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Ofcom waves DAB radio licences under local broadcasters' noses as FM switchoff debate smoulders again

Only half the nation prefers digital radio to analogue, though

Britain's airwaves are opening up to DAB versions of local radio stations, Ofcom has declared as it tries to shift more Brits away from AM and FM radio.

The broadcast regulator has declared that "small-scale DAB" will provide "a low-cost route" for local stations to go digital across the nation.

Ofcom wants to speed up the nation's planned shift off analogue radio, the situation having largely stagnated over the past few years after an initial burst of enthusiasm. Today's announcement sees Ofcom tendering 25 local area licences for community DAB radio stations.

"Community radio applications, in the form of the new Community Digital Sound Programme ('C-DSP') licences, will open for each local area at the same time as the publication of multiplex licence advertisements," said the regulator here.

A consultation response document also published by Ofcom reveals that some industry players including transmission infrastructure bods Arqiva and broadcaster Wireless Group were not in favour of the move. Ofcom said that Arqiva, specifically, was "primarily" concerned about the "risk that the introduction of small-scale radio multiplex services could cause 'adjacent channel interference', and hence disrupt the reception of existing local and national radio multiplex services."

As we recounted in 2018, an initial boom in sales of DAB receivers rapidly flattened out after heavy marketing of what was promised to be a higher-quality audio experience than analogue broadcasts. Listeners discovered that while the quality was good under perfect conditions, those conditions were a lot harder to achieve for DAB than for analogue signals.

man dabs in front of DAB radio

The future of radio may well be digital, but it won't survive on DAB


Industry auditor RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research)'s latest stats [PDF], for Q4 2019, show that digital listenership makes up just 53 per cent of nationwide radio reception. This figure has not shifted much since Q4 2017, the first point at which digital radio overtook FM and AM in terms of listenership share.

Similar moves abroad have had mixed reception. In Switzerland a rural radio station handed back its DAB licence after government subsidies for the new tech began drying up. Country Radio Switzerland's David Bolli told a local news outlet (Google Translate link to German-language Swiss news site) that the DAB licence would have cost 20,000 Swiss francs rather than the 8,000 francs charged for the FM equivalent.

Some might compare digital radio to local TV stations, which have largely been a flop in the UK. Despite the idea looking promising, it rapidly emerged in practice that Brits simply aren't interested in watching local TV, preferring the traditional big five channels above all else.

For example, between 6 and 12 January this year local channel London Live managed to reach a whopping 1.47 per cent of the UK's total potential viewers, with average weekly viewing per person of just 60 seconds, according to the Broadcasters Audience Research Board.*

Lurking in the background of all this is the government's desire to wind down analogue radio completely. Although the BBC issued a press release backing away from this in early 2018, a radio trade news site reported local London DAB radio station co-owner Paul Chantler as saying last summer: "Now that DAB radio covers 90 per cent of the UK and listening via digital platforms accounts for 52 per cent of all listening, the government feels that now is the time to consider 'forcing' a full migration to digital radio."

It doesn't seem like analogue radio will go the same way as analogue TV in the immediate future. Still, we're keeping an ear on the wireless just in case. ®


* To view London Live's painfully poor figures, click on the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board link and search for 2020, January, week 6-12 Jan, then type "london" into the "filter by name" box. BARB does not provide direct links to its data, unhelpfully.

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