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Digital Britain: Radio

June 17, 2009


This is my crusade to get Lord Carter (Digital Britain Report) to buy James Cridland a coffee….


Radio is an oft overlooked medium to be valued and protected.

My thoughts on the medium have been coloured by a chat with James Cridland on Friday of last week.


I had planned blogging about this separately, but as radio has been included in the Digital Britain report, I’ll put it here. Because as a BBC radio boffin (in the nicest possible way) James is in a unique position when it comes to radio. He has a unique eye on the future and an international perspective. I wish that the authors of Digital Britain had spent an hour having coffee with him.


Commercial radio has been suffering. Badly. The figures James shared with me are shocking.


Having spent time in the developing world, I can testify to the ease and effectiveness of radio as a medium in times of trouble. It is something to be valued, nurtured, encouraged and yes, protected.


I came away from my meeting with James thinking about ‘convergence’. It’s a very grown up way of saying everything coming together. I’ve since analysed my own radio consumption.

I wake up to the slightly tinny sounds of radio on my ipod player. The time checks are a sound reminder to shake a tail feather if the kids haven’t done the job already. My TV has high quality sound, so I often use it for radio. The TV interface is easy to use and menu driven. I can select a channel and it, invariably, works. My radio choice reflects my mood. My car radio has tinny sound. I am less fussy here about the sound quality. I use radio in the car for entertainment and for the public service – road traffic and weather – updates, which are important to me on the move. I use the Internet rarely for radio – mainly for replays of something I’ve missed.


I was at my computer looking up the Best VPN Reviews when my DAB radio came on. This is the standard the government plans to embrace. The quality is OK. Better than acceptable. But finding a specific channel is almost impossible. My listening habits have been expanded by default. For a while I was an ubercool, first-with-tune diva having found an offbeat station that was first with everything. I loved it, but lost it when I moved the radio.


Then I managed to snaffle some tickets for a limited places football course by listening to local radio, which meant that for a week or two my kids were playground heroes. I lost that station too when I moved the radio.


I had my local radio station for a while. It changed to a Heart station so now it’s London topped and tailed with a little local content – and the ads are local. I don’t know what I did to lose that, but I’m now on a mainstream commercial station. Mainstream news. Mainstream music. It’s good enough. I have kids. I can tune out most noise at will.


My analysis: I consume radio in a far more predictable pattern than TV. I suspect many others are the same. Quality is an issue, but less important than content. Most content quality is high.


So whilst the Ofcom announcement last week about relaxing sponsorship was more immediately earth-shaking than yesterday’s Digital Britain report, I suspect we are stocking up some surprises.


Government commitment to DAB as a standard for digital radio has, the report confesses, been half hearted. If my experience is anything to go by, I am unsurprised. But the alternatives don’t seem to be singing loudly.


Perhaps in part this is due to our radio purchasing habits. If most of us accept what we’re given, and a large part of that is in-car radio, then the government is bang on the money approaching car manufacturers.


What’s missing in the equation, particularly notable in the Digital Britain report, is that there has been little thought about the long term future. Again, it’s about where we should be rather than where we’re going.


Based on my own experience, if we have to grapple with second rate hardware in the car to get a channel, will we see a sudden surge in car accidents? Or will we all accept an education in new kinds of listening as we reach hitherto untried channels. Or simply switch on to our own CDs and get traffic and weather reports through our sat navs.


So on new delivery mechanisms, back to James, whose thoughts have long since merged with my own, but if I remember rightly, he would like to see radio on our mobile phones. This makes a lot of sense. Our listening habits are as personal as our phones. If the mobile can double as a mini PC and MP3 player, surely it could very easily add radio?


So let’s see similar vision from the corridors of power. You want us to have digital radio by 2015. I implore you to look at the consumer experience. Look at the delivery. There’s huge room to innovate.

Voice is powerful. It’s easier than moving images to create rich content with. Think beyond tinny little boxes with dials.


Radio is powerful. Over the course of my PR career, and amateur campaigning before that, I have seen it drive people to take action. Even at a very local community project level.


It’s converging, with web, with TV, with phones. The recent explosion of voice tools on the web, particularly to Twitter, including ipadio, AudioBoo and Tweetmic, show the power of voice.


The next stage will see them converge, interact. They already are in so many ways.


I encourage people to express their views on community radio licensing, and more – to think about whether DAB is the way to go and be vocal about the choices. Government doesn’t work in isolation. Without our voices, they cannot possibly know which way to turn. And I urge the government to buy James a cup of coffee!


PS As an aside, the Daily Mail recently published the salaries of radio presenters and their audience figures. Based on a rough correlation of £100k per million viewers, most were paid roughly the right amount.


One or two famous folk are paid too much. John Humphries and Scott Mills are grossly underpaid. A campaign in the making?


Valuable sources:

NMA [Removed]

Guardian Organ Grinder

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