BBC lands a blow but does not KO digital radio

The BBC’s decision to axe two digital stations is a blow to digital radio but the medium will continue to grow as long as the industry invests in brand innovation, according to some observers.

Radio One DJ Nihal
Radio One DJ Nihal

Earlier this week, the BBC confirmed plans to close digital-only stations 6Music and the Asian Network. The Corporation says the decision to axe the two stations after just eight years was made to drive “digital radio in other ways” after deciding that its current strategy for promoting digital radio was “inadequate”.

“The BBC must ensure that its investments in digital content are working hard to provide value to licence fee payers,” it says, adding that this will only be achieved by reducing the number of stand-alone digital networks and by maintaining overall digital investment, but “targeting spend on a more focused portfolio”.

The BBC admits that its current strategy for promoting digital radio is “inadequate”, adding that since the launch of its digital portfolio in 2002, digital radio listening has grown, but “adoption remains low”.

Recent Rajar data for the final quarter of 2009 found that digital’s share of radio listening via digital platforms increased 14% year on year and now accounts for 20.9% of all radio listening in the UK.

However, the Digital Economy Bill, currently passing through Parliament, proposes a date of 2015 for a switchover and, in order to meet that date about 50% of all radio listening must be via digital listening by 2013.

Dominic Woolfe, head of radio at media agency Starcom, says the momentum caused by the Digital Economy Bill means digital radio “is not going away”, but the industry does need to find a way of making it work “and it hasn’t yet”.

Amanda Barrett, radio engagement specialist at Universal McCann, says digital radio needs “fresh and unique” services such as 6Music to continue to grow.

In the strategy document, the BBC adds that its review of digital services is about “nurturing not stifling a growing commercial digital radio sector”.

Some observers have questioned commercial radio’s appetite for developing digital services and brands as they struggle to find ways to justify the necessary investment.

Absolute is one commercial network that has committed both time and resources to the development of digital services. The network’s national listening via a digital platform hit 54% in the final quarter of 2009, which makes it the only radio group to have hit the 50% digital listening penetration target set out in the Digital Economy Bill.

Clive Dickens, chief operating officer at Absolute, says that the industry should not be distracted by the BBC’s proposals because the two stations account for just 2% of digital listening.

“Digital Radio in its broadest terms is still supported by the BBC and commercial radio,” he says.

Dickens adds that the investment made in building the 6Music brand should not be wasted and an alternative way of keeping the station alive should be found.

He favours a public private partnership, adding Absolute would be interested in matching any public investment to keep the brand alive.

Dickens adds that the backlash on social media sites Facebook and Twitter that followed the news that 6Music and the national Asian Network are to close, and the similar outcry that saved Planet Rock from extinction two years ago, demonstrates that the public is enthusiastic about digital.

“Digital Radio is growing and not going away – we are taking our lead from customers”.

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