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The second digital multiplex - the choice is clear

I've looked through both offerings: and only one really excites

By James Cridland
Posted 29 January 2015, 12.14pm est
Highway Agency
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So, the UK is to get a bunch more DAB Digital Radio radio stations next summer.

There are two bids.

One is from Arqiva, Bauer and UTV, as Sound Digital. Bauer and UTV are well-known as the second and third largest radio groups in the UK. Arqiva is the transmission provider behind most TV and radio transmitters.

And the other is from Orion Media and Babcock International, as Listen2Digital. Babcock International work with people like the BBC World Service, ABC Australia, NHK Japan and Voice of America. Orion Media own Free Radio and Gem in the Midlands, and are run by Phil Riley who's had considerable experience in UK radio.

Ofcom's mandarins now have two applications to go through. Sound Digital is undoubtedly a safe pair of hands: Bauer and UTV are good and fine operators, and Arqiva's the only name for transmission in the UK (quite literally). They'll be keen to avoid a repeat of the debacle with Channel 4 Radio, who won the original multiplex licence and then gave it back again. They clearly won't get that with the Sound Digital bid.

And then there's Listen2Digital. At first glance, a little more risky: but once you read the bid in full, you realise the extent of knowledge and understanding here. It is a much more interesting, pragmatic, and exciting bid for a listener: and, once you look closer, much less risky than it first appears.

Virgin on the obvious

The press is already focusing on the potential return of Virgin Radio to the UK market. Virgin disappeared in 2008, after the station was bought by the Times Group of India. I used to work at Virgin, and the brand was simultaneously useful and frustrating. A blog post I wrote at the time highlighted some of those issues. For UTV to get a franchise licensing deal from Virgin is relatively simple (anyone can licence the name), but doesn't mean much to other Virgin businesses. Working there was my best job ever. I loved it, and it's a brand that has much to recommend it. It's a name rights deal that comes with baggage, however, and one that any new franchise operator should be aware of. And don't forget: it's a brand new station, with nobody signed to it. Its music position is already part-owned by Absolute Radio and Xfm; or they could copy the music position of the other Virgin Radios around the world and make it more top40, in which case they'd completely confuse the audience.

Talk

I believe the future for radio is focused around speech, whether on a music or talk station. Premier has a lot of speech, but it's on both bids - so ignoring them, where are the differences?

The Sound Digital bid has three new talk stations, all run by UTV. talkBUSINESS, talkRADIO and talkSPORT 2. Assuming talkSPORT 2 is an 'extra' station for commentaries, which given I've not seen their bid might well be the case, that's two new expensive talk services to fund from nowhere. talkRADIO is presumably a direct competitor to LBC, while talkBUSINESS would appear to be a partial competitor to Share Radio. I like competition, but I wonder whether this is the right approach - good for UTV, not so good for the radio listener.

Listen2Digital has four new talk stations. Yet, one is the highly established RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland's most listened-to radio station, on air since 1926, with a budget of over €18m and a ready audience over 322,000 Irish ex-pats. Then there's Share Radio, a station already available in London on DAB, and once more not an unknown quantity. There's a confidential sports-talk station (confidential to us, but not to Ofcom); and a channel devoted to food which will have large chunks of speech on it.

Speech is expensive to do right. What's interesting is that Listen2Digital broadens choice by bringing two already well-funded channels to the national UK airwaves for the first time. If your worry is "a safe pair of hands", then Listen2Digital's bid appears to be the winner here from a programming and security standpoint.

Music

I'm less interested in music channels, if only because if they're as exciting as Smooth Extra, I've no real interest in them. But...

With Sound Digital, Bauer's playing musical chairs with its stations, and only plans to launch one new one, "Magic Mellow" (why not Mellow Magic, heaven only knows, given that's been on-air on their main Magic station for many years now). Some of the rest shift over from Digital One, like Absolute 80s and Planet Rock, and some become national for the first time, like heat radio and KISSTORY. Then there's a mysterious "non-mainstream music station".

I'd be surprised, incidentally, if Bauer's station moves away from Digital One means better audio quality. Some will point to that and get excited. Digital One will have better coverage for a long time to come, and I'd suspect Arqiva will simply resell those mono slots to other stations.

