what's most surprising about Channel 4's announcement that it is pulling out of DAB is not that it's abandoning the platform, but that it took the broadcaster so long to do it. it's been a long road for C4 since the consortium it led (which included Channel 4, Bauer Radio, UTV, UBC Media Group and SMG) 'won' the second DAB digital radio national commercial multiplex in July last year. delay has followed delay; we were supposed to get the first stations this summer gone, but plans were subsequently scaled back to just one station (E4 Radio) to be launched in 2009.
as the MediaGuardian podcast panel observed, Andy Duncan's strategy to move into radio (and particular speech radio) was more than sound – indeed it formed a key part of a broad range of announcements and maneuvers under the 'Next on 4' banner designed to shore up Channel 4's PSB credentials, with the aim of pursuading the Government to part-fund the broadcaster as it faces a multi-million pound deficit in its budget. but almost as soon as the announcement was made DAB ran into trouble.
the problem for the platform is simple. DAB is an interim technology; one that in future media history lessons will sit neatly on the timeline between FM / AM signals and the internet. as soon as internet-enabled radio listening was available on mobile phones the writing was on the wall for the platform. in this context it would be madness to even contemplate now going ahead with a second national multiplex.
unfortunately this simple problem doesn't have a simple solution. for a start the 30% of households which have invested in a digital radio aren't going to be jumping for joy if the signal goes down the pan. but more importantly there doesn't exist an internet-based commercial platform to replace DAB. there is no commercial iPlayer and certainly no commercial investment available to build one (commercial radio was struggling even before the recent downturn, and shows no sign of improving soon). access to the iPlayer platform is emerging as the most cost-effective and consumer-centric solution.
but the group set to lose out as much as any other are advertisers. what Channel 4 radio offered was a viable commercial offering to rival BBC Radio 4, an audio space to produce more upmarket and sophisticated audio content and advertising. it was a space I as a planner was looking forward to exploring, and I'm sure I wasn't alone. for a radio landscape crying out for diversification and innovation, Friday's announcement heralds a loss far greater than any one station. it is the loss of an opportunity that may never come round again.