Monday, November 10, 2008

Ofcom plans to save DAB by law

Today's Radio At The Edge conference saw Ofcom's Peter Davies floating a thought up the mast to see how many sinking rats saluted: perhaps Parliament should make some laws to make DAB work?

The idea would be legislation allowing Ofcom to change the ways that digital radio licences are handed out, enabling the rules to be relaxed and new entrants brought in to... you know... somehow make it all... work. Or perhaps just forcing people to listen by law. So that, in 2012, TV adverts will encourage children to report parents to the authorities if they don't listen to a regulation forty-seven minutes of Dr Fox a day.

Commercial radio, though, seems less than keen on pushing on with DAB, having poured in some money already and having seen very low returns. Especially at a time when the companies are happily, Circuit City like, finding ways to cut back their core services without caring much about quality. It's hard to see what new laws could really do.

The DAB problem is thrown into sharper relief when you compare the US and UK services.

DAB enthusiasts in the UK suggest that what is needed is a radio 'Freeview' moment. But Freeview succeeded by bringing a free service to a previous pay-platform, and expanded the quality and number of channels on offer. DAB is already free-to-air, and (at least initially) offered a wider range of stations; it seems unlikely that having a radio version of E4 was going to make much of a difference.

In the US, DAB is being sold as HD Radio - again, using a TV metaphor, hoping that traction will be found by promising higher quality sound. But DAB - as audiophiles will drone on at you at great length - is no guarantor of audio fidelity.

Trying to sell radio as if it was TV won't work. The BBC's suite of stations does offer something new, but it's not unique to DAB. You could, perhaps, increase the hours of listening to DAB radios by switching 6Music and Radio 7's streams off satellite and the web - but that would make you less popular than Russell Brand at Andrew Sachs' family gatherings.