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Analysis of the new UK government's policy on planned DAB digital radio switchover, written by Grant Goddard in July 2010 for Grant Goddard: Radio Blog.
DIGITAL RADIO SWITCHOVER
AND THE NEW UK
GOVERNMENT: TALK IS CHEAP,
ACTION WILL NEVER HAPPEN
Politics is the art of flip-flop policymaking (and justifying it convincingly). This is evident in the
new UK government’s first statement about DAB radio and digital radio switchover, published
this week. What is its new policy? Well, there is no new policy. The Conservatives are simply
continuing the previous Labour government’s ill-advised determination to foist digital radio
switchover on an increasingly resistant public. A critic might even be so bold as to say of new
Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, Jeremy Hunt:
“The Government have ducked sorting out digital radio switchover…. They are giving
Ministers the power to switch over in 2015, yes, but without taking any of the difficult
measures necessary to make it practical or possible.”
But wait! In fact, these were the words of Jeremy Hunt himself, in April 2010, criticising his
predecessor, Ben Bradshaw, during the previous Labour government. Now that the boot is on
the Right foot, Hunt seems to have simply dusted off the Labour policy he had previously
lambasted, crossed out Bradshaw’s name and written in his own instead.
In his same speech to the House of Commons, Hunt had been scathing about the digital radio
switchover clause in the Digital Economy Bill:
“I think that clause is so weak that it is virtually meaningless, as it gives the Secretary
of State the power to mandate switchover in 2015 but the Government have not taken
the difficult steps that would have made that possible, such as ensuring that the car
industry installs digital radios as standard [….] and that there is proper reception on all
roads and highways. As a result, a lot of people are very concerned that 110 million
analogue radios will have to be junked in 2015.”
That was ‘opposition’ Hunt then. Three months later, ‘government’ Hunt appears to see
nothing problematic with the digital radio switchover clause. Indeed, the new government has
committed itself to exactly the same fantastical strategy for DAB radio as the old government:
digital radio listening will somehow reach 50% of the total by 2012
someone somewhere will pay to upgrade the DAB transmission system to render it as
robust as FM
someone somewhere will launch lots of fab new digital radio stations
consumers will somehow be persuaded to replace all six or more of their household’s
radios with new DAB ones
analogue radio transmitters will somehow be switched off in 2015
all cars will somehow be fitted with DAB radios by 2015
mobile phones and portable devices will somehow all suddenly include DAB, rather than
FM, radio receivers.
All these objectives always had been, and still are, pure fantasy. None, and I literally mean
‘none’, of the available evidence and data demonstrate that these things will happen.
Definitely not by 2012, certainly not by 2015, and probably never.
A year ago, Hunt was very clear in marking out his party’s strategy for digital radio as more
realistic than the ruling Labour government’s:
“I think the most important thing is not something the government can do, but
something the industry can do is, which is to develop new services on digital platforms
that actually mean there is a real consumer benefit to DAB. At the moment, the
benefits are marginal. I mean, there are some benefits in terms of quality, but your
batteries get used up a lot more quickly, the reception is a lot more flaky, and a lot of
the things that make digital switchover attractive on TV don’t apply to radio in the same
way. So I think the industry needs to do a lot more to make it in consumers’ interests
to have that switchover…..
We have also got to think about consumer anger. Consumers are people that the radio
sector needs. It’s going through a very tough patch. We don’t want to switch off
listeners by suddenly saying that we are not going to – that we are going to force you
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©2010 Grant Goddard
to have a new radio, and there’s a real danger, if we do that, that they might start
listening to their iPods and their CD players instead. … At the moment, we seem to be
getting into this mindset where we want to force it on the public, even though the
public can’t really see what the benefits are.”
So, between then and now, who is it that has convinced Hunt to backtrack and instead to
endorse the status quo? The civil servants in his Department who hitched their wagon to the
‘DAB is the future’ train too long ago to let go now? The Ofcom radio staff who were appointed
years ago on the strength of their promise to deliver digital radio switchover? The commercial
lobbyists who still fantasise about the huge profits to be made (for Britain!) from global exports
of their European DAB technology? All of them are nothing more than dreamers.
At the same time, many of these same parties are already distancing themselves from
responsibility for DAB so as to save their own skins once DAB’s ‘fall from grace’ inevitably
the government is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the public’s take-up
the regulator is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the radio industry’s
the commercial radio industry is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the BBC
the BBC is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon its audiences
the BBC Trust is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the commercial radio
For years now, the stakeholders assembled around the table in those endless DAB committee
meetings have been occupied identifying DAB’s problems yet, at the same time, every one of
them has expected somebody somewhere else to fix them. But there is no sugar daddy out
there. There is no cavalry about to ride over the horizon. It is you stakeholders who created
such a mess of DAB and either you must fix it….. or throw in the towel.
This week’s announcement about digital radio switchover demonstrated that the new
government does not have the guts to do what many, including the House of Lords
Communications Committee chaired by Lord Fowler, had asked of them. To commission an
objective analysis of why DAB was introduced in the first place, how close we really are to
digital switchover, whether we will ever get there, what the costs have been to the radio sector
to date, and to evaluate whether it is still worth pursuing these objectives thirty years after the
DAB technology was invented.
Instead, the government has decreed that the present DAB unreality will continue … probably
until one of these stakeholders eventually is forced by circumstance to kick the entire digital
radio switchover issue into the long grass. In the meantime, the poor consumer is still on the
end of misleading campaigns to persuade them that they will need to buy new DAB radios
(which are mostly British), throw out their old radios (which are mostly foreign) and somehow
get used to the sub-standard quality of DAB radio reception that most of us experience. No
wonder they are asking in increasing numbers: ‘What was wrong with FM?’ And the correct
answer is: ‘Nothing at all’.
This week’s government statement by Ed Vaizey, the new Culture Minister, was so woolly and
vague that the media were able to write it up from wholly contradictory viewpoints.
“Government abandons 2015 target date for switching radio to digital signal,” said the
Bloomberg News headline.
“Radio industry welcomes Tory backing for digital switchover in 2015”, said 'The Guardian'
Those two headlines cannot both be true. All the government has done this week is leave
everyone more confused than ever. So why did it bother saying anything at all? A critic of Ed
Vaizey’s announcement might be moved to say:
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©2010 Grant Goddard
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©2010 Grant Goddard
“We have got to be concerned that people will be ready before any switchover takes
place and that there won’t be literally millions of analogue radios which suddenly
become redundant. As you know, the government has set a provisional target date of
2015 and we are sceptical about whether that target can actually be met.”
But wait! In fact, those were the words of Ed Vaizey himself, in March 2010, criticising the then
Labour government’s digital switchover plans.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
[First published by Grant Goddard: Radio Blog as 'Digital Radio Switchover: Talk Is Cheap, Action Will Never Happen',
9 July 2010.]
Grant Goddard is a media analyst / radio specialist / radio consultant with thirty years of
experience in the broadcasting industry, having held senior management and consultancy
roles within the commercial media sector in the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. Details at