• Radio primed for DAB era (SBP – 9 Sept 2007)

    My article on DAB radio in this week’s Media & Marketing section of The Sunday Business Post.

    Digital audio broadcast (DAB) radio may not be a viable medium for advertisers for another three years, but it has huge potential once audiences start to tune in.

    That’s the view of JP Coakley, head of operations at RTE Radio, who said the new technology would allow stations to adopt new business models and appeal to more targeted audiences.

    DAB radio, which is currently being tested on the east coast of Ireland, allows for more radio stations at a higher standard than the traditional FM frequency. The trial is due to end in November, and Coakley said RTE was likely to bid for one of the two radio ‘multiplexes’ with a view to launching a permanent national service.

    The trial currently features a number of local and national radio stations, as well as six DAB-only services from RTE, including a dedicated news channel and a children’s channel.

    ‘‘RTE Junior is completely new for us, and it’s nice to be able to offer something unique like that,” said Coakley. ‘‘As and when the audience grows, we can start to add resources to the services to make them even better.”

    DJ Dusty Rhodes’s Digital Audio Productions company will be the first commercial player to offer a DAB-only service when his two niche stations launch in the coming days. ‘‘We expect to be profitable very early on,” said Rhodes, who has also launched his low-cost 1980s and R&B stations on digital cable services across the country.

    At present, both stations play music without interruption from DJs or advertisements.

    However, Rhodes said actual programming would be added over time and adverts were due to be introduced soon. ‘‘At the moment, they’re kind of like a jukebox, and there’s nowhere you can really go from there, so we’re planning to develop beyond that,” he said.

    While DAB itself does not offer any more precise audience measurement tools than FM, Rhodes said he believed its extremely targeted content would counteract this.

    ‘‘Basically, if you’re under 30 or over 50, a 1980s station probably won’t be for you,” he said.

    ‘‘Every DAB radio out there has a screen on it where you can put up programme information or even the name of the song playing. It’s only a small feature, but it could make a big difference, just like text messaging did for mobile phones.”

    Rhodes’ two stations have been granted a ten-year digital broadcast licence by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) and are not subject to the same strict regulations that FM stations have been in the past, such as a minimum requirement for news, talk and Irish content.

    ‘‘Ireland has a very vibrant radio sector, and I think these regulations are part of it, but I’m all about choice, and I think some stations should be able to offer something without things like news,” Rhodes said. ‘‘If you’re looking for news on DAB, you can now go to the dedicated RTE News channel that loops a three-minute bulletin, so the choice is still there for people who want to hear it.”

    Coakley said the critical factor in advertisers’ support for DAB would be in the sale of devices across the country.

    A number of retailers, particularly British companies operating in Ireland, have begun to stock DAB radios, although Coakley said he had been quick to remind them that the service was only on limited trial and was unlikely to attract as much attention at present.

    Coakley conceded that Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) was likely to be the main focus of the likes of the BCIf or the near future and would gain plenty of publicity once launched nationally but this would not mean that DAB would suffer.

    ‘‘It’s a step in the right direction and, in Britain, the inclusion of the BBC’s digital-only stations on Freeview drove up interest in DAB, so it benefited from it,” he said.

    In technical terms, the trial has been a success to date and the few problems that have arisen have been learned from. When asked about the possible use of DAB+, which is a more advanced version of digital audio broadcasting, Coakley said he would prefer to stick with DAB as it meant avoiding a situation where ‘‘you’re selling a radio in Dundalk that doesn’t work in Newry’’.

    He also said he was not sure if DAB+ technology was necessary for the size of the Irish market at this time.

    ‘‘Digital radio mondiale (DRM) is an interesting proposition to me, as it is the digital equivalent of AM,” he said.

    ‘‘I think there’s plenty of scope for DAB and DRM to run side by side, just as FM and AM do now, and it could allow for far more diverse, international content.”