DAB vs. AM/FM Radio in the UK

The UK Government have been planning a national DAB switch-over for years. But will it actually happen? And is it even of benefit?

Or perhaps a better phrasing of the last question is: Do people even care? When asking a few broadcast radio insiders about their views on this impending apocalyptic DAB radio world take-over, I was met with a roll of eyes and statements that opened with ‘Well…’. Sceptics abound. But it’s not just within the radio industry. Figures from RAJAR UK research have shown that traditional analogue radio listening is going steady, maybe declining slightly. DAB radio is making more of a rise than analogue radio but not as much as the Government have been crossing their fingers and toes and praying for. Mobile and online radio, however, have been waving to DAB and analogue as they’ve shot past them in the biggest percentage increase of listener growth.

Overall, analogue radio listening figures are still the highest across all the various radio mediums, at 56.2%. DAB radio is lagging behind at 25.2%. So, despite the Government’s push and Ed Vaizey’s best attempts at blowing the DAB switch-over trumpet, the average radio listener is either unbothered by DAB radio or prefers sticking to the creature comfort of the long-standing FM. Radio is, after all, a platform of familiarity and habit. So if listeners have been getting on harmoniously with FM radio for all these years, then where is the need and the rush to change it?

A glaring limitation in FM radio is signal. As soon as you step out of the city or region boundary zone the signal starts crackling and breaking up. A national DAB station in theory does not have this issue. Hence for cars it’s pretty useful, admittedly. Ed Vaizey has recently confirmed figures showing that 61% of new cars came with digital radio, which is more than 1.37 million new cars sold in 2014.

Moreover, because it is easier to get a national DAB signal than an FM one (currently Classic FM is the only commercial FM station granted national coverage by Ofcom), those who own a DAB radio at home can listen to a station that is broadcast from another part of the UK; thereby enabling radio broadcasters to reach out to wider audiences across the nation, whilst listeners are able to access a greater variety of programmes as well as discover new presenters. Riding on this fact, 182 new digital transmitters have been planned to be built by 2016, doubling the current network and increasing DAB coverage from 72% to 91% – (coincidentally?) the latter figure being the current FM radio coverage.

The DAB radio switch-over is not just launching (or attempting to) in the UK. It has also encroached onto Western Europe. Here, some countries, such as Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway, are eagerly jumping on the bandwagon; while others are a bit slower on the up-take:


The Netherlands, for example, are overlooking DAB+ in favour of another radio platform – internet radio. Despite the government’s multi-million Euro push to kick off a DAB+ switch-over and shut down FM by 2017, internet radios are much more popular. Online Dutch retailer Coolblue has seen a marked rise in popularity of internet radios, with consumers listening at home and in their cars.

6 million people in the UK currently listen to live internet radio. Now, stacked up against analogue and DAB figures that may not seem like much, but then one must take into consideration the ages of the three platforms. DAB’s inception dates back to the 1980s; analogue’s, over a hundred years; and internet radio just 13 years!

Despite its youthful age, internet radio is already making waves in the radio industry with recent news that long-standing BBC Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe is to join Apple later this year. What we have here is not a mere employment. Internet radio is taking the key ingredient of broadcast radio’s success, the pièce de résistance, the trusted, real-life, human presenter and music curator. Without him or her, radio can be soulless and impersonal. The appeal that’s already behind internet radio is that one can take it with them wherever they go, provided they have a WiFi connection of course. This gives this particular radio platform a higher level of accessibility than others such as DAB or FM. Now add broadcast radio’s secret to success to what internet radio is already offering and one can be sure to see its popularity rise even more.

So, do we really need that DAB switch-over? It looks like the answer is ‘No’. Of course, the Government and the BBC will want to go through with it, partly for the ability to say ‘We told you so’, but in reality radio listeners are just not bothered. The younger generations will veer towards internet and mobile radio, whilst the older will stick with their good ol’ analogue sets.

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