Win a Videologic Evoke-1 portable digital radioThe latest RAJAR figures have shown that Scotland’s commercial radio sector is as competitive as ever. But now eyes are starting to turn towards the benefits that digital can offer Scotland’s broadcast groups. Gordon Laing finds out just where digital radio is at and where it’s going.
As the race for the last UK FM broadcasting licence issued by the Radio Authority gets under starter’s orders, before the current governing body falls under the looming shadow of Ofcom, it is not hard to see just why the competition for the proposed Glasgow licence is looking so fierce.
The Scottish public, over the years, has warmed to local radio perhaps like no other collective in the UK. Radio Clyde was one of the first local stations to be founded, just a month after Capital in London, and to this day it remains one of the most commercially successful in the country.
Other stations have followed, many repeating the success of Clyde: Forth, Tay and Westsound. More recently came Real Radio and Beat 106 – the winner of the last FM licence for Scotland. Big competition. Big business.
But as Scotland’s radio stations pat themselves on the back after another strong showing in the RAJARs, radio’s barometer for popularity and ensuing success, there are other pressing issues that need attention. Most notably the ongoing saga that is digital radio.
Digital radio has perhaps been a gamble for a number of radio stations as they followed their competitors tentatively into the digital age. As yet the uptake has been slow. However, when the uptake happens – and most are sure that it will (and if they are not sure, then they are very brave with the investments that have been made) – there are yet more questions that will need answering.
The radio industry is pushing strongly to move listeners into the digital era, perhaps as a consequence of the heavy investment that it has plundered the market. And now the initial gamble appears to be paying off.
Sales of DAB digital radios increased by 165 per cent in 2002 and look set to more than double again in 2003.
Strong sales over the Christmas period saw nearly every digital radio in the country being snapped up – bringing the total number in UK listeners’ homes to around 135,000 – and left many retailers complaining they couldn’t get enough stock to meet demand.
The period was seen by many as a test period for DAB digital radio, as retailers remained unsure of consumer interest in another digital technology. However, the test seems to have been passed, and after the demand at the start of the year it has been predicted that the number of digital receivers in the country could hit the half-million mark by the end of 2003. Good news for the radio industry.
Or is it? As radio goes the way of television and audiences become more and more fragmented by the ever-widening choice, will the ever-valued RAJAR figures take a battering?
“There will be a fragmentation of the radio audience, but only to a certain extent,” says John Maccalman, production controller at 3C. “Not as much as people are fearing. Some people feared that the market would fragment to the extent that you won’t be able to have a mass-market station like Clyde One. But that won’t happen, because mass-market stations are fashionable. People want to talk about what they have heard.”
This is a view shared by Grae Allan, MD of Score Digital, a subsidiary of SRH: “I don’t think that we will notice an overall fall in RAJARs. Radio as a whole will benefit. The introduction of digital radio on a wide scale will not be a step change. As we have noticed so far, digital is being introduced gradually and audiences won’t migrate rapidly.
“Listeners will always have a cluster of favourite stations, as they do now, and the introduction of a wide range of new stations won’t see promiscuity rising. Listeners may experiment and change from their current favourite channels. However, they will establish a set of favourites – be it new or the same – and these will be stabilised. Evolution doesn’t happen overnight and I don’t think that we will notice a sharp change in RAJARs as a result of digital radio establishing itself in the market.
“The introduction of a raft of new channels will only extend the consumers’ choice, and that is why the authorities have been so active in pushing digital radio forward. Digital will, of course, offer existing channels to the audience but it will level the playing field. The choices made by the audience will now be made on the quality of programming rather than bandwidth. This could then open the doors to the stations that are currently operating on the AM frequencies.
“It will be a more competitive market and it will be down to the programmers to ensure that the quality and, hence, the listeners are there.”
“I’m pretty confident that digital is actually going to increase the overall listeners to radio,” continues Real Radio programme director, Jay Crawford. “It’ll be a battle, it always is, but I’ve always been an advocate of increased competition. If you look at TV, it’s not that long ago that we only had three channels; now, with more commercial stations and Sky Digital, there are 50 or 60 channels. It’ll be the same with digital radio.
“I think it’s going to revive radio. Going back 40 or 50 years, people thought that radio would die out with the advent of TV, but it’s coming back.”
But even after a busy Christmas period for digital radio retailers, there is no indication that RAJARs will be affected, with both overall reach and hours rising.
Three commercial, national, digital-only stations, Kerrang!, Oneword and Smash Hits, are now subscribers to RAJAR, joining the survey alongside the BBC World Service. However, other stations, such as Kiss, which was represented on analogue format in London and digitally across the country, were also included in the survey this time around.
