Monday, 16 December 2013

Ofcom to pursue DAB-lite for smaller stations....

I've been accused of being part of an "anti-DAB" campaign. Lets be clear, I think DAB was a brilliant development, in the 1980's it was an ingenious technically advanced solution. The trouble is that it was a solution to the wrong problem. It was devised largely with big European state broadcasters and national or regional commercial services in mind.

Before the days of the world wide web the specifications did not even consider the need for interactivity and access by a range of originators, large and small.

So I'm pleased to see that the Arts and Culture Minister Ed Vaizey today told the Go digital conference that the government will be providing funds over the next two years for Ofcom to build on the work of its Brighton pilot to develop small-scale DAB solutions, to allow smaller radio stations to go digital.

Vaizey told the conference: "We all know how much people love their small local commercial and community radio stations. That is why we have always said that we will reserve a part of the FM spectrum for as long as it is needed for those stations that are too small to make the switch to digital. This remains the case.

"We will also be consulting shortly on how we can improve the viability of the community radio sector by removing some of the complex and restrictive financing regulations currently in place.

"But wouldn’t it also be great if people could also get this local content on digital? I have for some time wanted to see progress on new solutions for small stations to have a route to DAB which meets their needs."

If we can find ways to open-up DAB so that it mirrors our expectations of every other digital medium - for accessibility, flexibility, interactivity and choice - then I'm all for it.

The DAB agony continues

Today's "Go Digital Day" does not seem to have addressed any of the real issues which surround British radio broadcasting moving into the digital age.

Not only has Ed Vaizey satisfied nobody by again failing to address the "digital switchover date" question but the government continues to conflate "digital radio" with the original DAB specification.

The DAB system we are using was defined in the 1980s - before the Internet!  There are many better digital radio solutions now available but the big groups, and many listeners, have invested so heavily in DAB that they are not keen to change technology this late in the day (not even to DAB+).

Earlier in this blog I've detailed the other issues which are not being addressed, here are a few in no particular order:
  • It is not good enough to talk about all new radios sold being DAB without explaining how ALL the stations currently available on AM, FM and the web could be affordably carried on DAB.
  • Why push ahead with a technology which, as presently licensed - even with national D2, can carry fewer stations than the previous analogue system?
  • What other digital media technology offers a restricted range of content compared with the analogue system it replaced?  Small independents or big studios can equally now make their output available digitally on CD, DVD and the internet. Digital technology has enabled a huge blossoming of new media producers. In UK radio only the big operators will control access to DAB.
  • What progress does the government want to see on "DAB-lite" for smaller local and community services? Or using DRM or HD Radio on medium wave or VHF frequencies?
  • If digital is the way forward (and I very much agree it is) how can it be acceptable to say that new smaller operators should remain satisfied with traditional FM? It's like telling independent record labels or film makers that they would have to continue with vinyl discs or VHS cassettes!
  • Unlike the situation with terrestrial television, where it was necessary to clear the UHF bands of analogue signals in order to carry more and better digital services, there is no technical imperative to have a fixed switch-over date for DAB radio. DAB uses different frequencies so the FM signals do not have to stop. The pressure for a date is driven only by economic considerations.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Digital radio not for small stations says Vaizey

Ahead of his much-heralded announcement on the digital radio switchover next week, the Minister for Culture Communication and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey has already told us that he will not be pushed into a switchover date until DAB has "adequate coverage".

But the smaller stations have been pointing out that, even with 100% coverage, many of them will not have a practical route onto DAB as it is presently constituted.

Vaizey stated: “We have never said we will require small stations to go digital, and FM can work in tandem with DAB”. This sounds reasonable but, as I've said here before, misses the point. All other digital audiovisual and information technologies have had the effect of adding choice, allowing additional access and creativity, and have been accessible to all providers big or small.

Saying that small stations can stay on FM is an admission that DAB (as designed in the 1980s) is not up to the job. It is currently the only digital media technology to offer FEWER choices to consumers than the analogue system it wants to replace.

It is as if only the big multi-national record companies had been able to release music on CD. This would be okay, according to Vaizey, because independents and small studios could still issue their songs on vinyl.

Or if only the big Hollywood studios could release movies on DVD.  This would be okay, under the Vaizey principle, because independent productions, art house movies and student productions could still be distributed on VHS cassettes!

I agree digital radio is the way forward, but if its so great it should be accessible to all producers and listeners - not just the established big boys.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Music Radio - a big night for Radio Academy North East

I'm pleased to say the next evening event for the Radio Academy here in north-east England is coming together very well. It is going to be a very special night not to be missed.

John Simons, Group Programme Director (Real & Smooth Limited) will be hosting an evening of lively debate about what many consider to be the most important element of a radio station - music. How important is music to the radio station of the future? Given the number of other platforms for music promotion, how important is radio to the music business today?

Joining John on the panel will be Mark Findlay, Group Head of Live Music (Global Radio), Tony Myers, Regional Promotions (Polydor Records) and Jeff Smith, Head of Music (BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music). There will be plenty of time for questions and answers and, of course, plenty of time to meet people in the bar.

