INTERVIEW: The future of DAB radio

With 27% of adults living in a DAB household and now over 7.3 million DAB radios in circulation what is the future for DAB radio in the UK, when are we likely to see a switch off of the analogue signal, and with multiple formats appearing on the horizon has the UK jumped too soon?

Pocket-lint sat down with Tony Moretta, Chief Executive of the Digital Radio Development Bureau (DRDB), the body that looks after all things DAB in the UK to get some answers and see where the road ahead lies.

Moretta joined the Bureau just as the DRWG was slamming the industry and the organisation of DAB in the UK. The report used phrases like "lack of European harmonisation" and "not currently an obvious digital migration path for digital radio" before outlining a number of good and bad elements to how DAB was being run in the UK.

For many then probably not the best moment to start a new job, however as Moretta explained to us as he sat in a wood panelled meeting room in the DRDB offices in London that he really rather relished the challenge.

"I think I joined at the best time," says the man who's past career has seen him previously working at OnDigital and then being in charge of Freeview, as well as having a part in the Oyster card along the way.

"It [the DRWG report] has been very useful. It has focused the industry. Everybody now agrees that the future has to be digital," says Moretta. "If we stay in an analogue world of FM and AM the industry, technology and services are going to become less relevant in a digital age."

Moretta, plans to take the lessons he's learnt from his past and make the DRDB work.

"The industry hasn't enough to develop a clear consumer proposition and that's what I am hoping to change."

With a plan to make the DRDB function more like Freeview, Moretta's plan is to make the broadcasters all working together to get people involved in the platform before then competing against each other as to which station they watch.

Latest figures released this week by the DRDB show that manufacturers have shipped a massive 7.3 million DAB radios in the UK so far up 20% percent on the same quarter last year.

That growth means that DAB now dominates sales of key sectors with 82% of all kitchen radios sold in the UK coming with DAB and 89% of all Hi-Fi tuners sporting a digital tuner.

However DAB has been slow to break into the bedroom (only 50%) and one of the key places most of us still listen to radio - the car.

"It's been a much harder market to crack," admits Moretta. "There are now around 30% of cars that come with the option of having DAB, however it is expensive."

Ford, Vauxhall, BMW and Mini all offer DAB options, with Ford announcing earlier this month that some of its range, the Ford Kuga for example, will have DAB as standard.

"Things like Traffic Radio, [a dedicated national radio station] will give a better reason for consumers to get it and a better reason for manufacturers to make it as its services like this won't or aren't available on FM."

The current solution for those with older cars is the Pure Highway, a DAB radio that is powered off a cigarette lighter and gives users DAB radio via their car stereo. It's currently the second best DAB radio sold in the UK clearly showing that DAB is wanted in the car.

So why aren't more manufacturers putting DAB in their cars as standard? One suggestion is that the with three different DAB formats currently available in Europe making a car DAB radio that has pan-European appeal would be problematical as well as cost inhibitive.

Moretta denies such a claim: "There are different flavours to DAB, DAB+, DAB and DMB-A however chipset manufacturers have announced that there is a chipset to support all of those and that adds just a $1 to the manufacture of the radio."

"Yes you pay a price for being first to launch, but the notion that we are missing out in the UK is a red herring," commented Moretta. "It is important to have devices as future proof as possible, but DAB+ isn't an issue for consumers, they are only really concerned about what the radio does. We aren't ruling it out, but I wouldn't expect to see a need for DAB+ to be broadcast in the UK for another 5 years at least."

So why should we bother with DAB over FM? It's one of the biggest challenges Moretta has; convincing people that DAB is the choice to make when it comes to listening to radio. It seems here the DRDB struggles with the same problem that Blu-ray has over DVD.

"When TV went digital you noticed a massive difference as you went from four channels to hundreds, however because radio had masses of channels already, national and local, people didn't see that benefit," says Moretta.

He is hoping that people will see the new technology and still be convinced.

"People want the technology to just work. Wouldn't it be great to have a radio that knew when to use DAB or when to use a Wi-Fi connection if it was connected. The message we have to get across is what they can do with their radio.

Failing the urge for more impressive technology that can let you pause radio, suggest programmes for you to watch, or even let you download additional content, Moretta believes content will be the driving force to adoption in the UK.
"If you listen to BBC radio and over 50% of listeners do, you get twice the number of radio stations on digital. Digital is also the only way to get Virgin in stereo outside London.

"What you are going to see in a much bigger way in the next 6 months is more channels. Channel 4 is going to start launching music channels starting with E4 radio in the next couple of months, Jazz FM is launching as a DAB only channel later this year. Other launches include TalkRadio from TalkSport, Closer and many more."

So what's stopping DAB being ubiquitous? Listening figures. There might be 7.3 million DAB radios in circulation at the moment, but that only amounts to around 11% of all radio listening based on the latest figures from DRDB.

"Our goal is to get to 50%," says the Chief Executive suggesting once that figure is achieved a big enough mass will be in place to talk about switchovers and really pushing the technology further into more portable devices and mobile phones.

"It would be great if it [adoption in mobile phones] happened before Christmas but I don't think it will happen. Everyone is waiting for that 50%."

But when is this likely to happen? The current goal is 2012 - 2015 with a switch over possibly 5 years after that, but only once a 50% target has been reached suggesting it will be some time off before you have to ditch your analogue radio.

So what's the future hold for digital radio? More radio unsurprisingly with DAB leading the march over digital radio on your television or internet radio.

"DAB is still going to be at the forefront of our plans for digital radio moving forward. Internet radio offers plenty of stations but internet radio is never going to be easy to use. It's never going to be as easy to use as DAB."

So does DAB radio have what it takes to offer more to the radio listening public? Of course Moretta thinks so:

"I like to describe the consumer proposition as a three legged stool. The first is the device, the second Ieg the tech it brings to the market, and the third leg the content. DAB has all three, we just need to build them further if we are to succeed."

The interview was recorded using an Olympus LS-10 digital voice recorder kindly on loan from Olympus


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