Fru Hazlitt on Broadcasting

Platform-agnostic is the only way to get on in the digital age
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The Independent Online

The people at Freeview must be cracking open the champagne following what can only be described as a sensational year. The latest confirmation of the rise and rise of Freeview is in last week's report from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), which predicts that it will be the most popular form of digital TV in the UK by the end of the year. Now that more than a quarter of all households in the UK already have digital terrestrial television, media luminaries believe that Freeview is the leading light for new digital media.

To a large extent, I'm inclined to agree, as this take-up is a massive achievement. In fact, we've just announced that Christian O'Connell and all the talent across Virgin Radio will be rocking on Freeview this summer as it opens up a massive opportunity for us to be available in more than seven million UK homes with Freeview set-top boxes. However, while being accessible on Freeview is vital to the growth of Virgin Radio and various other TV and radio stations, it would be lunacy to make it the be-all and end-all of a digital platform strategy.

Ten years ago, just about everyone listened to radio over an analogue frequency. Now, consumers are choosing to listen to a radio station over the internet, DAB digital radio, Sky Digital, Freeview, mobile phones, MP3 players and analogue. There's also a great deal of convergence as consumers use one device to access many media. Even five years ago you would have had some people in the industry falling off their chairs if you'd said that consumers would use a television to tune into a radio station, and then an audio gadget (the Sky Gnome) to listen to TV. But such consumer habits - combined with fast-developing technology - are forcing the media industry to innovate so that more content can be accessed from the same device. Just think: you can now do more with a mobile phone than its inventor, Dr Martin Cooper, could ever have imagined, and we've got to make the most of this opportunity.

Since joining Virgin Radio last summer, I've been vocal about our commitment to making our network of stations accessible across every possible platform, and we now have a presence on all of them. Being platform-agnostic is a critical part of any modern broadcaster's drive to achieve maximum growth, as new radio listening and TV viewing patterns are formed by today's younger generation. We need to make sure that, whatever their lifestyles and digital medium of choice, our listeners can find our music and DJs whenever they want and wherever they are - even our very own Suggs has his own channel on Sky Digital now. However, it remains unclear which platforms will stay the course and which ones are destined to go the way of the Betamax, meaning that we must all continue to be aware of the changing digital environment around us.

Anyone who claims that they have found the golden ticket today is either a genius or an idiot - most probably the latter. Rather, it is the media owners who position themselves where the consumers are going who will be the winners in multi-platform programming, with the only certainty being that the landscape will continue to change. While Freeview has massive potential and is one of the most vital platforms for us right now, I still want our music, DJs and brand to connect with everyone from podcasters to DAB listeners and online users alike.

The slightly scary but incredibly exciting thing about digital media is that these innovations are only the tip of the iceberg. The UK has a lot to learn from global markets about the next big thing in digital platforms, and media owners should be closely watching developments in Asia in particular, where all devices are multi-functional and the technology infrastructure is more mature than in the UK.

With broadband speeds about 20 times faster than here in the UK and a greater spread of wireless areas and devices, all eyes should be on Asia's media consumption trends, which will be hitting the UK before you can say "digital multiplex".

How I would sort out Rajar

The way that Rajar measures radio listening is changing - but not fast enough for some people. In May, Rajar's announcement about plans to introduce electronic measurement of radio listening figures met with a mixed response. Under the plans, Rajar committed to immediate improvements in the current written diary, and a two-year trial (in a joint initiative with Barb) to ready the technology and structure for electronic measurement.

There was an outcry from some quarters that the whole Rajar diary system wasn't being overhauled immediately. In answer to those doubters, I can safely say that - while we all accept that Rajar's systems could be improved - it would be crazy for the radio industry to make overnight changes to its currency and lifeblood.

Radio networks, media agencies and advertisers alike all want a more robust and stable measurement of reach and listening hours, but a complete switchover to electronic measurement simply isn't the answer at this time.

The worst possible outcome of changing Rajar's system would be for the industry to be staring at inaccurate and volatile figures that made advertisers lose confidence in our medium. While it's inevitable that electronic panels will be introduced, we need to look at sample sizes and data delivery so that the radio industry and Rajar can build on what's already been achieved - not prompt chaos.

Fru Hazlitt is chief executive of Virgin Radio

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