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LONDON — Twenty-five new small-scale DAB multiplex licenses have now been awarded in the United Kingdom by media regulator Ofcom, completing its first round of licensing for the new technology.
Pioneered by a spectrum planner, small-scale DAB provides a low-cost way for local commercial, community and specialist music services to take to the digital airwaves.
The new multiplexes stretch from the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland to the Isles of Scilly, with a population of 2,200, off the southwest coast of England. New licensees now have 18 months to launch the multiplexes, which could broadcast over 500 new local radio services.
Many of the new stations carried on small-scale DAB are existing analog community and small commercial radio services. Ofcom expects others will be completely new — ranging from grassroots community services to boutique specialist music stations, and services aimed at minority groups and other under-served audiences.
The regulator will award further licenses in the northwest of England and northeast Wales later this year, with more rounds of licensing to follow.
“The rollout of this innovative technology will give listeners across the United Kingdom an unprecedented choice of locally produced content — serving communities and audiences across the country in a way never seen before,” said Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s group director of Broadcasting and Online Content. “The U.K.’s commercial and community radio industry continues to go from strength to strength.”
In Newcastle and Gateshead, in the northeast of England, Tyneside Community Digital’s new multiplex will provide four local analog community radio stations — Radio Tyneside, Nova Radio, Pride Radio and Asian service Spice FM — the ability to broadcast via DAB for the first time.
The local line-up will also include new dance music station, Frisk Radio; Hindu FM, a Newcastle-based faith-based station aimed at the Hindu community; Anxious Minds Radio, raising awareness of mental health and providing self-help tools for its listeners; and Toon FM, offering news and discussion of Newcastle United Football Club.
Richard Finch (shown above), director of Tyneside Community Digital, explained how the multiplex came about: “Jonathan Morrell and I set it up back in February 2020 as a ‘not-for-profit’ Community Interest Company, with an objective to support community radio in Newcastle and Gateshead. We have the support of the four existing analog community radio stations, and they’re represented by Sandeep Kapoor from Spice FM, who is a third director of the company,” he said.
“We envisaged that a key way of meeting the objective to support local community radio would be to operate the multiplex, and we spent significant time and effort in developing our community-based proposal for this.”
The company has worked closely with small-scale DAB experts Viamux. “They assisted us throughout the Ofcom application process with coverage projections and transmission site selection,” said Finch.
“We’re going to use the Viamux ODR solution, which incorporates technology from Intel, HP, National Instruments and Italian firm, Delta Meccanica. It also uses the Optimux cloud-based multiplexing and encoding software, which was developed specifically for small-scale DAB. It allows us to manage the mux, monitor the services and automate carriage fee payments, and lets service providers log in and manage their services.”
Finch and his team now face the challenge of getting the multiplex on air. “Restrictions due to the COVID pandemic, such as the inability to meet other people face to face, have affected our approach,” he says. “However, we have been able to progress largely as planned so far, and we’re currently reviewing our technical and transmission plans following the license award. We don’t have an agreed timetable for launch yet — but hope to be on-air later this year or in early 2022.”
Stations to be carried on the new multiplex include Pride Radio, an inclusive radio station currently broadcasting in the area on 89.2 FM, on apps and via smart speakers. Mark Nichols, Chair of Pride Radio, explained: “We’ve been broadcasting online since 2010 and FM from 2018. In that time, we’ve grown a diverse audience who love our mix of live and pre-recorded shows, great music, lively conversation and listener interaction.
“Being on DAB will allow us to reach additional areas of the community which isn’t covered by the current FM transmission — bringing awareness of LGBT+ issues, inclusion and diversity through broadcast to a larger coverage area.”