FM should continue until at least 2030 in the UK according to a Digital Radio and Audio Review by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
The review has been welcomed by the BBC, Global and Bauer saying FM plays an important part in people’s lives and radio should remain free at the point of use.
It would put the UK at least 13 years behind Norway, which switched off most of its FM services in 2017.
Previously, the Digital Radio Action Plan proposed that the earliest date that the government could consider setting a switch-off timetable for FM and AM networks was when digital accounted for at least 50 percent of all UK radio listening.
Digital listening currently accounts for more than 58 percent of listening according to the latest RAJAR data.
The review found analogue radio listening will account for just 12 to 14 per cent of all radio listening by 2030, but FM, in particular, remains highly valued by many listeners, especially those who are older or more vulnerable, drive older cars or live in areas with limited DAB coverage.
AM services, accounting for less than 3 per cent of all listening, should develop a plan to retire national medium wave services, given the cost of running duplicate networks.
The review recommends a continuation of public funding for public service broadcasting, with the finance available via the Audio Content Fund possibly rising from £1m to £2m. Audio UK, the trade association for independent audio production companies, welcomes the recommendation.
It also includes a recommendation to consider an audio production tax relief, a measure for which AudioUK has been making the case, including in its detailed report published in July this year.
And there is also a positive recommendation for skills and training in audio, where the report recognises there is a gap in funding and recommend that ways are found to provide funding to support this going forward.
The review also says new rules are needed to protect British radio output on smart speakers, saying regulation is needed so radio can be accessed easily on the devices.
The Digital Radio and Audio Review found that smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home are owned or accessed by a third of all adults and now play a central role in many of our lives – despite only being available for around five years.
The review recommends new measures to protect UK radio stations’ accessibility so that their content is carried on platforms via connected audio devices such as smart speakers and car ‘infotainment’ systems. This will mean they can continue to reach loyal audiences as radio is increasingly listened to via tech platforms rather than traditional radio sets.
Digital Radio UK welcomes the review, saying it underlines the strength and importance of the radio sector in supporting the nation through the pandemic and highlights how radio has reinvented itself.
Radio listening habits have changed markedly over the past ten years, with more listener choice than ever before thanks to the increasing availability of on-demand audio and the successful development of DAB digital radio.
There are now more than 570 stations available on DAB across the UK, in addition to thousands of online stations and more than 300 stations on analogue. Around 60 per cent of all radio listening is now via DAB or another digital platform, and the review concludes that DAB will underpin listening well into the 2030s and beyond. New small scale DAB networks are coming on air giving more and more small local stations the ability to broadcast digitally.
The review found that the ability of the UK radio industry to thrive in the long term is increasingly dependent on listeners having free access to the hundreds of different UK radio stations on connected audio devices.
Sixty four per cent of audio consumed on a smart speaker is live radio and the review predicts that live radio will still account for more than 50 per cent of UK audio listening in the mid-2030s.
Amazon, Google and Apple currently provide more than 95 per cent of voice-activated smart speakers and the review notes there is nothing within the current regulations to prevent tech platforms from being able to limit or restrict access to UK radio services or to charge stations for carriage.
Other recommendations from the review include:
- The government moving forward with its plans for deregulation of commercial radio services to reduce burdens on the sector from outdated regulation;
- Further measures to support and develop the audio sector, including making it more diverse and representative of the UK;
- New measures to support national commercial AM licensees who want to retire medium wave services;
- And further work relating to other distribution channels for radio content, including mobile and to increase the rollout of DAB+ to offer listeners better quality and more services.
Media Minister Julia Lopez said: “British radio showcases some of our best creative talent and played a vital role in the pandemic bringing news and entertainment to those in need.
“We must make sure this treasured medium continues to reach audiences as listening shifts to new technologies and that we have a gradual transition away from FM to protect elderly listeners and those in remote areas.
“We will not have a digital switchover until at least 2030 and will consider new rules to keep our thriving radio sector at the heart of the UK’s media landscape.”
Rhona Burns, Director of Operations, BBC Radio said: “Radio plays a unique role in people’s lives. This review recognises that and proposes important steps to keep radio listening strong as audience habits change, ensuring brilliant content is easy to find and access across all platforms. It also challenges the BBC and the whole industry to keep innovating and evolving our audio offer, whilst keeping linear listening alive for the many millions who love it.
“We welcome the review’s focus on making sure radio remains relevant to all audiences, including increasing diversity, skills and representation both on and off air, and we look forward to working with the industry to achieve these goals.”
Paul Keenan, President of Bauer Media Audio said: “The radio industry has embraced the disruptive potential provided by connected devices, but such platforms also present long term risks as relationships with listeners are increasingly mediated by gatekeepers. To protect radio’s public value, it’s crucial that listeners continue to enjoy unfettered access free at the point of use, and broadcasters continue to have a secure route to market on equitable terms, so I fully welcome the Review’s recommendations.
“We look forward to working with legislators to mitigate the challenges our industry faces and create opportunities for increased digital audio listening and innovation over the longer term.”
Seb Enser-Wight, Chief of Staff and Director of Strategy & Development of Global, said: “We welcome the move to protect FM until at least 2030, recognising the important role it plays in many people’s lives. We’re pleased that there are recommendations to safeguard listeners’ ability to access radio services freely and easily on FM, DAB and IP platforms, including smart speakers and connected cars.”
Ian Moss, Chief Executive of Radiocentre said: “This report marks a significant moment for the UK radio and audio industry. The Review has identified a set of proposals that will ensure the continued delivery of a wide range of high quality audio services for consumers. We look forward to working with the Government and the industry to implement the recommendations.”
Chloe Straw, Managing Director of AudioUK: “We are very pleased to see this important report’s recognition of the creative role that independent audio producers. We particularly welcome the recommendation to consider an audio production tax relief, to take advantage of the growing international investment in podcasting.
“As the providers of specialist audio production courses via our Audiotrain programme, we also welcome the recognition of the need to address the importance of ongoing skills provision. And as one of the organisations overseeing the successful government-financed Audio Content Fund, which is coming to the end of its three-year pilot phase, we greatly welcome the report’s recommendation for continued contestable funding in radio.”
Shuja Khan, Chief Commercial Officer at Arqiva, said: “The review reminds us all how important Radio is to its audiences now and in the future. We are committed to taking the recommendations forward and excited about working with the industry to deliver a sustainable and vibrant future for UK radio.”
Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, said: “The automotive industry and the broadcasting sector have enjoyed a long and fruitful collaborative relationship which, given historically high rates of radio listening in vehicles, has delivered for the end user – digital radio is now ubiquitous in new cars. There are now multiple ways of accessing content in vehicles, including radio and streaming, and with technology continuing to evolve, it would be reasonable to expect even more options in the future, so this review is a welcome opportunity to promote innovation.”
Nathan Spackman Co-founder of the UK Community Radio Network, the representative organisation for Ofcom licensed community radio stations said “We welcome the report and look forward to working with DCMS and the wider radio and audio industry to strengthen and develop the community radio sector.
“We strongly welcome the development of funding opportunities to support the vital work community radio does locally and for their communities, increasing the community radio fund and the recognition that local news and journalism needs financial support as well.
“We are reassured that FM will stay as the main platform at least until 2030, and look forward to the opportunities that SSDAB, IP and connected devices will bring in reaching larger local audiences of interest for which community radio serves.”
The review is available for download here.