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Planet Rock – will it soar as a standalone?

GWR Digital Production Suite

What a weekend for writing about radio stations changing hands. In the last 3 days, there have been two confirmed changes of ownership, and further speculation about the imminent future of Planet Rock. James has written up his thoughts on the sale of Virgin Radio to Absolute / TIML and the dropping of the “Virgin Radio” name, and XFM South Wales has been sold (7 months after it went on-air) to Jason Bryant’s Town and Country Broadcasting, and has been re-branded “Nation Radio” with immediate effect.

One change of ownership that is unlikely to involve a name change is the supposedly imminent sale (by GCap Media) of Planet Rock. The name of Malcolm Bluemel, an entrepreneur, has been mentioned in a report in The Times, although this is wholly unconfirmed at this stage. It’s certainly caused some ripples this week, as it appears that Brian May (of Queen fame) was rather surprised/disappointed to find that he wasn’t the only person willing to save the station. This Report also speculates that Mr. Bluemel will acquire the station for a “nominal sum”, which seems surprising for a station with 560,000+ listeners a week, and with a remarkable profile for a radio station which has spent virtually nothing on marketing in its eight and a half year existence.

I must admit to feeling a bit sad to see it leave home (although physically it’s not going very far); Planet Rock (along with Core) was one of the Digital Stations I started back in November 1999, and whilst I’m no big champion of classic rock music, I was involved in the research process behind the formation of Planet Rock and it’s left me in no doubt whatsoever that this is a radio station that talks to a very definite, passionate, and affluent audience, who – most importantly – are not traditional users of Commercial Radio. (Radio 2 and Radio 4 were the primary radio stations of most Planet Rock listeners).

I think Planet Rock could do much better, and realise its true potential, in an environment where everyone is focused and passionate only about the success of that station, and its standing with the (classic) rock community. Where influence is measured by audience figures, Planet Rock (and Core) always suffered from being a strange anomaly within GCap Media – national radio stations, but with regional radio station audience sizes. It’s understandable that the focus is selling Classic fm’s 6.8m listeners per week and the revenue expectations form that, rather than tending to and growing the Planet Rock brand.

One issue won’t change, at least as part of this deal, and it’s the unrealistic economics of the DigitalOne multiplex. If I was running Planet Rock (which I haven’t done for many years), I’d seriously be looking at the options to find it another DAB home. The reason that D1 is now half empty is that the costs of being on it appear virtually insurmountable. In my opinion, it’s a terrible business model for the wider radio industry, although I can understand D1’s attachment to, and defence of, it.

The interesting common thread of all these three sales is that the common consensus seems to be that the stations will fare better with their new owners than the old ones. And in each case, it seems that the new owners are smaller and more passionate about their purchases than the old ones. Maybe the radio industry is about to enter into a new phase of development, where smaller stations succeed through concentrated and focused passion about what they do best.

Update: 4th June – the sale of Planet Rock to Malcolm Bluemel’s “Rock Show” company has been confirmed. Good luck to the Planet Rock team.

(Photo: One of my own, taken on a frankly appalling first generation Digital Camera , of the first home of Planet Rock, Core and The Mix).

DAB = WEB

mac stillness by shapeshifter @ flickr.com (cc licenced)

Emily Bell wrote an Opinion article on MediaGuardian yesterday about the implications of a successful takeover of GCap Media by Global Radio.

In it, she notes:

“Many think that Hazlitt had a point about developing DAB. If the future distribution of radio is going to be via the web, then investing in an alternative infrastructure does seem slightly risky.”

So what does it mean to say “the future distribution of radio is going to be via the web“? What is “the web“?

In my mind, “the web” is a convenient catch-all to describe “stuff you access through a web browser”, and most people think of that being on a PC. Some people are getting used to the idea of surfing the web on something other than a PC, and the iPhone / iPod Touch have moved the concept of handheld browsing into the mainstream.

But how does “the web” get to you?

Moving “the web” around requires infrastructure. The majority of “the web” moves around on cables; cables between ISPs, cables under the sea, cables to your house.

Some of “the web” moves around without cables.

There are technologies like WiFi and GPRS+EDGE and 3G and HSPDA and WiMax.

All of these technologies require substantial infrastructure investment, have significant weaknesses and most are very expensive. Somebody has to lay cables, build towers, buy spectrum.

DAB has an image problem.

People think “DAB = Radio”, which is reasonable considering it’s been promoted as a “radio” system, championed by “radio companies” and all it’s ever done is transmit radio.

DAB = mobile broadband.

Each “multiplex” is equivalent to a 1.152MBit/s broadband connection.  Admittedly it’s a one way connection, but then so is HSPDA on 3G (and that’s a dirty secret that networks don’t like to shout  about). And DAB doesn’t use IP, but using IP would simply make it less efficient by introducing irrelevant routing information.

The UK Radio industry has flooded most UK cities with about 5MBit/s of completely free, mobile, broadband.

The investment in infrastructure to make that happen has been big for the radio industry (bigger than it appears it ought to have been), but tiny compared to other technology platforms. Miniscule. That’s why it’s the only mobile broadband platform you can access completely free and on devices costing less than £15 to buy outright.

The problem is that “the radio industry” struggles to understand how to monetise content other than radio on this valuable platform. But “new media” people who do some research understand the strengths and the weaknesses of DAB. A particular strength is that’s surprisingly economic and universal, and the weakness of being a unidirectional technology can be circumvented by combining with other technologies, like 3G or WiFi or something better at bi-directional traffic.

So investing in DAB isn’t “investing in an alternative infrastructure” at all. Investing in DAB is investing in “additional infrastructure” for distributing “the web”, and it’s particularly good at delivering the demanding application of streaming radio which people expect to access universally, on the move, for free. (WiFi and 3G simply can’t provide the Quality of Service to deliver uninterrupted mobile audio streaming).

But you can also use DAB to distribute web-sites, podcasts, video clips, traffic and travel data, public transport information, weather forecasts, local event data – anything you can access on “the web” can also be distributed simultaneously to millions of people via DAB.

We should start saying “DAB = WEB“.

(Bootnote – as I gave this blog its title, I remembered that “DABWEB” was the name of the very first webhost for Core, Planet Rock, The Storm and The Mix, wayyy back in 1999).