It's at a great venue: Newcastle College - Space Bar, Rye Hill Campus, Scotswood Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne NE4 7SA on Thursday 12th September at 6pm for 7pm start.

Find out more at:   You can register there. Entrance is free for Radio Academy members.  If you are not a member - why not?  (If you turn up on the night just tell us you want to join for free entry). 

 Please encourage friends and colleagues to come along. I really think it will be a great night.

Monday, 5 August 2013

At last - a possibler digital transmission route for smaller stations?

It looks like we might get "DAB Lite" after all. I'm pleased to see that Ofcom has today reported favourably on a DAB experiment which was set up in Brighton between September last year and this January.

It specifically used low-cost low-power techniques to generate a DAB signal which could be useful and affordable for community and small commercial stations. For the trial the complex DAB multiplex signal was generated using computer software - rather than the expensive hardware used by the big boys.

The Ofcom report says: "As well as testing the viability and reliability of new wireless techniques for generating a Eureka 147 DAB compliant signal in a real world scenario and it also allowed various measurements, and comparisons with existing multiplexes to be made. The experiment successfully demonstrated that much of the infrastructure can now easily be implemented in software, and that integration with public IP networks improves accessibility while reducing the capital and operating costs quite dramatically."

The test also demonstrated that a low-cost, low power approach could deliver a reliable, high quality service using interleaved frequencies - which are left over between areas and unsuitable for use by larger networks.

Ofcom concluded:  "This work demonstrated that it is feasible to deliver DAB transmission infrastructure at much lower cost than currently required for equipment to deliver wide-area coverage. Nevertheless, significant further work is required to identify suitable spectrum for services making use of these technologies. In addition, it will be necessary to consider how they might be licensed to cover particular areas, especially in circumstances where there is a requirement to carry more than one service on the multiplex. When these issues have been resolved, these new techniques could find particular application for Community Radio or smaller scale commercial radio stations. These techniques might also assist in rolling out existing networks to serve more remote population areas where existing approaches might not prove to be cost-effective."

The full print version of the report can be found here:

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Lip Dub Lincoln - BBC Radio Lincolnshire

What a brilliant way to illustrate a local radio station's close relationship with a wide section of its community! Great fun - well done to everyone.....

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Radio can’t be left behind as an analogue island in digital world

“Radio can’t be left behind as an analogue island in digital world.”  That was the great quote from Ford Ennals which headed a report on DAB in the London Evening Standard last week.

The quote is a clear and honest statement, but it highlights a major policy failing in government and at Ofcom.  Put simply, current policies favour the big media groups (those represented by Digital Radio UK) to the detriment of small-scale or local broadcasters. There is no digital future mapped out for smaller stations. 

Ford Ennals is chief executive of Digital Radio UK, described in the article as “an alliance of all the major broadcasters”.
I’ve gone into more detail earlier on this blog but the problem is that the government believes the future of over-the-air digital radio is DAB.  But DAB was not designed for small local services, it is ideal for big radio groups and the BBC. Community radio and smaller commercial stations simply cannot afford the relatively high cost of DAB transmission.

There are other digital broadcast technologies more suited to local radio, for example in the USA they use HD Radio, in much of the world they are using DRM. Both have the advantage of using existing broadcast frequencies, AM and FM, and allow small broadcasters to operate their own transmitters, just as at present. But in Britain DAB is the only digital transmission mode available.
So we are told the future of local and community radio is in analogue on the FM band, particularly after the big boys vacate it, not on digital!

The Evening Standard article says:

“The long battle to get Britain tuning into digital radio is finally making progress but it still feels slow. Audio as a medium is booming with countless new music apps and online streaming services from Spotify and Shazam to Pandora and Apple’s forthcoming iTunes Radio. However, when it comes to listening to traditional radio stations, more than half are still on old analogue frequencies such as FM and MW — rather than the digital platform DAB and online.
....Moving from analogue to digital matters because it means a better signal, greater choice of stations, more interactivity for the listener and lower costs for the broadcasters. But unlike the TV industry, which successfully moved to digital last year when the analogue signal was turned off, radio does not even have a date for “digital switchover” after the previous Government’s target of 2015 was dropped.
.....The danger is that radio risks looking out of touch in an era when many kids’ instinct is to log onto YouTube…”

I would agree “radio can’t be left behind as an analogue island in a digital world”.  So what are the affordable plans for hundreds of local and community stations to move to digital broadcasting?  There are none.  

To make things worse, working to Government edicts, Ofcom is keeping a tight lid on analogue local radio, it says there are no more FM frequencies available over most of the country but it will not let new operators take over some of the under-used present frequencies, preferring to leave them with the existing larger groups.

There is therefore no digital roadmap for the smaller stations but, of course, Digital Radio UK, is quite happy with that situation. And the government is only listening to Digital Radio UK.

