Advanced Television

Report: ‘Protect British radio output on smart speakers’

October 21, 2021

By Colin Mann

British radio listeners’ favourite stations should be protected for the future through new regulation so they can be accessed easily on smart speakers, according to a government-commissioned report.

The Digital Radio and Audio Review found that smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home are owned or accessed by a third of all adults and now play a central role in many of our lives – despite only being available for around five years.

The report recommends new measures to protect UK radio stations’ accessibility so that their content is carried on platforms via connected audio devices such as smart speakers and car ‘infotainment’ systems. This will mean they can continue to reach loyal audiences as radio is increasingly listened to via tech platforms rather than traditional radio sets.

The review, undertaken with a broad cross-section of industry stakeholders including commercial radio groups, the BBC, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and techUK, looked at the challenges radio services are likely to face in the future from changing listening habits and new technologies.

Other recommendations include that there should be no mandated switch-off of analogue radio until at least 2030 – meaning that FM radio broadcasts can continue for at least another decade so the elderly, vulnerable and people in remote communities can access essential news and entertainment.

The government will consider the review’s recommendations as it prepares a Broadcasting White Paper and develops a new pro-competition regime for digital markets.

“British radio showcases some of our best creative talent and played a vital role in the pandemic bringing news and entertainment to those in need,” stated Media Minister Julia Lopez. “We must make sure this treasured medium continues to reach audiences as listening shifts to new technologies and that we have a gradual transition away from FM to protect elderly listeners and those in remote areas. We will not have a digital switchover until at least 2030 and will consider new rules to keep our thriving radio sector at the heart of the UK’s media landscape.”

Radio listening habits have changed markedly over the past ten years, with more listener choice than ever before thanks to the increasing availability of on-demand audio and the successful development of DAB digital radio.

There are now more than 570 stations available on DAB across the UK, in addition to thousands of online stations and more than 300 stations on analogue. Around 60 per cent of all radio listening is now via DAB or another digital platform, and the review concludes that DAB will underpin listening well into the 2030s and beyond. New small scale DAB networks are coming on air giving more and more small local stations the ability to broadcast digitally.

The review found that the ability of the UK radio industry to thrive in the long term is increasingly dependent on listeners having free access to the hundreds of different UK radio stations on connected audio devices.

Sixty-four per cent of audio consumed on a smart speaker is live radio and the review predicts that live radio will still account for more than 50 per cent of UK audio listening in the mid-2030s.

Amazon, Google and Apple currently provide more than 95 per cent of voice-activated smart speakers and the review notes there is nothing within the current regulations to prevent tech platforms from being able to limit or restrict access to UK radio services or to charge stations for carriage.

Other research undertaken for the review found analogue radio listening will account for just 12 to 14 per cent of all radio listening by 2030, but FM in particular remains highly valued by many listeners, especially those who are older or more vulnerable, drive older cars or live in areas with limited DAB coverage.

The review recommends there should be no formal switch-off of FM services before 2030. AM services, accounting for less than 3 per cent of all listening, should develop a plan to retire national medium wave services, given the cost of running duplicate networks.

Other recommendations from the review include:

  • The government moving forward with its plans for deregulation of commercial radio services to reduce burdens on the sector from outdated regulation;
  • Further measures to support and develop the audio sector, including making it more diverse and representative of the UK;
  • New measures to support national commercial AM licensees who want to retire medium wave services;
  • And further work relating to other distribution channels for radio content, including mobile and to increase the rollout of DAB+ to offer listeners better quality and more services.

“Radio plays a unique role in people’s lives,” asserted Rhona Burns, Director of Operations, BBC Radio. “This review recognises that and proposes important steps to keep radio listening strong as audience habits change, ensuring brilliant content is easy to find and access across all platforms. It also challenges the BBC and the whole industry to keep innovating and evolving our audio offer, whilst keeping linear listening alive for the many millions who love it.”

“We welcome the review’s focus on making sure radio remains relevant to all audiences, including increasing diversity, skills and representation both on and off air, and we look forward to working with the industry to achieve these goals”

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