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Mix 96 (Digital Radio Switchover)

Volume 571: debated on Thursday 28 November 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Perry.)

I am grateful, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to raise the subject of what is in fact our local radio station, Mix 96, and the digital switchover. As a Bucks Member of Parliament it is good to have the opportunity to raise with a colleague such as you an issue that is not HS2, but concerns a successful local business that provides news and information, supports local charities, promotes local businesses, advertises job vacancies, and even lists school closures during the winter—oh, and before I forget, it also plays great music.

Mix 96 approached me because it is concerned about the switchover. We all know that small local stations, whether licensed by Ofcom as commercial or community stations, lie at the heart of communities up and down the country and hold a special place in the hearts of millions of consumers. However, local radio cannot stand apart from consumer trends. It is worth remembering that, although levels of music listening have never been greater, a large proportion of the listening done by those consumers who are most attractive to advertisers is not done through radio—whether BBC, commercial, analogue or digital— but is instead selected from thousands of people’s own MP3 tracks, or from an even bigger library ready to stream courtesy of programmes such as Spotify.

There is no doubt that the market is changing, and although radio still plays a central role in that, and indeed remains the most personal of media, in some cases people are moving from analogue to digital—whether or not to digital audio broadcasting—to listening online or through smartphone apps. Understandably, that has left small local stations such as Mix 96 feeling worried.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has secured this debate. Is she aware of the local radio station, KLFM, in my constituency that has been doing a phenomenal job? It is the local radio station to listen to across my constituency in factories and places of work. Does she agree that these changes should be consumer-led, and that there should be an independent analysis of the cost?

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point, and I will come to that later in my speech. I am glad to welcome the Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) to the Front Bench. His constituency is within the footprint of Mix 96 and he is keen to support this debate.

For a national station, the cost of broadcasting in DAB need not be very different from broadcasting in analogue. For a small local station, however, with a single FM transmitter, the cost of broadcasting on a local DAB multiplex with half a dozen transmitters could well be unaffordable, especially while it is still also paying to broadcast on FM. If small stations made that leap to DAB, they would invariably find that they were paying for coverage far greater than they had on FM, whether they wanted it or not. DAB is fundamentally the wrong platform for genuinely local radio stations such as Mix 96, which is a hugely popular and commercially successful station. The geographical areas that DAB multiplexes cover are significantly greater—often two to 10 times greater—than those areas covered by many local FM-operated stations.

I would be grateful if I could join the queue to plug a local radio station. Splash FM serves the Worthing part of the coastal area, and the point my right hon. Friend has made about increasing geographical coverage would mean that it would pay a lot of money to broadcast to the sea, or perhaps to France. That is of no benefit to my constituents or local people who want the excellent local news and entertainment that local radio stations such as Splash FM provide.

I am glad my hon. Friend had the opportunity to intervene, and I hope that several other colleagues will do so because they feel so passionately about the issue. Sadly, I am old enough to remember Radio Caroline, when broadcasting to the sea was an important part of building the culture of listening to the radio. We take my hon. Friend’s point, however, because from the perspective of Splash FM, that money would effectively be wasted.

As hon. Members know, the role played by local radio stations is a considerable one. As things stand, the Government are forcing many of them to change their editorial areas out of all recognition. It strikes me that forcing a breaking of that editorial link between the local community and its radio station flies in the face of the Government’s localism and big society agenda.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this important debate. As she rightly says, independent radio stations such as Minster FM play an important role in our local communities. We need that platform to allow local community radio stations to continue, because it must be about listener choice.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That an Adjournment debate at 5 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon has attracted so many hon. Members, when, to be fair, most of our colleagues will be in their cars listening to their radio stations, is a measure of how popular such stations are.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. She is right that many of our colleagues would like to be here to contribute but cannot because they are driving to their constituencies. Does she agree that it would be great if the Minister could agree to meet a wider group of colleagues who would like to stick up for stations such as—

The Minister’s sedentary intervention to challenge my hon. Friend to name her station means that he is not entirely unaware of the commercial opportunities presented by the debate. It is a shame that more of our colleagues cannot take advantage of it, but, sadly, such debates come at the end of the day in the House. The fact that it is taking place at drive time because we finish so early on a Thursday is a happy occurrence.

The right hon. Lady mentions drive time. Sun FM in Sunderland, my local radio station, gives out the best traffic and travel news. Local stations provide another service during bad weather: they let us know whether our schools will be open or closed. That information will be unavailable from national radio stations.

