The Government has announced there will be no digital radio switchover until the number of people tuning in via DAB increases, in a move welcomed by Westcountry broadcasters.
Speaking at the Go Digital Conference held at the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London earlier today, Communications Minister Ed Vaizey said a decision on digital radio switchover could only be made when various benchmarks are met.
Among the criteria is the number of people tuning in via digital radio, which must reach 50% of the listening audience.
Currently, only 35.6% of UK listeners in via digital sets, despite a continued drive to encourage more UK households to buy DAB radios.
Mr Vaizey said: “I have always said that the radio listener will lead the transition to digital.
“Coverage needs to be built out with firm plans in place to match FM coverage for all stations moving from analogue.
“We are not there yet. So now is not the time to switchover.”
The minister also outlined a raft of new measures that it’s hoped will enable listeners greater access to digital, including £21 million of new investment so more homes can receive it.
Westcountry-based independent broadcasters have voiced concerns over a shift to DAB and a broadcast platform that they say does not have the capacity to accommodate all radio stations, nor transmission zones small enough to define broadcasts as ‘local.’
They also fear a DAB switch off would leave smaller radio stations marooned on FM, while larger broadcasters would have had their FM transmissions switched off altogether.
According to recent audience figures compiled by industry body RAJAR, just 15% of local radio listeners currently tune in via DAB.
Redruth-based UKRD – which operates a network of local radio stations across the UK, including Cornwall’s Pirate FM – and Devon broadcaster Radio Exe are part of a UK-wide coalition of FM broadcasters that have been campaigning against a digital switchover deadline.
Welcoming Mr Vaizey’s announcement Radio Exe chief executive Paul Nero said: “We’re delighted that it is the market and listeners we serve that will decide.”
Mr Nero added Devon MPs Neil Parish, Hugo Swire and former Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw – all with constituencies based within the Radio Exe transmission zone – had lent their support to its campaign.
UKRD chief executive William Rogers said: “Ed Vaizey’s announcement is good news for the listener and local commercial radio stations. It makes no commitment to force consumers to do something they may not wish to and enables radio operators to plan properly for their future.
“It's the right decision and at last removes the threat of an enforced switchover from the radio landscape.”
Mr Vaizey has unveiled new measures it is hoped will support both listeners and broadcasters to make an eventual digital transition.
Proposals include support for industry body Ofcom to ‘develop ways’ for smaller radio stations to go digital, with Ofcom also set to advertise a licence to build and run a second national DAB ‘multiplex’ in 2014; a platform which will allow new national commercial stations to launch.
Mr Vaizey added: “I absolutely believe that the future of radio in this country is digital. We cannot go backwards.
“This package of measures is intended to cement this and herald in a digital age, as and when the consumer is ready.”
A new partnership is also being formed between Digital Radio UK and the DVLA as well as the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to provide people with information on upgrading their car radio to digital.
Halfords has announced that it will stop selling analogue-only radios within the next two years.