Vaizey: We're still in tune with digital

Culture minister says radio switchover is on course for 2015 despite concern from senior industry figures
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It has been a good week for fans of digital radio. On Monday, 6 Music was saved from the axe by the BBC Trust following a public backlash. Yesterday, in his first public address as Culture minister, Ed Vaizey pledged to push on with the full digital switchover for radio. He unveiled an action plan and said digital radio provided the opportunity "to strengthen, to innovate and to engage". Yet, there is a serious question about whether digital radio can hit its listener targets, and the chairman of the House of Lords communications committee, Lord Fowler, has warned that the move could cause a "major row".

Mr Vaizey laid out the Government's plans for the future of radio to the Intellect Consumer Electronics conference, clearly throwing his lot behind digital radio. He said: "It is essential that we maintain the momentum towards digital, and that we start to really pick up the pace and make some real progress."

Ford Ennals, who previously led the body in charge of switching television from analogue to digital, was appointed to take charge of the equivalent drive in radio earlier this year. Mr Ennals, the chief executive of Digital Radio UK, welcomed Mr Vaizey's comments, saying: "His first public speech as a government minister was about digital radio. This shows how important the Government is taking the issue."

The switchover was outlined in the Digital Britain report commissioned by the previous government and published in June last year. Lord Carter's document set a target of 2015 for radio's move to digital. Yesterday, Mr Vaizey unveiled the Digital Radio Action Plan, which will provide a detailed assessment of the impact of the switchover, as he gave an update on the proposals.

He said switching to digital in five years remained "a target we aspire to but for which a lot more work needs to be done before we can make it a cast-iron commitment".

The decision to switch would be taken only "when analogue listening is in the minority", Mr Vaizey insisted, adding that the process would be governed by listening and purchasing habits.

Currently, more than 90 per cent of the population listens to an average of 22 hours of radio a week. Of that, a quarter is heard on digital equipment, according to latest audience research figures. "It can, and I believe will, be much more," Mr Vaizey said.

The switch will not take place until digital coverage across the UK matches the 98 per cent FM radio enjoys today (digital is at about 90 per cent and climbing) and 50 per cent of listeners are using "digital platforms". There is debate about which technology is best but Mr Vaizey is backing Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB). He said switching to a rival method offered "little benefit to the industry or listeners compared to the impact it would have".

Mr Ennals is confident digital can hit the coverage target but others disagree. Grant Goddard, an independent radio analyst, said there was "zero chance" of hitting 98 per cent by 2013, and predicted that it would be 2018 before half the country was able to use a digital platform. "It's unrealistic. I'm disappointed that the new government didn't re-evaluate the timing," he added.

Earlier this year, the chief executive of UTV Radio, Scott Taunton, said the target was "farcical". Mr Ennals played down the comments, saying that UTV believed the industry would go digital, it was just a quesion of timing. He said the benefits of digital radio included more stations, less interference and an ability to search by station rather than frequency. Live digital radio can also be paused and rewound. Mr Vaizey predicted that digital would also overcome the constraints of the FM waveband, which was "now full and simply does not have the capacity to deliver the services and functions digital can".

He criticised the lack of speed in addressing the issues and urged the BBC to help commercial broadcasters, saying: "The BBC has already got us to a position where we have 90 per cent coverage. But I believe it can do more over the next two years, especially at a local level, even before we begin negotiations on the licence fee.

"We need more 6 Musics, and not just from the BBC, but also from the commercial sector."

Other issues include making digital available to more motorists, with digital sets expected to become standard fittings in new cars by 2013. The Government has also launched a "scrappage" scheme to help FM users with the cost of going digital.