Media: All about ... Digital radio switchover

The radio switchover will be a tougher sell than TV, Ian Darby writes.

You've got to admire Ford Ennals' stamina. The recently appointed chief executive of Digital Radio UK, the body charged with lead-ing the digital radio switchover process, has done it all before.

As the former chief executive of Digital UK, the TV switchover body, he spearheaded the early charge towards switch-off of the analogue TV signal (a process that will be concluded in 2012).

Arguably, the radio switchover task will prove even more challenging because take-up of digital radio is at far lower levels than digital TV penetration was at an equivalent time in the process. There has also been bickering between various members of the commercial radio community and doubts over the DAB format itself, and Ennals seemingly has his work cut out ahead of a proposed, but by no means set in stone, analogue radio switch-off date of 2015.

Last week saw Ennals, who accepted his new role last November, appoint Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO to work on creating consumer awareness campaigns to drive take-up of digital radio. AMV was the agency he had worked with on the TV switchover consumer awareness campaign, led by the "Digit Al" character, so again there is continuity here.

The agency is expected to work on at least two major marketing initiatives this year, including one ahead of the football World Cup, followed by a pre-Christmas campaign. Ennals says that while public awareness of digital radio is somewhere above 80 per cent, awareness of the array of exclusive content that is available via digital channels could be higher.

And he knows that there is work to do: "Many of the challenges are similar but we're earlier in the process here. When I joined Digital UK in 2005, penetration of digital television was in the mid-50 per cents, but on the radio side, around 35 per cent of households have a digital radio."

1. Digital Radio UK may face a tough challenge because an Ofcom report published four years ago, after input from the ex-Radio Advertising Bureau chief executive, Douglas McArthur, recommended that digital platforms claim 50 per cent of total radio listening before switchover became a stated policy.

This seems some way off. Rajar figures for the final quarter of 2009 showed digital listening (across DAB, internet and through TV sets) at 20.9 per cent of all radio listening, down from 21.1 per cent in the previous quarter but up from 18.3 per cent in the same period of 2008. The relatively high cost of digital radio sets and the deepening recession hasn't helped.

Simon Blackburn, the head of radio at MPG Media Contacts, says: "Costs of DABs simply must drop considerably and now. All new cars sold from the end of 2013 will be fitted with digital radio - this will help but most of us have between five and seven radios, so this is lots to replace."

2. Digital Radio UK has evolved out of the Digital Radio Devlopment Bureau and is half-funded by the BBC and half by commercial channels. Its efforts are supported by the commercial marketing body, RadioCentre, which includes the RAB's trade marketing initiatives.

3. In recent years, digital radio has suffered setbacks such as the collapse of the Channel 4-led bid to take over the second digital multiplex, a consortium that would have added exclusive new content to the digital-only line-up. And the closure of specialist digital channels such as GCap's Planet Rock hardly helped encourage optimism for the format's future.

Yet Digital Radio UK can point to recent successes. Sales of digital radios hit the ten-million mark in late November and co-operation between commercial broadcasters and the BBC via the newly launched Radio Council and its online radio offering (the Radio Player) is encouraging.

4. Last year, UTV, the owner of talkSPORT, withdrew its support from RadioCentre, partly because it believes that the 2015 digital switch-off target outlined in the Digital Economy Bill (currently progressing through Parliament) is unrealistic.

However, Ennals argues that despite this opposition, Digital Radio UK's marketing efforts will represent radio companies that have 95 per cent of listening.



- The signs are that while advertisers are well aware of the benefits of radio as a whole, their views on digital radio and DAB, in particular, are less evolved.

- However, this might be a mistake given some of the new opportunities that digital radio presents, such as screens on digital radios and the presence of a "return path" on digital radios that allows for greater levels of data collection.

- MPG Media Contacts' head of radio, Simon Blackburn, says: "The switchover represents a huge opportunity for commercial stations to employ more advanced digital technology to tag ads, broadcast visual messages via DAB screens, and become more DR-driven and measurable - great news for advertisers."


- Switchover will mean expense for commercial radio stations but at least this will be shared with the BBC, and the proposed 2015 switchover date contained in the Digital Economy Bill provides some clear sense of the direction in which radio is headed.

- The Digital Radio UK chief executive, Ford Ennals, says: "What I learnt from TV switchover was that certainty is helpful to broadcasters, retailers and listeners. And the target date set in the Bill will be very helpful to car manufacturers. Having the Bill passed and a target date is very important."

- However, there remains concern over the relatively low take-up and that the marketing costs to drive this could be high. Blackburn says: "The main concern is in the timing and reality of analogue to digital switchover. Around 21 per cent of all listening is now via a digital platform of some description - so there is still a long way to go."