Greg Dyke On Broadcasting

Digital radio has become the iPod for the over-fifties
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All the fuss about the success of Freeview and the news that there could well be more Freeview homes than BSkyB homes by the end of the year has meant that another BBC-inspired digital success story has hardly been noticed.

All the fuss about the success of Freeview and the news that there could well be more Freeview homes than BSkyB homes by the end of the year has meant that another BBC-inspired digital success story has hardly been noticed.

Three years ago digital radio (DAB) was stalled and didn't look like it was ever going to happen. The radio manufacturers were refusing to make digital radios until there were enough digital-only radio services available, and the broadcasters, led by the BBC, were refusing to spend money on new services until the radio manufacturers would commit to producing digital radios. It was a classic catch-22 situation.

Yet, in December, the number of people owning digital radios easily passed the million figure - more than double the number at the start of 2004 - and the figure is expected to double again this year and reach 7.3 million homes by the end of 2008.

So what changed? What ended the impasse? When the history of digital radio is written, one person should be identified as the saviour of DAB - an incredibly determined woman called Jenny Abramsky.

It was Jenny, as director of radio at the BBC, who, by force of personality alone, persuaded - some might say bullied - the BBC into spending £18 million a year on a series of new radio stations, and millions more on marketing the concept of digital radio on TV, on posters and on analogue radio. Without Jenny, I doubt whether digital radio would actually have taken off at all, as there were many at the BBC who believed the project was unnecessary.

Mind you, there are some very odd things about DAB. It is probably the only digital appliance whose sales have been driven by older people. In many ways it's the iPod for the over-fifties, with the average age of someone buying a digital radio being 51. This is probably because the highest-profile digital-only station is BBC 7 - a speech-radio service playing the best of the Radio 4 library. The industry recognises this as a problem and the next generation of digital radios is likely to have features more attractive to the young, such as pausing and rewinding. It will also enable listeners to buy and download music tracks as they are broadcast.

The most remarkable thing about radio is that 44 per cent of households in Britain buy a new radio every year. Last year, 30 per cent of these were digital, compared with 15 per cent the year before. But there is one area where digital radio has still to make an impact. Twenty per cent of all radio listening takes place in the car, and this is where DAB is still struggling. There are very few car manufacturers providing DAB radios as an option, let alone as standard. The real breakthrough for DAB will come when that happens.

Of course, you don't need a digital radio to listen to commercial or BBC digital radio services. They are virtually all available on satellite television and the internet, and all the BBC services plus some of the commercial stations are also carried on Freeview.

For the BBC, this is significant because people in government are beginning to talk of the day they can switch off the AM and FM radio signals. Personally, I doubt whether this will ever happen. Digital radio is currently available in about 85 per cent of the country, but the cost of making it available to everyone is enormous. However, the BBC has decided to invest enough to make sure that by 2012, at the latest, Freeview will be available to everyone; and when that has happened, it could argue it has met its requirement for universality in radio as well as television.

All its radio services will be available everywhere and the BBC will have achieved it without having to spend a fortune on new transmitters to reach the last 15 per cent. If this happens, there will be areas of the country that will never be able to receive DAB and a switch-off of the AM and FM signals won't happen.

Conspiracy or coincidence?

I read with interest last week that Clive Hollick, in his new role at the private equity company KKR, is to spearhead a bid for ITV and I will be involved. Given that I didn't even know he was joining KKR the story surprised us both, but it got me thinking about the last time we bid for something together. In 1996, when we led a consortium bidding for the Five franchise, it produced one of the most remarkable results of all time.

When the envelopes were opened, the Independent Television Commission discovered that our group had bid exactly the same as the Virgin Group - £22,002,000. No one believed this could be a coincidence, especially when they discovered that Clive and I had changed our bid on the morning it was submitted and increased it by a thousand pounds. The problem the conspiracy theorists had, however, was explaining why, if either of us knew the other's bid, we had then put in the same. In the end, Virgin's bid was ruled out on programme quality grounds and we won.

When I was writing my book last year, I phoned Clive to see what he felt about the "coincidence" nine years on. We both came to the same conclusion: the identical bids were a bizarre coincidence, nothing more. Another conspiracy theory gone west.