Thursday 17 August 2017

Farewell BBC Local Radio AM

Scarborough - pic by Mark G7RJV
The BBC has announced it is to shut down the AM frequencies of its local radio services. It will close 13 medium wave transmitters in January 2018, with BBC Sussex, Surrey, Humberside, Wiltshire, Nottingham, Kent and Lincolnshire no longer available, and reduced coverage for Devon, Lancashire and Essex.  

Cue nostalgic formal announcements before a jaunty Radiophonic Workshop news jingle - "This is BBC Radio Nottingham on 197 metres medium wave, 94.8 VHF and Rediffusion Channel C".

From my experience, the AM frequencies have rarely been mentioned in recent years on many BBC local stations, and one imagines the audiences are low.  Experiments in some areas of switching them off as an experiment to see if anyone moans has been useful – producing little response in some areas and more significant in others, such as Merseyside.

It’s a no brainer, in my view, and I suggested switch-off to the BBC in 2009 as part of a raft of easy cost-savings.  Now, the BBC has its FM, often equipped with enough power to reach Poland  - and DAB – and online streaming. There is really no need to continue to transmit on AM.  

Let's recall that AM was only intended to be a shoulder to lean on for BBC local radio. The first stations were launched solely on the new VHF (FM) in the late '60s, a little like launching on DAB in the 90s when sets were sparse. In Autumn 1972, the valiant pioneer stations - and the newcomers -  were offered AM back up, just to make sure they could be heard more widely.  FM can now stand on its own two feet, surely, not least now with help from its digital brothers.

Yes, a small number of people will have to re-tune, or invest in a bright new DAB radio, and a small number of others may lose the signal entirely – but this is radio, and we accept by its very nature that there will always be poor spots in all transmission footprints. However, the beauty of DAB is that extra transmitters on the same frequency can boost signals where they are really needed – and there’s online streaming too as a fall-back.  If the FM/DAB MCA is insufficient in any specific area owing to geographic factors, then they should be topped up, rather than relying on vintage AM tech.

I have to say it surprises me that BBC local radio is on Freeview these days, albeit in mono. (Blog amended). I gather the cost of implementation is low - although it would be interesting to know how low - and whether there is an opportunity cost.  Whilst it's a sound and thoroughly understandable vision to appear on 'all platforms', a cost-benefit analysis is, of course, needed for each.

And I'm sure someone will remind me why we need BBC Radio London on satellite. There must be a jolly good reason.

BBC local radio spends 11% of its overall budget on distribution (16/17) - and a further 10% on distribution and support. 

DAB is clearly a good idea, although I imagine someone is scratching their head and wondering whether the reserved 128 kbps stereo (the same as Classic FM or Radio 1), with its commensurate cost, is really needed for the speech-intensive local radio format - and whether each of the stations really needs to invest in such hefty capacity.

The local network needs to make savings - AM is a sensible one.

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  1. The local stations on DTT are on the BBC's own multiplex, there was no need to buy in or do a deal with 'Freeview' or anyone else for capacity.

    The stations already passed through the centres where their TV services are put together for transmission so it was very easy and cheap to implement.

  2. I'd imagine BBC local radio would be a good candidate for DAB+ on the local multiplexes if capacity was an issue, but save for some more populous areas (BHam, Leeds, Edinburgh, etc.) capacity is very much available.

  3. Local radio could make more use of its 128kbps by, for example, offering split sports commentaries on DAB.

  4. Has to be DAB+ as DAB is archaic technology.

  5. Having just worked at 5 BBC LRs in the last year, the AM audience is still there albeit declining and (possibly) a bit stubborn in shifting off AM (buying a DAB radio, "whats wrong with MW?"etc) but, if we take the DTTv switch-over as an example, an education of the audience will probably go along way to pacifying the typical BBC LR listener. Of interest is the comment about split sport commentaries. As stations are ViLoR'd, due to the technology, they will be limited in what splits they can produce.

  6. Thanks for the amendment.

    Re. BBC London on satellite. I seem to remember that it came about because there was a spare slot left over from a temporary World Service channel, possibly something Iraq war related. At the time BBC London was the only London station not on satellite so to help it compete it filled that slot where it stayed.

    Of course now it's the only local London station on analogue radio!


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