DAB here now: Should digital switchover be back on radio agenda as 50% landmark looms?

6 Music

Top radio execs have urged caution over digital radio switchover, as digital listening finally reaches a tipping point.

Figures in the latest RAJAR report show that listening via digital platforms accounted for a record 49.9% of all UK radio listening in Q4 2017, up from 45.2% in Q3. The government had previously stated that 50% would be the point when it started to consider switching off FM signals in favour of DAB, as long as DAB had 90% coverage of the UK population.

But switchover has fallen off the agenda in recent years, with then culture minister Ed Vaizey saying he would “not be pushed” into naming a date as far back as 2013. And leading players in the digital radio sector have told Music Week a cautious approach is still required.

“We have got to be really careful that, in seeking to do anything, we don’t harm the big thing which is radio,” said Paul Rodgers, head of BBC Radio 6 Music, the most listened-to digital-only station with 2.343 million listeners in the latest RAJARs. “This is about getting audio to people and we need to think very carefully about the best way to do that.”

“It needs thinking about again,” he added. “I’d like to think that we’re doing our bit to increase digital listening. When people find this radio station, they want to listen to it and that’s generally a mark of satisfaction and quality. We’re putting some of that into the digital mix and that’s very helpful for digital.”

Bauer’s Kisstory is the No.1 commercial digital-only station with a reach of 1.714m in the latest RAJAR report, and 61% of listening to Bauer stations now comes via a digital platform. But Kiss network group programme director Andy Roberts is another one in no rush to move to a digital-only environment.

“It’s interesting, I just wouldn’t want it to happen right now,” he told Music Week. “We’ve seen it in certain international markets where it might have been too soon. We’re getting good audiences on traditional FM, DAB is going great guns, streaming is doing great, it’s a question of making sure all the right platforms are there at the right time.

“For example, Freeview was a great platform to begin with but other things come into the market,” he added. “You can get a lot of our brands on [Amazon] Alexa now and that can account for a good percentage of the audience [in future]. All of our brands need to be in all the right places at the right time but it’s probably a bit too soon.”

The 2010 Digital Economy Act required preparations to be made for digital switchover and others in the sector have previously argued for a clear path to analogue switch-off to ensure return on investment for DAB radio manufacturers and those launching digital-only stations. Those calls may return next quarter if, as expected, the 50% barrier is finally breached 16 years after the launch of 6 Music kick-started the digital revolution. Last year, Norway became the first country to completely switch over from FM.

The news comes as radio seems to have weathered the storm from streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, with many stations posting impressive listening figures in Q4.

To read Music Week’s full RAJAR analysis, see the current print edition of Music Week, or click here.

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