On Listen2Digital, you've a much wider choice of services, like ChrisCountry, Gaydio, Wireless, FunKids, Nation and Gem. The first four of these are genuinely new formats for the UK, and that's got to be interesting to listeners.

Listen2Digital also plan a top40 channel, a "modern rock" channel, and a jazz/blues/soul station: all three of these from confidential broadcasters. It wouldn't surprise me to see some well-known brands behind these stations.

Other

And then you've got Listen2Digital's "Upload Radio" channel. If listener choice is what you want, this'll give it to you - their website appears to be live and explains how it works; an access radio station for anyone. Even you or me. It's taken a while since Matt announced it at Next Radio, but it'll be fascinating to hear.

The DAB+ question

Sound Digital has one DAB+ service, which they're not talking about. Listen2Digital has four. I can't help but feel that if the intention is "to lay the foundation of a future migration to DAB+ and accelerate take-up of DAB+ compatible radios", to quote Sound Digital's press release, you're probably best adding four unique services including Ireland's most listened-to radio station.

My choice

Now - I work with Matt Deegan from Folder Media, one of the partners in Listen2Digital; we plan the Next Radio conference and a few other things together. He's told me nothing about this bid though.

Loyalties aside, the right choice is still an obvious one to me.

As a radio listener, I want a great choice of stations. I want interesting stuff that I can't get from my Google Play Music subscription. I want stuff with budget behind it. I want to hear amazing stuff that I'd not hear from the big players.

As someone in the radio industry, however tangentially, I don't want transmission owned by a monopoly provider, and I don't want a world where Global, Bauer and UTV are the only players. I want more radio stations that complement, not compete, with those that already exist.

So, Upload Radio excites and thrills me. RTÉ Radio 1, while parts are dull and old-fashioned, also has some amazingly good documentaries and great content, and I'd love to hear that in the car. Share Radio's not for me, but I appreciate it exists, and it deserves a wider platform.

I can't quite get as excited at the Bauer/UTV bid. Even if it does mean the return of the Virgin Radio name.

Finally, Arqiva, Bauer and UTV control over 80% of UK multiplexes and are shareholders in all but two of them. Do we really want to give them more?

I'd be really interested to hear in the comments if you agree.

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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Comments

2 years, 7 months ago

"why not Mellow Magic", you ask? Because of the way your DAB radio organises services.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

While I admire Listen2Digital's diverse proposal, there is nothing for me that I'd want to listen to. A national version of Orion's Lidl version of Heart isn't exactly sexy, country music formats have been tried to death with neither the London AM station which had more owners than hot dinners which eventually flipped to an Asian format and then 3C which limped on until Emap acquired SRH (now Bauer).

However I like the idea of RTE Radio 1 in DAB+ and Fun Kids returning to national linear radio.

If the rumours about UTV selling the local portfolio are correct, this will enable UTV to concentrate on this national proposition.

Incidentally if Sound Digital win the D2 licence, I wouldn't be surprised if UTV acquire Share Radio which would give them the staff and expertise to make talkBUSINESS work.

talkRADIO is risky though, LBC outside London on D1 hasn't really added that many listeners despite moving to D1. While analogue radio is in decline especially on AM, talkRADIO would still be at a disadvantage without an AM outlet.

However SoundDigital has the best chance of making this work with the large backers of Arqiva, Bauer and UTV, Listen2Digital would end up replacing the more niche stations as they find it hard to monitise.

It's not exciting, but do we really want another D1 situation circa 2009 when we were left with the analogue national radio simulcasts and Planet Rock?

2 years, 7 months ago

Both applicants seem to have services I can't see them being able to monetise.

I'd love to see a proper national talk station (as opposed to a national relay of a London one) but really I think UTV would be better off going back to having non-sporting talk shows on talkSPORT to give it the AM coverage which pretty much any car on the market has to prop it up, then having a DAB brand extension for extra commentary choices etc.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

Thanks for the comment, Martin. Let me justify myself a little.

Yes, the Bauer/UTV/Arqiva bid is beige, boring, predictable, and safe. It contains the same-old from Bauer (oddly, nothing that would get people buying new radios).

Listen2Digital would end up replacing the more niche stations as they find it hard to monitise.

