May 2016 was a landmark month for digital radio in the UK, with the RAJAR audience measurement survey finding that 57% of the population listen to digital radio every week. This represents a 44% share of all radio being listened to via a digital platform – with such significant stats, are we back on track for a 2020 digital radio switchover?

Back in 2009, the government proposed a 2015 switchover for national radio stations from FM to Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), with the caveat that the switchover cannot take place until the majority of the population are listening via digital means. In light of the uptake not being as steady as they had expected, this deadline was subsequently postponed, with 2020 pencilled in as the earliest possible date. However last week the Department for Culture, Media and Sport released its white paper on the future of the BBC. The white paper made hints that 2020 may now be achievable, with an expectation that the BBC takes “a leading role” in the switchover process. Similar to Digital UK, the body that oversaw the terrestrial TV switchover back in 2012, the BBC would work with commercial radio for a smooth transition. The proposed switchover applies to all BBC, national, regional and large local commercial stations leaving the FM spectrum free for local and community radio.

Elsewhere in Europe, Norway is on the brink of ending analogue radio, with plans to be the first country to switch off an FM transmitter in 2017, at a predicted saving of £35m. In addition to cost savings, moving beyond the FM multiplex allows broadcasters to offer a greater variety of programming. We need only look at the standout success stories of the BBC and Bauer for proof that the digital model can find a sizable audience despite being ‘niche’; whether that’s 2.2m tuning in for new diverse music on 6 Music or 1.7m listening to classic power ballads on Absolute 80s. For the listener, the benefits of a DAB switchover are greater choice, ease of use (no more fiddling to find an exact frequency) and improved digital sound quality (once the transmitters are all in place).

For advertisers, a DAB switchover could mean greater value to be had (as broadcasters look to monetise new stations and as such ‘supply’ to the radio market increases), as well as more flexible programming and distinctive target audiences, meaning greater advertising opportunities around content, promotion and sponsorship campaigns.

With benefits for broadcasters, listeners and advertisers, what is the hold up with a digital switchover? Almost half of all in-home listening is now digital, compared to only 20% of listening in vehicles. That said, six out of ten new vehicles are now equipped with a digital radio as standard and as of last week over 1,000 dealerships are registered Digital Radio Tick Mark installers, so it is only a matter of time until digital listening reaches a critical mass.
As we naturally move towards this tipping point, it is likely that we will see a large scale public awareness campaign – similar to the Digital UK TV switchover initiative – which will only serve to expedite the adoption process. As digital radio is thrust firmly into the public psyche, we’ll be placing our bets on 2020.