Media: All about ... Digital radio

Will the rest of 4Digital proceed without Channel 4, Alasdair Reid asks.

Well, now we know. Back in April 2007, when Channel 4 unveiled the details of its bid document for the second Digital Audio Broadcasting multiplex (ultimately, of course, the winning bid), it announced that its ambition was to "reinvent radio for the 21st century".

This, we reckoned, would be worth hearing - although it was hard to imagine how anything could top 20th century radio and its snippets of music with people talking in between.

How wrong we were. Twenty-first century radio may well turn out to be (to borrow a phrase from Simon and Garfunkel) the sound of silence. Or possibly birdsong. Arguably, the greatest lasting contribution made by DAB to the life of the nation came when Oneword (one of the stations on the first commercial multiplex, operated by Digital One) was closed earlier this year and replaced by an endless loop of twittering recorded in a Wiltshire garden. It became a cult hit.

Technically, as it happens, the Channel 4 consortium isn't dead just because Channel 4 decided to withdraw last week. Other shareholders in 4Digital may decide they can go on without their founding partner. And, after all, the companies left in the lurch include BSkyB, Bauer, UTV and The Carphone Warehouse - hardly insubstantial players.

But it's unlikely that, even if they do decide to go ahead on their own, they'll be seeking to reinvent the medium. The economic climate does not lend itself to that - even if, as seems somewhat unlikely, the companies themselves were found to be seething with frustrated radio innovators.

1. Broadcasters took up the cause of DAB - a technology first developed in the late 80s - because it promised three benefits: first, more channels can be squeezed on to the electromagnetic spectrum bandwidths allocated to the medium; second, it offers clean, interference free reception; and last, if implemented wisely, it can be used to deliver very high sound quality. Unfortunately, in the UK, DAB hasn't been implemented wisely (we plumped for a cheap and nasty compression technology that doesn't make best use of bandwidth) so the sound quality is no better (some say worse) than FM.

2. The BBC launched regular DAB transmissions of Radio 1 and 5 Live in 1996 - although affordable, DAB receivers were not then commercially available. The BBC has steadily built up its commitment - all of its national and regional services are available on the platform, plus new digital-only services such as BBC 6 Music, Radio 7 and BBC Asian Network.

3. The first commercial multiplex, Digital One, which was originally backed by GWR and launched in 1999, has had a more troubled existence. Its services currently include Planet Rock, talkSPORT, Absolute Radio and Classic FM, but others have come and gone, including BFBS Radio, theJazz, Capital Life, Core, Oneword, Primetime, D1 Temp, Bloomberg and ITN.

4. Digital One's greatest recent crisis came when GCap (which, following its creation from the merger of GWR and Capital, took control of Digital One) announced in March 2008 that it was pulling out. Ofcom then began canvassing both the BBC and the commercial sector in an attempt to find ways of making the DAB position more attractive to the commercial sector. Then, in June 2008, a report (commissioned before the GCap crisis) from the Digital Radio Working Group, a body formed by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, pointed out that DAB would not gain the momentum it needed until the Government made a commitment to switching off analogue radio frequencies, possibly by 2020. To date, the Government has made no such commitment; and the fate of Digital One is still in the balance, following GCap's acquisition by Global in April 2008.

5. The second commercial multiplex licence was awarded to 4Digital in April 2007 - and it promised to deliver innovative stations such as a children's service supplied by Disney, a radio version of Emap's Closer and various Channel 4-branded stations.

6. Sales of DAB receivers have been growing steadily, thanks to cheap kit coming on the market courtesy of the likes of Argos. DAB equipment of some sort is now in 28 per cent of homes and, according to Rajar, DAB accounts for 12 per cent of all UK radio listening.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

ADVERTISERS

- Many advertisers are big fans of radio. In the short term, they want the broadest possible choice of options that the medium can possibly offer; in the longer term, they want it to evolve so that it can prosper in the digital age. So they tend to be optimistic about the future of DAB - though their patience probably isn't infinite.

- Jonathan Barrowman, the head of radio at Initiative, says that a planned marketing push for DAB sets and services this Christmas could prove a real fillip. "For the commercial sector, I still think DAB can be a very efficient platform on which to develop more national brands," he says.

MEDIA OWNERS

- Opinion is deeply split here. Some say Channel 4's departure will, in the end, prove to be a blessing in disguise. Everyone knows where they stand now and the sector can get back to making coherent plans.

- Others believe that DAB is now beyond saving - after all, penetration of DAB equipment is hardly impressive given the fact that sets are cheap and the manufacturers have been punting them for almost a decade.

- Sceptics argue that the medium must focus on other digital platforms such as the internet and mobile. One way or another, though, radio needs to show that it is up to the digital challenge.

THE GOVERNMENT

- If DAB is to be saved, it must surely act now to announce an analogue switch-off date.

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