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Ofcom mulls legislation to save DAB

A Freeview moment for digital radio?

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Parliament may need to step in with new legislation, to save the digital radio fail whale OFCOM admitted today.

OFCOM's Peter Davies made the comments in front of a critical audience at the Radio Academy's Radio At The Edge conference today. Davies was put on the spot by moderator James Ashton. After years of trying to put a brave face on DAB, the OFCOM man all but admitted the British radio industry now needed drastic action.

"Yes, it will require legislation," he said, in order to restructure the industry, and lower costs, so that commercial operators could survive.

Davies acknowledged he'd have no choice if the commercial operators all decided to revolt en masse.

OFCOM effectively forces national operators onto DAB by making it a mandatory condition of a new 12 year analog license. But DAB is nothing but a millstone - costing about 10 times as much as analog to broadcast, and with very few listeners. If all the commercial operators handed in their DAB licenses back to OFCOM at once, what would the regulator do? Davies said that may be the cue for action. But he did warn that legislation took a year to pass through Parliament, so even if the broadcasters revolted tomorrow, it would be 2010 before

Asked if Britain hadn't leapt into digital radio too early - the rest of the world is introducing more advanced and efficient standards - Davies said it didn't really matter, as radios using a common profile would be technology-neutral. Which is too bad for those of us with plain old DAB.

So how low is DAB listenership?

One radio exec, Daniel Nathan of Brighton-based Juice, even went as far as suggesting that listenership was so low on the new digital stations, it might as well not go out over broadcast radio at all. Nathan pointed out that most get around 10,000 to 15,000 per half hour, and big hitters like BBC Radio 6 barely topped 50,000, with peaks of 61,000 on Saturday mornings.

"We might as well move them to IP," he pointed out.

"Five years ago DAB looked like the future - but the world has moved on," he said. That was one one of the nicer things said about digital radio yesterday at yesterday's Academy event.

The elephant in the room, internet radio, was represented by Darryl Pomicter of Radeo - a very tidy aggregator.

Pomicter was diplomatic. Internet radio would always be complementary to broadcast, he said, but let's not delude ourselves that most consumer electronics media formats are not successful: Polavision and Betamax to name just two. There's little justification for making radios that only pick up local broadcasts. So why not build in Wi-Fi, analog and DAB into new radios?

The Guardian Media Group's Paul Fairburn wasn't impressed by the argument (from the DAB lobby's Tony Moretta) that radio operators should build visuals and other gimmicks into their DAB broadcasts to make DAB more multimediatastic.

"Don't propose to us that we add to our costs by adding expensive bits now," he responded.

BBC: Crisis? What crisis?

We should say that half of the audience was critical. The other half, drawn from various corners of the BBC, sat there very quietly, looking pretty pleased with how things are going - as well they might. The commercial radio disaster is the best thing to happen to BBC radio since the 1960's, when the state sailed in on its behalf to capsize the pirates. Daniel Nathan probably summed up the mood of the other, commercial, half of the room by echoing Fru Hazlett's view that the DAB business model is now "fucked".

The BBC's 'Controller, Multi-platform and Interactive', Mark Friend reflected the somersaults of logic one must go through to justify satisfaction at the radio landscape today. It goes something like this: do we want radio to go digital or not in the next ten years?

(Don't all put your hands up at once.)

If we stall on DAB, the argument goes, then we're saying we don't want radio to go digital. Outside Broadcasting House management meetings, I can't see that cart-before-the-horse proposition winning many hearts and minds. Digital and analog are, at the end of the day, just conduits.

Mark Friend said he couldn't anticipate a "FreeView moment" for DAB, or see why one was necessary. That refers to acknowledgement that digital terrestrial TV had failed, and the main interests had to pool their interests to ensure a wider adoption of the technology. That day might come for digital radio pretty soon: as early as next year. ®

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