MEDIA: FREEVIEW - AN EXPERT'S VIEW

Digital radio is the best feature that Freeview has to offer at the present time, Jon Forsyth says.

The explosion of the analogue radio landscape over the past five to ten years demonstrates listeners' demand for choice. As a result, the way punters consume radio has adapted - surfing for music, news and information rather than staying loyal to "their" station. People now expect a raft of options to satisfy their mood.

The problem with digital is painfully slow uptake. The main blame for this seems to sit with the manufacturers who can't or won't supply hardware fast enough. Sets are now affordable but are consistently sold out. We are still waiting for the next generation of home stereos and midi/mini systems and, of course, cars with digital built in as standard. People don't really care enough about radio to purchase digital tuner separates and in major conurbations FM offers satisfying alternatives.

However, a clue to the future has come from Freeview. The service provides a rapidly increasing number of digital subscribers with a range of radio stations. Freeview digiboxes are selling at the rate of more than 50,000 every week and with extensive marketing planned by the BBC and Sky this year, another one million receivers are expected to be installed in homes by the end of 2003.

And although it may appear technologically backward to listen to radio through your TV set, let's face it - the selection of Freeview TV is something of a disappointment compared with the paid-for satellite and cable options, so people are quickly finding the radio services and enjoying them.

Rajar figures announced last week surprised everyone. Among the leading stations, Kiss alone is distributed nationally to 1.5 million Freeview homes, three million cable homes, on the web and to 80 per cent of the UK's 350,000 Digital Audio Broadcast receivers. This is proof that there is a viable commercial audience for what digital radio offers - so much so that people are willing to listen through their TVs.

So, demand is there. For radio operators, the challenge will be to keep choice wide and not bland over their offering in chase of reach. It gives operators the chance to take local radio brands to a national audience, finally offering advertisers what they have always wanted - the equivalent of Radio 1's audience where they can buy airtime and sponsorship. And in line with the emergence of other digital media evolutions there will, of course, be a host of other technological and creative opportunities for advertisers to indulge in. Speed to air has always been a big plus point for radio, so with digital capabilities I think we'll hear some brilliantly timed advertising.

Who will be the winners? My belief is that faced with so much choice, punters will head for the brands they know and understand - Radio 1, Kiss, Kerrang!, Xfm, Jazz and Classic.

Newer options will take time to bed in and be trialed and understood.

This is where the experienced operators will have an advantage.

Like any new technology, uptake will be slow, but Freeview will fuel demand because it is a small demonstration of the digital offering and once the hardware is out it'll be an exciting time.

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).