If you were a newspaper publisher, would you urge the Government to close down the printing presses so readers would visit your Website? Or, if you were an outdoor contractor, would you seek a Government ban on paper-and-paste, so people could see only the latest hi-tech billboards?
Even in these crazy days of e-fantasies, when the business model of the madhouse has taken the City by storm, few media owners would choose to destroy their current – highly profitable – business in the hope of jam tomorrow.
Yet that seems to be what some commercial radio companies are seeking. How else are we to understand Capital Radio’s call – echoing an earlier request by GWR and Digital One – for the Government to announce a switch-off date for analogue radio?
Launching Life, its new national digital station, Capital’s chief executive David Mansfield said the analogue switch-off should be scheduled within the next ten to 15 years. To make sure the message got a wider airing, he issued a press release through City PR company Finsbury, headed: “Capital calls for analogue radio switch-off date”.
Presumably, he also sent a copy direct to Chris Smith’s office at the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, in case the secretary of state and his civil servants failed to read the business press. The release said: “We are asking the Government to show its own commitment to digital by releasing more digital spectrum to increase UK coverage, encouraging manufacturers to produce digital radios at a reasonable price, and above all by announcing a switch-off date for analogue radio.”
Now digital radio has great potential and is, in many ways, a marked improvement on analogue. It will more than double the number of national stations (a real boon to commercial radio), bring much clearer reception (with no need for retuning in cars), and provide text and pictures as well as sound. It will also feed directly into PCs equipped with the right sound card and the new generation of mobile phones.
At a time when the rest of the media world is going digital, it would be foolish for radio not to embrace the new technology. It is right that listeners should be encouraged to switch to digital radio and manufacturers given an incentive to produce more sets. But urging the Government to switch off the analogue signals is quite another matter.
Do Capital and GWR believe enough of their listeners will have invested in digital radio within 15 years to allow the Government to cut off the rest? And if they don’t, is it sensible of them to ask? Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. And, as has been shown many times over the years, people care far more passionately about their radio station than they do about any TV channel.
Does anyone think the Government will be willing to make millions of radios obsolete at a stroke?
The removal of LBC’s licence by the Radio Authority provoked huge protests among its loyal and long-suffering listeners. If Chris Tarrant and the rest of the Capital crew were taken off the air, millions of Londoners would almost certainly take to the streets. The removal of other stations in the Capital and GWR groups would no doubt prompt similar waves of protest.
And all this for a technology which at present numbers its listeners in the hundreds rather than millions.
Take-up of digital TV – at just over 2 million homes – is streets ahead of digital radio’s, yet few believe the TV industry will meet the Government’s analogue switch-off target of 2010 (let alone the optimists’ 2006), even with BSkyB and ONdigital giving the equipment away.
Digital radio has fewer advantages than digital TV, and also most of its drawbacks. The biggest of these is that expensive new equipment is needed to receive digital broadcasts. Commercial companies are prepared to give away digital television receivers because they offer many times more channels than analogue and huge potential for pay-services. Digital radios don’t.
Digital radio receivers have only just reached Dixons and Curry’s, and though this in itself is a great boost to the medium it is hardly a sufficient springboard for the closing down of analogue. At present, the Dixons stores are stocking just one model, priced at &£499. We still await the launch of a portable digital radio.
One forecast this week suggested that 45 to 50 per cent of the UK population would own a digital radio in the next ten years. My guess would be that many of these would be in cars or personal computers, but even if they were all in the home, and penetration had reached, say, 75 per cent in 15 years’ time, there would still be a huge problem in switching off analogue radio.
People have even more radios than television sets. Latest industry research shows that the average household has between four and five radios. Those who listen most have many more.
I wish digital radio well, and am sure that in time it will prosper. But given the number of Radio 4 listeners who marched on Broadcasting House in reaction to the threat to take away their Long Wave transmissions (let alone AM and FM), I think analogue will be with us for many decades to come.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News.