The UK’s slow road to AM/FM switchoff

Radio Tomorrow with James Cridland

The UK “Minister for Digital”, Matt Hancock, delivered a video address in last week’s “Drive to Digital” conference in London.

The conference is organised by Digital Radio UK, the lobbying group working for DAB digital radio in the UK. DAB is free-to-air broadcast radio through an antenna, much like FM but only digital. It offers listeners far greater choice, removes the need to tune by frequency, but forces them to buy a brand new receiver. It’s around four times more popular than internet streaming.

Hancock’s half-hour included a plea to radio receiver manufacturers to make their sets “digital by default” – a rather political phrase by which he meant that analogue AM/FM radios should be removed from the shelves.

Hancock might have been better being a little more specific. He ought to have said that they must offer DAB+. Surprisingly, many sets still available in the UK, especially in supermarkets, are DAB only. Buying one of these “digital” radios results in a device that is less future-proof, and one that already receives fewer stations than a DAB+ one.

The only place that DAB is still in full operation is… the UK. Most of Europe has closed DAB-only transmissions, switching to the more efficient DAB+ system. Australia didn’t even bother with DAB at all. Yet the isolationist UK seems content to keep using an old-fashioned system that means, for the majority of stations, a less-than-satisfactory mono experience.

Digital Radio UK have a tick-mark system for receivers that is only given to compliant sets: and DAB+ reception is part of the compliance requirement. Yet the tick-mark is a recommendation, not a legal requirement, and many cheaper sets haven’t bothered with it.

More surprising was the admission that in the UK “the majority of domestic radios currently sold are analogue-only”. In 2017, that is nothing short of amazing: but then, the UK has yet to commit to switching analogue off.

“Digital” listening – which includes online and the TV, incidentally – is at 48.7% currently. Hancock repeated that when this figure reaches 50% – which might happen this year – the government would consider whether to set a timetable for switchover. DRUK’s press release said that he also “reiterated the need to proceed carefully”.

This need to hit 50% is the reason why broadcasters seem happy to continue using old DAB, and why they’re scared to switch more services to DAB+. Anything that would harm the 50% figure – even if it’s ultimately better for listeners – must be avoided at all costs.

The promise that the government will only “consider” switching off analogue is hardly the clear “don’t buy an AM/FM radio, it won’t work very long” story that Hancock wants for the retailers. And even that wouldn’t be true – the varied broadcast landscape of the UK means that many stations won’t actually vacate the FM spectrum anyway, since they can’t, yet, be accommodated onto DAB.

However, it isn’t protecting the consumer to allow analogue-only AM/FM sets, or even sets incapable of DAB+, to be sold in stores. Government should be compelling retailers to slap a big sticker on sets without the tick-mark to say “this radio is not guaranteed to work after any planned switch-off of AM/FM”. That would be the right degree of consumer protection: to inform consumers that they’re potentially buying a product that won’t work very long.

The most ideal thing for Hancock to do would be to stop the sale of any DAB equipment which isn’t capable of DAB+; and to clearly announce that AM/FM will be progressively switched off from 2020, “subject to review”.

That review should, I hope, look at the Norwegian experience and see whether it’s a good idea; and to review whether it really is government’s place to interfere with commercial broadcasters’ business models. (I think commercial broadcasters should take their cues from the market when it comes to analogue switch-off, but then, that’s just me). But if it’s the government’s clear intention to turn off AM/FM if they can, they should probably say so.

About The Author

James Cridland is a radio futurologist: a writer, speaker and consultant on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business across the world.

A former radio presenter, James has worked for stations and companies across the world, including the original Virgin Radio in London, the BBC, Futuri Media, Imagination Technologies and Seven Network. He has judged many industry awards, including the CBAA, ABC Local Radio, RAIN and the UK’s ARIAS.

He writes for publications across the world, and runs the worldwide media information website. He also runs a free weekly newsletter with news of radio’s future.  

British by birth, James lives in Brisbane, QLD and is a fan of craft beer.