Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The future of local radio isn't secure.

'RADIO TODAY' VIEWPOINT: What does Brighton's small scale DAB test actually tell us?

After the the DAB row last week came the inference that there was a solution for the hundred or so stations that don't already have a plan for a digital future after switch-over.

Daniel Nathan, CEO of Brighton's Juice 107.2, writes for eRADIO on his experience of the trial held up as the answer...

Government communication and public statements by pro-DAB lobby group Digital Radio UK in the last few weeks, have inferred that the “Small Scale DAB” test carried out as a private initiative in Brighton last year, was part of an approved and co-ordinated strategy for digital radio switchover.

Broadcasting Minister Ed Vaizey has written to concerned Members of Parliament suggesting that the low power DAB transmitter used in Brighton might be a viable replacement for existing smaller scale FM broadcasters in their constituencies. DRUK chief Ford Ennals went further, in a live interview on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Media Show’ last week, even implying that the technology was close to practical deployment.

As someone very close to the ‘Brighton Experiment’, it appears that neither Ed nor Ford have actually read the Ofcom report <> . I’m delighted to see that an initiative in software defined radio distribution, that was until recently dismissed by industry insiders as worthless, is now worthy of further research. In practice, this has only just begun and aside from any technical limitations which are clearly laid out in the official version, use of such technology would require new legislation which will not be passed for at least three to four years from what I understand, based on the noises coming out of Whitehall.

Small-scale DAB tests in Brighton

The Ofcom report makes it clear that the total available broadcast spectrum is nowhere near available for all 650 UK radio stations and that it will be extremely challenging to match the near universal coverage offered by FM with the technology demonstrated in Brighton. On the issue of Spectrum Availability, the report states: “In the majority of cases, the low power services would need to accept higher than ideal levels of interference that would limit their coverage areas and outgoing interference would also need to be constrained.” Another issue considered is the design and build quality of existing DAB receivers in the market, where the report points out the technology continues to prove extremely unreliable with "a lack of consistency in performance and behaviour between receiver models". Poor battery life in some sets and a "fiddly" user interface that is "not intuitive" are also highlighted.

The Government should of course encourage Ofcom to allow a broad range of radio station operators and engineers to further experiment with the widest range of technology within the existing licensing framework, enabling them to make better informed decisions about future platforms and their audiences, but let's not get carried away with the potential of the DAB 'micro-multilplex'. This research opens up the exciting prospect of new incremental “services such as… student, educational, ethnic and specialist interest groups”, but it is disingenuous to use the Brighton test as a substantive piece of evidence to make a decision on switch-over on December 16th. The 'Small Scale Dab' report makes it clear that, in the best case, this is about a DAB ‘top-up’, not an alternative to FM, which remains the most robust and coverage effective broadcast platform for commercial local radio.

Sent: 19 November 2013 16:35
To: JONES, Graham
Cc: Ford Ennals
Subject: RE: The future of local radio is secure

Good afternoon Graham, Firstly, thank you for raising the profile of this issue on behalf of 2BR and The Bee.

I do feel compelled to follow up on the email (see bottom of this article) below and correct some of the misleading statements contained within it.

Mr Ennals is CEO of Digital Radio UK – a marketing body for digital radio. Digital Radio UK’s Board comprises representatives from the BBC, RadioCentre, Arqiva, Global Radio, Bauer Media, Real & Smooth Ltd (wholly owned by Global Radio), Intellect and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), and does not represent the views of smaller local stations like 2BR and The Bee in any way. DRUK has a clear agenda to promote digital radio and should not therefore be viewed as an objective source of unbiased information in relation to this matter.

In his response to you, Mr Ennals makes much of the rich future that FM will enjoy. He makes a factually inaccurate claim that the spectrum vacated by BBC and larger commercial stations will be made available to local commercial and community stations. Ofcom have in fact confirmed that no further licences will be issued to commercial stations, and the Minister Ed Vaizey has confirmed recently in a letter that “we do not foresee any circumstances where Ofcom would offer new FM licences on channels vacated by the BBC or commercial radio”.

