“I went into a model railway shop and in the workshop in the back they had a radio tuned to 6 Music. It took us a long time to get there but to me it indicated that digital radio has really broken through, said Lamacq.
RADIO HIGHLIGHTS OF 2015It’s not merely Hornby railway enthusiasts who are tuning in. The alternative music station has broken through the two-million audience barrier, becoming the first digital-only station to reach that landmark in the UK. Five years after a successful listener revolt against a management attempt to close the nascent station, due to a perceived lack of “impact”, 6 Music has overtaken Radio 3’s FM audience, without diluting its commitment to airing cult tracks and sessions from the BBC archives alongside cutting-edge new artists.
Lamacq, 49, a Radio 1 refugee, is now Britain’s most popular digital DJ, with a daily tea-time show whose audience of more than 900,000 now exceeds that for Lauren Laverne’s morning show.
“It feels like a club that keeps getting bigger,” Lamacq said. “When 6 Music started people thought we were a bit snobbish or geeky. Digital sets weren’t so common and if people had heard of us, they probably got the wrong idea.
“Now we’re putting a lot of people who drifted away from music as they got older back in touch with the artists they loved. Then they’re telling their mates to listen and now we have a growing alternative community of two million people.” The burgeoning audience for Lamacq’s show includes “mums and dads in the kitchen, people in cars and on the bus coming home from work and young kids”.
6 Music’s rise prompted a cheeky suggestion by Labour MP and regular listener Tom Watson that the network should be gifted Radio 3’s FM frequency. But the more pressing question posed by the digital revolution is when should the FM transmitter network itself be closed down, to allow UK radio to complete the “digital switchover” process successfully completed by television in 2012?
Radio listeners tuning in at home are more likely to do so on digital than FM or AM for the first time, last week’s figures revealed. The proportion of in-home radio listening via digital platforms such as digital audio broadcasting (DAB) radios grew to 46.2 per cent in the final three months of last year, overtaking analogue (45.6 per cent).
Almost 28 million people now tune in to radio via a digitally enabled receiver (DAB, Digital TV or online) each week. Listeners will be given more choice with the award of a new national commercial network, boasting up to 18 new stations, set to be launched in 2016.
The two rival bids include proposals to return the Virgin Radio brand to the airwaves, a new national children’s station and an “indie/alternative” competitor to 6 Music. Ed Vaizey, the digital economy Minister, said: “By the end of 2016, the Government criteria for a switchover decision will have been met. I’ve always said it has to be listener-led. I’m not going to fix a date for switchover but anyone looking at this objectively would say, Yes, over the next five years, you can see a tipping point being reached.”
From his previous experience overseeing the move to digital-only television, Mr Vaizey predicts “pushback and predictions of disaster” when a switchover date is ultimately announced. There will be fears that pensioners will wake up to find their battered old transistor radios no longer work. The minister said a switchover date could only be considered when targets for the “3 Cs” – “coverage, cars and content” are satisfied.
But only when 182 new digital transmitters are built by 2016, increasing coverage of local DAB from 72 per cent to 91 per cent, will reach be in line with current commercial radio FM coverage. The coverage of BBC national stations on DAB will reach 97 per cent by the end of next year. The reason that the majority of listening (56.4 per cent) still remains on analogue is largely because of the numbers who listen to FM or AM in their cars.
“Cars are a big challenge but we are doing really well,” Mr Vaizey said. Latest figures show that 61 per cent of new cars came with digital radio fitted as standard. Although DAB penetration in new cars, vans and commercial vehicles is advancing, digital stations face a challenge since the new breed of “connected cars” is just as likely to have a pre-installed entertainment service, such as Spotify, which might lure listeners from live radio. However Lamacq believes 6 Music will thrive in this environment. He said: “The internet is great for discovering new music but it’s fractured into so many styles you need a place to put all that in context. We think we offer something distinct.”
There is also a danger that BBC stations, with their substantial marketing budgets, might dominate the digital landscape at the expense of other, less powerful but equally valuable voices. “We must not leave behind local independent radio stations, run on a shoestring by passionate people,” said Mr Vaizey, who promised that the “very smallest stations” who broadcast on FM will not be disenfranchised.
Though the future looks bright for 6 Music, its executives must now consider how much bigger it can get without compromising its unique mission? Controller Bob Shennan has set a new target of 2.5 million listeners, arguing that the “vast majority of the adult population” still doesn’t know about the station.
Lamacq said: “Hopefully it will keep increasing and we keep reaching more people. We can maintain the integrity without watering it down. We can’t make it more commercial – the listeners would tell us if we started getting it wrong.”