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Digital radio may replace FM altogether - even though nobody wants it

Culture minster must pass - or defer - death sentence on beloved tech

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On the 16th December, culture minister Ed Vaizey makes one of the least popular decisions anyone in the Ministry of Fun can make – implementing the unwanted digital radio switchover.

Moving the major UK radio stations to DAB from FM would force the newer digital standard through - while of making millions of analogue sets useless, and reducing consumer convenience.

While the major radio industry players desperately want a unified standard, many people don't: two thirds of new sets sold in the UK don't do DAB at all. So whatever he decides, Vaizey is going to upset somebody. Last week the industry-owned ratings agency RAJAR published the last set of quarterly trend figures Vaizey will see before D-Day.

DAB's share of the market actually fell (PDF, one page) from 23.9 per cent in the quarter ending June, to 23.0 per cent. Even as a share of commercial listening (PDF) it decreased from 21.1 per cent to 18.9 per cent.

Digital listening fell overall, from 36.8 per cent to 35.6 per cent, following a five per cent increase in the equivalent quarter last year. In contrast, FM's slice of the audio pie increased in the three months to September, up to 61.1 per cent from 58.8 per cent in the summer.

We asked RAJAR about the numbers, which saw a digital fall over the summer after a strong digital uptick in the previous quarter. A spokesperson told us there have been "no changes to the methodology or sampling" and suggested that the warm weather might account for the curious returns.

"As the summer months were particularly glorious this year, more people may have taking their personal radios out to the garden or elsewhere. This is an easier task with an AM/FM radio as the battery tends to last longer," said the RAJAR mouthpiece.

After over a decade of huffing and puffing, DAB platforms measured by "reach" currently account for only 32.8 per cent of radio listening, with Digital TV scooping up another 15.5 per cent and online/app-based listening taking a measly 14.7 per cent.

A further 7.2 per cent of radio platforms were unspecified. RAJAR ratings are still manually compiled by listeners filling out a diary (like this) and "unspecified" is where the Don't Knows or Not Sures go. RAJAR explains the diary method here (pdf)

Ford Ennals, CEO of Digital Radio UK, told the BBC's Media Show that he doesn't expect Vaizey to announce a date for a switchover. He does, however, expect to hear that "we are not in a position for a switchover but should plan for it."

Commercial radio trade group RadioCentre is still betting on early 2018 being the switchover date.

That's optimistic. A political decision to force FM onto the scrapheap would generate a huge political backlash - it seems eminently sensible to kick the can down the road again. ®

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