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Sound Digital's new stations in full

UTV promises exciting content, Bauer is disappointing accountancy

By James Cridland
Posted 9 February 2015, 9.03am est
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The Sound Digital bid to run the second digital multiplex is now published in full on the Ofcom website. I've taken a look at the stations they're promising - and discovered Bauer's hidden plan.

(I've also done the same for Listen2Digital).

talkRADIO

talkRADIO is probably the most interesting station being planned. UTV understands talk radio, having successfully operated talkSPORT for many years. talkRADIO looks like being a lighter version of LBC and 5live, less about news issues and more about entertainment, health and lifestyle. The bid reveals that Comedy Central may supply some programming; and highlights that the station will not reflect London and Westminster, but the UK as a whole.

This looks like an impressive service, and commercially looks likely to fit well as a network buy with the main talkSPORT service. It might struggle for audience though.

talkSPORT 2

I was expecting this service to be an opt-out of the main talkRADIO, with additional commentaries and sports coverage. Typically sports broadcasters have more rights to sports than they can actually cover on-air, and an opt-out service makes sense to me.

However, talkSPORT 2 promises to be a twenty-four hour service. Promising more commentary, it also will carry "sports talk programming which is complementary to its parent channel" - which mainly looks like independently-produced content and reruns. While not explicit in the bid, I understand that this might include syndicated sports talk content from other countries: which, given talkSPORT's pedigree in international broadcasting, would make sense.

talkBUSINESS

I must admit to being perplexed about this one. It is reminiscent of Bloomberg Radio, a DAB service which was mostly the audio signal from their TV service. Indeed, Bloomberg looks to be one of the programming contributors. There's a question about how tightly-branded this service will be, if much is a simulcast of Bloomberg Radio from other countries.

Interesting caveats in the bid include a note that the station "may feature" other speech content or even music outside the main broadcast hours (which you could reasonably expect to be 0500-1900). Expect simulcasts of talkRADIO, talkSPORT or even Virgin here, perhaps. The bid may promise a 24-hour radio station, but don't expect business news all the time.

Virgin Radio (kind of)

A return of Virgin Radio is the big news, and getting radio anoraks excited.

Be clear on this: it isn't a return of Virgin Radio. The bid clarifies that the new Virgin Radio will have presenters for weekday breakfast and drivetime... only. No Danny Baker or Jonathan Ross over weekends, no Nick Abbott phone-in, no anarchic Ray Cokes evening show. The new Virgin Radio will be mainly automated music sweeps.

The station will be rock/pop, unlike the top-40 Virgin Radio stations which you can hear in countries as disparate as Thailand, Canada and the UAE. This means no sharing of material across one of the world's biggest music radio brands. It also means it's squarely in competition with Bauer's Absolute Radio which has a similar music policy and took over from the station in 2008. It's Bauer, too, that has the Virgin heritage of Russ Williams, Geoff Lloyd, Christian O'Connell, Pete Mitchell and Leona Graham.

You're not getting Virgin Radio back. You're getting a radio station called Virgin Radio.

UTV's part is impressive

Overall, UTV's plans are mostly rather interesting. A new and accessible talkRADIO service which should have a good financial base with talkSPORT's existing advertisers, two more talk radio services, and the not-Virgin Radio being a headline-grabber (and, perhaps, a RAJAR misattribution target).

If UTV's plans are exciting, Bauer's are rather disappointing.

KISStory, heat Radio

These two services are available in some DAB regions and will make it onto national services for the first time. KISStory is a well put together dance oldies service; heat is a younger version of Heart with a showbiz bias. They're both well-established services, being given a national footprint for the first time.

Planet Rock, Absolute 80s

These two services aren't new either: indeed, they're already on national DAB, through Digital One. Moving these services over to D2 actually offers less choice, since D2 will have poorer coverage. There's no quality improvement in terms of audio quality, either. This is a loss to audiences, rather than a gain.

Magic Mellow

After twenty years or so of 'Mellow Magic', Magic's evening strand that is, apparently, often market leader in its slot, adding a 'Mellow Magic' station makes sense, and is Bauer's only concession to new content.

It appears to have one presenter, doing a live breakfast show. The format promises 'personality guest presenters', the bid mentions no more. In the evening, when the main station will be doing Mellow Magic, Magic Mellow will be playing smooth jazz.

Bauer's maths

Heat Radio is currently broadcasting on 24 multiplexes; KISStory is on 23 multiplexes. Guessing at roughly £50,000 for carriage per station, that's £2,350,000 in annual transmission fees for these stations.

Digital One is an expensive multiplex to be on. I'm guessing at £1m a year for carriage fees for Absolute 80s and Planet Rock. That's £2m a year for these two.

So, Bauer's plan appears to be relatively clear. It's a cost-saving exercise, aimed at reducing their £4.35m transmission bill.

D2 will cost less than Digital One for transmission. Naturally, the bid doesn't say how much, but it makes great play of affordable carriage costs. The bid does say they'll be 45 transmitter sites: a third of the 144 sites that Digital One currently use. I'm assuming that means that carriage costs on D2 could be half that of D1.

Making a guess at £500,000 for a slot on D2, therefore, that means that total carriage costs are likely to be only £2.5m. That means that Bauer will trouser a £1.85m saving every year should they win this bid.

Craftily, it also means that any new competition for the national digital airwaves will be on Digital One, which costs twice as much.

So Bauer aren't investing much in new content, making it harder for competitors to launch, and gaining a tidy saving. Not a bad strategy. Not very good for audiences, however.

The other services

The was-national-before Jazz FM, plus Sunrise, a new British Muslim Radio service, and two Christian services (one of which was national) round these up. All niche services, all useful services to have, but services that leave me a little cold. The action's with the Bauer and UTV portions, really.

DAB+

This bid is keen to have a DAB+ service, but haven't found anyone to do it, and only have plans for one slot anyway, which will hardly produce a rush for DAB+ compatible radio sets. Given that most DAB sets for sale in the UK are already DAB+ capable, it strikes me as odd that this isn't seen as an opportunity.

In conclusion

Arqiva, UTV and Bauer control 80% of the UK's digital radio multiplexes, and are shareholders in all but two. This bid would further tighten their control. Kelvin Mackenzie points out that he wanted to launch a new sports radio station but Kelvin claims that SoundDigital rebuffed his bid: which probably isn't a good story for this bid.

UTV are playing a creative and interesting game, launching some new services that have the capability of significantly improving their business and giving the BBC some good competition. UTV continues to be, I believe, underestimated by the industry and observers. This is a good example of what they can do.

Bauer, on the other hand, appear to have had the accountants, not the radio people, write this bid. Their focus has clearly been on a shallow cost-saving exercise - so focused, they've inexplicably allowed their partner in this venture to compete against them with the Virgin Radio brand. Moving stations about doesn't give much benefit to audiences, and in Planet Rock and Absolute 80s case could make the stations less available than before. Their one concession to new content, Magic Mellow, is a poorly-branded and mostly-automated boring jukebox.

If this bid is to lose, it won't be for the fault of UTV.

James Cridland — James is the Managing Director of media.info, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. His website is at james.cridland.net, where you can subscribe to his weekly newsletter.
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