DCMS looks to help local radio get out of the analogue age

Consultation launched in a bid to support 400 community and small commercial stations in moving from analogue to DAB signals

Many radio stations across the country are still running on technology from an age when DJs in the mould of comedy characters Smashie and Nicey, pictured here, still dominated the airwaves  Credit:  AAD/EMPICS Entertainment

The government is looking to assist local radio stations still broadcasting on FM and AM frequencies to move into the digital age.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has launched a consultation on how best to develop a licensing process to help create a UK-wide network of local digital audio broadcast (DAB) multiplexes, for use by the 400 or so commercial or community-run local radio stations that still broadcast via analogue technology.

Unlike FM and AM radio – in which each broadcasting station requires its own unique frequency – DAB radio allows stations to be grouped together and broadcast via a single multiplex frequency. The UK has 13 national multiplexes, each of which broadcasts multiple stations throughout the country or across a large region. Beyond this, there are more than 50 local multiplexes which serve cities, towns, or counties.

In 2014 DCMS funded a programme which has trialled the use of 10 “small-scale”, DAB multiplexes, running on open-source software to serve a much more localised area. These multiplexes are based in in Aldershot, Birmingham, Brighton and Hove, Bristol, Cambridge, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Norwich, and Portsmouth. The scheme, the government claimed, has allowed community radio stations and small local commercial broadcasters to make a switch from analogue to digital frequencies.

But the consultation website launched this week explained that, while these they have been a technical success, “the licensing arrangements for the 10 trials are not a suitable basis for the long-term licensing of small-scale DAB radio multiplexes”.

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To broadcast via DAB radio stations currently require a Digital Sound Programme (DSP) licence. The government is planning to create a new, community radio-focused option – dubbed the C-DSP – that would offer a significantly more streamlined application and approval process. Stations holding a C-DSP licence would, the government claimed, be eligible for funding from the Community Radio Fund and would also have access to small-scale multiplex capacity that has been ring-fenced for use by community stations.

Digital minister Matt Hancock said: “Local radio is much loved and vitally important as a source of objective and in-touch local news. As more power is devolved locally, and as local newspapers struggle, local radio’s role in the community is becoming more and more critical. So, we are working hard with stations and listeners to make sure the rules are up to date, and give local radio the chance to use new digital technology to reach audiences, new and longstanding, old and young. Today’s publication marks another step forward in that work. I’m very grateful to everyone who has worked so hard to make this progress.”

The government is seeking input and feedback on its licensing proposals. Contributions are sought “from individuals and organisations involved in the commercial and community radio sectors, including members of the public who hold an interest in commercial and/or community radio”. The consultation runs until 28 February.

Ash Elford runs the small-scale multiplex in Portsmouth and serves as digital development manager at local community station Angel Radio.

He said: “After over two years of successfully broadcasting local DAB services to Portsmouth, it is good to see a process for the full-time licensing of many more local multiplexes for cities and towns starting to take shape. We hope that the successes we have achieved so far with technical innovations and broadcasting smaller commercial, niche, and community services can be replicated across the UK as soon as possible.”

The creation of a new licensing system has been made possible by the passing into law of a private members’ bill – the Broadcasting (Radio Multiplex Services) Act 2017 – introduced by Torbay MP Kevin Foster last year. The act provides for greater flexibility in the regulation of local radio broadcasters.


Sam Trendall

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