But the inclusion of these stations to test the water may have connotations for the current system in the future, says Allan: “Currently RAJAR assesses listeners – who and how many – by channel not by platform. However, this system is going to have to become more sophisticated. The platforms will increasingly become more important. Already special features, such as interaction, have been introduced to certain digital platforms (Digital Terrestrial Television) and those in turn offer advertisers and listeners alike an increased and differentiated service.”
Yet, despite the increase in sales of sets, digital radio still has less than a one per cent hold in the UK, and if these issues are to become reality then digital needs to establish itself on a wider footing.
And it is the manufacturers and retailers, along with the DAB, who are shouldering responsibility for the take-up.
“Last year there were perhaps ten or twelve different models of digital radio,” says Allan. “This year that number is closer to 35. By the end of the year we are predicting that there will be 70 different designs and this increased choice will drive prices down, fuelling the onset of digital.”
Shawn Gregory, development director of Emap Performance, feels that progress is being made steadily: “The uptake of digital is probably ahead of schedule. There should be half-a-million units by the end of this year, and a million by the end of 2004.”
However, all perceptions of digital radio are not as positive. “I think we’re still a good way away from the general public catching up with us,” says Crawford. “I think it’ll be over the next two to three years that it really catches on. It’s a bit like the conversion from video to DVD. First, it’s the technology. Like DVD, the technology has to come down in price. Then it’s the content, and making sure that everything’s available in that format. I know that in my local video store there are now more DVDs than videos. I expect that over the next 12 to 24 months digital radio will make similar inroads.
“It’s been a little disappointing, from our point of view of providing content, that the manufacturers aren’t doing more and pushing it more.”
Beat 106 MD Hugh Murray also feels that digital has a long way to develop before it can be considered a serious alternative: “At the moment the digital radio scene has not had too much effect on us in terms of our RAJAR results. Any time spent away from listening to FM radio is always going to be a bad thing but we don’t seem to have suffered too much at the moment, and I can’t see it changing in the near future.
“The Radio Communications Bill that has come into place aims to help promote and protect local radio. And, in terms of what the listeners get from local radio as opposed to digital it is immense – they get news and information that will help them on a day-to-day basis. That is not available on the numerous digital channels.
“Digital radio is not too much of a threat for us as it is still in its infancy. I mean the reception that it gets is awful – I live in Dunblane and can’t get any reception on my digital radio at home. People want to be able to plug something in and be able to listen to it. The cost is also still a major factor – a digital radio these days costs about £100, but you can also get a hi-fi for less than £100 that will actually work without any type of booster aerials or the like.
“We will, however, need to raise our game when the reception for digital radio becomes better and people become more aware of what it offers. Commercial radio will need to make changes, such as upping the transmitter coverage and making sure that what is being transmitted on FM is of the highest quality. But I can’t see that happening in the short term.”
RAJAR Figures Period Ending 23 March 2003
Adult (15+)Weekly ReachAverage HoursTotal HoursShare of Listening
Pop’n ‘000‘000%per head per listener‘000Listening %
Virgin Radio (AM)49,0292,09040.25.711,9281.1
Real Radio (Scotland)2,621614232.510.66,50112.5
Clyde 1 FM1,850690373.79.86,78819.1
Radio Tay AM368106293.010.51,11113.7
Moray Firth Radio238135578.114.21,92235.6
Wave 102 FM16036231.98.63109.4
* Audience to ‘Opt-out’ services included
Win a new DAB radio
Are you desperate to find out exactly how good digital radio is for yourself?
Well, you can now as radio station Forth2 offers readers of The Drum the chance to win their very own Videologic Evoke-1 Portable digital radio.
The much-sought-after portable sets only hit the UK’s shores at the end of last year and waiting lists for the first digital radio to cost less than £100 (they retail at £99) in the run-up to Christmas was three months.
But one lucky person will only have to wait another two weeks before hearing the crystal clear sound of their very own digital set.
Forth2 has a fast growing digital audience in Scotland and not only promotes digital radio on air, but runs weekly competitions to win the portable units.
So, to win your own Evoke-1 Digital radio, all you have to do is, in no more than 10 words, write an advertising strapline for Forth2, which promotes listening to Forth2 on digital.
All entries must be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org by the closing date of Monday 2 June 2003. The winner will be decided by the editor and Camille Craig, Radio Forth’s marketing manager.
The winner will be announced in the next issue of The Drum published on Friday 6 June. Good luck.