I think you could say this about UTV's offerings more. Their two or three new speech radio stations will be hellishly expensive. I think there's real risk in UTV's proposal - an LBC-like service with a much smaller audience is difficult to see working, even if it is sold alongside talkSPORT. And the talkBUSINESS is niche. City AM shows it can work - but nationwide?

The interesting thing about the Listen2Digital bid is the RTÉ bit (on DAB+, too, with an existing audience who would be interested in buying a new receiver), the Upload Radio thing, and the expanded coverage for Share Radio. The point here is that the talk services on Listen2Digital are mostly already broadcasting, and the additional transmission cost is the only additional bill.

I've seen the actual bid document for L2D, but not for SD. What is interesting about it is the emphasis placed on the lower cost of their transmission network, and the lower costs for broadcasters. It looks like every effort is being made to keep prices low for everyone. That seems sensible.

In short, then, I agree that risk isn't what anyone wants. But actually, the L2D one is, in many ways, less risky than it first appears.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

UTV will have talkSPORT to promote their new offerings, although I agree with you James C that UTV's speech formats are risky, yet I can see why they're doing it to expand their 'talk' brand.

I wouldn't be surprised if talkBUSINESS and talkRADIO are initially opt-out services of talkSPORT. The business station would probably operate from 0600-1900 weekdays with the topical discussion station operating during evenings when talkSPORT had it's non-sport programming.

Incidentally if Sound Digital win and those stations in the bid move across from Digital One, there's no reason bar finances which would stop the likes of Share Radio acquiring a slot on D1 with better coverage than either D2 bidder is offering.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

Adam Bowie blogs that Virgin will be a rock/pop format, and then asks:

What seems strange to me in 2015 is that Bauer would be happy with a consortium that seems to be directly targeting its own 2013 acquisition, Absolute Radio.

If I were Absolute Radio, I'd be none too pleased about Virgin Radio popping back up again. The potential for brand confusion seems great. Ofcom probably don't care; but this is a peculiar thing to do, and I can't see it boding particularly well for this consortium. Strange bedfellows to have.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

If Virgin returned to the original format used in the UK of classic album tracks and today's best music, this may give it a gap the distinguishes itself from Absolute Radio and more importantly Bauer's existing rock skewed brands.

2 years, 7 months ago

I think this is a case of choosing the head or the heart. The head says go for the one with proven formats, experience and deep pockets. The heart says go for one that does something a bit different. Quite often DAB has lacked the compelling offer that satellite TV had, services were repeated and there was nothing there (nationally) that made it worth the investment. In the Listen2Digital I can see that, as there are diverse services that will bring in parents, LGBT listeners and country music fans. Also, if I were ofcom I would be asking about what happens to D1 when some of the services that are there move onto D2 with Sound Digital. So, the head says the safer services and the (potentially) bigger pockets of UTV is a more obvious bid, there are times when you need to go with the bid that on the surface to be more risky - as in that risk is potentially the greater reward.

2 years, 7 months ago

I'm with Jim.

Do we really need more music formats that are very slightly different from what is available elsewhere on DAB? Do we really need more automated music services (especially in an age of i-pods, Spotty-face, MP3's and so on)?

For me, one of the draws is RTE Radio 1, since I already make appointmentsd to listen to a couple of programs during my weekly listening schedule (Sunday Miscellany being one of them, I start my Sunday that way, as well as the 5AM Saturday morning repeat of Moony's nature program). RTE's music shows at midnight and also at 6AM on Saturdays I find to be a great and refreshing listen.

Jazz FM seems the obvious choice for the jazz channel. Again, I have enjoyed Jazz FM over the years.

2 years, 7 months ago

Well I'd argue that's more about the music services on offer. If they're specialist automaed services, I see a market for that. Kisstory is an excellent example, providing a format that you just don't get on FM.

2 years, 7 months ago

Very good - but Kisstory is already available on most local multiplexes in Scotland - as is Heat Radio. We already have Absolute 80's and Planet Rock on the existing national mulitplex. Does anyone really believe that a migration over to the new multiplex will improve the signal and audio quality?

Also, with the roll-out of local muliplexes, changes of frequency and addition of 182+ transmitters over the next few years, coverage of local DAB will exceed coverage of national commercial DAB, especially in Wales, Scotland and the north of England - so it makes sense to keep Kisstory and Heat on the local multiplexes just - unless there is the promise that the slots given up by them would allow access to small local or community services.