Truly local and specialist radio needs political help. I think we should start a “campaign for the future of small scale and local radio” to defend these important services, which in some cases are the most popular radio stations in their towns, from being castaway on an analogue island.


Thursday, 20 June 2013

Apparently local TV is good, local radio is bad

Earlier this year Ofcom found itself in a position where, in view of previous decisions on the viability of smaller commercial radio stations, it could not refuse a request by Bauer to merge the programming of TFM Radio on Teesside with that of its larger neighbour Metro Radio in Newcastle. Nobody had really thought the new rules on the location of studios and sharing of programming were meant to apply to stations as large as one serving Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool, Redcar, Darlington, parts of North Yorkshire and much of County Durham.  But they do.

Ofcom apparently accepted that radio stations the size of TFM Radio could not be commercially viable, nevertheless yesterday the regulator went ahead and advertised a local TV licence for Middlesbrough.  Serving a smaller population centred around just the Teesside towns of Stockton, Hartlepool, Redcar and Middlesbrough the digital TV service is expected to be receivable in just 280,000 households.

Now I’ve nothing against the offer of these local TV licences – I think people should be able to put together consortia, bid and then try to make them work. That’s how we make progress in broadcasting. But why has the government put Ofcom in a position where there is a predisposition against offering any new local commercial radio licences, where Ofcom goes out of its way to support big companies who say they can’t make the current local radio licences pay and where the favoured digital technology (DAB) mitigates against smaller-scale local radio - while at the same time they are championing commercial local television!

Why can’t the same rules apply to local radio? If a company tries to make a licence work and fails then, okay, they must hand the licence back and the opportunity should be offered again, perhaps in a slightly different form.

Instead TFM get a licence extension to 2025 (ironically on the grounds that they commit to DAB) and then, within months, are able to claim local radio on Teesside is not commercially viable and announce that for the next twelve years they will share all their programmes with another station in a completely different city.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Are we ready to "Go Digital"?

The publication of  the Government’s  “Go Digital Trial” report this week has reignited the debate over a possible “digital switchover” date. Never mind that this is a false analogy with the digital TV switchover, where the old analogue frequencies were needed to make the new system work and had to be vacated, there is still a lot to consider to safeguard the digital future of all UK radio.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is hailing the digital radio test as a success, saying listeners who are in a good coverage area love digital radio. The project, overseen by Ipsos/MORI earlier this year, saw 237 people in the city of Bath remove analogue radios from their lives, to see what it was like living with only digital radio over a six-week period.

It is interesting that they chose the city of Bath to undertake this test. I see that one of the conclusions was that respondents welcomed the wider choice of stations. Try that in a city like Sunderland where the most popular station is not available on DAB!

The fact is that DAB, as currently established, can carry FEWER stations in many parts of the country (at decent stereo audio quality) that the analogue system it hopes to replace. And that’s even if the smaller stations could afford to go on DAB!

The current plans for reorganising DAB multiplexes will give most areas a wider choice of national and quasi-national brands but do nothing to let smaller local and community services use the platform.  Furthermore listeners now like to receive many other specialist and distant stations which equally cannot afford to be on every DAB multiplex.

Many commentators argue, correctly, that if national and regional stations all moved onto DAB, this would free most of the FM band for smaller commercial and community stations. But this raises a fundamental point – why is broadcast radio in the UK adopting a new technology which will only work for some of its stations? Why is there no plan for local stations to go digital? Are we saying that in ten years time local and community radio will be the only category of media NOT available on stanard digital radio devices?

As I’ve commented before, DAB must be the only digital media technology which offers consumers a narrower choice of content than the analogue system it purports to replace. It’s as if only established artists and labels could issue CDs while new bands and independents had to remain on vinyl. Or only the big Hollywood studios and distributors could produce DVDs, while smaller film makers should be happy to see their product distributed on VHS cassettes!!

Where is the road map for ALL radio stations to be available on some generally receivable digital broadcast platform?  And, for the national and regional services (where a switch to DAB+ would improve quality and capacity on the current multiplexes) what is the plan for that changeover?

Before talking further about the digital switchover we should be clear what the future delivery mechanism will be – and count how many homes currently have DAB+ receivers!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Mark Turnbull

I’m very sad to hear of the death of Mark Turnbull.

Best known as a presenter and producer on BBC Radio Cleveland (now BBC Tees), Mark was a truly remarkable and inspiring character and a sad loss will be felt in many areas of life. Aged 50, he passed away this weekend in hospital in Middlesbrough after a short illness.

Blind from birth, Mark made his name as a journalist covering County Durham courtrooms for local newspapers and reporting on darts and snooker for the Press Association. He became a well-known and respected presenter on BBC Radio Cleveland where he was perfectly able to drive his own shows. He was President of the NUJ for 12 months and was also the first blind chairman of a magistrate’s court in England, serving at Teesside Combined Courts.

He was passionate about radio and Teesside and had a great memory for contacts, names and voices. I remember when I was managing the rival TFM radio he would be able to tell if I had arrived at a local function just from the distant sound of my voice across a crowded room and would call out “Brian Lister has arrived”.  He would repeat this with others throughout the evening.

