Community Media Maker’s Zoom Drop-In: Affordable Media

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This week at the Community Media Makers Zoom Drop-In, we’ll be chatting about the cost of living crisis, and its impact on community media. As streaming services are seeing massive falls in subscribers, we get a sense that there is clearly a shift to more affordable forms of media. Does this mean that DAB Switchover is still a good idea? Do we need to reapraise how we use and promote universal access to analogue radio services on AM and FM to ensure that no one is left out of engaging with our media because they can’t afford the DAB Tax? We’ll be chatting about the principles of access and social purpose in our media at at time of economic stress and anxiety.

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High on our minds this summer, as we head towards the autumn, is the coming rise in energy prices, and their impact on the cost of living. Inflationary pressures in the UK economy are making everyday items and services more expensive. Charities across the country are warning that fuel poverty will hit millions of people, forcing them to make choices about what basic services they will use, such as heating and lighting, to get through the dark months of the winter. For many, this will be a choice between heating and eating, as people are forced to make a choice between keeping the heating on to stay warm, or turning the heating off and being able to afford regular meals.

One indicator of people’s fear of the coming cost-of-living squeeze has been the dramatic increase in streaming service subscription cancellations. The Guardian reported back in May that “the cost-of-living crisis has forced many households to slim down their subscriptions to only a few favourites.” With Netflix, which increased the cost of UK customers’ packages in the spring, actively “in the process of cutting budgets and staff after reporting its first fall in subscribers in a decade.”

Media streaming services have quickly become a canary in the mine for consumer confidence across the rest of the economy. Business Matters reports that “in the second quarter of the year, almost 1.66 million services were dropped from the likes of Netflix.” This fall being “directly attributable to people tightening their belts.” As of July, up to half a million households have now cancelled all their subscriptions to their streaming providers, and are relying on free-to air content, either provided with advertising or by the BBC.

The cost-of-living squeeze is clearly focussing many people’s minds as to what media they spend their money on, and how they can ensure that they maintain a minimum standard of life, without getting into additional debt, or being forced to close-down and terminate commercial services that they have previously seen as a benefit. The pandemic saw a great upswing in subscriptions to many different streaming providers, but because these are a bell-weather service, the swing downwards during a recession is likely to be equally precipitous. Because streaming media isn’t predicated on public service principles, such as universal access and affordable provision, the blow to the media economy is likely to be amplified as the economic winds means consumer spending waxes and wanes.

A corresponding impact of the increase in fuel costs and inflation, moreover, is the urgency many people now feel about fuel efficiency, insulation, and lower-cost renewable energy provision. However, business are also reporting that the cost-of-living-squeeze is likely to reduce many people’s ability to switch to healthier or more energy efficient alternatives, because they are being priced-out of the market due to cashflow problems, and won’t be able to invest in new and more efficient infrastructure, because they won’t have access to affordable capital to buy things like electric vehicles, switch to solar panels, or pay a premium for renewable sources of energy.

This has a knock-on right across the economy and society, and as a result the affordability of our media is now also being called into question. Questions are starting to be raised, that consider both consumer access to media services, and also the production capacity of the media industry to deliver low-cost and accessible services in the short-term. A downturn in consumer spending will lead to a downturn in production capacity, as previously stable businesses are knocked-for-six by inflation and the following recessions.

If this is a challenge for the corporate and industrially organised media platforms, then the knock-on effect for community media is clearly going to be as pronounced, if not more so. If volatility and disruption are increased across the community media sector by these price increases, then they will expose the shortcomings of many organisations and community groups across the UK, who have had little meaningful investment in the last decade. This turbulence and disruption isn’t just a problem for certain types of businesses, but is a major headache for the civic and charitable sector as well.

In the light of the cost-of-living-squeeze, do we need an immediate review of community media to test it’s affordability and resilience to these challenges?  For example, is the push by DCMS and Ofcom to enforce a digital future for radio by 2030 something that should be delayed? Will consumers continue to be enthusiastic about switching to digital radio when the cost of doing so is challenged by many other rises in other costs? The average cost of a DAB radio set, for example, ranges from £20 to up to £150. These tend to be plug-in varieties which sit in a kitchen, or act as an alarm clock. Very few are portable. New cars are now expected to come with DAB radio sets installed, but we’ve also seen new car sales plunge to their lowest level since 1996, compounded by a shortage of microchips that the digital systems cars rely on.

The consumer magazine Which has been advising consumers to opt for DAB radio over established forms of analogue radio because of the expectation that there will be a ‘digital switchover’ within a decade. Which suggests that, while there is no definite date for a switch-off of analogue radio broadcasting, AM and FM, consumers should be weary of purchasing radio sets that are only capable of receiving FM or AM, because the broadcast stations that many people rely on may not be available after the switchover on DAB. As Which reports, “it would nevertheless be very unwise to buy an FM-only radio at this point, as you may find it’s missing your favourite radio stations in a few years.” Despite the fact that many “FM-only radios often look temptingly cheap,” and are “usually found in less digitally focused high street shops such as supermarkets and DIY stores.”

