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New reports from government and MPs put the spotlight on the UK radio sector

By | Published on Tuesday 26 October 2021

Car radio

Two new reports have been published about the future of the UK radio sector, one commissioned by the government and the other by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Commercial Radio.

The stand out conclusions of the government commissioned report – called the ‘Digital Radio And Audio Review’ – are that the FM network should stay operational in the UK until at least 2030, and that measures might be required to ensure radio is always freely accessible via smart speakers.

In the UK, the shift from FM to digital radio has been slow-going, with the target date for removing most stations off FM – forcing people to switch their listening to digital channels – having been pushed back multiple times.

The new report notes that about 60% of radio listening in the UK is now via digital channels, whether that is online, via digital TV services, or on the digital audio broadcasting network. But that still means a sizeable audience is relying on the old-school analogue AM and FM networks in order to tune into their favourite radio shows.

With that in mind, an executive summary states that the report recommends “there should be no mandated switch-off of analogue radio until at least 2030 – meaning that FM radio broadcasts can continue for at least another decade so the elderly, vulnerable and people in remote communities can access essential news and entertainment”.

Meanwhile, the report also confirms, when it comes to online radio listening, smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home are becoming an increasingly importance device via which radio services are accessed. The report says that a third of UK adults now access content and services via smart speakers; Amazon, Google and Apple control 95% of the smart speaker market; and 64% of audio consumed on those smart speakers is live radio.

That’s all lovely for the time being, but concerns have been expressed about whether the tech giant’s smart speaker systems will become more limiting in the future. The new report “notes there is nothing within the current regulations to prevent tech platforms from being able to limit or restrict access to UK radio services or to charge stations for carriage”.

To that end, “the report recommends new measures to protect UK radio stations’ accessibility so that their content is carried on platforms via connected audio devices such as smart speakers and car infotainment systems. This will mean they can continue to reach loyal audiences as radio is increasingly listened to via tech platforms rather than traditional radio sets”.

In its own ‘Future Of Radio’ report – which in part responds to the government’s review – the APPG On Commercial Radio backs the calls for measures to ensure radio stations will be easily available via any new-fangled devices that become the norm for audio consumption.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given its remit, the APPG’s report also puts the focus on the public service obligations of the licence fee funded BBC stations that commercial broadcasters have to compete with.

It states that media regulator OfCom “is reviewing the way it regulates the BBC, ahead of the government’s mid-term review of the BBC Charter which is due to get underway in spring 2022. The changes being proposed could mean the dilution or even removal of the important quotas on radio programming that help ensure the BBC’s distinctive content”.

This is not something the commercial radio sector – nor the APPG – want to see. Instead, the ‘Future Of Radio’ report calls for “a strengthening of public service requirements for BBC radio”.

The government has confirmed it will now consider the recommendations in the report it commissioned as it prepares a broadcasting white paper and develops a new pro-competition regime for digital markets. The APPG, meanwhile, wants the two reports to be used to inform a ‘government action plan for radio’, so to speed up the reforms that have been proposed.

Commenting on the government’s report, Media Minister Julia Lopez said: “British radio showcases some of our best creative talent and played a vital role in the pandemic bringing news and entertainment to those in need”.

“We must make sure this treasured medium continues to reach audiences as listening shifts to new technologies and that we have a gradual transition away from FM to protect elderly listeners and those in remote areas”, she added. “We will not have a digital switchover until at least 2030 and will consider new rules to keep our thriving radio sector at the heart of the UK’s media landscape”.

Meanwhile the APPG Chair, Andy Carter MP, commented on the launch of the government review and his own group’s report: “Radio plays a vital role in the daily lives of audiences across the UK. It connects with people from all backgrounds providing them with trusted news, information, companionship and entertainment. But as listening habits change there needs to be a concerted effort to help the radio industry evolve and secure the tremendous value it provides to listeners”.

“Our ‘Future Of Radio’ report”, he continues, “calls on government and OfCom to move quickly to update the framework for radio, so that it can continue to be a great British success story in the years to come”.

You can download the ‘Digital Radio And Audio Review’ here.

You can download the ‘Future Of Radio’ report here.