Radio the UK's digital laggard

POSTED BY Windsor Holden
The UK is almost a digital nation. The last analogue broadcast TV transmitter was switched off (by 1972 Olympics gold medal winner Dame Mary Peters) in October 2012, completing a five year transition; it is well over a decade since the 1G mobile networks breathed their last; broadband Internet has replaced dial-up.

Almost. There is one medium which is resolutely behind schedule, whose adherents are steadfastly refusing to migrate in the desired numbers to digital, and that is radio. While their televisual counterparts had comfortably passed the required adoption threshold by mid-2009 (the point that the mass switch-off truly began), radio paints a rather different picture. The government had laid down two key criteria for when it would set a time for the transition to DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting): firstly, that 50% of listening should occur via digital platforms; secondly, that “national DAB coverage is comparable to FM, and local DAB reaches 90% of the population and all major roads”.

Taking each of these criteria in turn: at the present time, just over a third (36%) of UK listener hours occur over a digital platform, a figure which is unlikely to reach 50% before the end of 2015 at the earliest.

There are believed to be around 100 million analogue sets in use across the UK; indeed, two-thirds of the sets sold in the year to June 2013 were analogue only. At the current rate of purchase transition, digital sets are only likely to account for the majority of sales by early-2017. This is hardly indicative of a populace willing to disengage with 88-91 FM, or with 903/693 Medium Wave.

Nor are our drivers engaging with DAB to any significant degree: less than four in 10 new cars have digital radios fitted, while less than 10 per cent of all cars on the road have a digital radio. Schedule switchover anytime soon, and the overwhelming majority of drivers can kiss goodbye to Ken Bruce and Popmaster.

Another key factor here is that DAB coverage is, shall we say, not the best: it currently stands at 72% of UK households, and just 56% of major roads – another disincentive to motorists considering whether to go digital. Thus, the criteria benchmarks will not be met until 2016 at the very earliest.

While the commercial radio trade body, the Radio Centre, has proposed a 2018 switch off, this seems highly improbable given that the government will not – assuming it keeps to the criteria for the decision – be unveiling proposals for the transition until the end of 2016. A phased switch-off beginning in 2020 would seem to be a more likely proposition, although even that would entail mandations on all sets shipped and sold well before that point being DAB-capable.

Unlike the TV analogue spectrum, quickly sold off to house 4G mobile signals, it does not appear that medium wave is going anywhere soon…