MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON: DIGITAL RADIO - Digital radio struggles to grab media community’s attention/Media agencies are taking a tentative view of the new medium, Julian Lee writes

We are on the threshold of the most exciting development in radio since Marconi first sent his voice across the Atlantic, yet the silence from the media community is almost deafening.

We are on the threshold of the most exciting development in radio

since Marconi first sent his voice across the Atlantic, yet the silence

from the media community is almost deafening.

This month, the digital radio licence for the London area is set to be

awarded to one of three consortia: the Capital Radio/Emap venture, CE

Digital; the Talk Radio/Ginger Media Group and Clear Channel

International group, Switchdigital; or MXR, owned by Chrysalis, Border

Television and Daily Mail & General Trust. Just four weeks later, the

national digital franchise, Digital One (jointly owned by GWR and NTL),

goes on air with ten stations.

We are told, admittedly by the digital radio operators themselves, that

by the year 2009, the medium will account for 40 per cent of the one

billion weekly listening hours of all radio. Yet there is a notable

absence of excitement from the media community. Is it because they are

not ready for digital radio or because digital radio is not quite ready

for them?

Either way, digital radio is in danger of being ignored by media buyers

and planners who have more pressing concerns. Tim McCabe, head of radio

at BBJ Media Services, says: ’It’s just too far off to worry about. It’s

maybe as much as four years away.’

Until there is an audience for such a medium, the buyers and planners

are loath to recommend it to clients, especially as there is no

obligation to measure the figures with Rajar. ’There’s the odd

media-literate client out there like Bass who asks us to keep it posted,

but not many,’ McCabe adds.

Listen to the operators, however, and a different story emerges. Quentin

Howard, chief executive of Digital One, the original crusader of digital

radio, says that although he is not surprised by the indifference of

many agencies, he is fielding a steady stream of inquiries about digital

radio. ’There are a lot of agencies out there who are not asking the

question and I suspect they’ll only do so when their clients begin to

ask them. However, there are some agencies that have taken digital

on-board and they are the forward-thinking ones,’ he says.

Sally Oldham, managing director of Capital Group, a bidder for a number

of regional digital franchises, suspects that it will not be until the

London multiplex - with its potential audience of 9.5 million - is up

and running that digital really takes off as a viable advertising

medium. At the moment, Oldham suspects that the majority of the

advertising community is not ready for digital.

But she adds: ’The onus is on us, and I mean collectively, to educate

the planners and buyers. After all, it’s in our common interest.’ In the

last few weeks before the launch of the national digital multiplex, she

says there has been a ’rush’ by media agencies to find out what it is


The answer is that the technology can deliver more channels, better

quality and more targeted programming. As more advanced technology comes

on stream, such wizardry as text on a screen - a device which allows you

to rewind programming or ads in case you missed them - and even a

classified ad slot are all within reach.

For advertisers, there are endless possibilities.

There’s only one snag - cost. At the moment, a digital radio can cost

between pounds 600 and pounds 800, making it prohibitive to all but the

most dedicated and well-heeled radio listeners. And radios last a long

time. Many of us have more than one radio in a house with little

incentive to buy a new one, especially as it might be decades before

analogue radio is switched off, thus forcing us to change. The incentive

then to upgrade is hardly a powerful one. To date, only 3,000 sets have

been sold in the UK - hardly a stampede.

But this does not deter Howard. He says: ’I would liken this to the

launch of satellite analogue. At first, you had to spend hundreds buying

a decriptor, the audiences were small and the advertisers stayed away.

But look at it now.’