The BBC has been transmitting digital radio since 1995. That’s
another one of those ’not a lot of people know that’ little gems. The
BBC has obviously been keeping quiet about it because no-one can receive
The receivers aren’t on the market yet - it’s what’s known in the trade
these days as a ’soft launch’.
Last week, though, we moved a step closer to a slightly less flaccid
launch when the BBC announced that it had persuaded five companies to
begin building and marketing digital receivers. Sets should go on sale
sometime in the autumn and the BBC will set the digital bandwagon
rolling (it hopes) with a digital awareness day on 9 July.
Is it time to get excited about digital radio? BBC Radio clearly wants
us to think so - but last week, there were some very mixed signals from
the corporation’s commercial rivals. Capital continued its confusing
Hokey Cokey dance with digital by confirming that it was talking with
Emap about possibly bidding for local digital licences. A couple of
weeks ago, Capital was ruling digital out (no prospect of revenue in the
medium term); next week, the company will no doubt plump for the ’shake
it all about’ option.
Meanwhile, Ginger Media Group was ruling it both in and out. While the
group is withdrawing from the Digital One consortium which will bid to
run national digital services, GMG confirmed that its Virgin station
will still take up its place on the main national digital multiplex.
So, confusing signals there. But what about the advertising
Is it getting excited? Derek Morris, a founding partner of Unity, agrees
that the BBC agreement with manufacturers is good news but it isn’t
exactly an excuse for dancing in the streets.
’Whatever forecast you look at, the conclusion has to be that this will
be a long time coming. The key to this is the hardware. If you could buy
a digital radio for pounds 25, it would happen. I keep looking for the
consumer benefit. More channels, yes. CD quality - and apparently the
signal won’t be disrupted when you go into tunnels. But what it comes
down to is clearer Chris Tarrant. I might be willing to pay pounds 25
for that, but not pounds 250.
’With satellite television, they may have been asking pounds 200 but in
return I could get football. Digital radio might be able to provide
added value information services, but by the time it’s ready, other
technologies - like mobile phones - will be providing that sort of
And there’s an equally pertinent question: when did you last buy a
The answer is that you’ve probably never bought a radio. Not a radio
and, as they say in financial services commercials, nothing else. You
may well have acquired one when you bought a car or a new sound system.
You may even have been given a gimmicky radio as a public relations
freebie. But the point is that they are hard to market. And the other
thing about radios is that we don’t throw them away when we get new
ones. They just accumulate until there’s one per room - including the
wireless (valves, bakelite, Hilversum on the dial) that Auntie Ethel
left in her will.
Many believe that the greatest driver (no pun intended) will be that
luxury cars will soon have digital radios fitted as standard. But even
if that does stimulate the home market, there will still be a massive
amount of non-digital radio listening for decades to come.
’This is a very long-term proposition,’ Tim Schoonmaker, chief executive
of Emap Radio, admits. ’It will be five years before there is a
reasonable number of sets out there. We’re talking to everyone because
if there is any chance at all of this going anywhere, we have to be with
it. But at the moment there’s no revenue in our digital business plan -