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DAB's failure to tune in poses 'what-ifs' for broadcasters

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Called 'Some Things Shouldn't be a Family Tradition', the campaign was created by the Dublin agency In the Company of Huskies. It highlights the harsh reality of poverty, including food poverty, at a time when many people willingly embrace over-indulgence

Called 'Some Things Shouldn't be a Family Tradition', the campaign was created by the Dublin agency In the Company of Huskies. It highlights the harsh reality of poverty, including food poverty, at a time when many people willingly embrace over-indulgence

Called 'Some Things Shouldn't be a Family Tradition', the campaign was created by the Dublin agency In the Company of Huskies. It highlights the harsh reality of poverty, including food poverty, at a time when many people willingly embrace over-indulgence

Somewhere at the bottom of a box in my bedroom wardrobe sits a clunky-looking digital audio broadcast (DAB) radio set that I bought back in the mid-to-late noughties. Still in its original box, it sits beside a Sony Walkman, a Motorola V3 Razr, an original iPod from 2003 and a hand-held Sony PSP console. This museum-in-a-box is a nod to a bygone era before everything went, well, digital.

The DAB radio was a stupid impulse purchase as it didn't even come with an FM tuner like most future models did. But I consoled myself by thinking it was only a matter of time before every radio station around the country would ditch FM and rush head-long into the warm embrace of DAB which, we were told at the time, was the future of radio broadcasting.

DAB radio would be able to provide listeners with new and innovative programming, a much better choice of stations and, overall, a much better listening experience.

Only it didn't turn out that way.

Now 12 years on from the launch of Ireland's first DAB stations - nearly all of which were operated by RTÉ - the curtains look set to be drawn on our short-lived DAB experiment.

This follows the recent decision by the national broadcaster to take the axe to its digital stations, in an attempt to save €60m in overheads over the next two years. The DAB stations that will fall under the axe include RTÉ Gold, RTÉ Junior and RTÉ 2XM.

So where did it all go wrong when, 15 years ago, the Irish radio industry was tipped to go all out and switch off the FM frequency?

Like most things in the media industry these days, all roads lead back to money and the investment that's required for anything new.

While the many proponents of DAB were evangelical in their outpourings, they were met with a lukewarm reception from the country's main radio stations from the off. By the time the Irish economy fell off a cliff in 2008, advertising revenues - the lifeblood of any commercial station - also went into freefall. Many stations battened down the hatches, focused on cost-cutting, and survival became the name of the game.

The reality was that few within the industry had either the appetite or the money to move into DAB. Some industry figures have argued that it might have worked if all the stations switched off FM at the same time, but they didn't.

It may also have worked if it was official Government policy and both ComReg, which is responsible for the digital spectrum, and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland were given the powers to oversee an orderly transition to digital like in other countries. But they didn't.

Yet other factors were also at play. Many stations feared that audiences would fragment if all stations didn't migrate at the same time.

As any radio station CEO will admit, a station is only as good as the number of listeners it has.

In addition, the radio sector was fearful that listeners would not be as evangelical about digital radio as its advocates were. At the time, DAB radio sets were expensive when compared with their analogue cousins. Would listeners be willing to take a leap of faith, plunge into the digital unknown, and splash out on a new DAB radio when their trusty battery-powered portable radio was doing a relatively good job?

We now know the answer to that one.

Technology was also changing. The biggest digital channel of them all - the internet - soon became another route for reaching audiences, with live-streaming of radio shows. Meanwhile, smartphones and the arrival of 3G and 4G made it possible to listen to radio via a phone through any number of apps, like TuneIn or the Irish Radioplayer.

More recently, voice-activated devices like Amazon's Echo and Google Home now connect listeners with their favourite radio stations online.

Ireland's somewhat ill-fated foray into the digital radio space is in marked contrast to what's going on elsewhere in Europe. In fact, most countries, and the radio sectors operating within them, have embraced digital, including Norway, which is nearly 100pc digital, and the UK, where around 50pc of radio listeners use DAB.

DAB is not officially dead just yet. Various small fringe but licensed stations around the country have run tests on it over the past few years with mixed to poor results.

But with the cost of the technology dropping and newer, cheaper platforms like DAB+ now a feature of the broadcasting landscape, this has encouraged a number of pirate operators around the country to take to the airwaves. Anyone with a knowledge of recent broadcasting history will see the irony in all of this, given that the existing radio industry evolved as part of a concerted effort to drive the pirates off the airwaves.

Yes, only in Ireland folks.

SVP GIVES US THE BARE FACTS

- One third of the estimated 150,000 calls St Vincent de Paul (SVP) receives annually come from people in need of help and food to feed themselves and their families. It's with this in mind that SVP created its annual Christmas campaign to raise awareness of a serious problem in society.

Called 'Some Things Shouldn't be a Family Tradition', the campaign was created by the Dublin agency In the Company of Huskies. It highlights the harsh reality of poverty, including food poverty, at a time when many people willingly embrace over-indulgence. However, for many, their cupboards are quite literally bare.

MEDIA AWARDS MARK 10TH YEAR

- The annual Media Awards are back. Open to media-buying agencies, their clients and media owners on the island of Ireland, the Media Awards are the biggest programme of their kind. Now in their 10th year, they celebrate excellence and best practice in buying, planning and research, as well as the media brands and people who make up the industry. The awards will take place on March 12 at the RDS, Dublin.

Sunday Indo Business