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. We are coming up to the winter months. That service is invaluable. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury will attest, for parents taking children to schools in Buckinghamshire, knowing when schools are open or closed is an essential service.

I do not wish to buck the trend. My local radio station, High Peak Radio, is vital for such information, particularly as winter approaches. We do not have a digital signal in the High Peak—I could go on at great length about that to the Minister. If people move to DAB, FM will be forgotten. It will still be there, but people will have their radios on DAB and not flick back to FM to listen to their local station, and local stations will be starved out, because radios do not have remote controls for channel flicking like televisions do.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Minister should take on board the fact that, so far, DAB has not been designed with small stations and their communities in mind.

I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend can pick up MKFM in her part of Buckinghamshire. Despite its name, it broadcasts on DAB. It is an excellent local community station that aspires to broadcast on FM. I hope that the Minister is able to give some clarity on the timetable for digital switchover, so that stations such as MKFM can plan for the future with certainty.

I was pleased that, early this year, the Minister provided certainty to some small stations by listing those that would be permitted to stay on FM. That removes any requirement for those stations to pay to broadcast on FM and DAB, but a cost-effective digital solution for small stations still needs to be identified. Otherwise, the stations hon. Members have mentioned could face extinction, because advertisers might, at some point, believe that it is not worth paying to reach those who continue to listen to FM stations.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. Given the size of my constituency, I have two local radio stations to plug: The Bay covers Morecambe bay and Radio Wave in Fleetwood covers the Fylde coast. What happened to the Conservative principle of gradualism? Why this sudden move when, as I understand it, only 15% of radios are digital and the market has gone down recently?

We can always prove everything with statistics, but that statistic—that the rate of purchase of digital radios has decreased—was certainly put to me and there is no doubt about that. At the same time, I want to acknowledge how advanced the good companies are that provide digital technology services: I think that there are British components in 45% of digital broadcasting devices around the world. However, the hon. Gentleman is right.

Even while FM remains commercially viable, there is a worrying lack of certainty from Ofcom on how long those stations’ analogue licences would last. It is widely expected that the Minister will soon confirm—I have no idea whether he will—the switchover to digital radio, but he needs to address seriously the concerns of our local stations. Although they will not be required to upgrade from FM to DAB, they need a cost-effective option to do so when the time is right for them.

A private company, with the blessing of Ofcom, ran a recent trial on a proposed DAB solution for small stations, but that did not provide a proven solution for local broadcasters such as Mix 96. I hope, therefore, that the Minister is not going to rely on that example to bolster his case. Perhaps he could encourage Ofcom to fund further trials as soon as possible, as I understand that there are frequency, software, regulatory and signal delivery issues that make the solution from that trial a poor and inadequate replacement.

The Minister should ask Ofcom to provide small stations with greater certainty regarding the duration of their FM licences. If the Minister can assuage the concerns of small stations such as Mix 96 and say that there will be a cost-effective place for them in radio’s digital future, he can provide the certainty on digital radio switchover that the industry as a whole is looking for. It is important that the transition to digital is, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, consumer-led and carefully managed. If it is mishandled by his Department, he will incur the anger of consumers who will suddenly find that they will have to find hundreds of pounds to upgrade their car radios and household sets simply to listen to the radio.

Two out of three radios purchased in the UK today are not DAB and less than 10% of vehicles have a DAB radio. As 21% of radio listening happens in cars, and, as it stands, DAB is not available even on smartphones or mobile phones in the UK, a lot of people would be affected by the plans as presently proposed. As it is, I understand that the Minister receives more complaints about DAB radio than anything else, while the existing FM radio transmission system achieves 99% UK population coverage and is both robust and cost effective. I understand that there is no proposed alternative use for the FM radio spectrum. There is, therefore, no digital dividend to be gained by the Government. I hope the Minister will address that point.

I want to make it clear that this is not about cancelling the digital programme for radio; it is about finding a solution that protects and accommodates our small local radio stations. Many more points could be made, but I hope that the Minister now has the flavour of a widespread problem and will respond with positive news for Splash FM, Minster FM, KLFM, Sun FM, Pirate FM, High Peak Radio, MKFM, The Bay, Radio Wave—I hope I have not missed anybody’s radio station—and our very own Mix 96 and all their loyal listeners, our constituents and all my colleagues who have come here today to represent similar views from around the country. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

I am grateful for the chance to respond to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker, given your strong interest in Mix 96, and as we are debating a digital subject, I hope you will not take it amiss if I say how brilliant your speech was yesterday to the Hansard Society in your approach to digital politics in the 21st century. I also welcome to the Front Bench the Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), who also represents Mix 96. Sadly, he must remain silent, but I suspect, were he able to speak, he would echo many of the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham.

