What’s the Future of FM Radio in the UK?

FM broadcasting in the UK dates back to 1955, when the BBC started broadcasting the Light Programme, the Third Programme and the Home Service on FM. However, it wasn’t until commercial FM stations such as LBC and Capital Radio launched in 1973 that FM started to become popular.

FM radio listening figures grew rapidly during the 1980s. By the mid-1980s, FM had become the most popular way to listen to the radio in the UK.

It’s difficult to know exactly what share of radio listening in 2018 is via FM, as surveys combine AM and FM listening into one figure. The official body responsible for measuring radio audiences in the UK is RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research). RAJAR’s quarter 1 figures for 2018 revealed that 49.1% of listening was via AM and FM, with 50.1% of listening via digital platforms (DAB, the internet and digital television).

The growth of DAB radio

DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) was introduced in the UK in 1995 with the intention of offering a greater choice of stations with less interference. However, early DAB radios were expensive and digital radio reception in the UK can be unreliable, so the uptake of DAB radio among listeners was slow.

In the first quarter of 2018, 36.8% of listening was via DAB radio according to RAJAR’s figures. This is the largest figure recorded to date but is still lower than the 49.1% of listening which is done via analogue radio.

Digital radio has never been very enthusiastically received in the UK for several reasons:

  • DAB broadcasts often have lower sound quality than FM broadcasts, and some DAB music stations broadcast in mono rather than stereo.
  • Reception is often more reliable on AM and FM in rural areas.
  • Stations available on AM and FM remain much more popular than digital-only stations, suggesting that the added choice offered by DAB radio isn’t a draw for many listeners.
  • DAB is already somewhat outdated compared to the newer DAB+ digital radio standard.

Despite this, the UK government plans to switch off FM radio in favour of DAB at some point in the future.

Why switch off FM radio?

The idea of switching off FM radio isn’t popular with consumers, but it would save broadcasters money since it would be cheaper to just broadcast via DAB rather than both FM and DAB. Digital transmitters are also more efficient as they can broadcast several stations across a larger area.

Another reason to switch off FM in favour of DAB is that the FM spectrum in the UK is full, so it is hard to launch new FM stations. DAB allows for several radio stations to be broadcast using the same frequency, thereby offering listeners more choice.

Reasons not to switch FM off

While there would be some benefits to switching off FM in favour of digital, there would also be costs. Here are some of the main arguments against switching off FM:

  • Making analogue radios obsolete could cause environmental damage as people dispose of them.
  • There would be a one-off cost to consumers who don’t already own a DAB radio.
  • The switchover would require an expensive public awareness campaign.
  • DAB radio broadcasts sometimes have lower sound quality than their FM equivalents.

When will FM radio be switched off?

The date for a proposed FM switchoff in the UK keeps getting moved further and further into the future, and there has been a tendency to underestimate how long a switchover will take to come about.

An FM switchoff was first proposed in 2009 in the UK government’s Digital Britain White Paper. This white paper included a proposed Digital Radio Upgrade programme to be carried out by the end of 2015. The programme would include switching off all FM broadcasts of stations that also broadcast on DAB. All AM stations that weren’t broadcast on DAB would be moved to FM, and AM would be switched off entirely. This wouldn’t be a complete FM switchoff; FM would still be used for local and community stations. Needless to say, the plan wasn’t implemented as no FM broadcasts were switched exclusively to DAB before the end of 2015.

In July 2010 the UK government published its Digital Radio Action Plan. The plan stated that an FM switchoff would only be considered when two criteria are met:

  1. 50% of all radio listening is digital.
  2. National DAB coverage is comparable to FM and local DAB reaches 90% of the population and all major roads.

These criteria had been met by early 2018, when over 50% of radio listening was on digital platforms for the first time. However, the BBC’s director of radio and music Bob Shennan told the audience of the 2018 Radiodays Europe conference that “great progress has been made but switchover now would be premature.”

Since the trend in radio listening is away from FM and towards DAB and online streaming, it is quite likely that FM will be switched off at some point in the future, though a switchover doesn’t appear to be imminent.

Predictions about when FM radio will be switched off in the UK tend to age badly. As an example, this article from 2013 predicted that analogue radio would disappear by 2018. A safe prediction to make would be that FM won’t be switched off before 2021 at the very earliest. An FM switchoff could come much later, or not at all.

Most DAB radios also have an FM tuner, so if you’re buying a new radio you might as well buy one with both FM and DAB. If you want something really futureproof, it would be better to buy an internet radio, as the internet is much less likely to become obsolete than either FM or DAB. Many internet radios have an FM and DAB tuner as well, so they offer the greatest amount of choice.

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