Wednesday, April 02, 2008

DABhands: The Register takes on digital radio

There's a curious piece about DAB radio on The Register this lunchtime, in which Steve Green suggests that the answer to DAB's problems is technological. Well, of course he does, he's writing for a tech audience. And there's some merit in his prescription - better quality, more stations, DAB+ instead the current DAB would be nice, even desirable, and it is unfortunate that Ofcom have barred Channel 4 Radio from using DAB+.

But is that really the sort of thing that is causing a problem for DAB? Is GCap really quitting the platform because it's worried about the audio quality? Or is it just the transmission costs were too high for a station which had little in the way of programming or promotional budget and so attracted tiny audiences? It's worth noting that a push for TheJazz had only just started when Hazlitt pulled the plug on the station in its entirety. GCap's problem with DAB isn't a technological problem - it's the same problem which pairs Van Outen with Vaughan (again) on the breakfast show and can't decide if XFM should have daytime djs or not.

Green also shoots his own argument down quite convincingly:

There are a few DAB+ models on sale today, and the manufacturers will be releasing a wide range of receivers later this year in time for new markets in Australia, Switzerland, and Germany, who are all starting to use the new standard. But it's unlikely that there will be any DAB+ stations launched in the UK before 2010 to 2011, and even then it will take a few years to complete the transition. By which time DAB+ will be as outdated as DAB is today.

Yes, Green does seem to be arguing that we should rush to adopt DAB+ before it becomes, inevitably, and swiftly, obsolete:
, any such 4G broadcast standard would inevitably make DAB+ look ridiculously inefficient in comparison. And this in turn would raise serious doubts over the economic viability of DAB+. Ofcom's decision to delay using DAB+ will be seen in years to come as a mark of technology tragedy.

Uh... yeah. Just think how much money we could be pouring into a technology that will be obsolete before Pip Archer is old enough to spend time with the young farmers without worrying her Dad.

DAB has had for a while the feeling of a middle technology - everything will be streaming from the heavens before too long, in wifi or wimax or music-rain - and there's a good argument for admitting that, perhaps, the wrong horse was backed at the end of the 90s but there's little point in an expensive switchover for a system that will be the subject of comedy routines in Student Unions in Olympic Year ("remember Bagpuss? He used to have a DAB radio...")

The more curious question, though, is whether DAB is in crisis anyway. Green sets out to paint a picture of a technology that is in decline, firstly by posting a graph showing a long, slow tailing off of DAB set sales.

But hang on a moment - this is a graph showing a decline not in sales, but in increase in sales. So, the lowly bottom end of this "failure" chart still shows sets being sold in 10% greater quantities than twelve months before. Yes, it's not as impressive as the 200% sales rise back in 2004, but that was, of course, back when hardly anyone had ever bought a DAB radio. If you sell 1000 radios in year one, 2000 in year two and 3000 in year three, your rate of increase of sales is dropping off alarmingly but your actual sales are doing rather well.

Green then points to the promotions for DAB on the radio:
Successful formats don't need free adverts on BBC TV to prop them up.

Really? Then why do they trail EastEnders?


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