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You'll have to pay for more DAB - we can't afford it

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The day began with a heated debate by some of DAB's fiercest critics. Jack Schofield, formerly of The Guardian, reminded the audience of what a successful technology looks like. It looks like the web, or the iPod, or a PlayStation. DAB is as old as the web, he pointed out, but not a successful technology.

"iPod owners spend £600 a year, and thousands on HDTV. They're not staying away from DAB because of cost, because of £50 sets," he said. He recalled the outcry when the BBC wanted to close Radio 4's Long Wave transmissions - it remains the only broadcaster on Long Wave. This would be nothing compared to inconveniencing 50 million people and making 200 million sets obsolete.

"I would love digital radio to be done properly but we need a rational strategy for 2020," he said. FM receivers continue to outstrip DAB sales - FM was cheap and ubiquitous.

There was a small explosion in response from Frontier Silicon founder Anthony Sethill. Frontier makes most of the chipsets for DAB. He said he was furious that pundits such as Schofield were bullying the public, he said.

He claimed that figures in the presentation were from GfK, and could not be considered accurate because Dixons didn't disclose its figures, it had to estimate them by panels intead. Frontier had sold two million chipsets last year - indicating GfK had undercounted DAB receiver sales.

Schofield gave as good as he got, pointing out that if anybody was doing the browbeating it was the radio industry, the BBC and the DAB lobby. Over 20 ad campaigns have been launched in the last decade to convert people to DAB. And yet here we are.

The figures Schofield used, we later found out, come from Digital Radio UK - the DAB's lobby group.

Mark Rock, CEO of AudioBoo, was also critical, and berated the industry for forgetting that technology was a means not an end. The end was great radio programming.

"This is the only industry going digital with a technology that's more expensive and lower quality," he said. The industry was ignoring presentation, creative programming, and lost opportunites.

Learning from Sky could be instructive, he said, as it sold a platform and kept a close relationship with users for the lifetime of the device.

This left radio veteran Daniel Nathan, who has been one of DAB's strongest critics, trying to take the heat out of the debate.

"For some services DAB is very effective and well received," he said, "especially where listeners are older and more affluent.

"These are very important listeners to have, advertisers like them. But for younger listeners, who might listen to 1Xtra, or Gaydar, or Rinse FM, there was negligible DAB takeup."

Goalposts on wheels?

Later, Nathan noticed what he might be a shift in the digital listening required to trigger a timetable being set. Recall that Carter's Digital Britain report of 2009 set a threshold of 50 per cent digital listening (not DAB listening) and where DAB coverage "is comparable to FM coverage, and local DAB reaches 90 per cent of the population, and all major roads".

Buckland said the target being negotiated - and it's a bargaining chip - appeared to be 90 per cent of FM coverage - which is not the same thing as 90 per cent of population coverage, you'll note. He confirmed this was the case. For local coverage the thresholds also appear to have been put on wheels, and moved around: and local DAB coverage would be "aggregated" to average 90 per cent, so in many areas local broadcasts would reach fewer than 90 per cent.

It gets better by the day. Or worse. ®

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