The transition to digital radio has been promised in the UK for more than a decade, and still the resilience of analogue broadcasting demonstrates how enduring the AM and FM remains in practice. Ofcom first consulted on expected changes to radio broadcasting in the UK, in the event that a whole set of new radio broadcast technologies in 2007 might be introduced.[i] Ofcom concluded that:
“There is evidence that the changes in listening habits, together with emerging new technologies have had a more rapid and profound impact on the radio industry than was foreseen just a few years ago when the existing legislation was put in place. As a result, the familiar ways of regulating radio, designed for a largely local analogue radio system, which have served listeners and the industry well, may be ineffective and disproportionately costly in the digital era.”
Subsequently, the proposed plan and terms on which this switchover from analogue to digital radio would be based was first mapped out by the government in 2010 in its Digital Radio Action Plan. This plan was intended to implement a complete radio switchover, at which point “all national and large local stations currently broadcasting on both DAB (digital audio broadcasting) and analogue frequencies will cease to broadcast on analogue.” The intention, as expressed at the time, noted that small local and community stations will use the vacated FM spectrum.”[ii]
In 2022 the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published Up Next, the government’s review of broadcasting. This review prioritised the need to build a ‘virtuous circle’ in which the broadcast media sector is ready to take on the challenges of further platform diversification. The resulting Media Bill, now being considered by Members of Parliament, proposes significant changes to the regulation of radio in the UK, and the realisation of changes that were first proposed in 2007. Some of these changes are welcome and timely, however, others are now clearly less appropriate given the changed circumstances.
Much has changed in the media landscape since Ofcom’s 2007 consultation on the future needs of broadcast radio.[iii] Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) is now established, and has become a profitable sector within the broadcast economy.[iv] According to the Digital Radio and Audio Review, published by DCMS in 2022,[v] 33% of all adult audio listening is now accounted for by DAB radio, 23% is via FM and AM radio, with the remaining 44% of audio content, including podcasts and streamed audio, being heard on a mix of desktop, mobile and smart-speaker type devices. The 2022 review also noted, however, a projected decline in the extent to which people still listen to live radio. Which is expected to drop from its current levels of 72% of the population, to 66% by 2035. It is in this context, then, that Better Media wants to draw attention to several pertinent issues related to broadcast radio that are fundamental to the Media Bill 2023.[vi]
The Digital Radio and Audio Review[vii] published in 2022, had noted that almost all the DAB multiplexes services they surveyed “only carry services that operate using the longstanding DAB standard, rather than the more efficient DAB+.”[viii] The review noted that while:
“Analysis shows that moving all the existing DAB services to DAB+ could potentially free up sufficient space for 24 additional national radio stations (or up to 37 if technical innovation leads to in improvements in performance). At a local multiplex level, moving all existing DAB services to DAB+ would mean that no local multiplex would be more than 50% full.”
In its response to the Review, the Government agreed that “…it may be appropriate, subject to developments in the radio market and in listening habits over the coming years, for action to be taken to support a faster migration of stations from DAB to DAB+ to allow more stations to broadcast on the DAB platform.”
It was noted in the Digital Radio and Audio Review that a significant issue for broadcasters in moving stations to DAB+, has been that not all DAB radio sets are DAB+ enabled. As a result, the “potential addressable audience for a DAB+ station is smaller than for DAB, though precisely how much smaller is not clear given the lack of available data.” While the general consensus is that DAB+ set penetration is higher in cars than homes, no firm data is available on this.
- “Thirty-six per cent of households had a DAB+ set, either at home or in at least one car.
- Two-thirds (66%) of in-home DAB owners had a DAB+ set.
- A quarter of in-home DAB listeners and a fifth of in-car DAB listeners had listened to a DAB+ radio station in the past month.”
Ofcom note, however, that Accurately measuring DAB+ penetration and usage is challenging for two reasons:
- “Few radio stations currently broadcast on DAB+ and coverage of services varies across the UK. Some stations are only broadcast on DAB+ in certain areas, and some DAB+ stations are not yet available on RAJAR3, the official body for measuring radio audiences in the UK. This means that analysis based purely on listening figures would not provide robust data on the number of DAB sets capable of receiving DAB+.
- User awareness of DAB+ is low compared to more established technologies, e.g. AM/FM, DAB, online listening. In Q1 2022, RAJAR included a question about ownership of a DAB+ enabled device. The latest figures indicate that 51% of those with a DAB set say it can receive DAB+ but that 24% don’t know. Therefore, as our new research confirmed, simply asking respondents to confirm whether they have a DAB+ radio, without providing additional context or in-person help to retune their set, would likely not provide accurate figures.”