The question that has to be answered, then, is who can afford these sets in the present economic climate, and are going to be able to run them as the cost-of-living squeeze takes hold? An FM/AM radio is relatively cheap when compared with a DAB radio. The components have been mass produced for decades, and are therefore readily available and relatively inexpensive to make. If there is a shortage of digital chips, however, we are likely to see the prices of DAB receivers significantly increase, making DAB radio suddenly unaffordable to millions of people.

When DAB radio was first launched, the digital processors required to convert the digital signal to a sound signal that we can hear required considerable additional energy. Decode a DAB signal so it could be played out is not a low-cost option, as anyone with an older portable DAB radio set will attests. They quicky eat batteries, or require recharging more frequently than low-power AM/FM radios do. More recent production design of these chips has helped to improve the Energy Ratings of many DAB sets, to the point where they are now comparable with equivalent home-based FM receivers. The problem comes when people use multiple sets in different locations, and they will need to power each DAB received consistently in bathrooms, bedrooms, sheds, as well as kitchens and living rooms.

The UK Government’s Digital Switchover hasn’t really considered what the viability of AM and FM will be once the major broadcasters have ‘moved-over’ to DAB? The intention isn’t clear yet of what will happen to broadcasters on the analogue frequencies. The BBC is starting to prepare turning off BBC Five Live’s AM transmitters from 2025, claiming that it will save money in operating a dual service on both analogue and digital platforms. Given the coming price-squeeze, does this commitment to digital-moveover by the BBC need to be tested for its affordability for the listener. Analogue radio, if well maintained, produces a high-quality broadcast signal. DAB in many similar circumstances does not. Many new buildings, because of the steel frame they are built around are impenetrable to DAB signals, but to compensate they are fitted with fibreoptic internet access, enabling people to listen on internet connected devices.

The BBC has a duty to provide universal services, but if DAB becomes unaffordable for a significant part of the UK population, then should the plans to move BBC services entirely onto DAB be reconsidered? This might seem like a trivial point, but even £20 for a DAB receiver will be well beyond many people’s means this winter. Not that it was within many people’s means in the first place. Ofcom has a duty to track the relative affordability of all forms of communication media in the UK, but it took radio out of its tracking system some time ago, despite representations from community media groups that people at the lowest level of economic activity are not being represented in the data that Ofcom collects.

Driving the push to a digital switchover is the argument that DAB will soon be a pervasive medium, which is ironic given that in the time that DAB has been around CDs have come and gone and consumers have moved onto other forms of media. This push for digital, then, might be regarded as somewhat disingenuous. Mostly because it fails to consider the experience of a significant proportion of the population who neither want to access, nor can’t access DAB broadcasting. The government has repeatedly talked about how it can help both commercial and community media to transition to digital platforms, but this is disingenuous, because the decisions about the social purpose and need for reform of our broadcasting and communications systems is only coming from within the media industry itself, and is not involving representatives and advocates from civic society, public authorities or groups who represent easily overlooked people.

A quick call to any charity or mutual aid group will tell you that they need effective forms of communication for people who are too often overlooked by the providers of the industrial and corporate media platforms and content producers. The pandemic illustrated that it is radio with a strong public and social purpose that people value, and yet there remains very little investment in supporting and nurturing an alternative model of broadcasting to that of the BBC and the commercial corporations.

When digital moveover happens, there is a strong case for keeping AM and FM open to local and community broadcasters because these services can be operated and maintained cost effectively and will have direct relevance to the listeners in each place, for people of different identities, and for people with different interests. If diversity in commercial radio was a viable and cost-effective fact of life, then the industry would not need to lobby for increased consolidation of supply, increased use of tightly controlled formats, and a narrow focus on profitability through large-scale advertising.

The radio industry may well face a crisis of affordability in the coming months, which will call into question the sustainability of DAB as both a consumer platform and as a producer platform. As ever in these circumstances it will be the small-scale providers who will feel the crunch. The community radio stations who sustain their service with volunteers, who promote training and seek to meet a high-level of social need by involving people from their communities in the operation, governance and development of their radio services.

Radio still matters, but to assume that we don’t need to think about the social and economic context in which radio will be sustained in the future would be foolish. The BBC is celebrating its centenary this year, and while we can embrace many new communications technologies that offer the potential for an upgraded experience, we shouldn’t just throw away the established legacy platforms. Just because we now have e-readers is no justification for stopping publishing, selling and lending books.

The challenge, is of course, that when we leave decisions like this solely to the market, then we start to see how things can go awry. Broadcasting is too important to be left simply to the vagaries of corporate, international supply and demand, because that results in cartels who price-gouge and further fuels inflation. The role of government and the communications regulator should be to ensure that the market works in the interest of all citizens and consumers. This means ensuring that small-scale broadcasting is accessible, affordable and sustainable.

Enforcing that all broadcasters switch is a DAB Tax that many can’t afford to pay, and so the cheaper, sustainable and established platforms need to be guaranteed. These platforms also need to be opened up to increased competition, and the consolidation of the last decade reversed, ensuring that the public is served by a pluralistic, affordable and universal media, and not ripped off or dropped entirely when the economic winds change. If Ofcom doesn’t take a stand on behalf of citizens and consumers, who will?