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BBC pulling back from the DAByss?

Set the dial to spin

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Simply because Tim Davie, the BBC's new radio chief, has a background in advertising and marketing, that isn't a reason to assume everything he says is a lie. It's more charitable to say he's well practiced in the dark acts of spinning, having learnt the trade at Pepsi and Proctor and Gamble. And so you might want to take the explanation he offered on DAB strategy last week with a large dose of organic salt.

For the first time, a top BBC executive admitted that DAB radio isn't inevitable. The Director of BBC Audio and Music told Radio 4's Feedback programme that "since I have arrived at the BBC, I certainly haven’t seen it as inevitable that we move to DAB."

Davie continued:

"We do believe that, if radio doesn’t have a digital broadcast platform, it will be disadvantaged. I’m pretty convinced of that logic. What I’m not saying is that we have to move at 2015 if we haven’t delivered the thresholds – the right levels of listening to digital radio and to DAB. I don’t think we are on a course that is unstoppable to 2015, although we are pretty committed to a DAB switchover over time.”

Davie was responding to a deluge of negative responses unleashed by Carter's Digital Britain report. The report, the nation's Media Correspondents told us, would order analog radio to be switched off in 2015. Incorrectly, as it turned out. Emboldened by this, it was suddenly open season on DAB. The Tories have sniffed a vote winner, although shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt shows the same reluctance to grasp the underlying problems.

Radio 4's Today programme sent its radio car to the remote location of er, BBC Television Centre, and discovered DAB reception "is more irritating than Norman Collier's broken mic routine". That is, if they could get it at all. Back in the studio, former TalkSport owner Kelvin McKenzie listed more DAB closures and concluded: "There are no advertisers out there, no listeners out there. DAB is a technology whose day is done."

Davie was merely trying to defang the backlash. Listeners don't like to feel bullied, and especially not bullied onto a technology that is perceived to offer only disadvantages. No one talks about the much-vaunted crystal clear reception any more, or choice, or whizzy new features.

"What we might be seeing is the opening salvo of an action folder marked ‘Possible DAB Downgrade/Exit Strategy’", mused the radio analyst Grant Goddard. "The nuclear button might never have to be pressed, but it’s always useful to know where the exit doors are and how you are going to reach them, however little you might want to think about the DAB plane going down in flames."

I'm not so sure.

Carter's report failed radio by ducking two serious areas. DAB's problems are both technological and financial, and the two are interlinked. More modern codecs offered by DMB (the DAB technologists' preferred route) or DVB-H could cut the transmission costs, lead to cheaper sets, and give us better and more complete reception. This required something stronger than what Carter proposed - an airy desire that sets should be forward compatible somehow.

As for the financial issues which beset commercial radio, it's hard to see how anything short of a compulsory nationalisation of Arqiva and chopping up the spectrum could help. (Arqiva is where the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority's transmission facilities, along with DTELs, the Home Office's radio network for defence and emergency services, have ended up).

The BBC doesn't want half of its audience to disappear overnight, either (one of the two switchover criteria is 50 per cent of listeners), so here we see Davie steering it away from backing any kind of commitment. But nor does the BBC want a fragmented world where the audience wanders off to discover more engaging material, as they have since the very beginning of radio. That's what Davie means by "a digital broadcast platform" - he means one single, nationwide, one-to-many broadcast standard, with presets in all the receivers. The sheep must not stray from the fold.

So we're muddling along as before, without the carriage costs being addressed, and without a firm roadmap for DAB's successors. One thought ought to keep radio executives awake at night. By 2015, IP networks will be fully capable of IPv6 multicast, as we'll be well into 4G (LTE) deployment by then. If half of the terrestrial radio is audience is disenfranchised overnight, the mobile operators will only be too happy to offer them - and advertisers - a home from home. ®

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