From roadside to radio

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The Independent Online
COMPETITION between the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club moves from the roads to the airwaves this week with the relaunch of the AA's long-standing Roadwatch traffic news service.

The move comes just weeks after the RAC unveiled plans to launch its own operation, RAC Travel News. It is a new stage in the battle not just for drivers but the future of in-car navigation technology.

Tomorrow the AA, in partnership with Vodafone, the UK's largest mobile phone company, launches AA Vodafone Roadwatch, a service offering broadcasters regular bulletins.

It will also provide rolling traffic reports relayed via satellite or ISDN line to a dedicated computer terminal to be installed at each participating radio station.

Information will be gleaned from 100 AA Vodafone Roadwatch reporters travelling the country by motorbike as well as traditional sources such as Scotland Yard, the Highway Agency, public transport companies and the AA's national network of eight regional offices and 4,500 patrols.

The aim is to provide definitive broadcast bulletins as well as updates via the computer network, said David Marsh, the AA's information services manager. "It's all part of the AA and Vodafone's strategy to use new technology to deliver better information, faster to people on the move."

Thirty commercial stations, including Talk Radio UK, Jazz and Melody, have so far signed up for the service, which they will each receive free in exchange for guaranteeing to promote it on air.

An advertising campaign, which is being co-ordinated by Spero Communications, a marketing and sponsorship consultancy, is to be launched in London this week to increase awareness of the service. "We want this to be recognised as the definitive service," says Mr Marsh. He adds: "While stations have used light aircraft in the past, the public doesn't see them. Our new patrol team will be branded and high profile on the road."

Competition is partly responsible for the move. For almost two decades, the AA had the traffic news market to itself. But in 1993 Metro Networks, an American player, was launched in Britain. Metro now offers its tailored TrafficLink bulletins to local and national stations, compiling information from a wide range of sources.

Speed and accuracy are essential, explains Ben Budworth,its managing director. "Until someone can actually make a decision from traffic news it's useless," he says. "We work hard to make it entertaining as well."

The service is bartered, which means stations do not pay to receive it. Instead, they must give Metro commercial airtime, which it, in turn, sells to advertisers to recoup costs.

Metro now serves 47 local, regional and national commercial stations including Virgin Radio. The AA has so far signed up 30 of the 65 stations currently taking Roadwatch to carry the re-launched service. But with 180radio stations in all, there is significant room for growth.

This, in part, explains the interest of the third competitor: the RAC, which launched RAC Travel News last month. Its service is being developed in partnership with Independent Television News and Trafficmaster, a company that makes in-car and desk-top units displaying traffic flow on all motorways and A roads.

RAC Travel News is now negotiating with radio stations to provide a broadcast bulletin service although it has yet to sign up its first station. "We can combine real-time traffic information with ITN's broadcasting expertise, and tailor all scripts to a station's local needs," Peter Brill, an RAC spokesman, said.

There is undoubtedly ample demand from radio stations for accurate and efficient traffic news. "With the high volume of in-car listening it's become a vital information service," saysDavid Lees, the UK director of sales of Talk Radio. "It also has an entertainment value and can be used to differentiate a particular station from competitors in a crowded market."

But like many within the radio business he questions whether all three can survive. "Commercial radio may be rapidly growing but why do stations need three rival services to choose from? It just doesn't seem commercially viable that all will survive in the long term."

Even so the AA and RAC remain unperturbed. The re-launch of Roadwatch and the RAC's arrival are more than just a response to growing competition in the broadcast arena, they insist. "AA Vodafone Roadwatch is the first in a series of new traffic monitoring and navigational products," Mr Marsh says.

Last November, the AA and Vodafone struck a multi-million pound, six- year alliance to develop new systems including computerised vehicle guidance products, early alert systems based on live information to warn of vehicle hazards or congestion and in-car mapping systems.

It is an area in which the RAC is already competing. "We are involved in working with Ford on their navigational systems development," Mr Brill says. "The key is real-time systems. And that's where the broadcast traffic news fits in. With car radios able to automatically switch stations to catch the latest traffic reports, who's delivering the news - and how - has an impact."

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