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Nobody cares about DAB radio – so let's force it onto smart speakers, suggests UK govt review

Britain's anti Amazon and Google war gets a second front

The UK may require smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home devices to broadcast UK DAB radio stations, over government fears that Brits aren't consuming enough of the unloved radio tech.

Under the guise of "protecting UK radio stations' accessibility" the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has published a report calling for smart speakers to rebroadcast domestic radio stations' output. The recommendation is as follows:

The government to consider regulatory changes to ensure radio stations and radio and audio content can be easily found and is discoverable by users of voice assistant platforms, including smart speakers and in-car infotainment systems.

The call, made in the Ministry of Fun's Digital Radio and Audio Review, was backed by national broadcaster the BBC and commercial radio groups.

The same report found that 64 per cent of audio on smart speakers is live radio, though smart speaker users make up around 6 per cent of radio listeners at present. Nonetheless, DCMS called for governmental action to enforce the provision of something that's already provided.

Media minister Julia Lopez said in a canned statement: "We must make sure this treasured medium continues to reach audiences as listening shifts to new technologies and that we have a gradual transition away from FM to protect elderly listeners and those in remote areas."

It appears both the radio industry and the government are fearful of smart speakers because of their "greater functionality" than traditional radios. More worryingly for those who created and invested in the DAB radio network, DAB radio retailers are "finding it increasingly difficult to compete with smart speakers" with the newer devices outselling them 5:1 in 2019.

More frustratingly from the DCMS point of view are the attitudes of radio listeners, who simply don't understand what's good for them and keep refusing to spend money on DAB. The report stated that younger audio consumers "do not fully understand the choice of free-to-access services" while asserting that stubborn analogue oldies are simply happy with what they've got and don't see the need to buy a DAB set.

DAB has long been criticised for its technical quality and audience takeup has been much slower than optimistic civil servants and radio lobbyists hoped for. Meanwhile, DAB receivers themselves are becoming obsolescent as different technology bypasses them altogether – and both DCMS and radio lobbyists appear worried that traditional radio stations might become obsolete commercial failures.

"Amazon, Google and Apple currently provide more than 95 per cent of voice-activated smart speakers," said DCMS said in a summary of its report, adding: "The review notes there is nothing within the current regulations to prevent tech platforms from being able to limit or restrict access to UK radio services or to charge stations for carriage."

It seems implausible that Google and Amazon are streaming UK radio stations on their services for free.

Analogue radio previously gained a decade-long stay of execution, despite pressure from various sources to shut down traditional AM and FM public broadcast frequencies so the spectrum could be resold for a higher profit.

Meanwhile, as public indifference to DAB stubbornly refuses to shift, the future of on-demand podcasts and multi-function voice assistants looks like it might bypass the unloved digital radio tech in the next few years. ®

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