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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 16 July, 2002, 09:14 GMT 10:14 UK
Digital radio's new captain
The Pure Evoke 1
It's 99 - and it could revolutionise radio

Last year Ian Dickens sailed 35,000 miles, as a crew member of one of the boats competing in a round the world yacht race.

Persuading the 15 highly-motivated crew members - all paying their own way - to bury their differences wasn't easy.

Dickens resolved the bickering and disputes by devising a slogan, "Does it make the boat go faster?", and pinning it up around the vessel.

BBC digital stations
Radios 1-4 and Five Live
Five Live Sports Extra
6music: New and classic sounds
1Xtra: Black music, launching 16 August
"Network Z": Comedy and drama, launching soon
Asian Network: launching nationally soon
It's a lesson that may come in handy in his new job as director of the Digital Radio Development Bureau, where he has the tricky job of helping to turn digital radio (or DAB, digital audio broadcasting) into a mass market phenomenon while at the same time keeping the peace between different interest groups including the BBC, commercial radio and the makers of radio receivers.

If disputes break out he can always coin a new slogan: "Will it put more digital radios in the market-place?"

'Memory'

Craig Charles
Craig Charles can be heard on the BBC's 6music
Just as useful will be this one-time photographer's 21 years with Olympus cameras. He ended up as UK marketing director. He sees useful parallels between the markets for cameras and radio sets: in both high-tech equipment is sold to people who for the most part aren't interested in the technology, but in what it can do for them.

At Olympus, Dickens says, he used to say he was in the "memory business": the camera was simply the means to preserve and unlock the memories.

Dickens has been at the DRDB just a month - and spent a week of that in Japan, meeting manufacturers.

He reckons his timing is good. Seven years after the BBC first started transmitting its services digitally, three years after the first commercial digital services went on air, there are still only some 50,000 digital radios in the country.

'Kitchen radio'

But the first 99 "kitchen radio" - from Pure Digital, formerly Videologic - goes on sale next month.

1Xtra DJ Semtex
DJ Semtex will feature on the BBC's 1Xtra
It's a utilitarian-looking device in a pale wood casing (VideoLogic should take Red or Dead designer Wayne Hemingway up on his offer to redesign it) but it is the first digital receiver with the potential to reach a mass market.

Until now the receivers available have been expensive, selling mainly to hi-fi buffs and a few enthusiasts.

Dickens believes more than 50,000 cheaper sets from VideoLogic and other manufacturers could be sold by Christmas, if things go well - and if that happens it will be easier to persuade the big names like Sony and Panasonic to launch their own products.

Commercial stations
Virgin, Classic FM and Talksport
PrimeTime: Easy listening
Core: chart pop
Planet Rock: "Uncompromising classics"
Life: Soft pop
Oneword: Speech
Bloomberg: Financial news
Plus a range of local stations
He hopes to have a marketing strategy for digital radio, and a budget to spend on promoting it, in place in the next few weeks.

The budget will come from the BBC and the commercial stations, the DRDB's paymasters. He has also been offered lots of radio airtime - including the BBC's - to promote the new medium, once he has a strategy.

His next step is to talk to consumers in focus groups to find out what digital radio means to them. His own gut feeling, he says, is that greater choice and easier switching between stations are among its big selling points (although evidence suggests that most people eventually settle for only two or three radio stations).

Confusion

Among the problems he faces is widespread ignorance about what digital radio is (not helped by manufacturers' habit of describing conventional analogue radios as "digital" simply because they have a digital display).

Festivalgoer at Witnness
6music carried coverage of Ireland's Witnness festival this weekend
There is a danger that promoting the medium of "digital radio" independently from particular digital stations may simply make people more confused about what it is they're being offered and how they should get it.

And there is a legacy of cynicism among those few who have heard of digital radio, but have been waiting an awfully long time for an affordable receiver.

Ian Dickens, however, doesn't seem a cynic. It's just as well. Marketing digital radio is likely to need just as much drive and enthusiasm, not to mention luck, as sailing round the world.

The BBC's Nick Higham writes on broadcasting

Industry eye

Digital watch
See also:

04 Jul 02 | Entertainment
11 Mar 02 | Entertainment
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