MEDIA HEADLINER: Digital radio evangelist finally sees technology switched on - Quentin Howard’s crusade for the medium is far from over, Anna Griffiths writes

On Monday one man watched his ambition become a reality. Since 1991, Quentin Howard, chief executive of Digital One, the national multiplex for digital commercial radio, has brandished a placard announcing that the advent of digital radio is nigh. Until quite recently, his calls have gone largely unheard.

On Monday one man watched his ambition become a reality. Since

1991, Quentin Howard, chief executive of Digital One, the national

multiplex for digital commercial radio, has brandished a placard

announcing that the advent of digital radio is nigh. Until quite

recently, his calls have gone largely unheard.



Howard has at times found his task a solitary preoccupation. ’It’s been

bloody lonely out there. Maybe others would have given up, but I’ve

never believed in something as strongly as this.’ But this week, with

the launch of the new channels, Core and Planet Rock, alongside digital

versions of Classic FM, Virgin and Talk Radio, his efforts have been

rewarded.



’It will be an historic day for me,’ reflects Howard. ’Personally, I

will be the happiest man in Britain because it’s something I have been

working on and had a vision of for a long time.’



Howard’s efforts to get digital radio - which will have better sound and

tuning, a wider choice of stations and the ability to generate text and

pictures alongside radio broadcasts - to households is still going to be

a long haul. Core and Planet Rock (developed by Digital One’s majority

stakeholder, GWR Group, through its subsidiary, GWR Digital Services)

will also be launched via Sky Digital and the internet, but with only

around 3,000 digital radio sets in the UK, not many people will be able

to experience them.



Digital radio will be a very quiet revolution but Howard is confident

that, over time, take-up will reach commercially viable levels. Digital

One has to strike a balance in waking listeners up to digital radio’s

presence, while not generating too much expectation. ’Our job is to

cajole and persuade. We have the ability to generate demand with the

consumer, which we started doing from 15 November through advertising on

Virgin, Talk and Classic. But it’s also important not to create such a

demand that the consumer goes into Curry’s to find either that digital

radio sets are too expensive, or aren’t being sold.’



Howard is confident that one barrier to entry - price - will come down

from around pounds 800 to pounds 200 in the next 18 months to two years.

But the key to the proliferation of digital radio is its integration

into other electronic goods. ’If people see digital radio as a

standalone, and a like-for-like replacement for a transistor that sits

on their fridge, it won’t get anywhere.



If manufacturers build radios into other devices, such as Walkmans, PCs,

car stereos and mobile phones, it makes digital radio ubiquitous.’



Another factor in the take-up of radio will be the Government’s

switch-off date for analogue, although for now that seems some way

off.



Howard’s personal quest to bring digital radio to the commercial sector

may seem offbeat, but it is in keeping with his training as a broadcast

engineer.



Sally Oldham, managing director of Capital Group, who worked with Howard

at GWR, says: ’Quentin’s background is in those broadcast engineering

days of tools, spanners and screwdrivers. He was probably the first to

break the mould and start to look at how technology could be more than a

piece of kit in the studio, but a means to an end.’



Broadcast engineering is a million miles away from Howard’s first

calling as a ballet dancer at the Ballet Rambert. He decided he was too

small and began to study engineering, a field where size was no barrier

to talent. As Ralph Bernard, chief executive of GWR, testifies: ’He

makes up for his lack of height in brain power.’



Fifteen years ago Howard rigged up the first live broadcast from water

skis and has launched a number of stations, including Wiltshire Radio,

which was to become GWR, and the original studios for Classic FM.



Howard has faced an uphill struggle in getting a foothold for digital in

the commercial radio market, but his challenge now will be to convert

advertisers, suppliers and consumers into followers of the medium.



One of Oldham’s few quibbles is whether Howard is the right person to

drive that message forward. ’It requires a different character from

someone who pioneers something. Quentin is good when facing a sea of

resistance, but he now has to create an operation which is team-based,

not just at Digital One, but with programme producers and with the

industry.’



Howard, who is happy for people to describe him as an evangelist,

promises that as far as the future of radio goes: ’You ain’t seen

nothing yet.’





THE HOWARD FILE



1979: Severn Sound, chief engineer



1981: Wiltshire Radio, consultant, becoming chief engineer and on-air

presenter



1985: GWR, chief engineer



1991: GWR, programme director



1995: GWR International, director of central European broadcasting



1998: GWR Digital Radio, managing director



1998: Digital One, chief executive.



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