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BBC: FM switch-off would be a risk

"Many younger audiences rely on FM services, so removing them would risk losing more young audiences to non-UK streaming services."

With the words above, the BBC's Chief Technology Officer Matthew Postgate has appealed against switching off FM, because of the risk of users migrating to switching to internet music services such as Amazon Music and Spotify.

Committing to DAB broadcasts beyond the current charter period, Mr Postgate warned that FM was still used by 30% of the population as its only way of accessing radio, with the BBC aiming to continue to support a hybrid of FM, DAB and online radio for the time being.

In a blog post published today, fears of a drop in radio audiences if an FM switch-off was implemented, mirroring the experiences of Norway, were also mentioned.

During the summer, it was confirmed that radio listening in the country - which became the first in the world to switch national stations to DAB digital radio - had slumped, with some listeners abandoning radio once FM services had stopped. A report suggested the number of radio sets in use in Norway had fallen by almost a half.  Following the announcement, some pointed to a natural drop in Norwegian radio listening during the summer months, while others demanded a return of FM broadcasts.

He called on the industry to view the switch to online / IP radio as an opportunity to "innovate further and faster, offering greater discovery, services and functionality to audiences". He confirmed that the BBC will invest in IP technology and services to support the future of a vibrant radio industry to fight off non-UK competition.

AM close downs
Following the closure of some AM radio transmitters at the beginning of the year, he warned that other AM services across medium and long wave "may well" continue to be shut down amidst declining usage, citing "natural market evolution, with the same strategies being undertaken by commercial radio players."

The call to keep FM comes months after digital radio listening exceeded 50% for the first time. The 50% mark was due to act as a trigger for the government to consider a pathway to a digital-only future. But in the last few years, some of the largest growths have come from new online platforms, radio apps on smartphones and live streams via smart speakers, while listening to radio via digital TV services has fallen.

With 5G networks on the horizon, which promise to offer improved latency, some in the industry think this might well replace current digital radio networks.

Crucially, a decision to switch-off FM would force broadcasters to invest in additional DAB transmitters to fill the remainder of the network. With the rapid growth of online/IP services, there appears to be a growing reluctance to place all of the industry's "eggs" in the DAB basket.

The statement by Matthew Postgate comes as industry representatives gather at the Drive2Digital event at the British Museum, where the future digital direction for UK radio will be discussed.