Digital radio is going through a tough time in the UK. Julian Clover looks at why 6.5m listeners are apparently wrong
The knifes are sharpening around digital radio. The problem, apparently, is a lack of audience and this has caused commercial radio group GCap to pull out of the Digital One national DAB multiplex and Channel 4 to review its position.
The public broadcaster, remember that bit, owns 55% of the UK’s second digital radio multiplex and concerns over the future of the medium have reportedly led to a split at boardroom level as to whether it should continue with the £100 million investment.
Channel 4, a public corporation though hardly a broadcast Northern Rock, pleads poverty on digital transmission costs but finds the cash to buy into the former Emap music channels that include The Box, Smash Hits and Kerrang. DAB probably sits somewhere in between. Its DAB plans include news, speech, and drama as an alternative to the BBC dominance of the genre.
One of the key criticisms is that DAB is not easily available in cars, only now has Ford said it will offer DAB sets as an option on its Focus models, some five years after it was first mooted. This is not evidence that the DARS system proposed by Worldspace and ONDAS will be any more successful with the motor trade. A motor manufacturer has to be confident that a system will work across Europe rather than in the market that insists on having the steering wheel fitted on the opposite side of the car. There are DAB nets in, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway. Around 10,000 Vauxhall owners already have fitted DAB sets as standard and 1% of car owners have retrofitted DAB sets at a cost often in excess of £300.
The curiosity is why all of a sudden DAB is wearing long robes. One million DAB radios were sold in the last three months of 2007, bringing the total to 6.5 million, roughly double the number of Virgin Media households and 1.5 million behind BSkyB. The catch is that there are a total of 150 million analogue radios in the UK, yet 9.9% of radio listening is to digital radio, boosted by the distinctly un-portable Sky and Freeview.
Comedy and drama station BBC7 has a weekly audience of 853,000, though its commercial counterpart Oneword has been forced to close. Adult music station 6Music has an audience of 493,000 and Five Live Sports Extra 630,000.
The high performers are all BBC stations with the corporation’s publicity machine behind them. But commercial radio needs to realise that a jukebox on a limited playlist with voice-tracked announcements can normally be beaten by the listener’s own CD collection.
Channel 4 we need you.