital quality on Radio 3 and have the score contextualised by real-time information about what you are hearing. That makes for a richer radio experience for those who want to take advantage of it.

On the digital cable platform, where bandwidth is more plentiful than on Freeview, we are experimenting with offering content reversioned from our radio websites.

In the summer, we started with Radio 1, offering DJ pictures, webcams, entertainment news, schedule information and more, including the facility to email the DJ.

Our award-winning suite of radio websites has set the standard in terms of enhancing the listener experience. Again, the analogue shackles are off and listeners can find out more about the programmes, the presenters and the stations.

They can discuss the music or continue the current affairs debate on the message boards or in the chat rooms with other listeners – or with the presenters and guests themselves.

I can't think of a better way to connect with your audience.

Radio has always made for a personal relationship between the listener and the station – now both parties can take that a stage further should they wish. Listeners can interact with the programmes and the programmes have a powerful direct line to their listeners.

Perversely, sometimes it can be all too easy to forget about your audience when you are wrapped up in making programmes for them – digital technology of this kind brings you closer to them.

Some of the best examples of listener interaction feed back into radio programmes, from a music mix to an online short story-writing competition. But listeners need not be confined even to shaping the output. Now, they can schedule it.


Which brings me to control, the third element of radio's digital future that I want to touch on.

One of the most exciting – and scary - things we did in BBC Radio last year was to put the listeners in control of the schedule. The BBC Radio Player brings together over three hundred programmes from across national and regional stations along with the World Service and enables listeners to hear them on the internet for up to a week after they are first broadcast.

Listeners can schedule their radio listening around their lives rather than their lives round their radio listening. They can look for programmes by radio network or by category of programme, which can introduce them to stations to which they might not usually listen or of which they may not be aware – again an important way for us to promote our new radio services.

The Radio Player forms a stunning showcase for the wealth of specialist music and speech content that the BBC makes, releasing better value for money for our investment by increasing its accessibility to the audience.

In some cases, we can increase the reach of a programme significantly by offering this 'on demand' service. For example, Radio 1's iconic dance music show, Essential Mix, goes out at 2.00am on a Sunday when not all dance music fans can hear it.

However, listening to it on demand can increase the reach of Essential Mix by around thirty per cent – an astonishing figure.

It is not just a young, technologically confident audience that is taking advantage of this service, however. Our speech network, Radio 4, can add around four per cent reach to its comedy programmes and two per cent to The Archers, its daily drama serial.

The Radio Player was launched last summer and in about a year, over a million programmes were being requested of it every week.

The internet is not the only environment that makes this kind of listener control possible. Already on the digital satellite television platform, it is possible to record and store radio – and TV – programmes on a personal video recorder.

Roberts is on the verge of launching a DAB digital radio which allows you to pause and rewind live radio and provides storage capacity within the radio.

Soon your DAB radio may be able to store hours of your favourite radio programmes, chosen by you to suit your own needs and moods. There is no reason why audio on demand cannot soon go mobile too.

The move to give listeners greater control of what they listen to and when can be a daunting one for organisations such as the BBC, which are used to scheduling what their listeners hear and when.

This art will not die – I firmly believe that live, linear radio will retain a dominant place in the digital future. But audiences are growing to expect greater choice, flexibility and control in their media consumption and radio must embrace that.

If we do we believe we will grow the market and take greater share of media consumption at those times of day when other media traditionally dominate.


My final theme is ubiquity. Possibly the greatest strength of radio as a medium is its ability to slot into the lives of its listeners – from bedroom to bathroom, on to kitchen and car, in your pocket, in your baseball cap.

Digital will only help that. For instance, in the UK, the average household has six radios. We all know that. But actually, in millions of households, overnight that figure has increased. If you have a digital television – and around half the households in the UK do – then you also have a seventh radio because you can listen to radio through that digital TV set.

If you have a PC with speakers and a soundcard, you have an eighth radio because you can listen to radio online.

If you have a mobile phone with an FM receiver in it, that's nine.

As costs of manufacture fall, you could find a DAB chip could be embedded in all manner of devices – your handheld computer, your mobile phone, your digital television set top box.

The BBC has deliberately taken a multi-platform strategy for our digital radio development, using the advantages of each platform, be it digital television, digital radio or the web, to deliver something of value to its listeners.

This is because we don't mind which platform they listen to us on – just that they get access to our programmes and brands and the additional services with which we are able to enhance the listening experience.

But we recognise that as broadcasters we need to take leadership in driving the adoption of digital radio by the audience, the market and the industry.

For too long in the UK, the development of digital radio was trapped in a vicious circle. Yes, we could see internet listening and digital television on the horizon but none of us in broadcasting saw these as ways to take the bulk of radio listening digital.

Over a billion hours a week of radio listening take place in the UK. The vast majority of those hours take place in the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, the car and on the move.

The internet and digital television have taken radio listening on to new devices and into new parts of the home or office where traditionally other activities, such as television watching or silent work, dominated. They are growing radio listening in the UK.

But in order to take those billion hours of listening digital we have recognised that the only technology capable of delivering the digital transition, in a way that retains the broadcast model of distribution, is DAB digital radio.

It is a robust broadcast technology that enables affordable, high volume production and that can be embedded into a range of devices. It is radio as we know it – cheap, portable, reliable – only better.

And in order to drive it and break out of that vicious circle, the UK radio industry, working together to an extent of which we could never previously have dreamt, has taken the lead in investing in new stations and programmes, in infrastructure and in promotion to drive DAB digital radio awareness and take-up.

Key manufacturers have also shown leadership and taken the risk associated with moving into new market segments. They have produced a range of affordable, attractive sets in a range of formats, from tuners to pocket radios.

And as a result of this integrated approach, we believe the corner has been turned and the 'tipping point' reached for digital radio in the UK.

Other European countries now need to reach this point and other broadcasters, both public and private, in those countries need to put aside their short-term competitive differences and join together to secure the future of radio in their countries.

If there is to be a coherent digital future for radio in Europe, rather than a two tier approach, then other European broadcasters need to show the leadership that the BBC and commercial radio have shown in the UK.

They need to invest in content as well as infrastructure and accept the risks to their competitive situation that digital can bring.

Governments and regulators need to enable and incentivise them to do this in the same way that the UK Government has nurtured digital radio in the UK.

By doing this, they will ensure that radio takes advantage of this opportunity to revolutionise itself, to build further on its supreme strengths and ensure that it is as relevant to the audience of tomorrow as it is to the audience of today.

I hope we can drink to that at the party that follows, hosted by BBC Radio International – yes, that's the cue for the Happy Hour. See you there – thank you very much.

Press release available


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