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
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.’