No mere local presenter, Mark had met, interviewed and was well remembered by many top national and international politicians but he still retained a friendly human touch in his dealing with local listeners. The world of radio is poorer without him.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Do we need a Department for Culture, Media and Sport?

For the past week there has been a flurry of press speculation that the DCMS might be scrapped by a government seeking to save money and streamline Whitehall.

Some senior politicians and industry figures say we could get by very well without a separate cabinet minister overseeing culture, media and sport. They argue that other government departments could pick up Maria Miller’s responsibilities.

The DCMS is responsible for a wide range of soft and fluffy areas of government and probably served the country well in the build-up to last year’s very successful Olympics. Its remit includes, among other things: broadcasting, the Internet, telecommunications and broadband, the arts, cultural property and heritage creative industries, sports, design, fashion, film, publishing and advertising.

So would it matter to us in radio if the responsibilities of the DCMS were split among other departments? It is clear that the department’s drive towards a digital future, which in the case of radio broadcasting became equated with the aging DAB technology, has ruined many aspects of UK local radio. But would we be better off elsewhere?

I recall when, prior to the formation of the then Department of National Heritage in 1992, broadcasting policy mainly emanated from the Home Office while things like frequency allocations were with the Department for Trade and Industry.  The trouble was the people setting editorial scene did not really care about, or understand, the technical opportunities, while the frequency planners often seemed to have no concept of the creative possibilities of radio broadcasting.

By the end of the 1980’s commercial broadcasters with FM and AM frequencies had been told to use them for separate services (and many AM oldies services were launched). We were told: “use it or lose it”. However, just a few years earlier the regulators were unable to give permission for us to split transmissions even if we wanted to. The Home Office, which traditionally regards broadcasting as something to be feared and tightly controlled, did not really want to see a proliferation of new stations. If at Metro we wanted to run a Sunderland football commentary on FM while the Newcastle match was on AM we had to apply directly to the Home Office for “special permission”.

Meanwhile the seeds of community radio were being sown in Sunderland where the community radio association managed to get a Special Event Licence (the forerunner of a RSL licence) to cover the Sunderland seafront illuminations. I should explain that Sunderland had spectacular illuminations before Blackpool – indeed the Blackpool illuminations were based on what they saw on Wearside. The spectacle stopped in the early part of the last century but the autumn night-time display was resurrected for a few years in the late 1980s.

Every night after dark, with thousands of cars cruising the Roker seafront and thousands of families walking the promenade and the seafront gardens this was an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the power and value of local radio. The Light AM was born. However the standard frequency allocation was on a busy AM channel using a maximum 50 milliwatts of power. The DTI said this could give a daytime range of a mile or two. However in the evening, with considerable interference from a co-channel lady opera singer on Radio Tirana, the signal barely reached the road passing the transmitter mast. The Albanian station was using a power of some 500,000 watts.  “Why do you need to broadcast at night?” asked the man at the DTI.


Thursday, 30 May 2013

Is Sunrise able to fund a station or not?

On 31 January this year Ofcom gave their reasons for allowing the Litt Corporation to retain the Slough licence for Time 106.6 in the face of competition from community radio service Asian Star Radio. The Litt Corporation owns Sunrise Radio and was responsible for yesterday’s decision to ask listeners to donate cash to keep the station running (see earlier post).

It is ironic therefore that Ofcom cited the Sunrise Radio group’s superior financial resources as one of the key reasons for leaving the Slough licence with that organisation. The statement said, in part:

“This combination of strong competition for listeners and a somewhat heterogeneous licence area have historically made the Slough, Windsor & Maidenhead licence an extremely challenging one to operate. In this context, therefore, the Broadcast Licensing Committee took the view that the assessment of the applications under section 105(a) was of particular significance in this award.

“The Committee considered that the overall business plan proposed by Time 106.6 ('Time') was a realistic and conservative one that was based on existing levels of listening and revenue, but nevertheless anticipated the station becoming self-supporting in the new licence period. This follows a period which has seen the station's annual losses narrow considerably, partly as a result of cost savings achieved by co-locating in Southall with other stations owned by Time's parent company Litt Corporation. The ability of Litt Corporation to provide Time with funding as and when necessary, which it has consistently done in the past, also provided reassurance of the applicant's ability to maintain the service.”

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Sunset or Sunrise?

Southall-based Sunrise Radio has today announced that it is appealing to listeners for funds to keep the station afloat.

A “news item” on the station website, and announcements on-air, say the Chairman of the Sunrise group Avtar Lit is asking listeners to financially support the radio stations:

“There has been an increasing trend among Asian broadcasters to be supported by their listeners and viewers. Many Asian TV channels are paid for by subscribers or viewers. With advertising rates failing to increase in 15 years and other costs escalating, there is no other way except a combination of advertising and listener contribution. Listeners can make a contribution by sending a cheque, or by credit card.”

