My Lords, Nothing Is Being Done

The UK’s Grant Goddard unloaded another spot-on reading on DAB radio in England. It seems that the new administration has done the old Yankee flip-flop, becoming a mirror of the old. Now it’s in power it suddenly believes the fairy dust spread by the last regime:

• digital radio listening will somehow reach 50% of the total by 2012
• someone somewhere will pay to upgrade the DAB transmission system to render it as robust as FM
• someone somewhere will launch lots of fab new digital radio stations
• consumers will somehow be persuaded to replace all six or more of their household’s radios with new DAB ones
• analogue radio transmitters will somehow be switched off in 2015
• all cars will somehow be fitted with DAB radios by 2015
• mobile phones and portable devices will somehow all suddenly include DAB, rather than FM, radio receivers.

All these objectives always had been, and still are, pure fantasy. None, and I literally mean “none,” of the available evidence and data demonstrate that these things will happen.

A year ago, Grant notes, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, Jeremy Hunt, was actually making sense:

I think the most important thing is not something the government can do, but something the industry can do is, which is to develop new services on digital platforms that actually mean there is a real consumer benefit to DAB. At the moment, the benefits are marginal. I mean, there are some benefits in terms of quality, but your batteries get used up a lot more quickly, the reception is a lot more flaky, and a lot of the things that make digital switchover attractive on TV don’t apply to radio in the same way….

We don’t want to switch off listeners by suddenly saying that we are not going to — that we are going to force you to have a new radio, and there’s a real danger, if we do that, that they might start listening to their iPods and their CD players instead.… At the moment, we seem to be getting into this mindset where we want to force it on the public, even though the public can’t really see what the benefits are.

So why all of a sudden the change of heart?

So, between then and now, who is it that has convinced Hunt to backtrack and instead to endorse the status quo? The civil servants in his Department who hitched their wagon to the “DAB is the future” train too long ago to let go now? The Ofcom radio staff who were appointed years ago on the strength of their promise to deliver digital radio switchover? The commercial lobbyists who still fantasise about the huge profits to be made (for Britain!) from global exports of their European DAB technology? All of them are nothing more than dreamers.

Grant then notes that there’s an awful lot of bum-covering clouding the issue:

• the government is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the public’s take-up
• the regulator is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the radio industry’s commitment
• the commercial radio industry is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the BBC paying
• the BBC is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon its audiences
• the BBC Trust is saying that digital radio switchover depends upon the commercial radio sector’s commitment.

For years now, the stakeholders assembled around the table in those endless DAB committee meetings have been occupied identifying DAB’s problems yet, at the same time, every one of them has expected somebody somewhere else to fix them. But there is no sugar daddy out there. There is no cavalry about to ride over the horizon. It is you stakeholders who created such a mess of DAB and either you must fix it….. or throw in the towel.

This week’s announcement about digital radio switchover demonstrated that the new government does not have the guts to do what many, including the House of Lords Communications Committee chaired by Lord Fowler, had asked of them. To commission an objective analysis of why DAB was introduced in the first place, how close we really are to digital switchover, whether we will ever get there, what the costs have been to the radio sector to date, and to evaluate whether it is still worth pursuing these objectives thirty years after the DAB technology was invented.

Instead, the government has decreed that the present DAB unreality will continue . . . probably until one of these stakeholders eventually is forced by circumstance to kick the entire digital radio switchover issue into the long grass. In the meantime, the poor consumer is still on the end of misleading campaigns to persuade them that they will need to buy new DAB radios (which are mostly British), throw out their old radios (which are mostly foreign) and somehow get used to the sub-standard quality of DAB radio reception that most of us experience. No wonder they are asking in increasing numbers: “What was wrong with FM?” And the correct answer is: ‘Nothing at all.”

A beautiful piece of writing, well worth the whole read (for what little isn’t quoted here). And entirely too much like the shakedown of the American consumer by desperate equipment manufacturers and the Dark Lord iBiquity itself, with its incessant caterwaul “IT’S TIME TO UPGRADE NOW!!” And, regrettably, despite clarion calls of “change,” this administration’s FCC remains the same tired old lapdog to the landed gentry of radio.

Oh, and the final quote from Grant about the new administration, a little tidbit drawn from one of the bands as popular on this side of the pond as on the other: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Well done, I say, Grant.

Something else well worth the read on DAB was sent along by Jack Hannold. In this post, Andrew Orlowski tees off on the “digital radio scrappage scheme”:

This is not, as you might imagine, the opportunity to trade in some piece of digital junk in exchange for a more modern audio gadget. Many of us have at least one unloved and unused DAB radio somewhere in the household — and perhaps your heart (like mine) soared at the prospect of a trade-in….

Alas, the scrappage scheme is a retrograde step — the product of backdoor arm-twisting by a handful of desperate men. We’re being asked to trade in an FM radio for a DAB radio — rather like trading in a perfectly useful Mini Cooper runaround for a mule with an attitude problem….

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