Owners of 80 stations want DAB switch halt

The owners of 80 commercial radio stations in the UK have released a joint statement calling for the digital radio switchover timetable to be set by consumers, not by the government.

The group includes UTV Media, UKRD, Celador, Quidem, Media Sound Holdings, Q Radio Network, CN Radio and Anglian Radio as well as a number of independent stations. The stations they represent cover an area from Shetland to Brighton and Norwich to Plymouth.

The government is due to make an announcement next month on the proposed timetable for migrating stations from FM and AM to DAB-only. There are no plans to ‘switch-off’ analogue radio, despite many areas of the popular press still reporting the switchover as a switch-off with scaremongering stories abut FM radios being obsolete within a couple of years.

Today’s statement from 13 local radio operators highlights that only 23% of radio listening is via DAB and says that local commercial stations are ‘severely disadvantaged’ by the switchover plans, as only 15% of local radio listening is on DAB, according to data in the latest RAJAR release (Q3 2013). The group says ‘as many as 100 important local commercial radio stations’ would either be ‘left stranded on FM’ at switchover or would have to cut local programming to be able to afford DAB transmission costs. It also says publicly-funding more DAB transmitters will benefit larger local and regional services rather than the ones covering small-scale communities across the country.

The consortium says it’s not against DAB as a platform but says consumers rather than government should determine if and when there should be a switchover – and adds that broadcast companies should be able to decide which platforms they invest in.

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 16th December. Digital Radio UK told RadioToday that the BBC and larger groups, representing more than 96% of radio listening are in support of an in-principle decision on switchover. CEO Ford Ennals said; “We believe that the future of local radio is secure, and the fact that FM will be sustained for ultra local stations and community stations is good news for listeners and local radio. These are exciting times for radio. Listeners and small stations should be reassured that they will have plenty of time to prepare and plan for radio’s future.”

Global Radio said in a statement: “Many listeners today cannot receive local stations on DAB. Clarity from the Government on radio’s digital future will unlock the investment needed to improve local DAB coverage and will bring more stations to more listeners. We hope the ongoing debate will be less about switchover – which, in any case, will not happen until listeners are ready – and more about the necessity for continuing investment in Britain’s digital infrastructure.”

A spokesperson for Bauer added: “A positive decision from Government on digital radio switchover will provide the radio industry and all stations, national and local, with a certain and exciting future at the heart of the UK’s digital economy. We believe that with the right structure, investment and talent, local radio will thrive following switchover.”

The Community Media Association told RadioToday that it welcomed progress on digital migration for national and large regional stations, adding that freeing up FM spectrum would create new opportunities for community stations and small independents. Director Jaqui Devereux said: “The possibility of low cost DAB, as demonstrated in a research project for Ofcom earlier this year, provides a potential solution for those community stations and other small broadcasters which want to go onto DAB in the future. In the meantime FM broadcasting remains healthy for the foreseeable future and provides listeners with an ideal complement to digital radio in terms of increasing choice.”

What the local operators’ coalition says

Paul Smith, Chairman of Celador Entertainment, which owns the Breeze network and runs a number of JACK FM stations under brand licence, said “Celador is one of the fastest growing radio groups in the UK, operating 18 commercial radio stations which provide valued local programming to listeners. For radio to continue to meet the needs of listeners, I believe that platform investment decisions should be left at the discretion of the broadcaster.”

Scott Taunton, Managing Director of talkSPORT owner UTV Media (GB), whose local stations include Juice Liverpool, Signal, The Pulse and The Wave, said: “UTV is an enthusiastic supporter of all forms of digital radio including DAB, however in common with many other UK radio operators we believe that switching off AM and FM risks jeopardising listeners’ affection for radio and undermining valued local radio services. We urge government to devise policies which prioritise the interests of consumers and allow all sectors of the industry to prosper.”

Steve Orchard, Chief Executive of Touch Radio owners Quidem, said: “Local commercial radio stations provide an important and well loved service for millions of listeners and many thousands of local customers. Whilst we welcome and strongly support the transition of radio to DAB and other digital platforms the migration strategy must include a viable solution for this substantial branch of the commercial radio family. Simply to cut them adrift would be very damaging to radio’s ecology.”

Inga Walterson and Ian Anderson, joint owners of SIBC in Shetland said: “This is an issue of fairness and inclusion. From 1998 we have been advocating that the digital platform must include technology that is affordable to the smaller independent operator and that it should be on a frequency band that can provide satisfactory coverage in relatively large and difficult terrain. However, although this has been accepted by many with the power to bring about change, nothing has been done.”

Robert Walshe, Managing Director of the Q Radio Network which comprises six stations in Northern Ireland, said: “The complete migration to digital in Northern Ireland spells the imminent demise of local radio as we know it. The provision of local news, sport & programming in small regions specifically rural areas like here is the lifeblood of the community. The loss of services like this will leave areas like Northern Ireland further disadvantaged.”

William Rogers, CEO of UKRD Group – owners of stations including Pirate, Eagle, Spire, Minister and Star, said: “The announcement today of a sizeable and growing group of radio operators opposing the forced switchover to DAB is a significant change to the DAB switchover debate. The fact is that there are now operators of getting on for 100 stations firmly opposing the forced switchover which will be bad for consumers and bad for many parts of the commercial radio industry. I fully expect these numbers to grow and whilst there are others who have yet to declare but are firmly opposed like we are, the momentum is clearly moving against the forced switchover and I hope the Government listens to what it is being told by so many.”

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 Brighton’s Juice 107.2, Radio Jackie and SIBC. The total combined weekly audience of those raising the issue is more than 6 million.

Posted on Monday, November 11th, 2013 at 10:10 am by RadioToday UK

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