Three-D Issue 17: ‘Switching off Analogue’: digital radio policymaking and the public

Stephen Lax
University of Leeds

Stephen Lax chaired the seminar, and in his opening comments remarked upon the different fortunes of digital broadcasting systems in the UK: on the face of it, at the time of the beginning of their technical development, both television and radio stood to gain in similar ways from the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting. The two technologies were based on the same principles, and both offered the potential for more channels and stations, and better quality of picture and sound. Both, in their different ways, were held up as technologies for the ‘information age’ with their new capacities for delivery of data alongside traditional broadcast streams: digital TV was to be the gateway to the internet, particularly for those households not equipped with computers, while digital radio offered the prospect of data on the move, delivered by broadcast to handheld devices which would then use mobile telecoms as a return channel.

While neither TV nor radio has fulfilled all of that potential, the stark differences between the two are the level of adoption of the new technology by consumers and the public response to each. Digital TV is widely adopted, and digital switchover is universally accepted (even by those who don’t welcome it); in comparison, awareness of digital radio is low (according to Ofcom, one third of the population has not heard of it) while there exists widespread scepticism, or even hostility, towards the prospect of the eventual migration of many popular radio services to digital-only operation.

Against that background, the government published plans for digital radio switchover (following its outline in the Digital Britain White Paper). The proposal is that all BBC and larger commercial stations will become digital-only – i.e. their analogue transmissions will cease – when two criteria are met: 50% of listening is to one or other digital format, and digital signal coverage levels match current FM. These, the government suggested, could be met by 2013, and switchover would take place in 2015. The vacated analogue FM frequencies could then be used to expand the number of small stations – small commercial and community stations. Both within and outside the industry, many see these target dates as highly optimistic, suggesting that digital radio policy is responding rather more to the needs and desires of the industry, or rather sections of the industry, than in response to the needs of listeners or to any public consultation or deliberation.

These were the themes the speakers picked up on.

Katharine Sarikakis (University of Vienna) discussed the broader policy framework in which digital radio was developing. She suggested that the ‘public’ was missing in the development of media policy in Europe, and instead the goal was a single digital marketplace. Industry bodies such as WorldDMB (the digital radio standards group) and AER (the European commercial radio body) were lobbying heavily. Even so, radio was largely absent from EU policy. In contrast with TV and the internet, audiovisual policy had little to say about radio, with the development of radio policy left to national governments. Unlike TV and other media, the market for radio and its products was seen as national rather than international.

Rob Watson (De Montfort University) spoke about the notion of media literacy and the development of media policy. He suggested that media literacy was defined by a logical assumption of a linear development: media literacy led to critical thinking resulting, consequently, in the empowered citizen. Instead, Rob suggested, we should think in terms of the participative citizen, as the producer as well as the consumer. In particular, as station manager for community radio station, Demon FM, he argued that the shift from the linear broadcast model to communication based on social media reflected the strength evident in the emergence of community radio in the UK, with its emphasis on participation rather than the ‘top down’ approach of traditional media organisations.

Michael Starks (University of Oxford) reflected on his involvement in the development of plans of digital television switchover in the UK. As a former member of the BBC, he was involved in the development of Freeview before joining the government digital television project to plan migration to digital TV. He outlined the differences between television and radio: 1) infrastructure ‘drivers’ that existed in TV migration plans were not replicated in radio; 2) the content changes promised by digital radio are less significant, and so less appealing to listeners than the changes offered by digital TV; 3) the number of (analogue) radio receivers sitting in people’s homes vastly outnumbers the number of TV sets; 4) the 30+ million receivers in cars and other vehicles would need replacement or upgrading. Thus from a public policy perspective, there was little similarity between TV switchover and radio migration.

Lawrie Hallett, from the University of Westminster, works in community radio and also part-time for Ofcom. Community radio has emerged in the UK only recently, later than many other countries where it is long-established. Ofcom has been supportive of the development. Plans for digital switchover will free up analogue FM spectrum as stations migrate to the DAB platform, and this offers scope for further expansion of community radio (a significant hindrance at the moment is the difficulty of finding available frequencies for broadcast). However, if all BBC radio and most commercial stations migrate to digital only transmission, and particularly if they begin to exploit further the multimedia capability of that platform, there is a danger of community radio becoming confined to an ‘analogue ghetto’, seen as a marginal form of radio.

Robert Clark, from the Voice of the Listener and Viewer (VLV), has acted as their representative on the Consumer Expert Group, a group set up by the DCMS o report on the consumer’s perspective on digital broadcasting. The CEG’s report was critical of plans to migrate stations to digital-only operation by 2015. Though Robert himself lived in a ‘dab-only household’, and so had extensive personal experience of digital radio, the VLV saw digital switchover as driven mainly by sections of the radio industry. For example, the Digital Radio UK promotion group was inextricably linked with the industry, even being based at RadioCentre, the hub of UK commercial radio, which supported all of DRUK’s ICT operations.

Justin Schlosberg from Goldsmiths described research he’d conducted on ‘pirate’ radio in the UK, and the implications of digital radio for this ‘unofficial’ but significant radio sector. Estimates suggested that at any one time there were 150 pirates on air in the UK, concentrated in London, where typically two-thirds of stations on the FM band might be illegal broadcasters. This, Justin argued, reflected a deficiency in radio policy and regulation, in which ‘diversity’ was seen as achieved through locality, and the encouragement of larger numbers of local radio stations resulted in economic challenges that encouraged more conformity: in short, to generate advertising revenue, cash-strapped local stations tended to veer away from niche audiences. Digital radio, in London and elsewhere in the UK, has seen little change in this tendency. Thus, illegal broadcasters continue to fill a void. One of the constraints on diversity has been the limitation on the number of frequencies available for radio broadcasting, governed in part by considerations about interference between stations. Given that any digital switchover would free up large segments of the analogue FM spectrum, opportunities for new stations are greatly increased. Just as community radio stations anticipate being given greater capacity, similar capacity would become more accessible to illegal broadcasters. To date Ofcom has suggested little about how the post-switchover FM spectrum might be licensed. With apologies for mixing metaphors, the new era, it was suggested, might become a field day for pirates.

This brief summary demonstrates the range of complicating factors in what, for some, will have seemed like an obvious, even inevitable, transition from an ‘old’ analogue radio system to a digital era technology. What all agreed upon, however, is that a 2015 switchover would not happen: your analogue radios are safe for now.

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