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DAB debate in the House

Radio specialist Grant Goddard, who was one of the parties invited to present evidence before the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications on Friday, has written about why he thinks the DAB will end in tears.

[b]Grant writes:[/b]

The news that the government’s proposed ‘digital radio switchover’ will no longer involve ‘FM switch-off’ was first reported in this blog in June 2009, which stated:

“In the 13-page radio section of the Digital Britain Final Report published yesterday, there was not one mention of the word ‘switchover’ in the context of ‘digital radio switchover’. Neither was there a single mention of the word ‘switch-off’, as in ‘FM radio switch-off’. Throughout the document’s radio section, the new buzz phrase is ‘Digital Radio Upgrade’, meaning a drive to make DAB radio better and improve its consumer take-up. In Digital Britain, the notion of switching off FM radio broadcasting, notably for local stations, has been buried for good.”

However, between June 2009 and now, this issue – that the government will NOT switch off FM broadcasting – has been clouded by continuing statements from some radio lobbyists and in many media outlets which imply that FM radios will no longer work after switchover. If I were cynical, I might think the motivation is to panic citizens into buying DAB radios – a consumer response which would itself help the industry reach the criteria necessary for ‘switchover’ to happen.

As for those criteria, and the government’s favoured switchover date of 2015, I have consistently predicted that the criteria stand absolutely no chance of being reached by 2015. For a long time, the government and large parts of the radio industry loyally stuck with these targets, imagining that somehow, if you say something frequently enough in public, it will come to pass of its own accord. However, in recent months, with 2015 rapidly approaching, there has been a sudden U-turn. Until then, the radio industry had been vociferous in demanding the government fix a ‘switchover’ date as early as possible. Now, suddenly, a date – any date – is no longer deemed desirable.

A blog entry here last month noted that neither the criteria, nor the 2015 date for ‘switchover’, are mentioned anywhere in the Digital Economy Bill:

“Figures. Numbers. Dates. Criteria. This kind of factual evidence or hard data might obstruct a future decision to force consumers to switch to DAB radio.

……… the criteria and the switchover date that had been agreed upon by stakeholders, over two years of deliberations, have now quietly been relegated to oblivion.

When would digital radio switchover have happened if the agreed criteria had been implemented in law? Probably never.

When will digital radio switchover happen now? Whenever those in power want it to.”

A debate on Wednesday night in the House of Lords (see below) considered several amendments to the Digital Economy Bill which would have put specific criteria back onto the legislative table and would have ensured that all radio stations (large and small, BBC and commercial) are given an opportunity to migrate from analogue to DAB transmission. These amendments were eventually withdrawn, after the government Minister offered vague assurances that FM would not be switched off “for the foreseeable future”.

As a result, on paper, if the Digital Economy Bill is ever legislated, ‘digital radio switchover’ (which no longer involves FM switch-off) can be made to happen whenever and however the government wants it to.

In practice, digital radio switchover will inevitably never happen. Consumers appear increasingly disinterested in DAB radio. Besides, we have yet to hear one radio station owner promise they will turn off their analogue transmitters forever and, in that instant, cut their listenership by half just because the other half are thought to be listening via a combination of DAB, digital TV and the internet. You would have to be mad to do that. And, yes, the radio industry could be considered ‘crazy’ for continuing to go along with this bizarre notion that it is prepared to cut off its own nose to spite its face.

Eventually, it will end in tears.

See more from Grant's blog [link=http://grantgoddardradioblog.blogspot.com/2010/02/criteria-and-date-for-digital-radio.html]here[/link].

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