The shift from AM and FM radio to DAB was intended to offer listeners better sound quality and a wider choice of channels, while freeing up frequencies for other services. The process requires both broadcasters and listeners to have the necessary equipment to transmit and receive digital signals.[x]
The digital switchover in the UK is driven by the criteria set out in the Digital Radio Action Plan by the government. The criteria include achieving a set level of digital listening had been achieved, and the roll-out of digital radio coverage that matches FM coverage. The digital switchover of radio in the UK has been presumed to offer several benefits, including:
- More efficient use of spectrum: The switchover of terrestrial television broadcasting clearly allowed for the release of valuable spectrum space, approximately one-third of the total analogue space, which has been shown to benefit the UK economy.[xi] The AM and FM spectrum, however, is less suited to telecoms use, and offers no significant benefit over and above what is already in place.
- New opportunities for more stations: Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) has been said to offer the potential for more radio stations, providing listeners with a wider range of content and choices.[xii] In reality, a few conglomerate providers have consolidated their market position by focussing on branded content that often overlaps with competitors.
- Better reception: DAB is supposed to be able to provide improved reception quality compared to analogue radio, reducing issues such as interference and static. However, in practice, and unless the DAB signals are broadcast at a significant threshold-level, and with robust error correction and audio-signal processing, the benefits are marginal.
- Cost savings for commercial radio: One of the main drivers for digital switchover is commercial radio’s desire to cut costs, particularly the expenses associated with simulcasting both analogue and digital signals.[xiii] We’ve started to see network provision on AM being closed, with the BBC due to phase out BBC Five Live from AM. The cost of fuel has accelerated this process. However, it is unclear if alternative providers would be willing to step in and fill the gaps, given the Ofcom is undertaking no analogue licencing. The market demand just can’t be tested at the moment.
- Clear advantages for consumers and operators: Similar to the digital switchover of television, the transition to digital radio offers benefits such as better sound and picture quality for consumers, as well as operational advantages for radio operators.[xiv] With the roll-out of Small-Scale DAB, what often happens if that stations operate on a very low bit rate of transmission, so the quality improvement is often marginal, and sometimes even worse. Ofcom doesn’t publish any data on audience take-up and satisfaction with these new services yet.
- Harmonious and speedy process: The European Commission emphasises the importance of a coordinated and efficient switchover process to overcome the current fragmentation of European digital broadcasting markets.[xv] Obviously, since leaving the EU, the UK can now determine its own path, though the government has yet to determine a timescale and cut-off point for a digital switchover, and prefers this process to be ‘market-led’.
- Clear consumer benefits: The UK’s Consumer Expert Group has highlighted the need for clear and tangible benefits for consumers before the digital radio switchover takes place.[xvi] At present, DAB radio do not offer value for money when compared with other systems and platforms. The comparative costs with smart phones and smart speakers has haled the sales of DAB radios, which Ofcom’s latest data suggests has peaked.
The Digital Switchover in the UK, however, has stalled while Ofcom introduce Small-Scale DAB. The rationale for SSDAB was to offer a cost-effective avenue for local commercial, community, and specialist music services to transition to digital broadcasting. This initiative is part of the six-year programme by Ofcom that aims to facilitate the launch of around 200 multiplexes across the UK, potentially leading to up to 4,000 new local radio stations, thus broadening the spectrum of radio services and enhancing the diversity of ultra-local content available to listeners. However, the digital switchover of radio in the UK has not significantly impacted the number of radio stations available.
The roll-out of SSDAB was supposed to offer several benefits, including:
- Vacated analogue frequencies: The switchover from analogue to digital radio was argued to allow for further growth in the number of small radio stations, as the vacated analogue frequencies could be utilised for this purpose.[xvii] This has not been tested as Ofcom is not processing analogue radio licences while it rolls-out SSDAB.