It is not clear what, if anything, donors will receive in return for their contributions.

Along with many commercial radio companies the Sunrise group is thought to be cash-strapped having been badly hit by the downturn in advertising revenue. Recently, Sunrise Radio, Kismat Radio and Punjabi Radio ceased broadcasting on digital television to save costs, and Sunrise did not renew its contract on digital radio in the West Midlands. However this may be the first time an established UK commercial radio station has tried the listener subscription route.

The item does not elaborate on the scheme but Ofcom rules do permit appeals for funds for programming or services subject to certain conditions, including:
  • Broadcasters should keep accurate and detailed records of donations and how they are spent. Records should demonstrate how donations received are used to fund the service.
  • Ofcom strongly recommends that donations are kept in a separate, specific account so that information relating to donations and how they are spent is clear and easy to access. It is also recommended that audits of such accounts are conducted.
  • Broadcasters should avoid creating unrealistic expectations about what donations can achieve and appeals should not improperly exploit any susceptibilities of the audience.
  • Broadcasters should take care to ensure that the acceptance of donations does not prevent them from meeting the Code‟s requirements relating to due impartiality, no undue prominence of views and opinions, and editorial independence.

Listener appeals have been used widely elsewhere – for example the Public Service Broadcasters Telethons in the USA and by community radio operators worldwide. Many stations offer membership of some kind of “listeners club” in return for a minimum donation. However these are not run by profit-distributing commercial concerns like the Sunrise Group.

In the UK we are used to getting a wide range of radio free, at the time of listening, from the BBC and other stations so it will be interesting to see if this model can work here.


Thursday, 23 May 2013

Global, the Competition Commission and Ofcom

This week the Competition Commission has shown that it has some teeth where Ofcom has only been provided with gums.  The Commission told Global Radio it must dispose of some stations in seven regions following concerns over its £70m purchase of Real and Smooth services from GMG Radio.

Global must sell some of the stations it bought as part of the GMG deal, or offload its own services such as Heart and Capital, in seven areas: the East Midlands, Cardiff, North Wales, Greater Manchester and the north-west, the north-east, central Scotland, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire.
It is notable that the Competition Commission has decided that there would be “significant adverse effects”  in most regions outside London as a result of the merger. Although recognising that commercial radio operates in what it calls a two sided market – with separate competition for listeners and advertisers - the Competition Commission largely restricted its analysis to the effects on the advertising market, which is what it was essentially set-up to do.

In north-east England, where the heritage ILR services were both owned by EMAP (now Bauer Radio), the Radio Authority and Ofcom had over the years licenced three separate region-wide licences to compete with them:  Century Radio (now Real Radio); Galaxy (now Capital); and Smooth (which covers a slightly smaller region).   We now face a situation where all three region-wide alternatives are owned by Global. The only other players, apart from Bauer, are town or city-sized commercial services covering places away from the main conurbations of Tyneside and Teesside or a few community radio stations with very limited range.
Plainly it is sensible for the Competition Commission to decide that, as Bauer pointed out in their submission, this gives Global too great an influence in the region’s radio advertising market.  But why does Ofcom not see this as a potential reduction in plurality for radio LISTENERS too?

Ofcom would claim that radio listeners also have the alternative of BBC stations and digital media, but then advertisers have alternative outlets in other media as well. It is odd that, when it comes to money, the competition regulator sees this centralisation of control as a risk but, in matters of editorial policy and cultural variety, the broadcast regulator does not.
An while Ofcom argues that the regulation of “Formats” guarantees a choice and diversity of programming for listeners the Competition Commission’s report undermines this to an extent.  The report points out that, while the Capital North East Format specifies a target audience of 15-29 year olds the average age of their listeners is in fact 31.  Similarly while Smooth is supposed to aim for listeners 50+ the average age in practice is 47.  The Formats of these three originally distinctive regional stations have become so watered down that they are all effectively competing for slightly different versions of the same familiar middle ground.

Targeting radio programming is not an exact science, and I do not blame any operator for trying to occupy the high ground in terms of audience numbers, but why is Ofcom so content to acquiesce in allowing this narrowing of choice?

Monday, 20 May 2013

Growth of digital listening

The latest Rajar figures (Quarter 1 2013) show that half the UK population now listen to digital radio each week.  This includes listening online, and via television boxes and mobile phones etc. as well as, mainly, listening to DAB radios.

This is good news but does not mean that these people are ONLY using digital radio. At work, in the car or elsewhere they may still be using FM or AM radio, and some of their favourite local stations may not even be available on DAB.   While digital listening has seen a healthy 17% rise year-on-year, to 34.3% of all listening hours, this means the great majority of radio listening is still on FM or AM.
And, before we start to plan the FM switch-off again, remember that in many markets the most popular single station is not even available on DAB. And with the closure of some local and regional multiplexes, to make way for more national channels, these local services are not likely to be able to appear on DAB in the foreseeable future.

