A major digital radio expansion was announced by Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, speaking at today’s Drive to Digital: NOW conference held at BBC New Broadcasting House.
Opinion piece by Ford Ennals, Digital Radio UK
The Minister looked back at his 5 years in the Culture and Digital hot seat and highlighted the major shift towards digital radio and digital listening that had taken place since the launch of the Government Digital Radio Action Plan in 2010, Ed Vaizey hailed the growth in digital listening from 20.9% to 37.9% and a growth in the proportion of cars fitted with digital radio as standard from 4.4% to 61.2% today.
The Minister emphasised the massive support of the vehicle industry for digital radio and the role played by the SMMT and DRUK in ensuring that over 75% of new cars now come with digital radio as standard or as an option.
Ed said that digital radio is the future of radio in the UK, but that to accelerate this transition there was a need to significantly improve national and local DAB coverage and to provide an even more compelling digital content proposition. He announced a number of initiatives including the expansion of local DAB coverage and the completion of the national BBC DAB coverage expansion towards FM equivalence, and the planned launch of the second national commercial DAB network (D2).
The local DAB coverage expansion plan has been agreed and will be funded by Government, the BBC and the multiplex operators. It represents the biggest ever single increase in local DAB coverage with 182 digital transmitters being built starting next month. The programme of work will almost double the number of digital transmitters over the next 18 months and will increase local DAB coverage from 76% to 91%, ahead of ILR FM coverage. This will enable nearly 8 million more people to receive their favourite local stations on DAB.
In parallel, the national BBC national DAB coverage is being expanded to 97% of the population with the building of 162 digital transmitters. This BBC buildout is well advanced with 80 new digital transmitters being built and a further 82 due by the end of the third quarter of 2015.
The licensing of the second national commercial DAB network was announced by Ed Vaizey at the Go Digital conference in 2013 – he was pleased to confirm that 2 major broadcast consortia bids had been received by Ofcom. The bidders are Sound Digital, backed by Bauer, UTV and Arqiva, and Listen2Digital, backed by a consortium led by Orion Media and transmission provider Babcock.
Sound Digital, represented by Scott Taunton, Dee Ford and Steve Holebrook (Arqiva) outlined proposals for new digital stations including 3 speech stations (talk RADIO, talk BUSINESS, talkSPORT 2), and a range of music stations including the return of Virgin Radio and Jazz FM and the launch of British Muslim Radio. Listen2Digital represented by Matt Deegan (Folder Media) and Paul Firth (Babcock) outlined their proposals to launch stations including those targeting younger and older audiences (Fun Kids and The Wireless), 3 speech stations (sport, food and finance), country station Chris Country, and 4 stations to be broadcast on DAB+. Ofcom is reviewing the bids and will award the licence by the end of the second quarter of 2015.
The Minister confirmed that DCMS are funding Ofcom’s work on a local DAB development that will provide a low cost route to DAB for small local stations and announced the start of a series of area trials in the summer of 2015. He said he was delighted that Government has been able to play its part in the major expansion of digital radio coverage and looked forward to the achievement of the Government’s radio switchover coverage criteria by the end of 2016 and the industry achieving the consumer criterion of the majority of radio listening being to digital.
Ed Vaizey has been a tremendous champion for the radio sector over the last 5 years and we have found his commitment and passion for digital radio refreshing and inspiring. He has been unfailingly enthusiastic about working with broadcasters and the supply chain to ensure that the sector is well positioned to thrive in a digital age. We are unsure of what the General Election will bring in terms of a new Government and Minister, but we are well placed and thanks to Ed, DCMS and Ofcom, we have a clear roadmap for radio’s digital future.