Premier looks set to go onto whoever wins. It is likely that Jazz FM will as well. Why do I need Virgin Radio when I already have TeamRock, Rocksport, Planet Rock and XFM. Surely Kerrang radio would have made more sense?

The other multiplex really does offer more choice on a national scale (as opposed to a bit of a reshuffle being offered by the former, with additional stations whose differences between services that are already available require a microscope and scalpel to separate them). The other provider is also providing that extra choice by putting on very well established broadcasters who have only had the opportunity to broadcast to little corners of the UK until now, so it;s sound business sense as well.

2 years, 7 months ago

I'd argue the toss that it's more beneficial to move the national services to the national MUXes. The crucial thing is though that what isn't needed is yet another station playing Thinking Out Loud ad nauseum. For that reason, is turning Gem 106 into Gem Mono-6 the right thing to do with Heart widely available and Magic national?

2 years, 7 months ago

No it isn't, I'll give you that.

I also forgot to mention Sunrise Radio. Is that a good option considering how much trouble they have had in the past couple of years just to stay on air on their already well established medium wave frequencies in London? Also, who the heck are British Muslim Radio? Are they on the dial, anywhere?

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

I think what's great about these bids are that nobody will like everything on them. That particularly goes for the L2D bid, necessarily, because it is more diverse. JamesM clearly doesn't like Gem (I can't comment, I've never heard it) but that leaves lots of interesting and exciting new national stations. For an application made on choice - and the bid (which I've read) highlighting this - it's probably to be expected.

Of note: Heart isn't available nationally and as David Lloyd has mentioned :

There is no AC brand on national commercial DAB at present, with Heart operating only on local DAB, so its service is not taken into account as the applications are judged by the regulator. AC is, therefore, a gaping hole in national provision and we reckon we’ve got the very best answer to it. The AC audience also sits in the female 25-44 commercial hot-spot, helping to ensure the success of our business, and contribute to much-needed growth and stability for DAB.

I suspect that Gem is additional choice for those served by Heart (Magic is much older). If you don't like Toby Anstis, or whoever else is on Heart nationally (I can't immediately think, which probably says a fair bit), sounds like it makes sense for a station with some personality.

2 years, 7 months ago

It's not that I dislike Gem, it's just that I preferred Heart and I really don't think it's helped the East Midlands to lose Heart.

I wouldn't say Gem is a station with personality, compared to Heart. As Martin says, it's pretty much a Lidl version of Heart, although it has found its' own identity to a degree since first coming on air in 2011. Sam & Amy are excellent, and one thing Orion do really well is severe weather and consequently I had them on over my usual choices (Mark & Twiggy on the not-quite-new 107 Oak FM, or Kisstory) yesterday morning as I drove into a gridlocked Leicester city centre where I work.

But after 10am, like Heart, the music does the talking and like Heart, it's wall-to-wall Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Ella Henderson. So I don't think a national Gem, probably in mono, will make much impact when Heart is offering a slicker version of the product with more live programming in stereo.

2 years, 7 months ago

Since when, by the way, has Magic not been AC? I guess David is trying to argue that there is no Hot AC brand on D1.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

Magic (London) has always been Soft AC which has enabled them to comply with their FM format of providing a supposed 'Easy Listening' service.

Sam and Amy are key to making the national Gem service work, they've worked together since the 106 Century FM era, promoted to Breakfast when the station was Heart and moved across to Gem when Orion rebranded the station.

I think Orion have realised that they need a national brand to sell advertising. Free is designed to be the quasi-regional brand while as Gem is a stand alone service, it's easier to tweak to becoming a national station. Magic has managed this by using split links and sweepers for London and the UK to maintain the best of both worlds.

2 years, 7 months ago

Please can someone with pockets deeper than I fund a bit of research for me? I want to know the size of the wafer-thin wedge in the middle of the venn diagram of Circle A - those who would enjoy Heart and/or Gem and Circle B - those who would notice or care about a service being Mono or Stereo.

2 years, 7 months ago

Noticing and caring are two separate things. And which one will psychologically sound better on headphones or in a car? But let's not get off topic... I think the two camps have to agree to disagree on the move to mono.

2 years, 7 months ago

The other thing is I wonder if Orion will try and get a bigger FM regional footprint for Gem, especially if they were to acquire UTV's local network?