- Small local stations on FM: Small local stations would remain on FM, so listeners with existing analogue-only FM and AM sets would not become obsolete, although they may no longer be able to listen to some stations.[xviii] This has not been tested in the market, given that there is a requirement for simulcasting of FM and DAB services. However, the Media Bill that is working through parliament is likely to introduce greater flexibility and freedom for commercial providers to remover their simulcast services and reduce duplication.[xix]
- Government criteria for switchover: The UK government has set criteria for coverage and the proportion of digital listening before a complete switchover from analogue to digital radio occurs. In 2018, the criteria of over 50% of digital radio listening was met, prompting the government to review digital radio in view of a potential switchover.[xx]
- BBC’s FM radio commitment: In 2018, the BBC stated that it would keep some FM radio for the foreseeable future, indicating that the digital switchover would not lead to a significant reduction in the number of available radio stations.[xxi]
- Long-term aspiration for switch off: The Digital Radio Action Plan proposed that the earliest date for the government to consider setting a switch off timetable for FM and AM networks was when digital accounted for at least 50% of all UK radio listening.[xxii] This suggests that a complete switchover and its impact on the number of radio stations would be a gradual process.[xxiii]
It should be noted, however, that there are currently no specific plans to increase the number of radio stations available in the UK after the digital switchover.
Ofcom’s latest report outlines the findings from a market research study aimed at estimating the penetration and usage of DAB+ radio devices in the United Kingdom. DAB+ is an advanced technology for digital audio broadcasting that offers better efficiency and quality compared to standard DAB. The research took the form of a nationally representative face-to-face survey involving 4,055 UK adults and was conducted in October and November of 2022.
The research findings shed light on the uncertainties that exist among DAB set owners about whether their devices are DAB+ enabled. To estimate the penetration and usage of in-home DAB+ radio, the study used various prompts, including questions about device ownership, radio listening habits, and awareness of DAB+. The survey found that a substantial majority—over nine in ten respondents (95%)—indicated they had at least one device that would enable them to listen to the radio.
According to Ofcom’s research, the adoption of DAB+ radio sets in the UK has been steadily increasing, though the number of radio sets sold in the UK has declined from 2.57 million in 2018, to 1.22 million in 2022. It is widely recognised that the landscape of audio distribution has changed significantly with the advent of smart speakers, podcasting, streaming, and the development of other connected devices that enable internet-based audio streaming, such as smart televisions.
The changes in distribution and take-up can be grouped into three categories:
- DAB+ Radio: DAB+ radio sets have found their niche, especially among those who prefer a dedicated device for radio listening. They are also popular in cars, and many new vehicles now come with DAB+ radios as standard equipment. The DAB network in the UK is quite extensive, offering a broad range of programming options.
- Smart Speakers: Smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home have gained significant traction in recent years. These devices offer the flexibility of streaming not just radio stations but also other audio content like podcasts, audiobooks, and music from various streaming services. Voice-activated controls and the ability to integrate with other smart home devices make them increasingly popular.
- Other Digital Audio Distribution Methods: Other methods like mobile apps for radio streaming, internet radio stations, and even traditional FM/AM radio still have their place. Apps and internet radio stations provide the flexibility of listening on the go, often offering the ability to customise playlists and listen to stations from around the world.
Clearly, it’s not wise to consider each component of the audio and radio distribution ecosystem as discrete elements. Rather, a holistic review of the data and reported evidence needs to account for the comparative factors that are influencing social and consumer interest in the growth of audio content. This includes:
- Flexibility: Smart speakers offer the most flexibility, followed by mobile apps and internet radio. DAB+ radios are generally single purpose devices.
- Content Range: Internet-based methods, including smart speakers, offer a broader range of content, including international stations and on-demand services.
- Sound Quality: DAB+ generally offers better sound quality than traditional FM/AM, but may be on par with high-quality internet streams.
- Cost: DAB+ radios require a one-time purchase, while smart speakers and smartphones (for apps) might have additional costs like subscriptions to premium services.
While DAB+ radio sets offer certain advantages like sound quality and a one-time cost, smart speakers and other digital distribution methods are gaining ground due to their flexibility and the range of available content. The trend suggests a diversifying audio distribution landscape where different methods coexist, each serving specific needs and preferences of the listening public.
Furthermore, the use of analogue radio (AM/FM) and DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) varies depending on several factors, including location, age demographic, and listening habits, such as:
Analogue Radio (AM/FM)
- Demographics: Analogue radio tends to be more popular among older generations who have grown up with these technologies.
- Accessibility: AM/FM radios are generally more accessible and are often built into older car models, alarm clocks, and even some smartphones.
- Cost: Analogue radios are usually cheaper than DAB radios and do not require a subscription.
- Range: While FM radio offers a reasonable range and a good selection of local stations, AM radio can often pick up stations from much farther away, although with lower sound quality.
