Written evidence submitted by Better Media




1              Introduction

2              Better Media Recomendations

3              Context - Scarcity Regulation

4              Context - Spectrum Use

5              Context - Post-Scarcity Mindset

6              Summary

7              Appendix: Context of Broadcast Radio


1           Introduction

This briefing note outlines Better Media’s support for the Media Bill 2023, but will also draw attention to those parts of the legislation that we believe are contradictory and will not achieve the Bill’s stated aims. Better Media is a members-based organisation, campaigning for openness and transparency in media policy, pluralism in media ownership, and access to media platforms as a civic right.[1] Better Media contends that the public interest is best served by safeguarding a pluralistic and diverse media economy that has multiple types of suppliers of media services and content, both small and large, networked and independent, commercial and community.

Our contribution is made in the spirit of constructive improvement, while advocating on behalf of minority and non-traditional media producers, audiences and communities. Many of whom are not effectively represented by trade bodies or self-selecting associations. Better Media does not have a vested interest in protecting the economic or personal gain that comes with being an association of commercial or community licensees of broadcast media. Our principal concern is to reconcile changes that benefit new and innovative operators and suppliers of broadcast radio services, which should provide a welcome addition of much needed innovation in the broadcast radio sector.

Better Media places emphasis on the interests of citizens and consumers, which we believe necessitates the review of market dominance that can accumulate in an established and mature market, and which comes when supplier incumbency goes unchallenged. Therefore, we believe that simply preserving the status quo and doing nothing to diversify the supply of new broadcast radio providers in the United Kingdom, is not in the interests of citizens and consumers because it reduces choice, with limitations in supply limiting innovation. Our preference, then, is for competition in open and fair markets that can be accessed equally by either commercial, public, social or community media providers.


2           Better Media Recommendations

Our principal concern is that the manifestation of additional radio broadcasting supply, as promised by the DAB advocates, has not yet materialised, and is unlikely to ever do so (Appendix: Context of Broadcast Radio). Plainly put, there is not yet the equivalent digital capacity to match the availability, accessibility and cost-effectiveness of analogue broadcasting on AM and FM. This means that when taken alone, or in combination with other digital media service platforms, the United Kingdom does not yet meet the requirements of the digital switch off discussed by Ofcom in 2007. This is because the platform specifications for DAB, while operationally effective in many instances, i.e. nationally and regionally, they do not accord with those best achieved by AM and FM broadcasting in many specific and local circumstances. In addition, DAB can never align with the latest innovations in media content supply as is inherent with other digital platforms and networks, and so must itself now be considered a legacy communications platform. DAB is a hangover from an earlier age.

Better Media’s concerns are threefold:


We recommend, therefore, that the proposals identified in this draft Bill should only be applied if a level playing field is introduced that enables increased market competition and diversification of supply between all forms of service providers, both digital and analogue. This means applying amendments that:



3           Context - Scarcity Regulation

While the expectation in 2007 was that 90% of radio listening would be via digital platforms, it is pertinent to note that the expected level of take-up of digital radio listening has not been achieved, nor is it likely to ever be fully realised. Presently 33% of radio listening is via AM and FM according to RAJAR[2] (though this reported data does not include non-RAJAR stations such as community and small commercial services). The proportion of people listening to digital radio clearly remains below the 90% threshold that was defined by Ofcom as necessary threshold for a digital switchover in 2012.

Better Media believes this is for a number of reasons, including:

4           Context - Spectrum Use

In forming our view of the proposals made in the Media Bill, and after cross-referencing them with Ofcom’s policy proposals in 2007, Better Media accepts that major reform of radio broadcasting in the United Kingdom is well overdue. However, rather than proposing a digital switch off, our suggestion is that all and any potential for increased use of all existing spectrum and capacity on existing platforms is explored first, with the aim of maximising access and providing affordable additional capacity for existing and new broadcast radio services. We believe that broadcast radio, both digital and analogue, has an essential role to play in providing universal access to high-quality information and entertainment services by members of the public wherever they live and whatever their economic capacity across the United Kingdom.

DAB, no doubt, will continue to be part of this essential social requirement for public benefit, as outlined by Ofcom in 2007. However, and in some circumstances such as emergency situations, analogue broadcasting retains an eminent position as a durable, accessible and low-cost broadcast platform.[10],[11] Analogue broadcast radio, we believe, will therefore retain its relative importance as both an insurance platform and as a platform for universally accessible information services for those who are affected by economic insecurity, or those who are segregated by distance or lack of capacity to access digital platforms.

