Digital radio switchover may not happen until 2020
Communications minister Ed Vaizey says he is looking at ‘the end of the decade’ for digital being the main platform for radio.
Digital radio switchover was once mooted for as early as 2015, but the government has indicated that radio stations are unlikely to follow television’s lead by switching off their analogue signals until at least 2020.
The communications minister, Ed Vaizey, said on Monday it was still too early to set a date for digital radio switchover, or even to say that it would definitely happen at all.
The minister was responding to concerns that digital radio, despite the success of services such as BBC 6 Music, has not grown as fast as anticipated, and to commercial radio fears that smaller local stations would suffer in any switchover.
Vaizey, addressing an industry conference at the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London, announced a range of measures to boost digital, including better digital audio broadcasting (DAB) coverage and more digital-only stations on a second national digital multiplex.
“I am not going to impose a solution on people who aren’t ready for it,” Vaizey told the Guardian.
“I certainly think by the end of the decade we could be in a position where we are looking at digital being the main platform for radio. We could get to 50% [of radio listening on digital] earlier, but I am looking towards the end of the decade.”
The previous Labour government’s Digital Britain report in 2009 had earmarked 2015 as the target date for switchover, when all national and large regional and local stations would become digital-only.
The commercial radio trade body, the Radio Centre, which represents most of the big commercial radio groups, had called for a 2018 switchover date.
But a group of 13 commercial radio groups, including TalkSport parent UTV Media, last month urged the government to abandon switchover, claiming it would jeopardise local stations that were left behind on analogue and cost households “several hundred pounds” each to convert to digital.
There are estimated to be more than 100m analogue radio sets in the UK Post-switchover they would only be able to receive small local stations and community radio.
Other issues to address include the problem of in-car radio, where 20% of all radio listening takes place. Although nearly half of new cars have DAB radio fitted, fewer than 10% of the total number in the UK have digital.
Vaizey said a “huge amount of progress had been made”, but added: “I will not announce a decision in principle, or a date for switchover, until I am confident the radio listener is brought with us.
“It is only in the last few years that commercial radio and the BBC have really been on the same page about digital. They have got to redouble their efforts to persuade consumers that digital is the way to go. There is a huge opportunity, but we have to be realistic.”
The BBC’s director of radio, Helen Boaden, said there needed to be a “really huge growth” in in-car digital radio for switchover to happen.
She said the corporation took its commitment to digital “very seriously”, but added: “We do need to balance that with other priorities for the organisation. You don’t need me to tell you that we have had some terrible headlines recently about money.”
Boaden added: “This is an important day in the long road to switchover, too long for some people, but inevitable when you think how many people have so many radio sets.”
Paul Keenan, chief executive of Bauer Media, owner of Kiss, Magic and digital-only station Planet Rock, said: “There’s more we could do to accelerate things. It would be good if the BBC put Radio 1 and Radio 2 exclusively on DAB, for example.”
• To contact the MediaGuardian news desk email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 3353 3857. For all other inquiries please call the main Guardian switchboard on 020 3353 2000. If you are writing a comment for publication, please mark clearly “for publication”.