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dab digital radio radio

Is UK DAB Radio “like Betamax”?

Don't stop Innovation by MatthewBradley @ flickr

It’s been a busy week this week, and I’m beginning to realise just how much a good soundbite in a story can attract journalists. I’m also trying to understand why only one view of a story makes it to publication.

Today’s “DAB crisis panic panic” story (following on from the flurry regarding unsubstantiated statements from Germany on Friday) follows the publication of a report into DAB by a company called Enders. I have met Claire Enders, and have been interviewed for one of their previous reports on mobile TV. I guess their reports are as accurate as anyone else’s, but I feel they are written – how to say this politely – to be “headline friendly”.

The headline that caught the press-pack’s eye today was provided by quoting Richard Wheatley of The Local Radio Company, who said that “DAB is the Betamax of Radio”. Hello headlines, goodbye measured analysis.

I’m certainly not saying that all is well in the world of UK DAB. Indeed, I’ve been warning of the problems in my presentations and this blog for the last year or so. But let’s look at what Enders actually said, rather than the “we’re all doomed Captain Mainwaring” stuff.

What Enders have said is that we have to wake up (agree) and deal with the fact that the original 1990’s plan for DAB isn’t working (agree). The plan tried to replicate an analogue radio environment into a digital space with no reference point for costs and on far too little spectrum. It also used computer predictions of coverage which are now pretty universally discredited.

I’m not surprised that plan now looks wrong, given the huge amount of change in the industry in the last 18 years. Indeed, it’s a tribute to a lot of peoples’ visions and determination that UK DAB is an amazing success (6.5m unsubsidised receivers in the market, from scratch, with the just the UK driving it – that’s a miracle).  But we need to learn from the last 9 years on-air and make the necessary changes.

The doomsday headlines seem to be predicated on a pretty insulting assumption that the radio industry isn’t capable of changing; isn’t capable of redefining and restructuring DAB to continue that success for the next 20 years.

So let’s challenge that assumption. The radio industry is full of surprisingly passionate and able people, who have very clever and clear ideas on how DAB can be evolved to fix the niggles and problems. The Enders report identifies some key actors in the change piece – DigitalOne, OFCOM, Arqiva, Channel4. Well, yes, OK, they’re important, but alongside them, GCap Media, Global Radio, EMAP and the BBC are equally able to help find solutions.

As I’ve said before, most of the money invested in DAB Digital Radio goes into transmission, and therefore to Arqiva. If they aren’t willing/able to change their plans (originally predicated on 12 year licence periods), then we probably do have a big problem. And OFCOM will need to justify that the change is really necessary and beneficial to the radio eco-system in the UK.

There is no reason why DAB should be expensive as it is. DAB networks don’t cost substantially more than FM networks, DAB multiplexers are just PCs running software. The mystique is falling away as we get older and more confident. I’d love to see Richard Wheatley able to put more of TLRC’s radio stations on DAB, even DAB+, at costs well below being on FM. It’s achievable, but it requires change, and if the Enders report provides the necessary painful kick up the bum to do it, then lets swallow hard and take the medicine.

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