The UK: almost ready to turn off FM?

Radio Tomorrow with James Cridland

Across Europe, they’ve been busy switching off AM, and the switchoff of FM is getting closer for one of the largest European countries.

New figures from RAJAR, the UK’s radio research company, came out last week. They revealed that 49.9% of all radio listening is to digital platforms.

“Digital platforms”, in this case, mostly means digital broadcast: 36.3% of all radio listening is to DAB Digital Radio (which is broadcast through big sticks on hills to receivers with an antenna); just 8.5% is via online and apps; and listening via television networks is about 5%.

The UK government said, back in 2010, that it would consider switching off FM when total digital listening had reached 50%. Now, much longer than anyone really anticipated, we’re almost there.

Actually, for many stations, we’re there already. All of commercial radio (44% of the market) is over 50% digital.  News and speech station BBC Radio 4, the most popular station in London, is already over 50% digital. It’s just some of the older BBC stations that are a little slower to convert their audience.

Undoubtedly next quarter, the figure will hit 50%. There’s been a pattern every Christmas of buying DAB Digital Radios as presents; but this year we’ll also see smart speakers like the Google Home and the Amazon Echo also having an effect, too. (I probably do about 20% of all radio listening on my Google Home). So, in just three months time, we’ll be talking about the UK’s anticipated FM switchoff.

Norway did so last year, and the country is still collecting the figures and measuring the effect. (We can expect lots of figures next month at Radiodays Europe – see below). The availability of digital radio in cars is what appears to have let to a slight drop in radio listening overall; and there’s been an interesting redistribution of listeners, away from the public service and towards the commercials.

It’s not, yet, a done deal that the UK will actually turn off FM. While the government apparently have all the legislation already passed through Parliament, my expectation is that an industry who’s currently celebrating a 5.1% increase in radio ad-spend will be suddenly reluctant to cause any deliberate upheaval. If they continued broadcasting FM as well as DAB for the forseeable future, people will continue to switch to digital anyway. The BBC might be concerned to follow the Norwegian NRK in seeing a considerable drop in radio listening. And the government itself is quite preoccupied with dealing with Brexit.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

●    Talking of switching off AM, UK national broadcaster Absolute Radio has applied to the regulator to switch off a number of its AM transmitters. It’s got national DAB coverage, and it wants to turn off some of its smaller infill transmitters. The station says that their coverage will decrease by 5%, but they’ll save 50% of their transmission costs by turning them off. It looks an obviously sensible move, and I hope Ofcom say yes. (And perhaps this is how analogue switchoff ought to happen: market-led, driven by audiences?).

●    I’m hosting a special workshop this year at Radiodays Europe in Vienna about the Norwegian FM switchoff. It promises to be a fascinating few hours, as we learn what to do, and what not to do. As a workshop, you get to take part too, and ask the questions you’ve always wanted to know the answer to. It’s free to go to (you don’t need a ticket for the main conference), but you need to sign up.

About The Author

James Cridland, the radio futurologist, is a conference speaker, writer and consultant. He runs the media information website and helps organise the yearly Next Radio conference. He also publishes, a daily briefing on podcasting and on-demand, and writes a weekly international radio trends newsletter, at

Contact James at [email protected] or @jamescridland