Thursday, 29 January 2015

National Digital Radio - The Future

I calculate I have nineteen DAB radios.  It’s a little over the top I know.  Hats off to Hertfordshire’s Pure for doing some great early running on the sets; and to Yorkshire’s Roberts for their sturdy classics.  And to Psion for coming up with their spiky PC peripheral Wavefinder; and to Wayne Hemingway for designing ‘the Bug’, which is still my favourite aesthetically.

It’s all a far cry from 1993 when I sat in the offices of the then regulator, the Radio Authority,  at Holbrook House to be trusted with what would have been one of the first DAB sets.  With components and transformers nailed to a huge plywood board, it hummed nicely and smelt of Scalextrix.

Life’s moved on since then, and after a slower start than most had hoped, DAB is now attracting a quarter of all radio listening across the UK (RAJAR W3 2014, Ipsos-Mori, UK TSA).  With the recent brand extensions being spawned on the first national multiplex, Digital One, which is now populated like a student house, one feels, at last, that the time of DAB has come. 

Now, the second national multiplex is imminent; and, at last, this country is poised to enjoy the sort of   broadcast listening choice which has been denied to us for years.  Given the small geographic size of our populous country, we have not been able to re-use FM frequencies to the extent they have in other countries.

Clearly, with my day job being at Orion Media, I’m hugely excited about our own ‘Listen2Digital’ bid to operate that multiplex, which was duly dropped off yesterday at Riverside House.  The USB stick in a sturdy manila envelope does not physically seem to do justice to the sweat and toil which went into assembling the pages of the formal application document over many, many, months.  If you’ve ever assembled a licence application, you know it feels like the A Level exam from hell.

We evidently think it’s a compelling case, and across the piste it offers a fresh new approach for national DAB radio, both in terms of the players involved and the services.  We think the public proposals are exciting; and we hope Ofcom also nods vigorously at some of the format details we have submitted in confidence which, frustratingly yet thoroughly understandably, we cannot yet speak publicly about at this stage.  I should say a big well done too to the other parties involved in the consortium: the mighty Babcock, who’ll be assembling the transmission infrastructure, and our good friends at Folder Media and Sabras.

The other great news is that Gem, currently our East Midlands FM AC service, would go
national, as one of our 18 proposed services.  There is no AC brand on national commercial DAB at present, with Heart operating only on local DAB, so its service is not taken into account as the applications are judged by the regulator.  AC is, therefore, a gaping hole in national provision and we reckon we’ve got the very best answer to it.  The AC audience also sits in the female 25-44 commercial hot-spot, helping to ensure the success of our business, and contribute to much-needed growth and stability for DAB.

Adult Contemporary proved of huge appeal in our extensive national research.  It is a hugely popular format across the World; and it’s strange to believe that it did not really arrive in the UK until our Chairman, Phil Riley, launched the Heart brand in the West Midlands in 1994.  He had hair back then, as he started his 13 year tenure running the format, so it’s no surprise he knows what he’s doing in arguing the AC case with our investors.  Maybe we should have roadsigns at the edge of all our cities, East and West, suggesting that the Midlands is the birthplace of the AC format in the UK.  I’ll get my paintbrush out.   

I’m personally hugely proud, not least because I’m a Nottingham lad.  In three years, Gem has achieved huge East Midlands success, becoming market leader by hours in several audience sweeps, and beating all audience levels for any station ever on that 106 FM frequency.  Let’s remember that 106 was a love-child in so many acquisitions, and being batted from owner to owner, it has operated variously as Radio 106, Century and Heart.  We have done well, despite good old Heart remaining on DAB in the patch and no TV platform for Gem.

It’s won because it’s a great product, and Mike Newman and the team there, including Naomi Robson and Andy Price heading the marketing efforts deserve plaudits.  They’ve built an AC format with real spirit, and one commanding real engagement, judging by all the qualitative research and feedback we garner.  It already has the polish of a national brand.

Sam & Amy have played a great part too, aided by Dangerous Dave and produced by Paul Iliffe.  That show has turned into a national treasure, carrying off Radio Academy awards in categories populated otherwise by indignant London and national names. The real crown just has to be that ‘Personality of the Year’ award last year.  The programme is British breakfast radio at its best; and we look forward to twisting a version of that product round for the national service.

May we plead that Ofcom put all else to one side and make this licence award as quickly as possible. We’re anxious to get on with the job.

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