Better Media believes that broadcast radio retains the essential purpose that was discussed in 2007, and that this purpose will endure for many years, at least until a suitable alternative national IP service can offer equivalent coverage, cost and accessibility.[12] In addition, we also acknowledge that it is the right of all citizens in the United Kingdom to be able to access media in whatever form they prefer. Therefore, if suppliers wish to continue to operate legacy broadcast platforms, where the spectrum is available, it is not for the state or the regulator to determine one platform preference over another. A reiteration of Ofcom’s platform neutral approach would therefore be welcome.

Moreover, if there is a market trend towards one specific platform at any one time, as does occasionally happen, this does not necessarily mean that it would be appropriate to propose terminating access to all established legacy platforms. For example, just because electronic readers gained in rapid popularity, does not mean that bookshops and libraries became superfluous public assets. E-readers and books now coexist and have been incorporated into the mix of options available to the public. Unnecessarily closing access to AM and FM spectrum will only reignite the desire of pirate operators to provide content that is unlicenced and potentially socially harmful.

Therefore, Better Media suggests that the recommendations of Ofcom in 2007 are still largely applicable, though they can now be updated to include significant changes that have occurred with the shift towards the digital economy. Better Media believes that with judicious changes to the management of the FM and AM spectrum, for example by implementing a decrease in the protection threshold requirements between services carried on the FM and AM frequency bands, it will be possible bring UK radio regulation into alignment with European usage,[13] while adding considerable additional capacity to AM and FM that will ensure many additional services can be licenced.

Likewise, as more existing national and international services are withdrawn from AM and FM transmission, due to costs associated with maintaining high-powered national transmitters,[14] additional spectrum availability and capacity can be offered for local and regional low-power services to use.[15] Similarly, by mandating all national and regional DAB carriers to shift their services to DAB+, as Ofcom thought would happen a decade ago, there will be a significant provision for additional capacity that can be added to the existing digital broadcast platforms, because they can utilise more up-to-date error correction and data compression standards.

Importantly, no viable proposed alternative use for the FM and AM spectrum has been proposed, explored or adopted, as was considered in 2007. Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), for example, never moved beyond the research phase.[16] Many of the platforms for accessing audio content are now merging, though live broadcast radio, despite a relatively minor dip, will still be something that a majority of the population will access and value.

In addition, it must be noted that the UK has an international obligation through the ITU to continue to manage and licence AM and FM radio frequency bands.[17] It is our contention, then, that mention of a digital switchover has itself supressed demand for new AM and FM licences, and the fact that Ofcom have not been issuing analogue licences because they do not have the management capacity to do both SSDAB in addition to AM and FM licencing, is a primary cause of the decline in perceptions of the value and utility of AM and FM broadcasting. The question of effective use of spectrum therefore needs to be looked at both as a spectrum capacity issue, and as a management and licencing issues. It is unhelpful to assume that because a service is digital, that it is automatically good, and that these legacy frequencies are unnecessary or unwanted. As legacy systems AM and FM remain viable, affordable and accessible. DAB is itself now a legacy system, so a conversation will be required at some point in the future about DAB’s own future value and viability.


5           Context - Post-Scarcity Mindset

The principal issue for Better Media, then, is that this policy and legislation was drawn up at a time when spectrum scarcity was the main concern for licencing and regulation by Ofcom. While Ofcom sought to achieve a balanced view of service provision in the interests of the consumer, this was done in relation to expectations of spectrum scarcity and the limited supply of services. These conditions no longer apply as simple steps can be taken to open the supply and more efficiently use available platforms and spectrum. It is welcome, then, that this legislation reduces the regulatory burden on the broadcast radio sector, as was anticipated in 2007. However, we believe more extensive deregulation is necessary if we are to achieve the fullest increase in capacity possible, thereby expanding the supply of services based on fair and open competition principles.

Better Media believes that it is by allowing a relaxation of these regulatory restrictions that changes in supply can be incentivised. If these changes are coupled with a more flexible approach to spectrum uses, there will be an increase and diversification of supply. These changes have the potential for increased competition, and will allow the public to decide if they wish to receive services that are created by community or commercial providers, providing services that are locally, regionally or nationally relevant and focused.

