Newspapers and television have enthusiastically embraced the digital revolution. Radio, by contrast, prefers a digital evolution. It is not so much marching towards the future as edging towards it.
It is now clear that the great digital switchover — the planned giant leap away from analogue radio — will not take place in the foreseeable future. This will be confirmed by Communications Minister Ed Vaizey on December 16 when he seeks to “clarify” the Government’s position.
Vaizey will certainly not be announcing an analogue switch-off date because it just isn’t feasible to do so. Instead, he will tell delegates to the Digital Radio News Intellect Conference of the uncomfortable reality of the present situation. There has been a public resistance to change accompanied by hostility from scores of radio operators against the imposition of any digital deadline.
Some 18 months ago, the Government was anticipating DAB sets to be taken up more rapidly than they have been. Indeed, the rate appears to have slowed after an initial surge.
For example, in the third quarter of this year, 35.6% of all radio listening was via digital platforms, which represented a slight fall from the previous three months.
So digital radio is nowhere near the 50% that was set as the benchmark for switchover by the previous government. For once, I think it’s fair to absolve any government, this one and the last one, for this state of affairs.
The truth is that, given the huge number of analogue sets and the public’s love for them, effecting such a change was always going to be problematic.
Nor are the public the only ones reluctant to change. Many motor manufacturers are still not installing DAB sets in new cars. Though Vaizey said in the Commons last week that “roughly half of all new cars had DAB fitted as standard”, my understanding is that it is no more than 40% and perhaps as few as 5% of cars presently on the road have them. Then there are the concerns of commercial stations. Last month, a consortium of 13 radio companies, responsible for 80 stations with a weekly reach of six million listeners, opposed switchover. It pointed out that replacing sets in households would cost “several hundred pounds” each.
There is merit in the argument of Vaizey’s Labour shadow, Helen Goodman, that the switchover is likely to hit the poorest households hardest. Tory MP Cheryl Gillan has aired similar objections.
Arguing also on behalf of the expense faced by smaller radio operators, Gillan believes that DAB radio is “fundamentally the wrong platform for genuinely local stations”.
Aside from the cost implications, the other major issue for the public is the intermittent DAB reception. I have two sets and both have a tendency to cut out, and require very careful positioning. Nor is the sound quality as good as the FM signal on analogue.
There are also geographical pockets, admittedly rare and relatively small, where it appears unlikely that people will be able to receive the digital signal at all.
Improvements are therefore required and it is uncertain who will foot that bill. It is another niggle that Vaizey will have to face when, inevitably, he damps the enthusiasm of the digital missionaries.
Roy Greenslade is Professor of Journalism, City University London, and writes a blog for the Guardian
Source - http://www.standard.co.uk/business/media/roy-greenslade-costly-unreliable-and-unpopular-digital-radio-has-a-long-way-to-go-8982284.html