dab digital radio

No More Channel 4 DAB

Channel 4 Television Headquarters, Richard Rogers Development by .Martin. @ flickr

There has been a tidal wave of reporting, comment and speculation today about Channel 4’s decision not to become a radio broadcaster. The implications of their decision came through in two parts. Initially, it became clear that Channel 4 were pulling out of 4 Digital Group, which effectively dealt a death blow to the national multiplex licence that the group (which also included Bauer and UBC) had won in summer last year. Then, later, there was confirmation that Channel 4 would be scrapping its radio division entirely, ending the possibility that one or more of Channel 4’s stations might end up on the DigitalOne multiplex. There has been substantial amounts of speculation and comment regarding the discussions between DigitalOne, Channel 4 and OFCOM, and the issues are so complex, it’s hard to see how any of it could be entirely accurate.

The news that Channel 4 won’t be participating in DAB Digital Radio is, of course, not great. But Andy Duncan was careful to point to Channel 4’s own financial difficulties as being a key determiner in their decision, not DAB Digital Radio as a platform. I wonder how much the C4 Board were working out how to justify cuts to their core, established, business (and a certain amount of pleading for government assistance) as the same time they were launching a radio division. I believe Andy when he says that Channel 4 went into this with all good intention, and are just being clobbered by the economic situation. So maybe it’s not “never”, just “not now”. It’s a shame, because they had some good ideas (particularly for data services) – but they don’t have the monopoly on those.

Some of the current doom-mongering is happening because so much expectation was heaped upon Channel 4. If it became perceived wisdom that Channel 4 would invigorate the Digital Radio business, then clearly a “no show” tends to suggest the opposite. But I would disagree; indeed, some projects in DAB have been held back waiting for the outcome of the Channel 4 / Second National Multiplex story. There are now fewer unknowns to deal with, which hopefully makes decision making on re-inventing DAB somewhat clearer.

In my opinion, not building a second national digital network is a very good thing for the radio industry. The last thing the industry needed now is to be facing another long-term and expensive commitment to transmission infrastructure; infrastructure that would provide capacity that currently isn’t needed. Remember that the second national multiplex licence sprang into life (well, “was slowly conceived”) when DigitalOne was full and getting fuller. But we have capacity now – both on DigitalOne, and on local and regional multiplexes.

There are other benefits too. DAB in the UK needs a shake up, and one that (hopefully) the right combination of DRWG, OFCOM and the broadcasters will give it. To make really effective (and necessary) changes requires as clean a sheet a possible, and it would have been awkward to have a D2 multiplex just a few years into its existence whilst all the other multiplex licences reach potentially useful breakpoints (both in their licence terms and their infrastructure contracts). If DRWG recommends replanning, there’s no easier time to do it. Similarly, at some point we will need to look at the opportunities that DAB+ might bring to us.

Radio is suffering at the moment. Small stations are struggling to stay above water, and everyone is feeling the impact of a turbulent economy. Channel 4’s arrival might have stimulated some renewed interest in radio advertising, but in the short term they probably would have been grabbing revenue off other broadcasters, and doing that in lean times is hard on everyone.

When reading the doom-and-gloom headlines, and some of the melo-dramatic reporting (and “commentary”), it’s easy to lose track of the fact that DAB is a pretty good consumer story. In the four years since 2004 we’ve moved household penetration from 3% to 27%, and receiver costs have dropped to sub £20. (Admittedly, the 5 years before that were pretty dud). DAB accounts for 11% of radio listening, which means it’s underpinning about £60m of revenue for commercial radio.

The threats to DAB are understood and fixable. There are no problems that are insurmountable, and no threats outside the control of the UK radio industry. No other technology has suddenly appeared that makes DAB look irrelevant. Most people believe that the decision (if there is one) is whether radio stays analogue or goes digital using DAB – I don’t hear anyone seriously postulating using an alternate digital technology.

I’m reconciled to the fact that there’s going to be lots of negative commentary about DAB over the coming weeks, and a lot of it won’t be very accurate. Channel 4 not committing to DAB at this stage won’t kill it, but when the dust has settled, it might just make it stronger.

