Seventy-five years ago the manufacturers of radio equipment had a
small problem. No one was buying their admittedly expensive sets. People
were quite prepared to admire the valve technology and handsome wooden
cabinets of the wireless, but few were prepared to actually purchase
The problem was there wasn't much they could listen to with this
The manufacturers decided radical action was needed, clubbed together
and started the radio service that in a few years was bought by a
grateful nation and became the BBC. Radical action, perhaps, but it
certainly helped kick-start the sale of radio sets.
Now, three quarters of a century later, radio is on the point of having
to re-invent content for a second wave of new-fangled hardware. Radio,
in short, is going digital.
'Digital is radio's gateway to the multimedia world,' explains John
Trewsdale of NTL, the company which runs the transmitter network for
commercial broadcasting, 'The analogue radio systems we have in use are
pushing 80 years old, which is seriously low-tech. It's about time that
radio got in step with the rest of the world and went digital. With
digital technology we can all enjoy CD-quality broadcasts,
interference-free reception and a range of multi-media services
Digital audio broadcasting (DAB), to give it its full title, can do all
that and more. In addition to the extra clarity and sharpness, it can
support a text screen which has obvious benefits for the advertising
community, not least for the convenient disposal of the financial
services small-print which at the moment clogs up the airwaves.
Despite this, digital radio has enjoyed a lower profile than its
televisual equivalent, which is generally held responsible for
everything from media fragmentation to the bloated fees being charged
for TV sports rights.
In fact, it's a similar technology but will not lead to quite the same
sort of explosion of channels.
The first multiplex, a national service, will carry the existing three
independent national radio stations and up to six others when it
launches - probably around September 1999. Nor does DAB have all the
advantages that digital TV has. Pay per view - one of the central planks
of digital TV strategy - is not a viable option for radio.
'One really exciting thing about DAB is that it is designed to be used
where radio is at its strongest - on the move. FM was designed to be
used in a stationary environment, but this is designed to take advantage
of the fact that most people consume radio in all sorts of places - in
the car, out in the garden, wherever,' says Trewsdale, 'and the fact
that we will have, in the fullness of time, up to eight national digital
services, as opposed to three at the moment, is an exciting prospect for
Well, not quite everyone. It's no secret that the advent of digital
technology was initially greeted with scepticism, even by some people
within the industry, while to advertisers it has remained very much a
closed book until now. The advertising agencies on the other hand have
started to find out about the service's attractions, even if, for the
moment, they remain largely unimpressed.
'The problem we have with digital is that it fundamentally appears not
to be editorially led,' CIA Medianetwork's head of radio, David
Fletcher, points out. 'The history of innovation, from the Rabbit phone
to Video 2000, shows that consumers are not prepared to invest in new
technology just because it's there. I could see a use if you were
advertising a high-tech product and wanted to target early adopters, but
no one has ever bought a 30-second TV spot because of Teletext, and
that's the way we're looking at digital radio right now.'
One advantage commercial radio does have in spreading the word about DAB
is the fact that the BBC is so committed to it. The BBC gets its own
national multiplex, and unlike independent local radio, its local radio
stations are also guaranteed the option of going digital.
'The BBC is predicting that DAB will achieve a 40 per cent penetration
in ten years,' points out Quentin Howard, managing director of GWR's new
Group Digital Division. 'Which is the same sort of penetration achieved
by VHS, CDs, or even colour television, and I'm confident we can surpass
Howard is leading the GWR bid to run the national multiplex, which will
be the first stage in the 18-month shift to digital. The Radio Authority
will be inviting applications from March, and hoping to announce the
winner by September. The multiplex owner decides on the mix of
programming it will carry and once this is decided, the Radio Authority
will start to award the regional and local multiplex licences - first to
Greater London, Birmingham and Manchester and then throughout the
Although existing ILR stations are not guaranteed space on the digital
multiplexes, outside of London availability is not thought to be a
As a carrot to the stations, the Radio Authority is offering extended
eight-year licences to successful applicants to digital format.
'The potential for DAB is huge,' says Howard. 'Digital radio has the
capacity to broadcast data software, graphics and even video. And the
commercial opportunities extend to innovations like smart cards being
built into the receiver. You could, for example, store a list of all the
records you heard that you liked. You would then take the card into your
record store and have them make up your own personal CD or
In the beginning, however, much of the success of the system for
advertisers is going to depend on how many listeners are persuaded to
adopt the service -and that in turn is going to depend on the cost of
'As in all new technology, the hardware will start expensive and get
cheaper as demand picks up,' Trewsdale says, 'but I think a DAB in-car
system could easily start at around pounds 350, which is about the same
as top-end analogue and, within five years, we'll be able to buy DAB
walkman's for pounds 30.'