Under the 2010 Digital Economy Act, the government is required to consider whether to set a radio switchover date by 31 December 2013. Shortfalls in digital listening and DAB coverage mean that government criteria for setting a date will not be achieved this year. Nevertheless, it is understood that the government is currently considering whether to confirm its intention to switch off the FM and AM signals of large local and national BBC and commercial stations. Communications Minister Ed Vaizey MP is expected to provide an update on the government's digital radio plans at a speech arranged by Digital Radio UK on December 16.
Paul Nero, chief executive of Radio Exe, said: “Switching off FM would force a station like Radio Exe to divert money away from producing programmes and into the cost of transmitting the signal. Listeners in the region would be compelled to spend tens of thousands of pounds on new radios. And the cost of advertising would be forced up too. So all in all, it’s a costly enterprise for a platform in which listeners have showed only modest interest over the past decade.”
The groups speaking out about the risks of digital radio switchover are Anglian Radio, Celador Radio, CN Radio, Media Sound, Q Radio Network, Quidem, UKRD and UTV, as well as independent stations, including Radio Exe, Brighton’s Juice 107.2, Radio Jackie and SIBC. They collectively operate more than 80 commercial radio stations in the UK, covering locations ranging from Shetland to Cornwall and from Brighton to Derry and with a combined weekly audience of over six million.
They argue that unlike TV switchover, radio switchover does not form part of an internationally coordinated programme and will not unlock a taxpayer dividend from the sale of released spectrum. Fourteen years after the consumer launch of DAB, just 15 per cent of local radio listening is currently to DAB digital radio – even though 90 per cent of the population listen to radio in some form every week.
In the latest RAJAR figures, the number of listeners to 107.3FM Radio Exe increased by almost 10 per cent, which Mr Nero said shows the FM as a platform is "alive and kicking".
He claimed any enforced switchover would pose a serious risk of listeners losing access to radio unless they buy new digital receivers. Ofcom recently stated that there are 101 - 117 million radio sets in the UK market, of which 83 per cent are used at least weekly, but only 15 to 19 per cent are digital. That means a large number of radios will be redundant if enforced switchover goes ahead.
Local commercial radio stations such as Radio Exe feel they are severely disadvantaged by the switchover plans. As many as 100 local commercial radio stations would either be left stranded on FM at switchover (possibly Radio Exe), or would be forced to reduce their local programming and take on higher transmission costs in moving to the DAB digital radio platform. In Exeter, the cost of transmitting the service would at least double, potentially affecting the viability of a station like Radio Exe.
Agreement has not been reached between the Government and broadcasters on public funding for expanding local DAB coverage, and even if this work goes ahead, it will benefit larger local and regional services rather than smaller local commercial stations whilst placing an additional cost burden on licence fee payers.
Radio Exe is joining the campaign by 13 other commercial radio operators in the UK to protest about switchover, whist remaining committed to technological progress. The coalition believes that consumers, not government, should determine whether and when there is a future switchover.