Photo: Channel 4 Television Headquarters (CC) .Martin. @ flickr

dab digital radio radio

The hidden value of Local Radio

Photo (CC) left_handed_male @

“Local Radio”. What does that mean to people? Alan Partridge on the slide? Cats stuck up trees? Jumble sales and council tax moans? Smashey, Nicey and cheesey jingles?

Local radio has a poor reputation with media (sorry, meeedijah) types, and possibly justifiably so. From a distance, the UK’s local radio stations used to seem terribly, well, raggedy. I think it must be a bizarrely British quirk to name local radio stations after rivers (Trent, Wyvern, Severn), Latin mottos (Invicta), Victorian railway companies (GWR) or most inexplicably, Anglo-Saxon kings from the 11th century (Hereward).

National radio may have “brands” and “stars”, but local radio brands are astonishingly highly regarded in their local areas, and local radio stations have local heroes. You might not have heard of Bush & Troy or Jo & Twiggy, but to the people of Bristol and Nottingham they’re as prominent as Chris Moyles or Terry Wogan, and considerably more visible.

Local radio has a hidden commercial value too. National radio might be able to attract national brand advertising, but only local radio can take both national and local revenue. The economic cycle seems to be moving back towards smaller independent businesses again; my local coffee shop (Baristas) is 150m away from Starbucks, but does fabulously well and has more character and is more welcoming. I’m writing this in the Star & Dove, a gastropub which is doing roaring trade and knocks the spots off Wetherspoons. These are businesses who can invest in local radio advertising, in the same way they can invest in Google Adwords and local classified listings.

Google loves local. They know that they can create more inventory and make advertising accessible to more businesses by segmenting their audience based on where they live. (Thus, in a strange way, copying something that local radio did 20 years ago by splitting adbreaks across transmitters).

Of course, when Google do something, it gets a funky new media (sorry, meedijah) name…


So maybe a new way to think about local radio is geo-targeted radio.

On DAB Digital Radio, both DigitalOne and Channel 4 will have single frequency networks across the UK, which sounds lovely and “national” and big. But I would suggest that as digital stations get bigger and bigger, we’ll see something unexpected happen. The really big digital radio stations, will move to the local multiplexes. And the national multiplexes will become the home of the “community of interest” (= “niche”) radio services.

The geo-targeted multiplexes (local multiplexes) will deliver more profit to national radio stations. On FM, Classic fm has to split commercials into regions because it’s simply too expensive for most advertisers to buy as a single station; by making it available in smaller units, more business comes in and it makes more money.

So what’s the future for “local radio”?

I think it’s potentially quite bright, because geo-targeting works for content as well as advertising. I’ll always have more interest in things-about-Bristol, and choosing to listen to GWR Bristol automatically defines a filter-set for content that includes national/international stuff I need to know about, and local stuff I want to know about. It’s like adding “+bristol” to a Google query.

Whether or not the structure of local content remains the same is open to more debate. OFCOM apply a fairly broad-brush approach to “locality” which is largely disconnected from economics. That tends to make “local content” seem like a chore, a cost and something to be avoided, rather than being an essential weapon in the competitive armory. It worries people to think that local content in the future might be regulated by actual demand, not specified requirements.

I’m excited about the prospects for geo-targeted radio. I’m looking forward to commercial radio brands using star-power to knock the BBC into a corner, but combining that with essential local information and local content that the BBC can’t replicate on Radio 1 or Radio 2. (Nor should be allowed to – note to BBC Trust). The existing local radio brands (that are powerful and valuable in their local areas) could be supplemented by new national commercial brands, but all providing geo-targetted content and advertising.

There’s a growing understanding that delivering a national brand on geo-targeted platforms could be more profitable than delivering a national brand on a national platform. I’m expecting a renaissance for “local broadcasting”, one where local content continues to thrive but in a different way to now, and spread across geo-targeted DAB multiplexes populated by the famous local brands we know now, and new national commercial brands yet to be developed.