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Vaizey says digital switchover in radio now unlikely until 2020

By | Published on Tuesday 17 December 2013

Ed Vaizey

As expected, media minister Ed Vaizey yesterday confirmed that the government is in no mood to force digital radio onto the public by setting a deadline for removing key radio stations like the national BBC services from FM so that they would only be available via the DAB network, and other digital platforms like Freeview and the net.

As much previously reported, the radio industry is divided on its digital future. The BBC and the big commercial radio groups are, in the main, pro a full shift to digital, so that DAB would become the primary radio network. DAB has more capacity, so allows the big radio firms to launch sister stations to their existing brands that can increase overall listening figures or listening hours, and to make quasi-national stations – like Global’s Capital and Heart brands – which don’t reach all regions on FM, properly national

But some smaller radio firms are against a forced switchover to digital, not least because DAB coverage is not yet universal, and while the FM network would remain even after switchover, stations who’d still rely on it fear that that network would become secondary, making it harder to compete where DAB was available. Some also argue that the DAB network will be superseded by net-based audio services even before it becomes fully established, making investing in the medium pointless.

The one thing everyone agrees on, though, is that DAB take-up has been slower than hoped, and too many consumers are still relying on FM, at home and in the car, to justify shifting key services off that network. And any radio firm with at least one FM operation, which is most of them, doesn’t want to suddenly lose a slice of its audience as a result of a forced shift to digital, particularly as cars and home stereos become net-connected, making Spotify et al a more direct competitor to traditional radio.

Which is why, despite 2015 being once mooted as a target year for the digital switchover in radio, Vaizey yesterday confirmed that nothing that dramatic will happen until at least 2020. Which a cynic might say is passing the buck a little, given Vaizey won’t be the policymaker in this domain by then, but it is almost certainly the least controversial decision the minister could make today.

Of course those who are pro DAB – while not wanting premature switchover – rightly point out that without a fixed deadline in the schedule for some key stations to go digital only (you sense the commercial operators would like the Beeb to go first, so it takes the risk), there is no incentive for consumers to upgrade their home radios and car firms to make DAB in-car systems the norm, which means the shift to digital will continue to be slow. Which means many stations having to pay to broadcast on both FM and DAB at the same time for longer.

Aware of that, Vaizey accompanied his 2020/maybe decision with other commitments that aim to speed up organic switchover. Key to that is a new commitment to further roll-out the DAB network in a new bid to overcome gaps in its reach, and another stab at a second national multiplex which will increase the amount of digital-only content available (assuming someone other than the Beeb is willing to create that content) that should provide a new incentive for consumers to go DAB.

Commenting on his unsurprising decisions regarding digital radio, Vaizey told The Guardian yesterday: “I am not going to impose a solution on people who aren’t ready for it. I certainly think by the end of the decade we could be in a position where we are looking at digital being the main platform for radio. We could get to 50% [of radio listening on digital] earlier, but I am looking towards the end of the decade”.