Digital Radio – Leaving No-one Behind

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATim blogs about recent developments in the digital radio switchover plan

Today, big news is here for digital radio as the Government, BBC and a fleet of commercial station operators sign a Memorandum of Understanding designed to increase DAB (digital radio) coverage to 90% of the figure for FM radio. This is an agreement to fund five new digital multiplexes across England and Wales, and to use an Ofcom planning group to establish the necessary steps to bring digital radio coverage for the whole UK.

The Memorandum signifies commitment to extending DAB radio with the aim of implementing a switchover – in the model of the digital TV switch – as early as 2013. Tomorrow (Wednesday 4th July) is officially named Digital Day, and sees the launch of a new digital signal transmitter in Manchester. The Olympics are also being used to support digital radio, with a dedicated station, Five Live Olympics Extra, launching on 25thJuly, and adverts for digital radio focussing heavily on Games coverage.

The Memorandum mentions Government funding of £21 million, with a clause allowing further funding when necessary. The Government has published a cost-benefit analysis of this funding (available to view here). Comments on this document can be sent to [email protected] until Friday 31 July.

Tim says: ‘It’s good to see plenty of focus put on raising awareness and understanding of digital radio. The new printed guide to digital radio may help people who are confused about their radio listening options. One of the things WaveLength likes about digital radio is that it’s trying to extend choice in the way people can listen.

‘However, with DAB listening currently flat-lining after an original boost, it’s hard to see why – apart from commercial reasons – this form of digital listening is receiving so much attention, and so much funding. Fewer than 20% of radio listeners in the UK use DAB radios. A larger consistent increase is in people using the internet or internet-connected devices to receive digital radio – and as we know at WaveLength, many people also remain quite happy to continue listening to their FM radios.

‘With current penetration at just 20%, a switch date of 2013 is an unlikely goal. Penetration of 50% digital usage among radio users is required to trigger a switch. Lining the ducks up for swift action when this target is hit should not take precedence over encouraging uptake among all sectors of the community.

‘During the TV switch, WaveLength got involved with the Consumer Expert Group in order to protect our beneficiaries, and I’m proud of the group’s support of consumers during this time. Many WaveLength users welcomed the digital TV switch because it seemed to offer a genuinely greater range of choice; but appetite for digital radio is significantly lower. As well as the lower penetration of digital radio overall in comparison to digital TV, radio is disproportionately used by the elderly, who are often less able to deal with new costs and less willing to adapt to new equipment.

‘Because digital radio has a much smaller base of existing users, the Government needs to commit to a help scheme which embraces all vulnerable consumers. As outlined in the CEG’s latest report, access to this scheme should not be reliant on receipt of certain benefits, but should be available to all who need it.

‘My opinion is that elderly people in general, as well as those living with any physical, cognitive or mental impairments, should receive support free of charge when dealing with a switch of FM radio to DAB. Providing this support only to those who are in receipt of particular benefits or registrations will leave many consumers behind.  A switch to digital must also cater for those vulnerable users, such as homeless people and asylum seekers, who use transistor radios rather than TVs for their news and entertainment due to their portable nature and lack of a licence fee. Because the radio is free to air, many of the UK’s most vulnerable people rely on it.

‘In addition, I’m concerned about the low proportion of manufacturer sign-ups to the ‘tick’ scheme for verifiable digital-friendly radio equipment. If not enough manufacturers sign up to the ‘tick’ scheme, confusion over which equipment is capable of receiving DAB signal may well grow.

‘A switch to digital radio can bring millions of people better radio signal, and wider coverage of news and entertainment. However, a switch must not be rushed through for commercial considerations in a way which leaves the more vulnerable members of the UK behind. At WaveLength, our priority is access for all.

‘The Government is planning a Go Digital pilot later this year, converting a sample of households to digital radio to assess their experience. We would like a guarantee that this pilot will fully take into account the needs and preferences of elderly and rural radio users, and those living with physical, cognitive and mental illnesses.’