DAB eyes iPlayer effect

LONDON - The BBC's fresh enthusiasm for online radio could help DAB out of limbo.

There is tentative hope that DAB digital radio could finally pick up some of the momentum it so desperately needs. This hope rests on Tim Davie, the BBC's director of audio and music, and the delivery of the promise he made last week, of getting the medium 'fit for an on-demand digital age'.

He is proposing that the BBC lead the creation of a platform for radio, similar to the iPlayer, that would offer both BBC and commercial stations through a single online portal.

Nearly three-quarters of radio listening still occurs via an analogue service, according to Rajar figures for the last quarter of 2008. The 428 digital radio stations are available through DAB radio devices (priced from £25-£200), digital TV or via broadband. Over the same period, 10% of all radio listeners were tuning in through a DAB device and 3% through TVs; online accounted for just 2% of listening.

This raises the issue of how great an impact the BBC's plan will actually have. Mandy Green, communications director at the Digital Development Association (DDA), believes that such a portal would 'complement' the other platforms but is not convinced it would make a dramatic difference.

Nonetheless, it is progress of a sort. Procrastination over the analogue-to-digital radio switchover has led media owners including GCap Media (now Global Radio) and Channel 4 to scale back or abandon their digital radio plans; and while communications minister Lord Carter has suggested switchover will be triggered by 2015 and completed by 2017, this has been criticised as too vague. 'Britain was the first country to begin the process, but will be the last to finish it,' warns Travis Baxter, managing director of radio at Bauer Media. '2017 is not fast enough.'

Stuart Taylor, chief executive of GMG Radio, acknowledges that digital switchover is a 'complex picture', but says it needs to be completed sooner - to force manufacturers of DAB devices to produce more equipment, faster. That said, there is no point ensuring that DAB receivers are in every home if there is no universal signal. So far, there has been no consensus on who will pay for upgrading the transmission network. Until it is decided, any talk of a switchover date becomes academic.

This is why some car manufacturers have been reluctant to install DAB receivers in their vehicles. 'As soon as they take up DAB as standard, that will be the turning point; people will get used to certain stations,' says Simon Blackburn, head of radio at MPG.

The BBC's intervention, then, could not have come at a more opportune time as cash-strapped commercial broadcasters have been forced to put expansion plans, DAB included, on ice.  Whether the corporation will fill the transmission-network funding gap is another question. Andrew Harrison, chief executive of RadioCentre, says this money will have to come from the government - 'whether that's directly or through the licence fee'.

Either way, the BBC is likely to be at the heart of developments. '[Its] role is to be at the forefront of innovation,' says Mark Friend, the BBC's controller of multiplatform and interaction. 'It can take the risks and then share the findings and technology with the rest of the industry.'

It is clear that little can be done by other media players without greater investment in the infrastructure, so it is to be hoped that the BBC's early lead in bringing digital radio stations together online may hint at a willingness to aid the progress of DAB as well.

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