Norn Iron likes its radio.
The quarterly RAJAR figures quoted by Ofcom show that BBC Radio Ulster/Foyle remains dominant – partly at the expense of the BBC national radio channels (except Radio 1) – with a stonking 25% of the local share of listening hours compared to much lower tallies for regional BBC services in England (10%), Scotland (9%) and Wales (15%).
Our share of listening to available local commercial stations is 31%, roughly in line with the UK average, a bit higher than Wales (27%) but lower than Scotland (43%).
But at 7% share, local listening to national commercial stations (like Classic FM, talkSport etc) is low: at least four percentage points lower than the rest of the UK. Unsurprising given the lack of variety of stations to listen to.
Perhaps the most differentiating stat about Northern Ireland’s share of listening hours is the 10% allocated to Ofcom’s Other category – a basket which includes RTE Radio as well as community radio and short term licensed stations. That’s eight percentage points higher than the UK average. (RTE are shortly to ditch MW broadcasts.) RTE listening figures for Northern Ireland are scarce - I can't find any - and the UK quarterly RAJAR survey only covers UK-based radio stations. But the community stations are contributing some of the listening in the 10% too.
A total of fourteen community licences have now been awarded in NI - seven are already on air. Per head of population, this is more than double any other region of the UK, and serves to further highlight NI’s love of local – local news, local gossip, local radio.
But what about digital? AiB’s all about the widgets, gizmos, and things that don’t last long but do look shiny.
Northern Ireland’s two DAB multiplexes (local commercial + BBC national stations) cover approximately 87% of the population. The UK-wide commercial multiplex - Digital One - doesn’t cover Northern Ireland: apparently not enough available digital spectrum to squeeze it in!
“The implementation of DAB in Northern Ireland is particularly constrained by the presence of analogue television in Band III in the Republic of Ireland. After the Wiesbaden Agreement in 1995, one channel (Channel 12) was made available for DAB and its use is shared between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A consequence of this is that only two multiplexes are broadcast in Northern Ireland, the BBC’s multiplex and the Northern Ireland ‘local’ multiplex, operated by Score Digital.” Appendix D: Options for DAB replanning from Ofcom’s Radio –Preparing for the Future report
But with only a poxy 20 stations available to listen to, your jaw will hardly hit the ground when you realise that the local ownership of DAB radio sets has only risen from 11% to 13% over the last year, compared to a four percentage point growth across the UK (now up to 22%). At the moment, DAB’s limited audience reach wouldn’t pay for new stations like U105 to rent a slot on the local commercial multiplex. Though back in 2000, RTE did (unsuccessfully) apply for slots on the local commercial multiplex.
(All this talk of DAB does want me to reminisce about one of the early DAB receivers: the curiously-styled and pulsating Psion Wavefinder that eventually fell foul of the USB drivers in Windows XP Service Pack 2 before working again with the more recent XP SP3.)
And even the raw awareness of DAB lags behind. Just over half (54%) of those surveyed in NI have heard the term “DAB digital radio” compared to 75% across the UK. (Can’t find any mention of awareness in previous year’s reports to compare back to.) But perhaps part of the long term answer is some kind of reorganisation of the multiplex structure - like Ofcom are proposing for Freeview to squeeze HD into the same spectrum. It's all in the hands of the recently formed digital radio group to come up with a way forward for the digital radio industry, and more importantly, the listeners.
Widening out from DAB to listening to the radio by any digital means (Freeview/Satellite, Internet or a Mobile phone), Northern Ireland is still the Luddite region of the UK.
In Northern Ireland, you’re three times as likely to live in a household where someone has watched TV or video online than one in which someone has listened to the radio online!
(Except if you live in Belfast where the video stat is unusually low, but the radio figure is in line with other local regions.)
Online radio listening doesn’t seem to be affected by broadband penetration (the thin green line), pointing to the fact that radio was, and still is, usable over dialup connection speeds or GPRS.
(Charts all reproduced from Ofcom's report.)