There are some good examples from the UKRD stable where stations from Wessex FM to 2BR to Yorkshire Coast Radio, and others, each now achieve a weekly reach of around 50% of their local population on FM – but cannot be efficiently moved onto DAB.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Metro Radio - Station of the Year

Congratulations to everyone at Metro Radio for achieving the Sony Award as Station of the Year (1m+) on Monday night. It's very well desrved.

As someone who worked on the launch of Metro way back in 1974 it is particularly pleasing to see Metro being nationally recognised for its commitment to its local area and doing the right things to make a continuing impact on the north-east listeners today.  Sadly, with the introduction of nationl branding and programme formats, few of the other first-generation stations are allowed to maintain such a strong local identity and sense of connection with their own patch.

Hats off to Bauer for allowing Metro to be Metro. But of course this makes the recent TFM decision even more bewildering......

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Is DAB the solution or the problem?

The future of radio is digital. I cannot believe than in ten years time audio broadcasting will remain as the only medium delivered by old-fashioned analogue means. In far less than that time we will all expect to get our radio programmes via the digital links which will empower every other aspects of our lives. I already find it frustrating that I cannot pause and rewind a radio show or press a button to hear my favourite station’s traffic news at a moment which suits me.

But is DAB the most practical delivery method?

The great thing about radio broadcasting has always been that it is so straightforward, simple to set up and energy-efficient. DAB is technically brilliant but very complex and requires a large infrastructure. It assumes large groups of stations all wishing to cover exactly the same areas. For smaller stations DAB is far more expensive and cumbersome than the old system. For listeners, particularly with so many music stations now using a low bitrate in mono, DAB offers little benefit and, for many, a worse listening experience.

In many areas DAB simply does not have the capacity, even if they could afford it, to carry all the existing stations available locally on AM and FM, let alone the thousands now broadcasting on the web. I think DAB may be the only digital technology that offers fewer choices at lower quality and greater cost than the analogue system it replaces!

The reason is simply that DAB is OLD TECHNOLOGY.  By the standards of today’s digital devices it is prehistoric. It pre-dates the internet and did not anticipate the huge range of content expected on demand nor our expectation of interactivity.  DAB was developed as part of a European Union research project with the first transmissions being made in Germany in 1988. The specification was finalised in 1993. By contrast, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s original proposal for what would become the World Wide Web was not published until 1989 and technical standards only began to emerge following his establishment of the World Wide Web Consortium in 1994.

For now, FM radio remains the best option for local broadcasting but Ofcom has been told to promote digital as the way forward and is looking on, apparently impotent, as analogue radio suffers and dies.

Given that frequency shortage is given by Ofcom as the principal reason why they cannot licence any new FM local radio stations it is ironic that, as a result of their own decisions, the utilisation of this scarce resource has become so wasteful.

For example, in north-east England TFM, now simply rebroadcasting Metro Radio, covers an area housing 788,467 adults in Teesside, Darlington, County Durham and North Yorkshire using a single frequency from a transmitter high up on the North York Moors. Meanwhile, based in Darlington, Star Radio now broadcasts its programmes to a set of smaller areas, all falling within the TFM footprint, using not ONE but FIVE frequencies. At least one of these in the south of County Durham could easily cover the Darlington area as well if a directional limitation originally designed to protect the separate Darlington licence were removed, but Ofcom refuses to do this on the grounds that they still regard Northallerton, Darlington and Durham as separate licences (even though they carry the same programmes)!

Of course frequency planning is a complex issue and the same frequency cannot necessarily be re-used at another site or at higher power, but using five different frequencies to cover a population of 433,000 adults when another station covers all of those, and 350,000 more, using a single frequency cannot be sensible or efficient.



Saturday, 11 May 2013

Are there really no new FM frequencies available?

A number of prominent voices on Teesside are calling for a new local commercial licence to be offered for the area following the departure of TFM to Tyneside. Among them is ex-Radio Tees presenter and Darlington PR guru Graham Robb who last month asked Ofcom to advertise a new licence for Teesside. The regulator responded by saying there were no FM frequencies available and that a new analogue licence was counter to the Government policy of working towards digital-only broadcasting.

This was only to be expected. Several years ago Ofcom announced that it would no longer be advertising any new local commercial radio licences. The main reason given then was also that there are no suitable FM frequencies vacant in the most populous areas of the UK.

It has always been the case that an alleged lack of frequencies has been the excuse of choice used by successive governments and regulators to justify rationing access to the airwaves. It was used to delay the launch of BBC Radio One and local radio in the sixties, the launch of ILR in the 1970s, and community radio for a long while thereafter. The laws of physics have not changed in the intervening years, just the political will to permit more stations to blossom, kicking the police transmitters out of the FM broadcast band above 100 MHz for example permitted the introduction of national and regional commercial services.

