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London calling . . . but not from the top of the dial any longer

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Ed Vaizey MP

Ed Vaizey was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries in May 2010 and promoted to Minister of State for Culture and Digital Industries in 2014.

I’m a huge fan of digital radio. I like its simplicity and the way in which stations are identified by name rather than a number with a decimal point. I love the way it can even tell you the name of the piece of music you’re listening to, who is performing it and, very often, a lot of other mysterious technical information on top.

Snow storms of static

And I enjoy having the option of being able to listen to a much greater range of programming if I want to, and doing so with really excellent audio quality, that doesn’t wander off into a snow-storm of static if a lorry drives by outside.

So it was good to be at the new Broadcasting House today to talk about this and to announce the single biggest expansion of digital radio coverage since the service was first launched. This means that nearly eight million more people will be able to receive their local radio stations on DAB with the same clarity that the broadcasters achieved in the studio.

This will come about by doubling the number of new digital transmitters by building 182 new ones – and upgrading a further 49 – all across the UK before the end of next year. This will come about thanks to funding from government, the BBC and the multiplex operators. Inevitably this means that the point where FM is switched off moves closer. But, as I have said before, that question will not be on the table until the majority of listening is through DAB radios and their coverage is equivalent to that currently served by the FM stations.

So one of the two criteria for this should have been satisfied by late 2016. The new transmitters will increase coverage from 72 per cent of households at the moment, up to 91 per cent, which will put it on a par with commercial FM’s reach.


Getting closer

But what about the second of the criteria – getting the majority of the population to listen through DAB radios? We’re not there yet, but we’re close, with around 38 per cent of the population currently listening to digital radio. To tip that figure over the 50 per cent threshold, we’ll need to see the radio industry, the supply chain and the car manufacturers make the most of what we in government are doing in their own marketing.

Why car manufacturing? Because nearly a quarter of all radio listening takes place there. Back in 2010, only one in 25 new cars had DAB fitted as standard, but by the end of last year that figure had soared to three out of five. The motor trade is fiercely competitive, as we all know, so if they’re backing digital with such gusto, I reckon that reaching our listenership target can’t be far away.

Predictions of radio’s demise have been trotted out for decades and shown each time to be nonsense. As the digital radio revolution marches forward, I can see it continuing to go from strength to strength.

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