I thank others who have contributed: my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy),representing Minster FM; my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), representing KLFM; my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), representing Splash FM; my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), representing Pirate FM; the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), representing Sun FM; my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), representing High Peak radio; my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), representing MKFM; and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), representing The Bay and Radio Wave; and me, representing Jack FM.

I am delighted to be here talking about this subject. Whenever we debate local newspapers, hon. Members get a chance to plug theirs, and I suspect that this debate will be played on local radio stations up and down the land. I think, however, that my right hon. Friend slightly missed a trick. I thought she was going to suggest that we scrap High Speed 2 and spend all the money on rolling out digital radio, but I am pleased—

Wait, the joke’s coming. I am pleased that I am not the Minister for HS2, because I found my right hon. Friend’s argument on digital radio so persuasive that were I that Minister, I would probably collapse in the face of this Adjournment debate.

I encourage the Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), not to remain silent on the subject of HS2, but to inform the Minister of our views in Buckinghamshire about that particular project. Nevertheless, I thank my hon. Friend for his courtesy and for taking this matter very seriously, because these radio stations are close to all our hearts.

And let me continue in that vein by mentioning another silent hon. Friend, our Whip, who represents Spike FM.

The Minister briefly mentioned local newspapers, and I would like to add that KMFM, run by the Kent Messenger Group, is incredibly concerned about these proposals, not least with its relationships with advertisers and commercial interests being as difficult as they are.

The point is taken.

I take this issue very seriously, being a passionate radio listener myself. We have 1 billion hours of radio listening a week, and it was clear to me when I became Minister that people took their radio listening very seriously; they are passionate about it. The last Government left us with an intent to get to radio switchover, but no plan to reach it. The key criterion was that digital radio’s share of the listening figures should be at least 50% before we set out the timetable for switchover. I made it clear in my first speech on this subject as Minister that I would be led by the consumer, and that is what I mean when I say I agree with the critique of digital radio by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham. I will do nothing on switchover unless I am bringing radio listeners with me.

To get to a stage where we can consider switchover, we have put together a digital radio action plan, ably led by Digital Radio UK and its superb chief executive, Ford Ennals, and his team, including, in particular, Jane Ostler and Laurence Harrison. Substantial progress has been made. I note what my right hon. Friend said about wanting not to scrap digital radio, but to support its roll-out, while also securing a future for local radio stations. I will come to local radio in a moment, but first I will update her on our progress.

We have taken local radio coverage, be it for local BBC stations or commercial stations, to about 72% and national coverage—effectively BBC radio stations 1 to 5—up to 94%, and this year we launched commercial radio digital services in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, roughly half of all new cars, which are vital to this, have digital installed as standard, and in the last year almost 900,000 cars sold had digital radio in them.

This is a good news story for the UK economy, too. We account for about 50% of the global digital radio market. That means real opportunities for British businesses such as Roberts, Revo and Pure—in Kings Langley, not far from my right hon. Friend’s constituency.

It is worth pointing out that we are not alone, and the Minister for Europe will take an interest in what I have to say. Norway and Denmark have already set dates for switchover—2017 and 2019 respectively—and there has been more progress following the launch of national digital services in Germany in 2011 and the Netherlands this year, which has a target switchover date of 2023. Other European markets, including Italy, France, Poland, Sweden, Austria and the Czech Republic are also looking into it. Digital radio is now reaching the Asia Pacific region, where Australia is taking a lead and DAB penetration has already reached 16%.

As chairman of the all-party group on commercial radio, I am greatly interested in this debate and to hear about digital radio being extended to all the good burghers of Europe, but I would like to make a plea to have it in High Peak, which has very little in the way of a digital radio signal at all.

That brings me neatly on to my next point. I am due to make a major speech about the future of digital radio in the middle of December, when I hope to address particular concerns about coverage. Let me repeat, however, that when it comes to the timetable and the setting of dates, we have always been clear that these will be led by the radio listener. There will be no switchover until the majority of listening is digital. It is clear that we are not there yet, and it will certainly not happen within the time frame that concerns my right hon. Friend. While good progress has been made, with the number of adults with access to a DAB digital radio up 10% year on year and places like London reaching 40%, we need to make more progress.

