Sound future for digital radio

The high accessibility of digital radio – through DAB radio sets, the internet, TV and, more recently, mobile phones – is fuelling a revival of the medium

As soon as television hit the mainstream, radio embarked on a slow decline as the central source of family entertainment, news and communication. But the future is again looking bright thanks to digital technology.

According to the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), radio accounts for nearly one-third of the media consumed by people on a daily basis. Radio, alongside DVD/video and the internet, has increased its audience share over the past three years. In contrast, television, which accounts for 49 per cent of media consumption, is in gradual decline.

Radio’s popularity owes much to the fact that people can listen to it while doing other things, such as driving/travelling, doing the housework or while in the office. The pressure on people’s time is helping to increase radio’s share of audience, while it is possibly a contributing factor in TV’s falling share.

One of the most important factors boosting radio’s popularity is the development of new listening platforms, such as DAB (digital audio broadcasting) radio through digital TV and the internet. These new listening channels have made radio more accessible to listeners as well as giving them more opportunities to listen.

Digital platforms are also enabling the radio industry to provide stations for niche markets and develop successful local/regional stations beyond their normal reach to become national brands. This was simply not possible on the crowded AM/FM dials.

Digital radio offers listeners a number of benefits. For instance, DAB radio is easy to use because stations don’t have to be tuned in, and the sound quality is at least twice as good as that of analogue radio. So far, DAB radio has not been adopted to the extent that listening through the TV and internet has, but it is growing fast. It is predicted that there will be half a million sets in the UK by the end of this year and 1 million by the end of 2004.

One of the most exciting opportunities for DAB radio is widespread incorporation into mobile phones. RAB research shows that 2.4 per cent of adults – 1.2 million people – have listened to analogue radio through their mobile phone. This is a rise of 0.9 per cent on the first quarter of last year. As expected, it is the younger age groups that are embracing the new listening platforms.

The widespread incorporation of DAB into handsets, which is expected to happen over the next three years, will open up even more potential listening time, which will in turn help to further increase radio’s audience share. In addition, it will enable radio stations to extend their listener and advertiser services to include data applications – similar to a mobile version of Teletext.

With about 7 million UK homes accessing Sky TV and about 1.5 million homes accessing Freeview, digital TV has been a huge force behind the growth of digital radio listening. This is supported by the latest Rajar results, which show that 19 per cent of adults have listened to radio through their TV and that 11 per cent listen regularly each week. These figures are set to increase as it is predicted that there will be as many as 2.5 million UK homes using Freeview boxes by the end of 2003.

Online listening has been growing steadily for a number of years and 3.5 per cent of adults now listen regularly to one or more of the hundreds of stations broadcasting online. Internet listening often takes place at work as the majority of office workers now have access to computers with fast and free – to employees at least – internet access. However, the rapid roll-out of broadband across the UK, which provides fast and unmetered access to the Net, is expected to significantly boost the number of people listening via the Net at home over the next three years.

These new listening platforms are already having an impact on radio listening. The Rajar survey for the first quarter of 2003 included the listening figures for three digital-only stations for the first time. The stations, EMAP-owned Kerrang!, Smash Hits! and spoken word station Oneword, accounted for nearly 6 million listening hours.

Both Kerrang! and Smash Hits! reported over 750,000 listeners. The decision to have these stations measured by Rajar not only shows the confidence the companies have in these services but also in the future success of the medium.

Radio is fitting seamlessly into the converged digital age, accessible through PCs, digital TVs and mobile phones. Greater accessibility plus better sound quality and a wider choice of stations can only help the medium build on its one-third share of the daily media market.

For advertisers, new digital platforms are bringing more, better-targeted stations, more national brands and network-buying opportunities. In the end though, the fundamentals of radio are not changing – it will continue providing entertainment and company to millions of listeners throughout the day, every day.

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