Despite its largely unnoticed arrival, digital radio could revolutionise listening habits and advertising

Digital television has neatly obscured digital radio, which slipped in through the back door last week. However, there is reason to believe that digital radio broadcasting could also revolutionise the way we consume, and the way advertisers use, radio.

At present, the BBC’s digital signal can only be received by a few digital receivers. It will be available to 60 per cent of the population by 1998. Those with digital equipment will receive CD-quality sound without any interference.

Improved quality is not all we can expect. Next year the corporation will launch BBC NOW, a 24-hour news channel enabling listeners to select the type of information they want to listen to.

The BBC’s output will not require the carefully structured AM and FM bandwidths. Digital broadcasting could free the airwaves and pave the way for the complete deregulation of commercial radio by early next century.

So is Digital Audio Broadcasting good news for commercial radio, advertisers and media planners?

A dramatc increase in stations will increase audience choice, and may improve commercial radio’s reach. It has been an objective of commercial stations to transform radio into a “mass medium”. They understand the importance of delivering critical mass to advertisers.

The average weekly reach of commercial radio has increased from 48 per cent in 1990 to 61 per cent so far this year. The sector has achieved its “critical mass”. Digital radio could help to improve this.

But the growth in audiences is largely the result of an increase in the number of stations. In 1990 about 100 stations delivered 48 per cent of the adult weekly reach. This year there are nearly 150 stations – a 50 per cent rise that has delivered an 11 per cent increase in cover. Greater choice has fragmented audiences and led to duplication. Digital broadcasting is likely to compound this problem. Listeners will have a greater choice of stations and, if BBC NOW is anything to go by, be able to decide which portion of a station’s output they want to listen to.

A lot of planning is based on audience profiles and consumption across different days and day parts. This may become redundant because it does not take account of the listener’s choice of programme.

Sales houses will have to develop brand and programming sales policies rather than relying on commodity dealing. Station and programme marketing, rather than airtime sales, will become a central part of their daily work with agencies.

If the BBC is to be believed, radio as we know it may be consigned to the history books. This sounds strangely familiar – rather like digital television.

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