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Digital radio listening in the UK hits record high

Could the latest surge in internet and DAB radio listeners spell the end of FM?

The latest official figures from Rajar, which collects audience data for the UK radio industry, show an increase of nearly half a million radio listeners in the past year.

Radio listening plateaued in 2011 and 2012, but in the past few years there’s been somewhat of a digital radio renaissance, with listening figures reaching a new record high in 2016.

Roughly 90% of the UK population – approximately 48.7 million adults – are tuning in regularly to listen to their favourite digital broadcasts. This includes accessing the radio on TVs as well as smartphones and tablets, and the proliferation of dedicated internet radio apps has no doubt helped the recent surge in radio listening.

But what does this mean in terms of the proposed digital radio switchover? Here we look at current radio habits in the UK, and whether this boost in digital radio figures could trigger the turning off of the FM radio platform later this year or in early 2018.

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A surge in digital radio listeners

Radio use in the UK is now at record levels, with the average radio listener tuning into 21.5 hours of live radio every week. While FM has always held a large proportion of the radio audience, lately it’s been on the decline and has lost 4.1% of listeners in the last year.

DAB is still far and away the most popular platform for digital listening, but there’s been a recent rise in the number of people tuning in to internet radio. This is due in no small part to the near-universal adoption of smartphones and tablets, as well as the convenience of being able to access the radio through smart TVs, apps and online.

Although internet radio still has a way to go to match DAB or FM radio, it is drawing away listeners from the other platforms. This is due to how easy it is to access, but also the sheer amount of stations – over 100,000 available worldwide – and the fact that the sound quality is often better because it isn’t subject to signal strength or aerial reception.

Our recent survey into the radio preferences of Which? members also reflects the increase in internet radio fans, as well as the growing trend of accessing radio by non-traditional means. Although most Which? members prefer to listen to a portable, table-top or alarm-clock radio, 16% said they regularly listen to broadcasts on non-radio devices.

But that doesn’t mean that FM radio has completely fallen by the wayside. It still attracts over 50% of all radio listeners in the UK, and nearly two fifths of Which? members prefer it. Yet with Norway switching off FM signals to go digital-only in January, some are rightly worried that the UK will soon follow suit, rendering countless analogue radios useless and forcing FM fans over to the digital platform.

Could the digital radio switchover happen in 2017?

For years now there’s been talk of traditional analogue radio being turned off in the UK in favour of digital radio. But with many steadfastly committed to FM, and patchy DAB reception in rural areas still a problem, it’s seemed unlikely that the government would force through such an unpopular measure.

Yet we are getting closer to the government’s criteria of digital radio accounting for 50% of all radio listening. It’s currently at 45.2% and the number is creeping up every quarter, triggering radio industry experts to predict that digital listeners will overtake those listening on the old FM frequency by the end of this year or early next year.

But the government has also said that national DAB signal coverage must be comparable to FM coverage before a switchover can occur and, despite continual work on strengthening the signal, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. In any case, it’s still not going to be a quick process once those two targets are reached, as the government has said it will then carry out a thorough review before deciding how to proceed.

So the earliest the digital radio switchover could be expected is 2018, although with Brexit on the cards and a number of other pressing issues, it’s looking less and less likely to happen before 2020.

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