- Sound Quality: Generally lower than DAB, especially for AM, though well-maintained and new transmitters can deliver acceptable speech and music transmissions.
- Demographics: DAB radio does not attract a younger, more tech-savvy audience, but is associated with middle-aged home-makers.
- Accessibility: While DAB radios are less commonly built into devices than analogue radios, the technology is increasingly standard in new car models.
- Cost: DAB radios are generally more expensive upfront than analogue radios but offer a wider range of free stations.
- Range: Limited to areas with DAB coverage, which is expanding but may not be as widespread as FM/AM in rural areas.
- Sound Quality: Generally higher than analogue, especially for DAB+.
Relative Levels of Use
- Urban Areas: In metropolitan settings, DAB and internet-based methods are generally more popular due to better coverage and a wider selection of stations.
- Rural Areas: Analogue may still dominate in rural or remote areas where DAB coverage is limited.
- In-Car Listening: The prevalence of AM/FM radios in older cars means that analogue is still widely used for in car listening, although this is changing with newer models.
- Home Listening: With the advent of smart speakers and streaming services, both DAB and analogue have seen a decline in home use in favour of these newer technologies.
While DAB offers advantages in terms of sound quality and station variety, often these benefits are perceived as marginal, so analogue radio remains relevant due to its accessibility and prevalence in older technologies. We’ve seen consistent increases in the sales of vinyl albums recently, so market trends that seem inevitable can sometimes be reversed. However, the gap is closing as DAB becomes more widespread and affordable, especially in urban areas and among groups of people who are establishing their sense of place through homeownership, and the need to support new families.
Factors to Consider
Based on existing knowledge and trends, the government and Ofcom must continue to consider the following points when contemplating a decision to switchover:
- Coverage: Can it be ensured that DAB or DAB+ coverage is as extensive as current AM/FM coverage, especially in rural and remote areas?
- Affordability: Can it be ensured that DAB radios are cost-effective and robust enough to provide a universal service? DAB radio sets are generally pricier than their analogue counterparts. Can initiatives be put in place to help those who cannot easily afford the switch.
- Accessibility: Has an assessment been undertaken to consider the multitude of devices that currently have built-in AM/FM radios, such as older cars and alarm clocks, and how these would be impacted by a switch off.
- Public Awareness: Before any switch off, a public awareness campaign would be essential to educate people on how to transition smoothly. A cost-benefit analysis would need to be undertaken to ensure that the most difficult to reach people can make alternative provision.
- Test Runs: Could test runs in smaller regions could provide valuable data on how a nationwide switch off might proceed.
- Phased Approach: A gradual phasing out of analogue services, with adequate public notice and education campaigns, could ease the transition.
- Subsidies and Discounts: Would offering subsidies or discounts on DAB radios could encourage more people to make the switch.
- Interoperability: Can it be ensured that new DAB+ sets are backward compatible with DAB and possibly even FM could also ease the transition?
- Extend DAB+ Benefits: Is it sufficient to publicise the benefits of DAB+, such as better sound quality, more station choices, and additional features like pause and rewind to make the transition more appealing?
- Public Consultation: How much engagement with the public and relevant stakeholders has been undertaken, to understand their concerns and needs, possibly through surveys or public consultations?
- Policy Framework: Is the switchover part of a comprehensive policy framework that outlines the transition, complete with deadlines and contingency plans?
- Review and Adapt: Is it likely that DCMS and Ofcom will continuously monitor the transition’s impact on the public and make necessary adjustments to plans and timelines?
It might be that by taking a balanced and thoughtful approach, the transition from analogue to digital radio can be managed in a way that benefits the majority while minimising disruption. However, based on existing knowledge and general trends in broadcasting, and the potential challenges that Ofcom would have to consider for the further development of DAB and DAB+ services, it seems likely that the introduction of these services will be left to the market alone, and will have no government backed industrial strategy to support it.
Ofcom, however, concludes:
“We consider that a focus on industry-led initiatives such as these would likely deliver most benefit in the near term, with businesses taking decisions on how to develop their services in the interests of their listeners and potential listeners.”
Given the data that Ofcom has reported about the uptake of DAB services, and the strong resilience and preference for analogue radio services in the UK, it seems any talk of a digital switchover needs to be dismissed and removed from the policy mix, and that Ofcom should move to a position where it is allowing any digital stations to cease simulcasting any analogue services they provide, and open up the process of licencing analogue independent and community radio stations to take up the slack as was originally intended.