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Listeners Want Choice, Possibilities

Digital has to be flexible and dynamic to follow consumers shifting taste and offer innovative content

The author is chairman of Digital Radio Mondiale.

When digital radio was launched — in some cases before the internet took a foothold — its main selling point was excellent digital audio quality. Today however, it is the combination of services digital radio offers that makes it attractive to consumers.

Digital radio has had trouble catching the listeners’ imagination or make large enough strides to meaningfully replace analog. The reasons are many. These include no digital dividend, increased costs during the simulcast (analog-digital) transition period and, sometimes simply resistance to the multiplex option.

Furthermore, the initial lack of interest from the car industry, no new innovative content along with hazy messaging have not helped matters. After all, FM is ubiquitous, resilient and offers abundant and cheap receivers. Listeners don’t care if FM isn’t spectrum efficient, has limited coverage and can be costly, while still cheaper than being part of a digital multiplex. Generally, listeners think FM audio quality is good enough, if what is on offer is attractive to them.

Promoters of digital radio have to be very clear and compelling in their messages about the benefits of completing the digital migration. These advantages will be different for broadcasters (energy efficiencies and more valued added services); regulators (spectrum savings); the industry (new products with the multi-standard receiver having the opportunity of being sold in billions) and then the listeners.

We often hear that digital offers more choice. But what does choice mean? For some it signifies more music and niche stations. Digital certainly allows for experimentation. One-day pop-up stations are a fantastic opportunity to promote an event or attract young people to radio and radio journalism.

According to annual figures published by the United Kingdom regulator, Ofcom, 16 to 24-year-olds spent 29 percent of their audio listening time tuning in to live radio in 2015, compared with 71 percent for all adults. And the general listening time per week has fallen in a decade by 5 hours from 20 to 15. All this despite “more choice” but also while radio is trying to keep its place among a number of proliferating platforms, fully embraced by the younger generation.

So it looks like young people do have more choice, but they are also more selective. Studies prove that their parents are not very different, either.

The interesting part of the recent Ofcom data is that in 2016, between April and June (in the pre-Brexit period), U.K. listeners of all ages flocked to the main BBC speech channel, the news and sport channel, and the new music one. These are not exclusively digital channels. The figures show that listeners have shifting allegiances and that when there is a big news story they want context.

When they want music they want something different and new. Digital has to be flexible enough to follow the shifting taste and offer something amazing. It needs to enhance the audio with extra information, pictures and data to satisfy the curiosity of the new selective listeners. Just duplicating analog in digital is not enough.

But how many people know that one’s digital radio (DAB or DRM) not only provides good audio but can also offer content in several languages (as demonstrated on DRM receivers), pictures of albums, singers, politicians, and sports people, information feeds from the internet, stock exchange data, health, weather, emergency information and so much more?

The choice is there and listeners would be interested — if they knew about it. Rather than promote individual standards or receiver brands, digital radio needs to become synonymous with relevant and special content. This undertaking costs money, but until digital content becomes attractive enough to listeners they might just choose to stick with FM.