LONDON — The BBC’s decision to retain FM radio transmissions alongside DAB and web streaming is not raising alarms at WorldDAB; the global association that promotes the DAB/DAB+ digital radio standard.
“The BBC are understandably cautious about switching off FM and they have long argued for any transition to be listener-led,” said WorldDAB President Patrick Hannon. “Bob Shennan’s announcement that the BBC wishes to retain FM for the time being confirms this position.”
Shennan is the BBC’s Director of Radio and Music. He announced the BBC’s FM retention plans at the Radiodays Europe conference in Vienna on Monday 19 March 2018.
“We all once thought DAB was the only digital future for Radio. But audiences want choice,” said Shennan. “We now know DAB is very important but as a part of the story, along with FM and IP. We need to do more before we consider a switchover in the United Kingdom, and for that to be genuinely audience-led.”
“As Bob said in his speech, we think that would be premature right now as we see a mixed ecology of listening best serving the public for the next few years,” said a BBC spokesperson in response to questions from Radio World International. In the same vein, “we broadcast R4 (Radio 4) and the BBC World Service on long wave and 5Live on AM (medium wave) and have no plans to close these down.”
In making this decision, the BBC is learning from the listener resistance that Norway encountered when it shut down FM (in favor of DAB) in December 2017. “Looking forward, any transition to a digital-only future needs to be carefully planned and managed — and needs to involve stakeholders from across the radio ecosystem, including government, Ofcom (the U.K.’s broadcast regulator), carmakers and receiver manufacturers,” Hannon said. “From Bob’s announcement, it’s clear that the BBC remains fully committed to digital radio across all its platforms and we are pleased that listening over broadcast digital radio continues to grow year on year.”
When it comes to DAB in the U.K., it is this last point that matters. The BBC still plans to shut down its analog radio broadcasts some day, just not right now. “We are fully committed to digital and we believe we should review the landscape again in a few years’ time,” said Shennan at Radiodays. “Great progress has been made but switchover now would be premature. For now we believe audiences are best served by a mixed economy. Radio is better served by a mixed economy.”
So, how well is DAB doing in the U.K.?
According to WorldDAB’s Patrick Hannon, it is doing quite well.
“The radio industry and government have invested in the infrastructure to deliver DAB coverage to over 98 percent of the population,” he said. “62 percent of homes now have access to a DAB set and 90 percent of new cars now have DAB as standard ... More households listen to DAB than watch Sky, use tablets or have an iPhone.” Hannon added that “there are now 43 national stations available on DAB in the U.K., compared to just eight on analog, plus hundreds more local stations.”
“I think it’s worth remembering also that new content is one of the great legacies of DAB,” said Shennan at Radiodays. “Look at the ingenious commercial radio brand extensions. Whether Kiss, Absolute, Talk, Capital or Heart. Look at the emergence of our own BBC 6 Music, a unique editorial offer, now attracting 2 and a half million weekly listeners and growing hours quarter on quarter.”
The bottom line: The fact that the BBC has backed away from shutting down FM for now is not a defeat for DAB. In fact, “we certainly expect DAB to overtake FM listening within a relatively short period of time,” said Hannon. “Digital radio in the U.K. continues to go from strength to strength and has almost reached 50 percent of all listening.”
“In the meantime, we are pleased that U.K. broadcasters remain committed to DAB and other digital platforms,” he said. “Again, to quote Bob: ‘We are fully committed to digital.’ This sentiment was echoed by Ashley Tabor OBE, the founder of Global Radio, who said ‘We are delighted to fully support both DAB, and IP delivery of content. We have started many DAB stations on the D1 platform recently, invested in local DAB transmission and invested significant resources in new apps like The Global Player, home to all Global’s stations on mobile and connected devices.”