There now appear to be another couple of issues behind Ofcom’s reluctance to allow any expansion of FM radio.  Firstly the efforts of some in the industry to promote DAB digital radio created the idea of a “digital switchover” for radio, closing down the existing FM stations. I’m sure I’ll write more about this shortly, but for now it’s sufficient to point out that there is no need for a digital switchover date for radio as there was for terrestrial TV. In the case of television the same UHF band was to be used for digital TV as had been used for analogue channels since the launch of BBC2 in the 1960s. To make room for new digital services the old analogue transmitters had to be closed, and this was done in a planned and remarkably efficient fashion.  By contrast, there is no immediate alternative use for the FM radio band – it will not be used for DAB.  Further there are a great deal more radio receivers to replace in the average household than there were analogue TV sets – for a long time people will be happy to keep using their FM radios.  DAB has been called “a solution in search of a problem”.

Secondly, Ofcom staff plainly feel overstretched. Compared to the previous sector-specific regulator, the Radio Authority, the communications watchdog has very few individuals dedicated to dealing with radio broadcast issues. Decisions on radio licences are taken by a general Broadcast Licensing Committee rather than the former dedicated and quite expert Radio Licensing Committee. For a year or so until last summer the considerable spectrum demands of the Olympics were often quoted as taking priority call over staff time, then Ofcom’s political masters demanded a new focus - on local TV!  

On 3 April 2012 the local radio licence for Slough, Windsor & Maidenhead, held by Time 106.6, was re-advertised, with a closing date for applications of 3 July.  There were only two applicants, the incumbent and a local Asian community radio service. In the past major new licence awards, contested by up to half a dozen companies, have been decided in less than three months, but in this case the applicants (including the incumbent whose licence was due to run out in May) had to wait until 16 January this year – some six and a half months later – for the re-award to the existing licensee to be announced. Apologising for the delay one Ofcom official explained that the award decision was postponed until January because of the volume of business at the Broadcast Licensing Committee. In particular the BLC was required to give priority to awarding the new-fangled (and misconceived) local TV licences over dealing with these old local FM radio licences.

So is there really a frequency shortage? Or a shortage of will at the DCMS and Ofcom?

Of course the FM band is limited in bandwidth and frequency planning is a complex technical task if mutual interference is to be avoided. For example two stations serving the same area must be spaced at least 0.4 MHz apart. But the fact is that the allocation of FM band frequencies has been done piecemeal over some sixty years and, were we starting with a blank sheet of paper, we could be much more efficient in fitting in more stations.  In particular the band has effectively been carved up between the BBC and Ofcom with virtually all stations being allocated frequencies only in the relevant sub-band. An example of the inefficiency of this approach is that BBC Radio 2 transmitters have the frequencies between 88.1 and 90.2 MHz virtually all to themselves, as does BBC Radio 3 between 90.3 and 92.4 MHz, etc.. That’s more than 2 MHz of national bandwidth used to carry each single BBC service. By contrast Classic FM achieves near-national coverage using 2 MHz between 99.9 and 101.9 MHz, but, by careful Radio Authority planning, it shares this sub-band with dozens of other local and regional stations.

Were the BBC national FM channels to be re-planned a large number of lower-powered local transmitters could be interleaved between them, even freeing other frequencies for further national commercial FM services. These might be used for some of the quasi-national “regional” music stations which currently sit on hundreds of separate local frequencies, creating more opportunities.

But who is going to tell Ofcom this is a priority while we are all supposed to be switching to DAB?

Friday, 10 May 2013

What price local radio?

In the north east of England Star Radio has been very critical of TFM merging its programmes with its sister station on Tyneside. The UKRD station has particularly highlighted Bauer’s decision to retain the station name TFM on the southern transmitter – suggesting that this is just an attempt to pull the wool over local listeners eyes (or ears). 

It does seem short-sighted not to have adopted the name Metro Radio for the whole service, getting all the bad publicity on Teesside over and done with in one go. While the playout system easily copes with split identification for the two areas, it would surely be better for the Tyneside-based presenters to be able to actually mention the name of their station in live links. They must now be constantly having to avoid plugging Metro this, or Metro that – hardly the recipe for great local radio and building station relationships with listeners! In the long term this may even prove damaging to Metro’s high profile in its own region.

Of course, if the whole thing from the borders down to North Yorkshire became known as Metro the truth would be plain for all to see. Apart from a few local news items the service would be indistinguishable from the regional licences originally granted to Century (now Real Radio), Galaxy (now Capital FM) which cover exactly the same territory from the same main transmitters. These regionals have always been able to split ad breaks and other recorded items north and south so there is really very little difference. As Real, Capital and Smooth become more like national stations, so Metro has become a regional service.

Critics of the robust Star Radio position have not been slow to point out that Star North East is itself the result of merging smaller licences for THREE different local areas, Darlington, Durham and Northallerton. There is, however, a significant difference in scale and financial viability here. The Northallerton licence has one of the smallest Measured Coverage Areas in England, with a population of just 35,231 adults (15+), while Darlington has just 108,262 and the former Durham FM MCA is 295,628. Allowing for some overlap the three Star Radio north-east licences together total only some 430,000 adults. This compares to 788,467 adults in the TFM MCA alone, a large coverage area served from a single10kW transmitter at the excellent Bilsdale mast in North Yorkshire.  Given their small catchment areas, which did not include any of the north east’s main centres of economic activity, the Star Radio stations were previously losing money and would apparently have been closed after their purchase by UKRD unless this cost saving had gone ahead. There can be no such economic case for closing TFM as a stand-alone operation.