Stations left behind on FM therefore face audience decline due to the superior prominence afforded to digital stations by the BBC, larger commercial operators and bodies such as DRUK with their superior resources and marketing budgets.

Mr Ennals also suggests that a recent trial of “Small Scale DAB” will enable local commercial stations to move to DAB. We are fully aware of this trial which was initiated by the local operator in Brighton - not DRUK, DCMS or Ofcom. We are also fully aware of its limitations including technical shortcomings, spectrum constraints and the requirement for new legislation which is many years away. It is wholly misleading for Mr Ennals to again imply that such an untested infant technology is worthy of anything other than years of further research. Significantly, Brighton & Hove Radio Ltd are one of over 80 UK commercial stations that have issued a joint statement opposing any switchover and urging the government to allow the direction of travel to be dictated by consumer demand.

I trust that this clarifies the matter somewhat.

It should also serve to highlight the amount of misinformation that is being introduced into the debate by DRUK and Mr Ennals among others. The BBC and the 2 largest commercial radio operators are already on the DAB platform, and the same 2 commercial operators also dominate the industry body RadioCentre. As a consequence, the views of local commercial stations are not being heard and the government is in danger of making an ill informed decision that will decimate the small commercial sector, cause irreparable damage to communities and employment, and leave FM to become a desolate wasteland of left behind stations and pirate operators.

I thank you for your continued support in ensuring our voice is heard and that a sensible, informed debate based on facts not misinformation takes place

Best regards

Simon Brierley
Managing Director
2BR & The Bee
The Studios
2a Petre Court
Telephone : 01254 350350
Fax : 01254 350351

A UKRD station. Winner: Number 1 Best Company, Sunday Times Top 100 Best Companies to Work For 2011, 2012 & 2013. Awarded 3 Star Accreditation by Best Companies, January 2013.

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Digital Radio: the future of local radio is secure 

From: Ford Ennals
 Sent: 18 November 2013 16:10
Cc: Simon Brierley; Gemma Baron; Laurence Harrison
Subject: the future of local radio is secure

Dear Mr Jones ,

Thank you for posting my email to you on your website and thank you for your continued support of radio.

Like you the BBC and commercial radio broadcasters working with DCMS are determined to sustain the rich diversity of local radio.

In fact the proposals to move the National and major regional BBC and commercial stations from FM will open up the FM frequency for use by local commercial and community radio stations.

In the UK there are over 300 community, student and hospital stations, as well as the 200 local commercial stations, and this plan will enable those on medium wave to move to FM and will support the launch of more of these local services.

Government’s plan is to sustain FM alongside DAB as it has done with medium wave and FM for decades. Today millions of listeners switch to medium wave to listen to stations such as talkSPORT and BBC Radio 5 live and we are confident that they will keep listening to their favourite local stations on FM.

Two pieces of good news :

- the vast majority of digital radios have included FM for many years and Government has mandated that all digital radios should include FM going forward. All digital radios in cars already include FM capability

- Ofcom are developing a small scale DAB solution that would potentially enable local commercial radio stations such as 2BR and The Bee to move onto DAB serving a comparable audience and at a comparable cost to FM. DCMS are supporting this development and it will be shared with local stations in the next few weeks.

In conclusion I would say that any Government mandated move to digital radio is many years away and this transition will not happen until listeners and stations are ready. I am confident that the end result will be an increase in choice and diversity of local radio stations.

I have copied Simon Brierley and Gemma Baron at 2BR and The Bee and would be happy to discuss further with them or you at your convenience.

Your sincerely ,

Ford Ennals
Chief Executive Officer
Digital Radio UK
a: 6th floor, 55 New Oxford Street, London, WC1A 1BS
t: 020 7010 0720 m: 07854992902