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Radio whingers find little Ofcom love

Future apparently in floods, heavy snow, mergers

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Ed Richards cocked a sympathetic ear to the troubles of the commercial radio business yesterday - but the Ofcom chief could offer little in the way of instant pain relief.

With an end-of-life government meandering to its termination, and Carter's Digital Britain review soaking up all the attention of bickering departments, he can't set policy.

Largely as a result of their own greed, financial miscalculations and lack of innovation, large radio companies are suffering. They want to slash costs and merge. Richards, who was addressing the "Radio 0" conference in London, listed his preferred solutions. One was to put more emphasis on news and local radio as a community information service. (You could almost hear teeth grind at that one). This was especially useful "during flooding or heavy snow" or other times of crisis. (The grinding continued).

Another was allowing stations to co-locate and merge to form bigger stations, which perked the audience up a bit, since it's what the big boys crave. He said savings would help about 60 per cent of commercial stations, with the example that two merging could save £135,000 a year. He hinted at relaxing sponsorship opportunities.

Richards reiterated the line that before we can switch off FM, DAB should be profitable - or as close as it can be. This could be helped by replanning DAB transmission areas, merging some multiplexes and making DAB frequency changes. But the switch-off looks as far away as ever.

It's not as simple as the TV switchover, Richards told Steve Hewlett. There are far more radio receivers out there. And with TV it was a case of necessity: the regulator couldn't extend FreeView without first turning off analogue, because of spectrum scarcity. The DAB lobby is praying for an early switch off date - but will settle for any kind of commitment now. DAB is absent from cars and mobile phones - one traditional and one a new medium for radio listeners.

Hewlett asked again - why can't we force people onto digital radio? As a Grauniad regular, chivvying and beating people up with regulation comes as second nature. Might electric cattle prods be just what's needed?

(I made the last part up).

Well, it wasn't that easy, Richards said. "There's no point in doing something the audience regards as a disaster" he replied.

The panel that followed hinted at the extent of the DABacle. It's not radio's only problem, but the poor uptake and high carriage costs contribute to many of the others.

Daniel Nathan of Brighton's Festival radio pointed out that with such low numbers for DAB-only stations (favoured by only 3.2 per cent of the audience in all) you might as well as stick it out over the internet.

"While IP is not satisfactory it's more effective to reach those 20,000 listeners than DAB".

"Planet Rock will need a 90 per cent fall in carriage fees to achieve a profit within five years," he said. Why not just consider radio as radio and use IP to deliver the addons?

Steve Ackerman of production company Somethin' Else, thought DAB was helping to lose the young audience. "I see a digital future encompassing a variety of technologies that may or may not include DAB".

Richard Wheatly, chief exec of the loss-making Jazz FM, described himself as a former DAB critic who had had a "Damascene conversion". It didn't sound much of a conversion.

"Brands will move on past DAB. We'll go to internet and satellite." Wheatly just wanted to broadcast where he could find an audience.

Tony Moretta of DRDB, which was set up to promote DAB radio, was confident DAB would get in the car - eventually.

He said he was encouraged by the two commercial giants "singing from the same hymn sheet - FM isn't a long term future - everyone is getting behind DAB."

Maybe they just have funny ways of showing that love. Last year Globalt torched its DAB stations, and in April sold its stake in the national multiplex that no one wants to broadcast on (DigitalOne) to transmission company Arquiva.

Apparently, for just a quid. ®

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