Monday, 16 December 2013

Can you "name the year?"

"Name the year"; "The Time tunnel"; "The golden hour" - whatever you call it, it's a popular mid-morning oldies feature which runs on lots of local stations.

Well, naming the year when FM is switched off was the one thing Ed Vaisey didn't do at this morning's Digital Day conference.

He was supposed to - and in 2010 had promised he would, by the end of 2013, set a date by which we would be switching off our FM transmitters and moving wholesale to DAB. But recent lobbying by a bunch of the smaller local groups has probably been the final nail in the coffin of date naming - an announcement that had been fast receding over the horizon in any event.

Ed's speech was full of fabulous numbers - % of households who have a DAB set, miles of A road to be covered when new transmitters are switched on, millions of people now able to get DAB who couldn't before etc etc.

And the truth is DAB is now a fixed part of the radio firmament, here forever, but .... not growing so quickly, or so ubiquitous, that we can simply glide to FM switch-off without a care. The smaller stations are concerned about being left on FM, abandoned to a backwater platform. Others are concerned that FM listening will be stubbornly hard to shake off, and we will lose a whole swathe of our audience by switching it off. I think the politicians, (and Ed Vaisey is a politician first and last) are simply scared of losing votes. And FM switch-off is a vote-loser for sure, especially with older people - who tend to vote more! Try as he might, moderator Nick Higham simply couldn't get Ed to "name the year" - teasing him with 2020. Well I suppose that's possible, but I wouldn't count on it. Personally I'm concerned about who might jump on 96.4, or 97.2, the moment we abandoned them in the West Midlands. Some enterprising pirate I'm sure, offering something worth listening to on a still ubiquitous platform.

One of the biggest stats that jumped out at me was that there are 30m cars in the UK, and currently less than 10% have DAB capability. The man from Halfords told us all 1,800 of their fitters were being trained in DAB installation. But each one of them, fitting a DAB set every hour of every 8 hour working day, would take 8 years to complete the task! I know, I know, that's a facetious and potentially misleading bit of maths - but I think it makes the point that getting DAB into the vast majority of cars is just a huge, huge challenge. Kwikfit are entering the market, and as we know, you can't get quicker than a Kwikfit fitter, so maybe they can speed up the process - but still - car penetration is still a hell of an ask.

In hindsight (2020 and all that) I think DAB would have been better as an add-on to FM, not a replacement, national only, with a selling point for AM upgrades, extending local networks like Capital and Heart, and for new stations and brand extensions. I think we'd have had to simulcast the existing national networks too. Perhaps it would never have taken off without local - but I doubt that. Local FMers like those owned by Orion, Bauer etc are probably the lowest deliverers of DAB listening - mainly because it's easy and obvious that you can listen to them on FM. But we are where we are, and certainly for us, given both DAB and FM will co-exist for at least the next decade, we will have to be on both - the lost audience from departing one platform vastly outweighs the extra transmission costs. TV is already there of course, with commercial broadcasters paying for their Sky carriage, their Freeview carriage, their cable carriage, along with online / on demand / +1 services etc etc. higher transmission costs might just be the price we have to pay for operating in the more complex world we now find ourselves in.

The only real winners in all of this are the transmission companies. For radio of course that mainly just means Arqiva. I wonder if anyone will come out of the woodwork to challenge them as a TX service provider when the D2 national commercial multiplex band-wagon rolls into town, as Ed promised it would, next year. That will be the big headline tomorrow I suspect, a useful deflection from the lack of switch-over announcement.

There was more good news to follow the D2 announcement - Halfords and Kwikfit going head to head might spur on in-car upgrades. Frontier Silicon have developed a super-chip, which will work with every flavour of digital (including the US HD system) and also has FM & AM built in. Ford have linked up with UK Radioplayer too to get their app working via voice control in certain new Fords, and although this isn't strictly DAB, it's another example of the technological progress being made here in the UK.

So I can see DAB continuing to grow, but possibly a little more slowly over time as enthusiasts are replaced as new owners by less technically savvy folk being bought sets for Christmas and birthdays. I think we may end up with DAB and FM having roughly equal shares for quite some time.

Ignoring the smaller station issues (which may get resolved via new, cheaper DAB transmitters, and Ed promised some money for OFCOM to do some more testing), I suspect ultimately that in ten years time or so, FM hold-outs will be the acid test for all of us - dare we run the risk of announcing we are switching off FM and risk losing some audience in the transition, or is that vestigial loss of audience always going to be worth more than the marginal cost of keeping that FM transmitter warm?

I suspect there'll never be a right time to "name the year"


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  2. Great (and often overlooked) point on in-car DAB. Even if Halfords have 1,800 fitters trained to install DAB, how many people will go to the effort of buying and fitting a new one though? If/when FM is switched off, I'm sure some people will upgrade their in-car listening, but I also imagine lots will just retune to something that works with their current car stereo (those enterprising pirates you mention) or start hooking their phones up to them.

    From a car manufacturers perspective you can see why they avoid pre-fitting DAB mostly. Put an FM radio in and it works anywhere in the world, put DAB in and they have to custom make it for the UK market = more expense.

  3. Great post. I agree with Dan though. The car issue is a huge thorny point. It's not like the television upgrade where you plug a box into a SCART or HDMI port. Retrofitting DAB into exsiting cars is going to be a huge and probably expensive task. You could retrofit Freeview to your telly for around £20. Retrofitting DAB to a car will be a lot more expensive - and it'll need to be hooked up to the aerial as well.

  4. "In hindsight (2020 and all that) I think DAB would have been better as an add-on to FM, not a replacement,......" Absolutely, spot-on. Let's stop all this switch off date for FM nonsense and let the market evolve naturally ( that might even cause DAB to whither, but I doubt it....!). (NB My DAB pertable was completely useless in Paris recently but luckily my little "pocket" Sony FM/AM worked perfectly.)

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