Radio analogica e ascolto a distanza? Addio, è stato bello.
Talks seek tipping point for digital radio
By Ben Fenton, Media Correspondent
Published: March 5 2008
Urgent talks involving many of the most senior broadcasters in the UK are being held in an effort to make digital radio commercially successful, the Financial Times has learned.
Proposed solutions to the slow take-up of digital audio broadcasting, the UK’s chosen format for digital radio, include radical steps that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago.
They include the possibility that the BBC could be persuaded to transfer its principal radio stations – Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 and Five Live – gradually to digital-only broadcasting over a prolonged period.
“Without these kinds of measures, if you leave it to the market, then the switchover to digital radio is going to take a long time,” one senior figure told the FT, adding that talks were shrouded in secrecy.
“And it is certainly going to be too long from a commercial radio point of view.”
The catalyst for the urgent discussions was the announcement three weeks ago by Fru Hazlitt, chief executive of GCap Media, that she would pull her company out of all the digital radio projects to which it was not contractually committed. She said DAB was “not economically viable for us”.
“She had to say that as part of her defence against the [proposed] takeover by Global [Radio],” a member of another radio company’s board said.
“But we all know that behind it is a kernel of truth applying to almost everybody’s digital radio businesses.”
Another radical idea would be to use public money to support a huge switchover advertising campaign – and subsidies for elderly and low-income families to buy new radios – in the same way that has happened in aiding the switchover to digital television.
The BBC has a budget of £800m ($1.6bn) provided by government to support digital switchover in television broadcasting. Early signs are that the take-up will be much lower than anticipated, leaving as much as £250m spare, according to a National Audit Office report last month.
“With just what is left over from the telly switchover, we could buy enough radios to get to a tipping point,” one senior commercial radio company executive said.
The radical ideas focus on signalling the abandonment of analogue radio over a long period of time – perhaps a decade or more – and by doing so persuading the UK population to take up DAB in the same way that they have adopted digital television broadcasting. More than 85 per cent of homes have at least one digitally enabled television set now.
DAB take-up has lagged behind, and although there are 6.5m digital radio sets in the UK, there are more than 100m analogue sets and only a tiny proportion of the country’s 30m cars have the new technology.
Talks within the commercial sector have been taking place at the Radio Centre, the industry’s representative body, and involve both Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, and the digital radio working group set up by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
The discussions include all the main commercial companies and official representatives. They will include consideration of reforming the licensing system so that those companies holding lossmaking digital radio stations – the majority – can surrender their licences without stinging penalties.
Simultaneously, the main public service broadcasters, the BBC and Channel 4, have been discussing how best they can support digital radio, especially given the latter’s own plans to expand into the medium for the first time.
The non-executive directors on Channel 4’s board have expressed great concern over the broadcaster’s plans to enter digital radio as the owner of the second national “multiplex”, the name given to the transmission network.
It is thought that the solution to Channel 4’s problems will involve some form of co-operation with the BBC. However, the discussions are believed still to be at an early stage.