Better Media therefore supports proposals in the legislation to reduce burdensome restrictions as outlined in Ofcom’s 2007 report, which states that so long as the majority of listening remains on analogue platforms, Ofcom does not propose to change this situation, but as the proportion of listening on digital platforms increases, the current approach to regulating analogue radio will become increasingly anomalous. However, we are opposed to anything that maintains artificial market dominance for legacy services, such as anything that amounts to the equivalent of land-banking, swamping, under-pricing, and other anti-competitive practices. So, while this agreement is not unconditional, it includes support for:

6           Context - Protection from Misinformation

Better Media believes that any relaxation of regulatory and licence requirements, as determined in this legislation, must be accompanied by increases in access to available spectrum, and must not be hindered by restrictions in Ofcom’s capacity to meet the demand for new licences. Therefore, we support the proposals in the legislation to enable Ofcom to introduce an on-demand process for licencing, but this must be a mandatory duty, and not an optional consideration.

Furthermore, we recognise that in a post-scarcity environment, supply will outstrip demand, therefore broadcast regulation must now be adapted to meet this environment by reducing bureaucratic management burdens involving the unnecessary adjudication of station formats, perceived local needs, and service distinctiveness. These no longer need to be adjudicated centrally, but with the manifestation of additional capacity can be delivered by new operators coming into the sector to meet the interests, concerns and needs of local markets and communities.

Better Media is wholly committed to and supportive of Ofcom’s 2007 principles for promoting broadcast services that have distinct formats, serve local needs and offer diverse services, whether these are commercial or community derived services. We believe, however, that existing platform regulation mindsets are holding back the supply of innovative and relevant new services because Ofcom is using out of date technical specifications, out of date licencing processes, and is too concerned to maintain a balance in service provision that was defined in the era of scarcity, particularly with its bias to incumbency.

Better Media recognises there are other ways to promote diversity and plurality in broadcasting, such as focussed funding for public service and community content, support for not-for-profit and community driven content production, and support for community media as an alternative model of communications engagement that links social gain and social value with other civic and public functions such as health, education and levelling-up.

We look forward, therefore, to seeing any specific proposals for an enhanced Community Radio Fund and an updated Audio Content Fund. We believe, however, that any public subsidy for public interest content production must draw an absolute and clear distinction between service operators that enjoy the enhanced freedoms of the market, and who will gain significantly from the reduced regulatory burdens outlined in this legislation, and those not-for-profit civic and public service providers that are wholly focussed on providing broadcasting services that are for the public good, such as enhancing community cohesion or providing access for underrepresented people, and which can demonstrate significant levels of social gain and value to the communities they serve.

Better Media, however, is also concerned that if we do not have a pluralistic, democratic and accountable broadcast economy, with equitable access to platforms and systems, then malevolent external actors may intervene and come to dominate our public discussions, thereby corrupting the provision of public dialogue by propagating misinformation. Unregulated international misinformation is already causing havoc to the political and civic discourses of many nations, at the expense of general social cohesion and collective wellbeing. We believe, however, that rather than focussing on platform regulation, which binds attention to the mode of delivery, content regulation should be where Ofcom’s focus is directed in the future. Given the need to determine editorially justified and accountable broadcast practices, as determined in the Broadcast Code, we believe it is essential that the independent regulator for communication and media’s principal duty is to ensure the public continues to receive trusted content and information, which can act as a counterweight to the international misinformation that is likely to manifest in ways that we have not yet anticipated.

Finally, it is clear that we are well beyond the 2012 review point that Ofcom initially anticipated would lead to the triggering of a digital switchover. In this time the uptake of digital listening has not reached the suggested 90% benchmark. It will be prudent, therefore, to end any and all discussion of a mandated digital switch off. It is our belief, however, that legislation can still allow for continued digital migration as facilitated by natural and open market forces. We should accept, however, that with this increased capacity and frequency availability, new operators will enter the broadcast market and try to do things differently, thereby continuing to use spectrum that has no other practical use for the general benefit of the public. This would be an essentially democratic approach that places a responsibility on citizens to be their own media, rather than waiting for media services to be provided for them by others.


