Yesterday's Digital Britainreport hid a nasty surprise. Radio's changing, forever. Prepare to throw your old sets away.
THE DIGITAL RADIO UPGRADE DECISION At the heart of our vision is the delivery of a Digital Radio Upgrade programme by the end of 2015. The Digital Radio Upgrade will be implemented on a single date, which will be announced at least two years in advance. On the determined date all services carried on the national and local DAB multiplexes will cease broadcasting on analogue.
Normally listen to Radio 4 on an old transistor? Not any more. Listen to Classic FM in the car? Not on your current set. Wake up to the local breakfast show on your bedside clock radio? Not in the future. All the stations you currently listen to will be migrating from FM to DAB, so if you don't have a digital radio you'll not be able to listen. Upgrade, or lose out.
Don't panic, because this Radio Upgrade isn't yet a definite done deal. It's only a strong recommendation, and it's dependent on two criteria being met:
1) When 50% of listening is to digital; and 2) When national DAB coverage is comparable to FM coverage, and local DAB reaches 90% of the population and all major roads.
But it's the government's intention that both of these migration criteria should be met by the end of 2013, and that means 2015 (at the very latest) for analogue radio switch-off.
There'll be plenty of other ways to access radio by 2015, of course. Digital radio's already accessible on digital TV, and online, and on DAB radios, with these media apparently already accounting for a quarter of all radio listening. In the future your mobile phone will probably be DAB-enabled, and there's bound to be a radio-friendly iPod at some point. But I suspect that a large proportion of the UK population are going to take a lot of persuading to make the switch.
The main challenge to a successful Digital Radio Upgrade is not converting the avid radio listener, who has in many cases already embraced DAB, but the occasional radio listener. Recent research showed that 52% of listeners had not changed their main household radio to DAB because they were “quite happy with my existing radio.”
I could listen to the radio on my television, but I almost never do. I prefer to use my TV to watch rather than listen, and it always seems a complete waste of electricity to light up a big screen for no particularly good reason. I could listen to the radio on my computer, but I almost never do. I don't want an extra window swallowing valuable bandwidth, and I don't need additional sounds blaring out of tinny speakers when the internet's full of noise anyway. And I could listen to the radio on my Pure maplewood digital radio box, but I only get decent reception in one corner of one room which restricts listening somewhat, and the sound quality's not as good as FM isit?
Instead my home listening revolves around good old analogue. I wake up in the morning to an Argos clock radio circa 1987. I get ready for work to the sounds of a ghetto blaster circa 1991. While I'm in the kitchen, I rely on an ancient music centre circa 1983. And in the living room, when I want to listen to the radio in proper stereo through a decent set of speakers, I switch on my faithful hi-fi circa 1996. Works well enough for me. But come 2016 all of these radios are going to be useless, and I can either keep them as heritage instruments for listening to cassettes and CDs, or it's down the tip with them.
We must ensure the environmental impact of any significant analogue radio disposal is minimised through a responsible disposal and recycling strategy.
I'm not going to be left bereft of radio, obviously, but it's going to cost money to regain the same penetration that radio has in my life today. And I'm almost certainly amongst the better-prepared digitally to cope with this upcoming revolution. Imagine trying to persuade every household in the country that every one of their old analogue radios needs to be binned and replaced. Shiny push-button boxes for all, in your bedroom, in your living room and in your car. Radio penetration could be taking one big step back just so that radio can take a very big step forward.
If listeners are to adopt DAB they must be convinced it offers significant benefits over analogue. DAB should deliver new niche services, such as a dedicated jazz station, and gain better value from existing content, such as live coverage of Premiership football or uninterrupted coverage from music festivals.
You may be thinking "Bring it on." You're a cutting-edge blog-reading online adopter, and embracing the drive to digital isn't going to worry you. You may be thinking "I want greater choice and wider diversity and improved functionality and a hugely enhanced radio spectrum." Yeah, me too. But I don't relish an enforced move to a new digital platform, making all my existing equipment obsolete, just so that the FM spectrum can be parcelled up for a variety of temporary "ultra-local" services. And I suspect I'm not alone.