Tuning out: Analogue radio to disappear by 2018

Commercial stations and the BBC expected to confirm the switchover to digital services, 40 years after Britain’s first independent station opened

Analogue radio sets are likely be consigned to history by the first half of 2018, the head of Britain’s commercial radio trade body has said, as she called on the Government to set out a clear timetable for the industry’s digital switchover.

Linda Smith, chief executive of RadioCentre, which represents commercial stations across the country, predicted that the analogue radio signal would survive six years beyond last year’s switch off in the television sector. The switchover would be three years later than recommended in a major government report in 2009.

“If I were a betting person I would say the range of dates for switchover would be from the end of 2017 and 2020,” she told The Independent. “I think it’s more likely to be quarter one or quarter two of 2018.”

Both the BBC and commercial radio are expected to make a firm commitment to supporting digital switchover at the Radio Festival, that takes place in Salford on 14 October, although for community-based and small commercial stations there is no plan at present to close their analogue FM services.

Ed Vaizey, the Communications minister, is expected to give an indication of the switchover date at the Go Digital Conference, which will take place at the BBC’s New Broadcasting House on 16 December and be attended by major car manufacturers as well as radio industry figures.

Ms Smith was speaking out ahead of the 40th anniversary of the commercial radio industry in Britain this month. The sector has produced a “Roll of Honour” that includes prominent commercial radio presenters such as Chris Evans, Chris Tarrant and Christian O’Connell as well as industry luminaries including Sir Richard Attenborough (founder of London’s Capital Radio) and the Global Radio bosses Ashley Tabor and Richard Park. Celebrations will take place on Tuesday to mark the birthday of the first station – London talk network LBC.

 Today there are 335 stations with a total audience of 35.1 million. Ms Smith said digital listening was currently at 36.8 per cent and she was confident it would grow to account for the majority of listening at some time in 2015. “Television was in an equivalent place back in 2003. When you have people doubting, you can look at the comparison with TV and see how quickly they moved.”

Lord Carter’s 2009 Digital Britain report proposed that radio switchover should take place by 2015, but Ms Smith denied that a 2018 switchover was too unambitious.

“I don’t think it’s too slow, it gives the smaller operators as well as the bigger operators time to think through what they are going to broadcast and how they manage the transition. It’s about what the consumers believe. I’m sure there are people who think it should be faster but I think it’s pragmatic.”

She said she would be “disappointed” if the Government fails to set out a timetable by the end of the year. “There’s an industry that works on the back of this and to continue the uncertainty and prolong the date  – whether you are a car manufacturer fitting DAB radios or a consumer thinking what sort of radio to buy – that starts to get quite difficult,” she said.

“I genuinely believe the TV market got it spot on in terms of the campaigns they ran and the in-store education they did. If you think about all the doomsayers on TV switchover – actually there were no problems.”

She acknowledged that shops were still selling analogue radios and said that was part of the reason why she thought switchover shouldn’t happen too quickly. According to recent research from the broadcast regulator Ofcom, analogue sets fell last year by 1 million units to 3.7 million. 

Ms Smith also called for relaxation of some of the regulations that determine the location of commercial stations, saying that the local knowledge of the presenters was more important than the site of the broadcast.

“We need to think differently about how we create more freedom for stations to operate,” she said. A recent audit of commercial radio output found that fewer than 20 per cent of stations operate on a totally standalone basis. 

“Strict” regulations on the music output of some commercial stations – such as indie network Xfm and rock station Absolute Radio – were unfair, she said. “Our view is that categories and definitions have to change,” she said.

In tune: Commercial winners

Chris Tarrant

Capital Radio, London, breakfast presenter 1987-2004

“For zoo radio you have to have a ringmaster, which was me, and then people around you, like Cara the weather girl and the news guys coming in and out. It only works really if you have one person who holds it all together – somebody has got to be looking at the clock. I do hear an awful lot of zoo format radio now around the UK, most of which, I have to say, is truly dreadful because they’re all pretending to have a nice time and they’re not… it’s pitch bloody black!”

Helen Mayhew

Host of Dinner Jazz, Jazz FM

“Dinner Jazz was not my invention. The programme controller said after 7pm we want you to tone everything down, people will be coming back from work and they want to relax and we want you to play relaxing jazz and we are going to call the programme 'Dinner Jazz'. Despite my protests the programme name stuck and it’s still going strong to this day.”

Les Ross

Rresenter, BRMB, Birmingham

“It was a trailblazer in every way. Everybody involved were originators – they had to be really to make the people of Birmingham have radio with commercials. It was in the teeth of a dreadful mid-1970s recession, it wasn’t exactly a thrillingly positive background to go against. [My colleagues] were all the first of their types to be heard in Birmingham. It really was a local radio station.”

Jonathan Pearce

Former football commentator, Capital Gold

“We realised there was no atmosphere in existing football broadcasting at that time. We wanted to transport people from their cars, and their living rooms, their bedrooms, their studies, their halls of residence, into the stadium. We wanted them to be part of it. We were the first to present the whole programme… from the stadium. We were part of that atmosphere and we helped generate that atmosphere for people who couldn’t be there. And it was great fun.”

Dee Ford

Group MD, Bauer Radio

“I just think radio has got so many sales benefits that you can never tire of educating an advertiser about; it’s such an innovative, forever-changingenvironment that even now we are talking to advertisers about something that they’re only just tarting to understand. Radio is free to consume,  and it’s a terribly engaging relationship for the consumer to have that two-way dialogue.”

Nick Ferrari

Current presenter, LBC

"Speech radio should, in some way, shock, because of the views that you put forward, or [because] I have made you think about something in a different way. Where the skill comes in is that I actually engage you and you think… 'I’d never thought about domestic abuse, or the English Defence League or Tony Blair but now I’m so angry, because he’s so wrong, I’ve got to ring him up.'  So that’s what you do."

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