Radio listening habits have changed markedly over the past decade, with more listener choice due to the increasing availability of on-demand audio and the development of DAB digital radio.

The Digital Radio and Audio Review was commissioned by the UK government in February 2020 with the aim of assessing likely future trends in listening and to make recommendations on ways of strengthening UK radio and audio. It has found that smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home are owned or accessed by a third of all adults.

There are now more than 570 stations available on DAB across the UK, in addition to thousands of online stations and more than 300 stations on analogue. Around 60% of all radio listening is now via DAB or another digital platform, and the review concludes that DAB will underpin listening well into the 2030s and beyond. New small scale DAB networks are coming on air, providing more small local stations the ability to broadcast digitally.

The review found that the ability of the UK radio industry to thrive in the long term increasingly depends on listeners having free access to radio stations on connected audio devices.

64% of audio consumed on a smart speaker is live radio and the review predicts that live radio will still account for more than 50% of UK audio listening in the mid-2030s.

Amazon, Google and Apple currently provide more than 95% of voice-activated smart speakers and significantly, the review notes there is nothing within the current regulations to prevent tech platforms from being able to limit or restrict access to UK radio services or to charge stations for carriage.

Other research undertaken for the review found analogue radio listening will account for 12-14% of all radio listening by 2030.  However, FM remains highly valued by many listeners, especially those who are older or more vulnerable, drive older cars or live in areas with limited DAB coverage.

Therefore, the review recommends there should be no formal switch-off of FM services before 2030. AM services account for 3% of all listening, so there should be a plan to retire national medium wave services, due to the cost of running duplicate networks.

Other recommendations from the review include:

  • The government moving forward with its plans for deregulation of commercial radio services to reduce burdens on the sector from outdated regulation;
  • Further measures to support and develop the audio sector, including making it more diverse and representative of the UK;
  • New measures to support national commercial AM licensees who want to retire medium wave services; and
  • Further work relating to other distribution channels for radio content, including mobile and to increase the rollout of DAB+ to offer listeners better quality and more services.

The government will consider the review’s recommendations as it prepares a Broadcasting White Paper and develops a new regulatory regime for digital markets.