Friday, November 24, 2006

Virgin got the FM; don't want the AM

The Guardian's Organ Grinder blog spent yesterday at the Radio Academy conference.

Andy Duncan from Channel 4 re-announced his TV channel's intention to shake-up British radio - a declaration that has been announced more times than a Labour Party policy, and one that sounds slightly less convincing when the big ideas so far have been getting John Peel's son to play unsigned bands, reviving (sort-of) The Tube for radio, and a British version of The Daily Show called The Weekly Show. None of it is bad, but there's not really much that would shake Lord Reith.

There's a lot of jibes from the podium aimed at record labels, although there is the enticing prospect that negotiations to allow "clips" of songs in commercial radio podcasts are almost complete. Not clips, eh? Twenty seconds of Justin Timberlake - that'll have the kids powering up their ADSL.

The main news, though, is that Virgin want to stop broadcasting on medium wave:

The station's chief executive Fru Hazlitt, said it would soon be cheaper for the station not to broadcast on its AM wavelength. It also broadcasts on digital and has a number of digital spin-off stations such as Virgin Classic Rock.

"We pay huge amounts of money to Ofcom for the AM licence, within the next year or two we should switch it off," she said.

"It just isn't worth it. I would like to switch it off tomorrow. At the current rate of decline [of AM listening] 2010 would be the outside number for us, but if we could speed it up in two years' time then we would."

Someone points out to her that at the moment, Virgin still has 1.7m listeners on its AM frequency, compared with 823,000 listeners on its FM frequency in London, to which Hazlitt retorts:

"That's why I wouldn't switch it off tomorrow," said Hazlitt.

Presumably a different Fru Hazlitt from the one who'd started the session saying "I would like to switch it off tomorrow."

While it's not that important if Virgin switches off Virgin 1215 AM - after all, nearly everybody else has - it raises the question of if this abandonment of analogue radio is such a good idea. Ofcom have indicated they'd consider a switch-off of FM and AM in the longterm, but even they are cautiously suggesting its something we should talk about rather than rush into.

Maybe they should invite Virgin to be a test case?


ian said...

I find it more disturbing that 2.5 million people listen to virgin whatever the frequency. Are they allowed to vote?

JRC said...

Thanks for the blog entry, which should really be entitled "Virgin got the digital, don't want the AM". We're a national station, after all; our only FM frequency just covers London - and is, in some areas, almost impossible to listen to thanks to unlicenced broadcasters. The other platforms we're on - whether Freeview, Sky, DAB or internet - are all national in reach and unaffected by pirates.

The point isn't that "Ofcom should make Virgin Radio a test case" for analogue switchoff: if I might be so bold, it's nothing to do with Ofcom and everything to do with what the market wants. Analogue switchoff is already happening: AM listening is declining fast. The market will decide when it becomes uneconomical for Virgin to run those power-hungry AM transmitters which make The Killers sound like a wasp trapped in a bottle. The regulator's decision should be what to do with the analogue AM frequencies when nobody wants to broadcast analogue AM any more; I would think DRM Radio is a fairly attractive alternative (and that Virgin would do a good job given our pedigree of new platforms).

- James from Virgin

cat said...

1: AM radio is also national in reach and pretty much unaffected by pirates.
2: You don't have to shell out £50-£100 for a new radio in order to receive it, either (granted, if you think of yourselves as a business rather than a public service, accessibility issues like this are unlikely to bother you much.)
3: "Ofcom should make Virgin Radio a test case" was a joke, I think.
4: The Killers sound like a wasp trapped in a bottle regardless...

Anonymous said...

1. AM sounds rubbish, and people are switching it off
2. You have always needed to buy a radio to pick up the radio. DAB radios start at £29 and are free with some phones now.
3. Excellent news.
4. Fair point.

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