End of the road for digital ?

The BBC’s decision to close digital stations 6Music and the Asian Network is still making huge waves.

The move, designed  to pre-empt post-election cuts, sounds the death knell for the dream of a multichannel multi-niche radio landscape.

It also reveals the BBC’s willingness, once again to accommodate whichever government is doing the bidding. Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing will depend on your political stance.

Back in the early 90s, the then Conservative government wanted digital radio badly. They wanted it because they hoped to shift  radio off the analogue spectrum to flog off the freed up bandwidth to the highest bidder. Mobile phone companies in particular were hungry for new capacity and were prepared to pay the government a lot of money for it.

At the request of the government the BBC stepped forward to jump-start the digital radio age. I remember working on a pilot scheme myself, as a newsreader, to bring to air a round the clock news, weather and traffic station, which was too boring ever to see the light of day !

The bright new dawn of digital radio was welcomed by the commercial sector who ironically saw it as a vital challenge to the BBC’s dominance in radio.  The BBC made its first digital broadcasts in 1995 followed in 1999 by the first commercial station.

The BBC was in effect helping to usher in a development which its competitors hoped would undermine it. Very accommodating wouldn’t you say ?

By 2005 the five big groups who invested in digital; Capital, GWR, Chrysalis, Emap and Scottish Radio Holdings, had lost £55 million. (The Independent)

In 2008 things were looking even worse when the Capital/GWR merger GCap axed digital only stations TheJazz and Planet Rock saying the medium was not economically viable. They also sold their stake in Digital One, the owner of the  whole Digital (DAB) network.

Commentators at the time were quick to blame the BBC, saying commercial digital stations were under pressure from BBC digital stations like, 6 Music.

But at the same time they were refusing to write off digital radio because  they saw the BBC’s involvement as key to its future. So long as the BBC thought it was worthwhile then there was hope.

At this point  Channel 4’s 4 Digital was still planning to roll out 10 new digital stations. 10 ! Staff had been hired and a bright new future was predicted.

But as ad revenues crashed in 2008 Channel 4 Chief Executive Andy Duncan pulled the plug saying, sadly they were going to have to ‘forgo this future profit stream’.

So, having pioneered the medium at the government’s request, the BBC were now the only ones seriously left in the game.

In this climate then, is it surprising that the BBC’s digital stations are the ones  facing the axe ?

Digital services still use the spectrum more efficiently than analogue so the digital notion is going nowhere.

What we do seem to be losing though is the notion of a wide range of curated niche radio stations with infinite choice in both speech and music. While we can easily knock up a Spotify playlist or download someone elses to suit our mood, we can not break new bands or create our own documentaries.

With Radio 2 left to do the job 6Music did I suggest Ken Bruce starts brushing up on his New Young Pony Club.


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