DAB – its demise has been exaggerated

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World Cup

Fellow ex-Yahoo Fru Hazlett started it off when she re-focused GCap and reduced the amount of programming away from digital radio (this is is known in the UK as DAB after the acronym for the European digital radio standard ‘Digital Audio Broadcasting’), soon even that bastion of reliable commentary on media industry affairs The GQ magazine blog weighed in on how broadcast radio is dying.

Ok, first of all, GCap closed down stations to focus back on their core London demographic, people in Liverpool and the Northwest just aren’t as attractive to advertisers the bulk of UK economic activity is in the Southeast of England. Secondly regardless of what way you transmit your radio signal, either over the internet or via the airwaves you still have a cost of producing compelling content.

Whilst DAB does have its problems: expensive receivers the continuing proliferation of analogue FM radio devices in mobile phones, alarm clocks and even gadgets to play your iPod through your car stereo. Competition from internet radio is not going to kill broadcast radio anytime soon. The reason for this is technological. Whilst the internet is great for many services it is not a panacea for all communications problems. It is just that the media companies need to find the best content for the best delivery mechanism and at the best price point.

Let me illustrate this by a series of examples:

  • I love the cinema, with some noticable exceptions like Cloverfield, I still love watching film and even documentaries on the big screen, having it fill my visual field and benefiting from the giant soundsystem. I remember going to see Independence Day and coming coming out with a numb backside because the cinema had tricked my brain into believing that I had been on a wild adventure park ride in the air and space flight sequences. But I am in the minority. However, during the last World Cup, I worked next to the Odeon cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue and they broadcast World Cup matches live on the big screen. Lots of people who couldn’t get the time off or spend the money to go to Germany got to watch the match in a stadium like environment where they shared the agony and ecstacy of the beautiful game in a shared experience that was much more powerful than watching it on the internet, their own television or even down the local pub. This shared experience by proximity is something that the internet cannot offer in the same way
  • During the July 7 attacks on London by a homegrown suicide bomber cell, many people went to the Internet and the internet slowed to a crawl. I was working at Yahoo! Europe at the time, email slowed right down, you couldn’t get through to the news pages of many media outlets and I remember IMing Jonathan Hopkins who worked on the Yahoo! team over at Bite to see if everybody there was ok. There was a heroic effort by the editorial team led by Simon Hinde and a brace of engineering staff to reinvent the home page for the day so that we could keep Yahoo! readers/surfers up to date as best we could. Adverts came off the page and the whole download payload was reduced to make it easier to serve and download the news. During this time broadcast radio and television had no such infrastructure problems, it didnt matter whether there was 5 million or 50 million people watching, whilst there was still electricity the broadcast networks could cope with that demand spike. There is a technology called multicast which the BBC messed around with and Cisco had been talking about for at least the last decade that help fix some of the architectural problems of the internet, but it won’t be useful until the vast majority of internet switches have the multicast option turned on. The second point is we still may run into problems even with multicast if we don’t have enough bandwidth in the right places. Bob Cringely has a series of good articles on multicast technology here
  • Vinyl supposedly died sometime in the early 1980s, yet sales over the past few years have jumped. A combination of the use of compression by audio engineers on modern music formats, the platform for cover art that vinyl offers, modern pressing plants in the Czech Republic built by skillful local engineers and the ease of digital piracy meant that vinyl sales actually picked up over the past year or so. The sales are still small, but people like SimplyVinyl have recognised a very lucrative market niche

The point is that is that the demise of a media channel is less to do that one is better than another, its about the media companies being smart enought to find the right content for the right channel. And the right channel changes by culture as well. When I went to Hong Kong, I saw what Sir Run Run Shaw meant when he described cinema as ‘air-conditioned darkness’. In a place where people live quite literally on top of one and other, the ‘me time’ offered to individuals and lovers by the cinema in terms of privacy and respite from the heat and humidity is an important part of the cinemas appeal.