There is a strong argument – advanced credibly by John Myers and others – that the Radio Authority, and then Ofcom, licensed too many commercial stations in small areas that were never going to prove financially viable. On the other hand there are a number of great local commercial stations with populations in the 100,000 to 400,000 range which are providing a valued bespoke service and returning a profit to their owners even in the existing economic climate. It’s all a question of how well the stations are managed and programmed.

I’ve long argued that the only way to run a successful and financially viable radio station in a small market is to take every opportunity to exploit the station’s unique relationship with listeners, organisations and businesses in its own area. It must be skilfully tailored to suit the tastes, interests, history and present-day concerns of its area. The arrival of group-wide programming and identikit features nearly killed the TLRC group of stations in the early 2000s. Without quality programmes and a real relationship with its area a local station has no right to expect listeners to choose it over a national or digital alternative.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Who decided UK local radio wouldn't work any more?

Among radio people in north east England there has been a big fuss recently over Bauer’s decision, nodded through by Ofcom, to combine the programming of Teesside-based TFM with its larger sibling Metro Radio on Tyneside. However this is an inevitable consequence of a number of policy decisions made by the regulator over several years. Essentially, encouraged by the big players in the industry, Ofcom has come to the conclusion that truly local radio is not a viable commercial proposition.

Worse still, Ofcom has decided that local programming, other than in formal news bulletins, is of little consequence or importance. In response to the Digital Economy Act 2010, announcing measures “to protect and promote what listeners want most from local radio” Ofcom cited research which said news is valued more than other content on local commercial radio. As a result the licensing authority decided that stations could request to reduce the number of locally made programme hours if they committed to providing local news bulletins throughout weekday daytime. In other words the local relevance of the other 58 minutes per hour, and ALL programmes outside weekday daytime, were of little importance provided you could insert some recorded local news material at the top of some peak hours. Ofcom announced “The measures will still ensure that local stations stay local – providing the locally focused content listeners want and which is protected by the legislation governing radio – but in a more flexible way.”

At the same time Ofcom said it would permit local FM stations to co-locate and share all of their programming within “approved areas”. It said this would allow local services to merge to form larger, more financially viable stations. These approved areas were more like regions – the whole of Northern Ireland for example – and in the north east of England reflected the entire former Tyne-Tees TV region. As a result, in approving the changes to the TFM licence, Ofcom was able to say: “The proposed changes to co-location and programme sharing are consistent with Ofcom’s statement on commercial radio localness regulation since the licences concerned are all within the same Ofcom approved area.”

In agreeing the format changes for TFM Ofcom went on to make the incredible assertion that: “The request has been agreed under Section106(1A)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1990 – that the departure would not substantially alter the character of the service.”  Nobody who has ever lived and worked in Teesside or North Yorkshire would ever believe that the character of a radio programme presented from Newcastle would be the same as one presented from Stockton. Ofcom believes that the social, cultural, economic and historic differences between these two large communities can be adequately reflected in a few minutes of local news items in every 24 hours.

Unfortunately the BBC has always held an equally ambivalent attitude towards the value of its own local radio programming. It is only a couple of years since BBC Local Radio appeared to be under threat in the last round of cost-cutting by the Corporation. And while hundreds of community radio services have opened in the past decade or so these are limited in coverage area and funding and have, correctly, a focus different to that of a broadly-based, entertainment-led, commercial operation. As a result, over much of the UK, a large gap is opening in our radio landscape. The originally local services have been allowed to become region-wide while the regional stations have become essentially national brands.

This migration upwards in size happens in most areas of business and human endeavour and is generally seen as a good thing. However as a local bakers shop, car dealership or carpet warehouse grows, goes regional and then national (when a healthy economy permits) other people can launch new local enterprises to fill the space and introduce fresh new ideas, products and services. In radio this is not the case. Ofcom has complete control over who may use the radio spectrum for broadcasting and they have decided that, firstly, there are no more available suitable frequencies in the FM band in most built-up areas and, secondly, that, even when they become available, they should be allocated to either low-power community services or for region-wide stations.

Still the vast majority of listening is on FM and this remains the most efficient and effective way of delivering high-quality local radio. For a local service transmitting via DAB digital radio is like using a very expensive sledgehammer to crack a small nut. While anyone can set up a new audio service via the internet this is an ideal method of delivery for a nation-wide or even worldwide community of interest but lacks the flexibility and efficiency of FM local radio, where millions of radio sets already exist in homes, cars and workplaces.

We are left with an very inefficient use of the VHF broadcast spectrum, with a large number of separate medium-power transmitters now carrying identical programmes nationwide while newcomers are told there is no room in the band for their new ideas.