Digital radio has a longer history in Britain than many imagine. This year is the 20th anniversary of the first transmissions by the BBC – and we are just five years away from the day when we must jettison our analogue sets because they'll no longer receive a signal.
It's going to be touch and go. According to statistics released last week by the industry body Rajar, the proportion of radio listening done digitally – on digital DAB radios, through television sets or online – was up by 19 per cent year-on-year in the last quarter, the biggest upsurge ever recorded.
And yet 76 per cent of radio listening is still done on analogue sets. Those hardy trans- istors were built to last. In a laudable but quite possibly anxiety-driven initiative, the industry is holding an "amnesty", from Saturday, for analogue radios. It's the type of thing more usually associated with guns and knives.
In return for handing over that cherished tranny or vintage FM set, listeners will be given a discount on their new DAB model. In a smart move designed to capitalise on World Cup fever, the discarded analogue radios will be sent to South Africa to support projects set up by the Children's Radio Foundation, which uses the medium as a source of comfort, inspiration and education for the young people of that country.
Unfortunately the British child is less likely to see a digital radio – indeed any radio – as such a thoughtful gift. The 1-Xtra and Radio1 DJ Tim Westwood, who broadcasts to a large teenage audience and has a strong grasp of their listening habits, says very few are tuning in on a radio.
"I would say the majority of my audience don't own a radio and don't consume the radio in any which way, except in-car listening. Some cars now have DAB radio, but a lot of my audience are not in the economic bracket to buy new cars, and I would say they would be stuck on FM," he says.
"At home, they consume what I do primarily through their computers but secondly through watching the blue screen on Freeview or Sky. What's quite standard for my audience is to be on their computer all the time – they will have the TV on and be engaged with their computer. I feel there is a generation now who are growing up without radio, and that's the real problem."
As he reflects on the point, the long-standing urban music presenter notes that his elderly mother has an analogue radio in every room, including a much-loved Bush set that offers "really warm" audio quality.
His instinct was upheld by a study released yesterday by Peverel Retirement finding that many over-65s were abandoning the radio in favour of spending time contacting friends and relatives via the internet. In contrast to Rajar findings, one in three of the respondents said they no longer listened to radio.
"This is the generation who grew up listening to the radio and heard momentous events, such as the outbreak of war, on the wireless first," says Peverel Retirement's managing director, Keith Edgar. "The radio and TV have traditionally been perceived as providing company for people in their twilight years, but clearly the over-65s have been quick to embrace new technology."
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An all-digital world is certainly coming, though much of the public does not appear to have woken up to the fact. "We do need to get there very, very quickly now," says Colin Crawford, director of marketing for PURE, one of the DAB radio manufacturers participating in the amnesty scheme. "There's a job for everyone in the industry to step up to the mark and start to get that message across much more clearly from this point onwards."
Crawford is clear why most people are still holding on to their analogue sets (almost all of us hear some radio during the course of a week, but only 43 per cent of that audience does even a small part of its listening digitally). "It's very straightforward: it's a lack of clarity, lack of information and lack of promotion. The radio industry tends to be relatively short-termist. They don't want to take that extra step and promote it properly." He compares the approach unfavourably to the growth of digital television, which is now viewed in almost all British homes.
Within the industry, digital radio does have its champions. "This is really about the future of radio, it's really as important as that," says Adrian Van Klaveren, controller of Radio 5 Live, which was recently crowned Station of the Year at the Sony awards. "It is about how we grow radio listening and make radio stay relevant to people, so that they can find the content they want wherever they want it. Digital is crucial in that, that's what we've all got to be thinking about."
The station's latest audience figures show that 35 per cent of all listening to 5 Live is digital, with DAB radios accounting for 26.5 per cent of that, nearly 5 per cent taking place via digital television sets, and just over 4 per cent through the internet. In some ways, 5 Live, with much of its schedule devoted to covering the day's news, benefits less than the BBC's music-based radio networks from the attraction of catching up with a self-contained show on the BBC website later in the week. But Van Klaveren says the culture of listening online is only now starting to take off. "Online listening has traditionally been very low. It was at 1.7 per cent only three years ago, so you can see it is growing fast and I guess it will grow even faster," he says, highlighting big sports events as a major draw for online audiences. "The last day of the Ashes last year was a huge peak for us, and the Tottenham versus Manchester City [end of season Premier League] game was massive for us in terms of online listening because if you didn't have pay TV then you didn't have access to it."
Van Klaveren also has responsibility for his network's digital sister station, 5 Live Sports Extra. "It is absolutely tied to the 5 Live brand and it's the digital station with the highest awareness of any of the BBC digital stations. When you've got the big events on it you can get a million listeners to it," he says.
The BBC has been criticised for not doing more to produce and promote its digital radio content, and the current Strategic Review, with its proposals to close down two of the digital offerings, BBC 6 Music and BBC Asian Network, has not helped. Some have suggested that 6 Music, which enjoyed record audiences after the publicity surrounding its possible demise, might benefit from becoming a Radio 2 Extra.
It's clearly the case that Radio 5 Live Sports Extra has worked very successfully, and the management proposals in the Strategic Review talk about [comedy and drama network] Radio 7 becoming Radio 4 extra," notes Van Klaveren, who says that running fewer brands reduces the risk of some being ignored by the public. "If you don't have awareness you've got nothing – people won't come to you if they don't know you're there."
In the commercial radio sector, Absolute Radio made a significant digital statement last week by giving a national footprint to its Absolute 80s station – previously available only to a London audience listening on DAB. It has also launched a new London digital service called Absolute 90s, which it clearly hopes will also go national at some stage. "Digital opens up an opportunity for us to have popular, well-listened-to music services on a national basis," says Andrew Harrison, chief executive of the RadioCentre, which represents much of the commercial sector. "That's going to be very exciting over time, to have offerings that take on Radio 1 and Radio 2."
Ford Ennals, the man responsible for driving the development of digital radio in Britain, is convinced that this summer will be a key period of growth, helped by the World Cup. The BBC's 5 Live is planning a range of online interactive activities, including football quizzes and Mexican wave mash-ups, while 5 Live Extra will supply commentary for games not covered on the main network.
But Ennals, chief executive of Digital Radio UK, criticises the BBC for not doing enough. "The BBC, as a clear leader in radio, can accelerate the movement of people to digital platforms by better communicating, better promoting, and having stronger content on their digital services," he says. "I think BBC Radio 7 is a fantastic service, and I still think it has very low levels of awareness."
He draws encouragement from the 35 per cent of 16-30 year-olds who listen to radio via their mobile phones, and says car manufacturers are committed to installing digital radio in new models by 2013.
But we still have those much-loved old motors – just as many retain their vintage radios. After the amnesty, which runs until 26 June, Ennals will turn his attention to new schemes that should see motorists offered a digital radio upgrade when they bring their car in for "a service or new tyres or an MOT".
Such tactics are needed, for, as Van Klaveren says, the future of radio is at stake.Reuse content