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by GRANT GODDARD
www.grantgoddard.co.uk November 2004
When the technical specifications for Digital Audio Broadcasting were first published more than a decade ago, it seemed like manna from heaven. DAB appeared to offer a much-needed solution to the problem of our overcrowded AM and FM wavebands, which had severely limited the scope for new commercial radio services. Here, at last, was an opportunity to license a new tier of radio stations through a mix of small-scale and large-scale multiplexes across the country. In the future, it seemed possible that everybody would be able to listen to a wider choice of radio stations that offered new, different formats. So what happened? Well, the BBC took up the challenge offered by DAB and created a range of new radio services that are genuinely innovative and target specific audiences for black music, Asian programming, sport and speech. Admittedly, these are significant parts of the UK radio population that the BBC should have served more diligently many years earlier, but remember that it took Radio One eighteen years to introduce a weekly reggae show. Meanwhile, what has the commercial sector done? It has invested huge amounts in DAB transmission equipment and very little developing innovative digital content. The result – ours cannot be the only household where DAB is much used for the new BBC services, but rarely used for commercial radio. The latest RAJAR data tells the whole story. Listening to BBC 1Xtra, BBC 6, BBC 7 and the Asian Network is above 1.5 million hours per week, and even part-time station Five Live Sports Extra achieves over 1 million hours. These BBC stations launched in 2002, two years later than the commercial sector’s national digital stations, of which Planet Rock, Core, Life and Oneword each attract less than 1 million hours per week [I am guessing Life’s audience because owner Capital Radio chooses not to publish data]. PrimeTime is the one national commercial DAB-only station to register more than 1 million hours per week. And why? Because the Saga-owned station is offering genuinely different programming from existing stations, something that the others do not. So what happened to the diversity we were promised for DAB? This is the question asked by many local, community and student radio groups up and down the country. At the Radio Authority, I regularly received phone calls from these groups asking how they could apply for a licence to be carried on their local DAB multiplex. I had to explain that the decision on which specific services were carried on a multiplex was made by the multiplex owner and not by the Radio Authority, which provided only an overall policy for each multiplex. Then they asked me who owned the multiplexes. Well, I answered, multiplexes are owned by a combination of Capital, Chrysalis, EMAP, GWR, Wireless Group and Scottish Radio Holdings. Caller: “Are they obliged to carry my local community station?” Me: “No.” Caller: “How much will it cost?” Me: “You have to negotiate the terms with the multiplex owner, who set their own fees.” Caller: “So I have to convince these large radio groups to carry my little local station instead of one of their own services on my local multiplex?” Me: “Yes.” Caller: “And the Radio Authority does not get involved?” Me: “If the multiplex owner agrees to carry your station, then a digital content licence from us is a simple formality.” Caller: “So the realistic chance of getting my little station on DAB is almost zero.” Me: “Sorry.”
Hey Hey, You You, Get Off Of My [DAB Radio] Multiplex ©2004 Grant Goddard page 2
The UK must be the only developed country in the world where the existing radio companies have been made gatekeepers to a new technology that could have embraced new entrants and significantly improved programming diversity. It would be unthinkable for, say, the Post Office to be given the power to licence internet cafes, or McDonalds the power to licence new takeaway shops. How we arrived at this preposterous situation is a story in itself. Because the Radio Authority lacked a proper policy or strategy department, most media policy was instead determined by the CRCA, the commercial radio industry’s trade organisation. And where has that led us now? Many of the DAB-only commercial radio services are no more than “squatters”. Their radio group owners invented them merely to prevent future competitors from gaining space on their DAB multiplexes and those of their “competitors”. These services are not real radio stations but the simplest audio jukeboxes run entirely from a single computer in the corner of an office. Their overheads are almost zero. Their audiences are almost zero. Revenues are unimportant to their owners. These squatters serve a purely strategic purpose – they stop potential legitimate tenants finding a home on DAB. And the result is less genuine choice for listeners. For example, in London, I have listened to the “Virgin Radio Groove” DAB service sufficient hours to understand that this entire station is the result of an office junior having been dispatched from owner SMG’s office to HMV Oxford Street one Friday afternoon to buy 20 soul CD compilations. For several years now, SMG’s computer has played these same 200 songs again and again without any human intervention. Two years ago, I wrote to the station, politely pointing out that The Rascals’ “Groovin’” never was and never will be a soul record, and that several of the “soul classics” the station plays are horrible rerecordings rather than the original hits. So much for listener input! SMG continues to play these songs as regularly as they have always done. Meanwhile, a genuine London soul radio station such as Solar Radio, which had attracted a huge audience in the 1980s as a pirate and has since transferred its broadcasts to the internet and satellite, is unavailable on a DAB multiplex. Solar employs real presenters with excellent knowledge and passion, playing a diverse range of soul music, whereas the Virgin Groove computer becomes boring and repetitious after only a few hours' listening. If Ofcom wants to help the commercial radio industry attract audiences on DAB comparable in size to those already achieved by the BBC, it needs to lean on groups such as SMG and “persuade” them that their low-cost one-computer DAB stations are never going to develop a loyal listenership. The ultimatum should be - either invest now in proper content for these services and convert them to real radio stations, or Ofcom will kick these lazy squatters off the multiplex and insist on carriage for radio stations that improve content diversity and genuine choice. This is merely what most citizens thought they were getting when they paid £100 for their DAB receiver. The BBC delivered their part of the contract. To date, the commercial radio groups have only mugged them.
Hey Hey, You You, Get Off Of My [DAB Radio] Multiplex ©2004 Grant Goddard page 3
[Submitted to 'The Radio Magazine', November 2004, unpublished]
Grant Goddard is a media analyst / radio specialist / radio consultant with thirty years of experience in the broadcasting industry, having held senior management and consultancy roles within the commercial media sector in the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. Details at http://www.grantgoddard.co.uk
Hey Hey, You You, Get Off Of My [DAB Radio] Multiplex ©2004 Grant Goddard