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.


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