Media: Digital Radio - Co-operation is key to digital future/The launch of Life on commercial digital radio was a milestone in radio’s digital plan but also highlighted problems it still faces in wooing consumers

Going digital has become something of a media mantra over the last two years.

Going digital has become something of a media mantra over the last

two years.

What with on-line buyouts of major media groups, the rapid development

of ONdigital and the spread of new entertainment formats such as

mini-disc and DVD, it sometimes seems like the old media is on its way


Radio, however, has been on the counter attack and last week’s launch of

adult contemporary station Life on the commercial digital radio platform

Digital One marked another stage in the industry’s digital


Life will be operated by the UK’s largest radio group, Capital Radio,

which joins the GWR Group, Talk Sport and Virgin Radio in providing

services for the first commercial multiplex - which essentially operates

like a cable franchise. It offers the holder the right to carry radio

stations, which other companies can also provide. Thus, alongside

Classic FM, Talk Sport, Life and Virgin are two existing stations -

Planet Rock and Core - and a proposed speech station called Oneword,

operated by the Guardian among others. This is all part of the plan.

You’d be forgiven, however, for thinking that the plan has been

developing slowly. The launch of commercial digital radio arrived with

more of a whimper than a bang in November last year and the fact that

the BBC has been broadcasting digital signals since 1995 has gone almost


Digital sets are expensive and hard to find and the national media have

taken little or no interest at all. Even the operators themselves sound

gloomy occasionally. Emap, which will operate the London digital licence

together with Capital, says it doesn’t expect to return a profit on this

- arguably the jewel in the digital radio crown - before 2005 at the


’To be honest I don’t think it has done us any favours calling it

digital radio,’ explains the Radio Advertising Bureau’s digital project

manager James Smythe. ’Because there is a misapprehension that digital

involves a shift in the way that people consume media. In the case of

digital radio that’s not going to happen.’

Development of the medium could be hindered by two problems. Firstly

there’s the cost of the sets, currently pounds 800 on the high street

and pounds 400 on the internet. Secondly, there’s the quality of

programming. With the BBC and the commercial sector working together to

promote digital radio, the consumer is going to have to be impressed by

their offerings if they are to be tempted to buy a new set.


Name: Glyn Jones

Position: managing editor and project director, BBC Digital Radio

’We’ve come through a period when there was just the BBC broadcasting

digital radio when there were no sets and no presence from the

commercial radio industry. It felt lonely.

’Now there’s co-operation between the commercial sector and the BBC

which we haven’t really witnessed before. This will allow us to put more

pressure on the set manufacturers which was tricky when it was just


We really need the manufacturers to stop making hundreds of sets and to

start making hundreds of thousands of sets.

’The BBC’s been broadcasting Radios 1 to Five Live in digital since 1995

and we’ve been simulcasting the World Service. We also introduced two

new full channels and a third supplementary channel. The first is a

24-hour news channel and the second is a full parliamentary channel. The

supplementary station offers some additional sports output to complement

Five Live. This has been running rather like Sky Sports One, Two and


’We’ve now got plans to launch an urban black music station and two

stations based on the BBC’s archives. There’s an enormous number of

sessions and live gig recordings so we plan to put these out on a new

service and we’ve got comedy and drama to put on a new channel and we

plan to extend that sports output.

’To some extent, however, we are having to wait for the new director

general, Greg Dyke, and the Government to make up their minds as to how

they want the BBC to spend its cash in the new digital media. There is

already some evidence that consumers are happy with the idea of using

their home computer for accessing the medium. Recent research by

Continental suggested that a third of all UK on-line users had already

accessed a radio station web site and that two-thirds were aware that

radio could be listened to over the net.

’In fact Continental now estimates that internet transmission of radio

will grow at such a rate that it will have to be included in the Rajar

listening diaries within the next couple of years. At which point

digital radio chips may themselves be appearing built into computer



Name: Quentin Howard

Position: Chief executive, Digital One

’Digital radio will have all of the great personal qualities that radio

already has, but with really attractive extras as well. These include

CD-quality sound and more information, but it’s true that digital radio

will really only take off once the hardware can be miniaturised and

integrated into other electronic goods.

Manufacturers will be building digital radio chips into Walkmans, PCs,

car stereos and mobile phones. I’ve already seen the prototypes where

you can listen to digital radio over your cell phone and so at a stroke

you can have interactivity. I’ve even seen one design that will make a

digital radio for the shower. It looks like a shampoo bottle and the

icons which identify the stations - don’t forget tuning in is history in

digital radio - just drip down the front. That might be a few years off

but it tells you how ubiquitous digital radio really can be.

’The commercial sector of the market was born on 15 November, 1999 when

Digital One launched the first five of its ten channel line-up - Core,

Planet Rock, Classic FM, Virgin Radio and Talk Sport. Core’s programming

sets out to challenge Radio 1, with a concentration on current chart


’Planet Rock is dedicated to air guitarists across the UK with pure rock

music. On 31 January, 2000 we launched our sixth station, called Life.

Operated by Capital Radio it’s a contemporary music station for

aspirational adults aged 25 to 44.

’Our latest signing is Oneword, the world’s first commercial station

dedicated to plays, books, comedy and reviews. It will launch in March

and is owned by four shareholders - Unique Broadcasting, The Guardian

Media Group, publishers Chivers Communications and audio book publishers

Heavy Entertainment. Agreements are still being finalised with a

business, finance and money channel, operated by Talk Sport with

Bloomberg. We’ve also got a rolling news service and ITN are in the

running for this one.

’The announcement of the deal with Oneword last week meant that for the

first time ever there were more national commercial radio stations than

there were national BBC stations.’

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