It’s time for the UK government to commit to a digital radio switchover - Paul Smith

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Today is a historical day for digital radio in the UK, with RAJAR figures confirming a record 50.9% share of all radio listening.

As the pioneers of digital radio since its inception, we believe this phenomenal achievement is one that should not be ignored. Not only marking a huge milestone in the continued growth of digital listening, these figures also meet the government’s quoted criteria for a digital switchover mandate to begin – as specified in their 2013 Digital Radio Action Plan.

Despite this, there seems to be an air of scepticism as to if, not when, the UK will finally migrate to digital-only broadcasting. So, given we have the infrastructure in place and more people than ever listening to digital radio, we now urge the government to commit to a clear date and timeline for a switchover.

Regardless of age, region or demographic, radio remains the most popular platform for listeners in the UK –  with 17m people per week enjoying broadcasts not available on analogue. However, due to the rapid rise of competition from streaming and ‘radio like’ services provided by major international companies such as Spotify, Google, Apple and Amazon, the future of live radio as we know it is under serious threat unless action is taken to make it fully digital.

People rarely like change, but it’s necessary for any form of technology to progress and flourish. Just think back to the digital TV switchover, which initially caused outrage among millions of Brits who had to purchase digital-ready set top boxes and televisions. However, the public quickly adapted to this migration and now the idea of restricting viewing to five terrestrial channels seems archaic. A radio switchover would similarly revitalise the platform, allowing broadcasters to expand on the existing roster of diverse digital-only stations with even more content and choice.

There are some within the industry that believe 5G internet could be the answer for radio listening, as they did with 3G and 4G. While each generation is a major step forward, the service is unable to provide enough coverage, reliability in dense population, and resilience in the face of major security incidents. Unlike DAB, it’s also not free at the point of delivery – with a subscription or data plan required to access radio content.

For this switchover to be a success, simply follow the example of Norway’s recent FM switch off. This was campaigned for and coordinated by the nation’s broadcasters, alongside government authorities and digital radio manufacturers. The main reason for nation’s digitisation was its radio industry’s urge to keep the platform relevant and stable in the future – allowing broadcasters to broaden their scope with new content and services. While this switchover was originally met with resistance by the public, daily listener figures across Norway have now stabilised, while total listening time is gradually increasing.

Encouraged by this success story, Switzerland now prepares to begin an FM switch off in 2020. A host of other European countries, such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, are also actively readying for a digital switchover, while others are making huge progress in the roll-out of DAB.

So why isn’t the UK following suit? We certainly have the infrastructure in place. We’re also far more prepared than Norway were at the beginning of their transition. The UK was the first major country to build a national network of digital transmitters – which continues to grow, providing excellent coverage and the ability for small local stations to transmit digitally. There’s also an amazing selection of digital-only stations, loved by millions of listeners, which would only improve with a switchover.

Whether it’s broadcasters, manufacturers or retailers, it’s clear that the entire radio industry needs to be ready for change. Delaying a switchover will only see the UK fall further behind other European nations, potentially killing off live radio as it faces growing competition from streaming services. It’s time for the government and the industry to stand up and show full commitment to a digital future. Failure to do so would result in a major blow to the legacy of British radio.

Paul Smith, CEO

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