BBC Digital Radio the future

Interesting to read the following on the Radio Today site
The BBC is to reinvent its digital radio offering around brand extensions of its main five radio networks following the proposed closure of BBC 6 Music and the Asian Network.

It is understood that the BBC plans to spend some of the money saved by closing the two stations on digital spin-offs and extensions to programmes already being broadcast on BBC Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live. The BBC spent £16m on content for 6 Music and the Asian Network in the year to the end of March 2009.

A similar tactic has proved successful on the BBC’s TV channels, with spin-offs such as BBC3’s Doctor Who Confidential and BBC2’s Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two and The Apprentice: You’re Fired.

ITV has also enjoyed success in using spin-offs to drive viewers to its digital TV station ITV2, with Britain’s Got Talent and The X-Factor spawning Britain’s Got More Talent and The Xtra Factor.

The mooted new services would be developed along the lines of BBC Radio 5 Live’s digital sibling, 5 Live Sports Extra, a non-linear service which unlike 6 Music and the Asian Network does not broadcast around the clock and is relatively cheap to run. The extra digital radio content would also be available online for listening on demand.

“Just like The Xtra Factor goes backstage and tells you what happened at The X Factor, so Radio 2 could have spin-off digital shows with extra coverage from Glastonbury of the Electric Proms,” said one industry executive.

One possibility, highlighted by 6 Music DJ Steve Lamacq, was an evening-only digital service comprising the best shows currently on 6 Music and called “Radio 2 Extra”. Lamacq said it would be “a bit like having your four-bedroom house compulsorily purchased and replaced with a bedsit on the edge of Heathrow”.

BBC director general Mark Thompson’s strategy review, published last week, had already indicated that BBC Radio 7, the corporation’s most successful digital-only network, will be rebranded Radio 4 Extra with closer ties to its parent speech station.

Industry sources suggested that the BBC would be looking to develop similar digital spin-off programming across its main radio networks, including BBC Radio 2, which was instructed by the BBC Trust last month to do more to encourage digital take-up among its listeners.

5 Live Sports Extra was praised in Thompson’s review as providing a “very good model for how digital-only services can naturally complement their analogue sister stations”.

The BBC has a third “extra” branded digital radio station, BBC Radio 1Xtra, which will be revamped over the next 18 months to strengthen its editorial ties with its parent station, Radio 1.

Radio 1Xtra already shares one of the BBC’s best-known DJs, Tim Westwood, who recently complained on-air that the station’s audience was so low that he had been broadcasting “to absolutely nobody for the last three hours … It’s soul-destroying.”

So-called “pop-up” radio stations are already a feature of ABC Radio in Australia, which broadcasts on digital for a limited amount of time to cover big events such as the Melbourne arts and culture festival and the 40th anniversary of the moon landings.

A BBC spokesman said: “It’s too early to speculate on how we might use the funds from the proposed closure of 6 Music, other than to reiterate our commitment to invest it in digital radio content.”

A substantial digital radio offering from the BBC will be crucial if the industry is ever to achieve its goal of digital switchover.

Digital across all three platforms – digital audio broadcasting (DAB) radio, digital TV and online – must account for at least 50% of all radio listening before a two-year switchover plan can kick in. It currently accounts for 20.9%.

The digital economy bill currently going through parliament included a target date of 2015 for switchover. Industry executives now say it may not happen until 2020.
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