I notice that Gold doesn't feature in any of the plans. I was hoping it would make a reappeance.

2 years, 7 months ago

Well, the choice isn't clear to me!

Each bid seems to have clear advantages over the other in different areas (coverage, diversity, brands etc). Weighing up those advantages without having seen the detail of both bids might be a bit premature.

I agree that the speech content should be the key. (I can't get very excited about Magic Mellow, Virgin Radio or a national Gem, either.) But if we're looking for what's best for UK radio, I don't see how retransmitting an existing overseas broadcaster (however good it is) even comes close to the creation of a brand new talk station with a UK editorial focus.

2 years, 7 months ago

I would have liked to have seen WRN on there.

2 years, 7 months ago

I really want to see a good UK wide talk station come to DAB too... I can't help thinking that at least short-term though, it'll need the backup of an AM outlet to generate audience. It's a bit stereotypical but you can't ignore the massive audience of truckers.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

I really want to see a good UK wide talk station come to DAB too... I can't help thinking that at least short-term though, it'll need the backup of an AM outlet to generate audience. It's a bit stereotypical but you can't ignore the massive audience of truckers.

I don't think it'd do any harm for talkSPORT to simulcast talkRADIO on AM only from 2200-0600 on non-sport event nights. This would encourage talkSPORT listeners to listen on DAB or other outlets, while giving the other station some analogue airtime.

2 years, 7 months ago

I've just seen the proposed bitrates and am disgusted to learn that D2 will not offer a single stereo service, or any service above 80k, irrespective of who wins.

So, based on that - the choice IS clear.

Neither of them.

If Ofcom had a pair they'd be asking serious questions about this.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

Actually. Listen2Digital will offer four stereo services on DAB+.

But, could you explain your concern about no stereo? I'd be interested to hear it.

2 years, 7 months ago

True, and it's absolutely why DAB+ needs to be eventually rolled out, and that tips Listen2Digital for me as the least worst option.

The mono vs stereo debate is well-trodden ground and I think we have to agree to disagree. But in short, it's a retrograde step. I can't see it as an "upgrade" from FM when FM's got stations in high-quality stereo, when DAB is offering as low as 48kbps mono streams nationally. And, to my ears, on cans and in-car, it sounds like the sound is in the middle of my head and, again, to my ears, it's a "fatiguing" sound.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

How did we ever tolerate Radio 1 on MW? My father was a delivery driver who sometimes took me out with him during the 80s and he was happy with it.

DAB appears to be a mobile replacement for AM, for portable or in-car/van use rather than a full replacement for FM. Internet radio should cover in the home, but more needs to be done to get people to use both forms of delivery.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

I understand an argument that says "I like FM stereo and don't want the same station in mono". Me too.

But is your argument "I think stereo is so important, I insist that if adding any new stations for me to potentially listen to, you only add half the amount so they can all be in stereo?" Because, respectfully, it's up to the market to decide.

2 years, 7 months ago

It is. And as a free market believer I can't disagree with you. Would I do it differently if I called the shots, and have half the services in 112 Stereo and only allowed speech services in 80 Mono? Without a doubt.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

But would that be better or worse for listeners?

2 years, 7 months ago

I believe it would be better, and would allow the platform to be promoted as the upgrade to better sound quality it should be. Others would of course disagree.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

LBC is up 20% YoY nationally, which can only reassure UTV about launching talkRADIO.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

would allow the platform to be promoted as the upgrade to better sound quality it should be

James, the discussion here is a bunch of new stations that are not currently available. This isn't a discussion about upgrading FM - because you can't get those stations on FM. So, would you like to try again?

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

Martin - here are LBC's figures, rather than the Digital Radio UK press release. That graph doesn't look like a 20% increase to me. In fact, the press release says "LBC's digital listening", whereas Global's press release doesn't even acknowledge LBC is theirs.

PRO2 years, 7 months ago

Those following this news might like Listen2Digital's stations in full and Sound Digital's stations in full which also contain the individual bids as submitted to Ofcom.

2 years, 6 months ago

Reading through Listen2Digital's stations and Sound Digital's stations in full, it occurs to me that the Gold end of the market (end I'm involved in), isn't represented too well, is it a market that is boo hoo'd, or is their potential for a 60-90's music, personality led station.?

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