7           Appendix: Context of Broadcast Radio

In 2007 Ofcom undertook a public and industry consultation that attempted to specify what the future for broadcast radio would be like in the United Kingdom as it transitioned to primarily digital services.[18] This review highlighted how “rapid and profound” changes in digital technologies would necessitate flexibility in the regulation of broadcast radio. Ofcom identified a set of strategic principles that future regulation of radio would be guided by, including the need to maintain:


In 2022 the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published Up Next, the government’s review of broadcasting. This review prioritised the need to build a ‘virtuous circle’ in which the broadcast media sector is ready to take on the challenges of further platform diversification. The resulting Media Bill, now being considered by Members of Parliament, proposes significant changes and the realisation of changes that were first proposed in 2007. Some of these changes are welcome and timely, however, others may be less appropriate given the changed circumstances. 

Much has changed in the media landscape since Ofcom’s 2007 consultation on the future needs of broadcast radio.[19] Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) is now well established and has become a profitable sector within the broadcast economy.[20] According to the Digital Radio and Audio Review, published by DCMS in 2022,[21] 33% of all adult audio listening is now accounted for by DAB radio, 23% is via FM and AM radio, with the remaining 44% of audio content, including podcasts and streamed audio, being heard on a mix of desktop, mobile and smart-speaker type devices. The 2022 review also noted, however, a projected decline in the extent to which people still listen to live radio. Which is expected to drop from its current levels of 72% of the population, to 66% by 2035. It is in this context, then, that Better Media wants to draw attention to several pertinent issues related to broadcast radio that are fundamental to the Media Bill 2023.[22]

Ofcom’s 2007 review of broadcast radio noted that uncertainly about the future of broadcast radio meant that planning and legislation must remain flexible, given that broadcast radio may only be a part of the overall mix of audio content that people access in the future. As Ofcom noted:

“We foresee a radio landscape in ten to fifteen years’ time consisting of a mix of stations, probably all digitally-delivered:

Back in 2007 Ofcom was minded that digital delivery across multiple platforms (many unimagined at the time) would be the “long-term future for the radio industry.” Ofcom indicated that a “transition path” towards digital switchover was necessary to achieve an equivalent universal broadcast radio service that matched the coverage that was delivered at the time by analogue radio broadcasting. According to Ofcom this transition path’s primary purpose was to reduce pressure being felt in three areas:

“Content and ownership regulation, planning future analogue licensing to maximise flexibility to free-up spectrum when the time is right, and the licensing and regulation of community radio.”


In 2007 Ofcom anticipated that the vast majority of radio listening could be on digital platforms, including DAB, the internet and digital television. Ofcom stated that the spectrum used by analogue radio might also be used for other things, for example:

Ofcom suggested that while digital broadcasting would define the “long-term future for the vast majority if not all radio listening”, they were correct in noting that 2007 was not an appropriate “time to set a date for analogue switch-off on radio.” Ofcom therefore proposed that before setting a date for digital switch off, they would conduct a “major reviewwhich would consider, amongst other things:


Ofcom therefore proposed two separate reviews that would establish likely end dates for analogue radio broadcasting. Ofcom proposed a review in 2009 that would look at AM, and a review in 2012 that would look at FM, or when digital listening accounted for 50% of all listening if earlier. Subsequently, however, neither reviews have taken place, and no date for a digital switch off has been set. It remains Ofcom’s aim, therefore, to “maximise flexibility in the licensing system so as to be able to free-up that spectrum for other uses, when the time is right.” Ofcom’s maintains, however, that:

“In order to achieve the flexibility to use the spectrum currently used for analogue radio for other things, we would need to have the ability to clear the spectrum of many, if not all, current users in each waveband simultaneously by setting a common end-date for existing services.

Ofcom proposed an analysis of the “spectrum currently used for analogue AM and FM radio” to check if it should be available to use in other ways (if and when it is no longer required for analogue radio broadcasting).” No subsequent use for this spectrum has been found.


Furthermore, Ofcom recommended using market mechanisms to achieve the transition to digital unless there were strong public policy reasons to allocate the spectrum for a specific use.” Ofcom also proposed that it would determine its priorities in “technology neutral” way, and in accordance with the public purposes that Ofcom identified in 2005, which have subsequently formed the basis on which all broadcast radio spectrum allocation have been allocated for the radio sector as a whole, including BBC, commercial and community. These purposes include:

Since 2007 Ofcom has not remained ‘platform neutral’ as they suggested they would in the Radio Future review. Ofcom opted, instead, to promote a sub-optimal and rapidly aging platform that is no longer capable of meeting the wider public policy objectives of the digital economy, necessitating a transition to majority digital platforms and services for broadcast radio, and thereby opening choice and delivering social, cultural and market benefits to citizens and consumers.