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Bad reception. Why the worst thing about DAB isn't the advertising.

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'Share the love!' says a one and half foot, massive headed, dead-eyed  creature in a white jump-suit. Ordinarily the shock of this vision would wake you from your nightmare. You'd slope off for a wee and crawl back into bed. But this isn't a bad dream, this is somebody's idea of a branding exercise for Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB).

The 'D Love' concept first visited us last year, with a mission to inspire passionate adoration of digital radio. Loosely based on Barry White and, at a push, Teddy Pendergrass, the figure is simultaneously disturbing and annoying. What he isn't is an effective piece of brand communication. Anyway, now he's back for a second round and disturbing and annoying us all over again.

The reach of the campaign cannot be denied. Not only does 'D Love' appear on BBC TV and radio (which are not permitted to run advertising, by the way), he pops up on many of the digital channels he's promoting. While it does seem rather daft to buy airtime on stations which can only be heard on DAB, and therefore to be undertaking an extreme form of preaching to the converted, there is a notion that the listener should be recommending DAB to family and friends. But why would you?

Roughly five years ago, DAB broke cover and presented itself as the future of audio broadcasting. The plan was to move all the commercial and BBC stations off the FM band and onto fabulous DAB, leaving FM clear for community and not-for-profit outlets. This was the strategy of the Radio Authority and it wasn't a bad idea. Just a couple of hurdles stood in its way:

1) The Radio Authority was disbanded and its work handed to the much broader-based OFCOM, who had no affection for the idea.
2)  DAB is an inferior platform to FM in many ways.

You may remember the launch of the CD in the late eighties. Amongst other things promised by the manufacturers were the vast improvement in the sound quality offered by vinyl, and a virtually indestructible disc (something about spreading jam on them and running them over in a jeep without harming them). This was all nonsense. The sound quality, while acceptable to most listeners, was actually far more compressed than that of records; and a mere thumbprint was sufficient to interrupt playback. So you could put your marmalade and Land Rover away.

The promise and subsequent delivery of DAB wasn't dissimilar.  DAB 'they' told us, would sound remarkably clear across most of the UK. What's more,  the variety of stations would be staggering and the cost of receivers low. Again I'm afraid, not true.

Actually, I'm rather fortunate. For some reason the town in which I live enables me to pick up about 42 DAB stations with a strong signal. However, my mother - who lives about eight miles away - finds it impossible to hear any channel reliably. Friends in parts of London tell me they tried DAB and found it a hopeless exercise - and if you've ever had a shot at using a DAB receiver in a car, you'll know what it is to be utterly frustrated. As for the crystal clear reception, as I've described, that very much depends on your location as well as the bit rate at which the station is transmitting. Many DAB channels put out a stream of 128kb in mono. You don't need to be a scientist to know this will never sound as good as FM stereo.  Oh, and the DAB sets are still pretty pricey (around £25.00).

A couple of years ago, I looked into the possibility of securing a licence to run a DAB station in a nearby city. Transmitter fees alone (128kb mono) would have been £75,000 per annum with a built-in increase each year. Unsurprisingly, DAB's future is uncertain.

Which brings us back to the DAB branding campaign and 'D Love'. Frankly, it wouldn't have mattered if the creative work had been the greatest ever produced - if the product is weak and cannot deliver on its promises, it's a busted flush. In fact, the campaign is pretty awful. Falling into the modern trap of treating your audience like toddlers by using a 'funny' puppet (also see 'Wonga'), it tells us nothing about DAB and gives us no reason to act. The idea one would recommend DAB to friend because a rather frightening little man on the telly insisted it was important, is worryingly naive. We might also question whether the 'D Love' character is the right side of the racist line.

Ultimately, this is all a spectacular waste of time and money. Unless or until DAB becomes the amazing service it was intended to be, no amount of marketing will shift it from the doldrums. By all means spread the love, but you may want to reserve judgement on Digital Audio Broadcasting for now. 

Magnus Shaw is a writer, blogger and consultant

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