Let me deal with what my right hon. Friend said about Mix 96 and what other hon. Members have said about their own local commercial and community stations. I am a huge fan of local commercial and community radio. In fact, community radio was brought into being by the last Government; I think it has been a massive success story, as are independent local radio stations. Ofcom’s research shows that local radio still holds value for listeners: it is important and valued. Although some measures have allowed greater networking between local radio stations, we still require local programming both at peak time and outside it. Mix 96 is part of the larger radio group. In fact, it is listed as one of the100 best companies to work for by The Sunday Times. Its concerns are well known to us, and they come not just from UKRD, but from UTV and others.

As for securing a digital future for local commercial and community stations, let me first make it clear that we have never said that we require small stations to go over to digital. We have always said that if and when there is a switchover, we would maintain their presence on FM. It is also true that FM can work in tandem with DAB, as AM has with FM for many years. Many of the manufacturers of DAB radios have agreed a minimum specification, which includes FM. However, I take on board the point—I think it was made by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), who talked about remote-controlled radios—that even where we have an FM-DAB station, switching between FM and DAB can be complicated. We are going to see more sets that switch seamlessly as the FM and DAB buttons are pressed, but that does not mean that we do not have to look for a potential solution for local commercial radio to get on to DAB at a cost it can afford.

The Minister mentioned that about 50% of new cars have DAB digital radios fitted as standard. Is he aware, however, that the figure for cars currently on the road is only about 5%? Irrespective of whether the facility for switching between DAB and FM happens, it would not help any of the cars currently on the road.

I totally understand the hon. Lady’s point. First, as the timetable moves towards full coverage of digital radio, we will see what is known as the car park being refreshed over a number of years. It is also the case that the ability to convert an FM radio in a car with a digital converter is becoming much easier and cheaper. Technology will have a solution, but I take her point.

Let me say something about the business of transferring community and local commercial radio to DAB. I said to my officials, and to Ofcom, that I wanted to find a cost-effective route to digital broadcasting for our local stations. Ofcom has made progress—to which my right hon. Friend alluded, although she rightly pointed out that this was an early initiative and that more work needed to be done. It has developed a new approach to small-scale, low-power digital transmission, using open-source software which makes it possible to get on to the local multiplex using an existing FM antenna. That approach was developed initially by Rashid Mustapha, an engineer working at Ofcom, and it must be a brilliant solution, because I do not normally have an opportunity to name people who work at Ofcom during a debate. It has been tested in Brighton with the support of Daniel Nathan of Juice FM. The initial results are promising, and I hope that smaller stations that are enthusiastic about digital will get behind the work.

As the Minister knows, we now use new technology even in the Chamber. I have just received a tweet which says:

“Please mention community radio who have no chance of affording digital transmission costs…never mind the listener.”

Perhaps the Minister could take up that point.

This is almost unheard of, but I have left my mobile phone in my office, so I have not been able to keep up with those who have been tweeting on the debate. However, I advise the tweeter who tweeted to use a piece of old technology called the ear to listen to what I have to say.

I have already mentioned community radio about eight times today. I have said again and again that I am a fan of both community and local independent commercial radio. It is incredibly difficult to run a successful local independent radio station. The people who run them are not rolling in money, or printing money; even those who run local commercial stations are almost running a community service. I met a man who runs one of those stations in Manchester, and he said that he found it tough going. I recently visited a community radio station in Swindon, which is supported by hundreds of volunteers and which makes a huge and vital contribution to the community there. I give equal weight to community radio and local commercial radio in my search for a solution.The key is the FM antenna, which those radio stations will have because they broadcast on FM, along with the ability to use software to convert it to a digital antenna.

I have taken the debate at a gallop because I was not sure whether I would have enough time both to get my jokes in and to respond to the points made by my right hon. Friend. Let me now take up the offer from my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth. If the meeting that she proposes will be as good-natured and well informed as this debate, I relish the prospect. We might even find time to meet—along with Members in all parts of the House, I should add—on a Friday, when the House is debating European matters.

I am a fan of digital radio, and I think that it is the future, but my criteria have always been about coverage. We want digital radio to have the same coverage as FM. This is about the consumer, otherwise known as the radio listener. I want to bring the listeners with us, so that they will effectively have converted themselves to digital radio. That means cheap digital radios, which are now on the market. It means cheap car conversions, which are becoming cheaper all the time. It means digital radios being fitted as standard in new cars. It means good content, like that of Radio 6 Music, the first digital radio station to reach more than 1 million listeners. Those are our criteria.

We will not be pushed into a switchover date; we will not get ahead of the radio listener; and we will continue to listen to well-informed, passionate colleagues such as my right hon. Friend, to whom I am grateful for calling this excellent debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.