Imagine a large lake on a beautiful sunny day. The water is perfectly still. All is quiet and calm.
Today it’s the annual wave-making contest and the first contestant is a giant of a man. He’s so strong that he can hurl massive boulders into the centre of the lake creating enormous waves that wash up all around the shore. He’s soon joined by other giants and, before long, it’s impossible to distinguish between all the waves.
Other contestants around the lake quickly become despondent. Not only are they struggling to lift the heavy boulders, but there's no way they're capable of throwing them far enough to reach the centre of the lake. So how can they compete? After much debate, they realise that if they settle for smaller rocks, and concentrate on throwing them into the calmer waters in their respective sections of the lake, they can make their own ‘local’ waves that are even bigger than the ones coming from the centre.
So everyone celebrates as prizes are awarded for the best wave makers – 'lake-wide' and local!
This is the same ‘proximity’ principle that gives local radio the edge over national stations. The ‘giants’ are the national brands with local stations ‘cutting through’ by offering enhanced relevance to their defined area.
Now, thanks to small-scale DAB, opportunities are opening up for a whole new range of even more localised digital services. Our strategy at Niocast Digital is to create and nurture a 'DAB ecosystem' comprising a diverse and eclectic mix of tightly-focused brands, each connecting and resonating with its own, clearly-defined, community of interest. This way we are growing the commercial digital audience by offering something entirely new and unique rather than cannibalising what’s already there.
It’s too early to look for evidence of our impact on listening in Rajar, but to carry the analogy forward, in the Niocast section of Manchester’s radio ‘lake’, we are now gently dropping lots of brightly coloured ‘pebbles’ into the choppy waters. Our waves may not be the biggest – but there are lots of them and they’re unquestionably the most colourful!
The BBC’s national multiplex merely simulcast existing services (with the notable exception of 6 Music and 4 Extra). In commercial radio, due to financial constraints, there was a move towards automated brand-based services. These were generally bland, ‘clunky’ and almost invisible in terms of marketing support. Does anyone remember Core, Life, Capital Disney, TheJazz, Oneword and Digital News Network?
The problem here is bandwidth. With traditional FM and AM, every station has its own transmitter and own dedicated frequency on the radio dial. The best way to think about DAB is as a single data stream – on a single frequency – carrying all available stations. That single data stream has a fixed data rate. This means that every time a station is added, something somewhere has to give. And therein lies the DAB paradox: It's supposed to offer better quality and more stations, but the more it does the latter, the less it can deliver the former. As a consequence, most of the national DAB stations are now broadcast in mono and, with sample rates as low as 64 kbit/s, they sound inferior to their FM counterparts.
Don’t get me wrong, the fundamental concept of DAB is completely sound, but the UK’s implementation of it was flawed. The critical decision was to adopt the Eureka 147 system back in 1999. This relied on MP2 encoding which has since been superseded by the more efficient AAC system. I suspect this was largely down to the BBC’s ability to throw license fee money at the project with impunity; it’s easy to take risks when you’re gambling with someone else’s money!
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but naivety abounded in high places back then. Many believed that digital switchover for TV and Radio would be so great for the consumer that people would quickly throw their old sets into the skip and invest in something that would deliver the ‘Digital Promise’ – ‘More Choice & Higher Quality’.
The Turning Point - Small-Scale DAB
At Niocast we saw this as a major step towards potentially overcoming DAB’s two key impediments to growth at a stroke:
Ofcom’s own agenda was more aligned to the technical aspects of the trial:
The focus of our application was on extending choice. The more variety DAB offers, the more likely it is that people will make the switch and, at least, sample the new stations. Our original six stations were all different and distinctive representing a 60/40 mix of existing operators and new entrants to the industry. Fundamentally, there was nothing on our multiplex resembling any existing DAB station in the market.
Niocast Manchester - Formats at Launch
We were delighted to launch with such a diverse range of services, demonstrably enriching the DAB listening choice for Manchester:
We continued to welcome new services and by February 2016 we had grown our ‘bouquet’ to eleven. MAX 80s, Unity Radio and London Greek Radio were swiftly followed by New Sunset Radio – a fondly-remembered station from the 90s and something brand new – NQR, a station targeting Manchester’s thriving northern quarter.
More Choice and Higher Quality? Bring on DAB
Early in 2016 we set out to explore the feasibility of DAB+ as a means of enhancing the trial whilst providing us with additional options for clients. Unlike DAB where the audio signal is encoded in MP2, a DAB+ audio signal uses AAC (Advanced Audio Coding). This deploys a number of clever techniques to make it more efficient, achieving better audio quality at lower bitrates. Typically, 48 kbp/s DAB+ sounds the same as a 128 kbp/s DAB signal. Most radio sets produced since 2007 are compatible with both DAB and DAB+ although up until 2013 some manufacturers chose to disable the facility because there were no DAB+ services to receive. (If in doubt contact the manufacturer). What was really interesting to us, though, is that DAB and DAB+ services can live side-by-side on the same multiplex.
Offering existing clients a DAB+ upgrade has enabled us to dramatically increase the range of services on the multiplex whilst, at the same time, allowing them to broadcast in higher quality.
Niocast Manchester – Formats One Year-In
On the anniversary of our launch we’re proud to offer more services than any other UK multiplex:
Niocast Manchester – Multiplex Timeline
We’ve retained all of our original services which is a real testament to their belief in the platform. Encouragingly, we continue to receive enquiries on a regular basis from prospective new services suggesting that, in Manchester at least, the demand is there to sustain a smaller tier of DAB.
It’s been a great year for Niocast Digital and, for me, especially rewarding to come back to the city where I began my broadcasting career and help shape the future radio ecology. When I started out there was just one commercial station – Piccadilly – and half the population listened to it! Now we have one of the most developed and sophisticated radio markets in Britain with 71 DAB services available across the city – 27% of them from the Niocast multiplex. Manchester is a great place to be just now and we relish the prospect of developing things further in our second year.
DAB and DAB+ Services Available in Manchester