Dead And Buried?

History details that being in third place for a radio platform is a terrible place to be.

Today, Bob Shennan, Director of Radio and Music at the BBC gave the introductory speech to Radiodays Europe 2018, a conference for the radio industry. The previous day, the Telegraph managed to get hold of what was going to be mentioned in the speech. It heralds the idea of DAB no longer being the future of radio but merely as part of a hybrid also delaying indefinitely the BBC’s plan for digital switchover (to keep FM on air, the Government and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport who plan to announce a switchover date when 50% of radio listening is digital has not reacted to this speech at the time of writing) as well as promoting the role of the Internet in the future of radio.

Shennan talks of a review of the BBC’s digital radio strategy in a few years time. If anything will be reviewed in a few years time, it will be DAB. FM is analogue by nature and switchover has been delayed indefinitely and the BBC has committed to Internet as the future of radio. Indeed, the BBC is due to trial 5G multicasting as a terrestrial radio technology. This leaves DAB in a precarious position, whether Shennan intended that to be the case or not.

Before today, the general hierarchy of radio platforms in the UK was thus:

  1. DAB — expected to be the terrestrial platform of choice
  2. Internet — considered the back-up
  3. FM — enjoyed a long history as the main platform of choice, due to be switched off for analogue switchoff.
  4. Medium wave and long wave — ageing rapidly, not due to remain on air for longer. The BBC has already closed down services and Absolute Radio has asked Ofcom to allow it to end broadcasting at some masts or face handing back its licence for its national MW licence.

Now, after this speech, the hierarchy in my view has changed as thus:

  1. FM — Guaranteed to remain for the foreseeable future.
  2. Internet — Deemed the future of radio. Smart speakers, streaming and 5G multicasting are seen as the next steps for the medium.
  3. DAB — Due to be reviewed in a few years time.
  4. Medium wave and long wave.

Third place is a terrible place to be when it comes to a radio platform. Third place is where you will find HD Radio in the United States, where stations have decided to end analogue/digital simulcasting in favour of FM/MW and the Internet. Third place is where you will find DAB in Hong Kong, abandoned and closed down in favour of FM and the Internet. Third place is where you’ll find Digital Radio Mondiale, where International broadcasters still primarily broadcast using short wave or increasingly, the Internet. Third place is where you’ll find medium wave, where DAB and Internet has made it to a large degree, commercially unviable.

So what is likely to happen to DAB in my view? Not much in the short term. Though DAB faces major challenges either now or in the next few years. With smart speakers gaining traction in recent times and I have already seen them being promoted as the new portable radio device. And the problem digital radio manufacturers find is that for a small additional cost, you can get a speaker which receives thousands more stations with lots of additional benefits plus on demand music. Shennan is right in identifying Spotify (though not exclusively that company) as a major threat to radio.

We’re also a short time away from the launch of 5G mobile phones, due to start being released for purchase in 2019 with Ofcom due to auction spectrum soon with commercial services to follow in the next few years. Maybe with the BBC also due to trial 5G multicasting — this could be why Shennan announced its digital strategy is to be reviewed after this time period? Time will tell.

DAB radios are unlikely to go silent in the next few years. Indeed, if they were, DAB radios are also able to receive FM so that would also be an option. One question to ask would be what will happen to stations on medium wave using increasingly ageing broadcast equipment which are due to or likely to close in the next decade? DAB? FM? Internet? I would guess that the BBC will now abandon any introduction of DAB+, an upgrade to the DAB specification which uses AAC encoding and improved error correction.

There will be people who will not shed a tear over any foreboding closure of DAB. DAB has received a bad reputation for several reasons, mostly down to reception being poor and patchy in many parts of the UK making up the majority of complaints but also lower bitrates used compared to Internet streams, mono audio and metallic sounding audio of DAB+ services (which I think is down to the low bitrate and spectral band replication). FM also has its issues, and it is easy for people to view FM through rose tinted glasses. There are areas where FM is also patchy and much more difficult to run a single national network on (DAB on the other hand, uses single frequency networks to compliment signals from multiple transmitters) as well as being not as spectrally efficient.

The Daily Mail has run two stories on the speech. Both seem intent on promoting the saving of FM from the chopping block whilst DAB set investors were simply told in a condescending manner “bad luck if you splashed out on an expensive DAB radio set”. I can understand the conservative and traditionalist stance of both articles — the target demographic is likely to wish to preserve FM and resist any move to DAB. You could have come away from the articles (particularly their first one) thinking that DAB was being switched off! Hurrah for FM, the commentators in the comments section herald as their cries of victory are received with upvotes whilst simultaneously pouring the scorn on DAB for merely existing.

On the other side of that divide, you have listeners embracing the Internet, happy to pay data allowances to ISPs and mobile phone networks and subscription fees for on demand music, streaming services, podcasts and MP3’s. If radio does figure in such a person’s life, its increasingly through an Internet connected device.

DAB now faces an uncertain future. It does feel as if unintentionally Shennan has put DAB on death row. Consumers both old and young may now potentially not invest in DAB, instead sticking with FM or investing in the Internet. The industry may become nervous of investing more money in expanding DAB offerings and reception, further reducing the attractiveness of DAB to consumers. And newer technologies now and in the near future could sound the death knell for a radio platform that now finds itself in third place. And history shows us that third place is never a good place for a radio platform to end up in.

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