Friday, 2 September 2011

Goodbye Traffic Radio

So farewell Traffic Radio. At 3pm on Wednesday 31st August, the Highways Agency’s own radio station went quiet.

I had been involved in the whole project from the very beginning. More years ago than I can even remember, my colleague Will Jackson and I discussed the idea with the consultants advising the Agency. The station grew from a very basic online feed into a 24 hour a day England-wide terrestrial station. Will and I were there right to the end.

The main complaint we got about the station was not about its content or delivery, but the fact that it was only available on DAB. In fact, I’d speculate that this very fact caused its death, when, last September, the Mail on Sunday produced a story headlined “£2.8m of tax is wasted on traffic radio we can’t hear”, with the gist of the story being that there’s a traffic radio station broadcasting on DAB when hardly any cars have DAB receivers. I reckon somebody in a new Government, looking for savings and seeing a headline like that wouldn’t be too keen to sign off any further spending on the project, and this was just at the time that the decision was being taken about whether to extend the service life or not – and we know how that turned out.

We’d all have loved the station to be on FM or even AM, rather than DAB, but you can hardly go out and invent more frequencies on these bands, so DAB was the next best thing. But because of the lack of in-car receivers, the station’s business case had to stack up purely as a pre-trip planning tool, any in-car use was a bonus, not a requirement. Being able to help people manage their journeys before they set off has a benefit to managing the road network, if people know they’ll face a jam on their planned route they can either take a different one, change mode of transport or delay making their journey altogether. This reduction in the number of vehicles joining a jam had a proven positive effect on the road network and in turn, the economy. It was a popular station – online listening, which can be accurately and easily measured – grew ten-fold in three years. But, of course, that truth didn’t fit the story.

The other disappointment is that the number of DAB receivers in car is growing faster than ever before, and will grow even more next year. So an established station broadcasting on-demand traffic to vehicles automatically had a growing audience. Add to that the need for a system to broadcast fast-changing information for London 2012, and shutting off the station now, after all the investment that’s gone into it, means that taxpayers’ investment really has been wasted, because the true benefits which would come back to the economy in spades now won’t be realised.

What can the radio industry learn from Traffic Radio? I think it shows such a dip-in-dip-out station has a place in our multi-channel radio future (as it has in places as diverse as Dortmund, Vancouver and Rio). Traffic Radio wasn’t trying to become somebody’s favourite station (I’d be rather worried if anyone said it was their favourite!) but it was offering up a specific type of service delivered when the listener, rather than the programmer, decreed. Thanks to rolling news channels, people expect to get news updates on TV when they choose rather than waiting for programmes at 1, 6 and 10. I predict that in the future, radio will provide similar on-demand services.

Before you ask, yes we did try to create a commercial version of the station, continuing to broadcast on DAB, online, mobile etc and we came darn close to achieving it. We were very hopeful of taking a successful Traffic Radio, removing some of the programming shackles which inevitably come from representing the Government to make it a bit more “Top Gear” and building a really successful, entertaining and informative station. Our Traffic Radio partners Trafficlink have launched an online version and I really hope it’s a success. It’s just a shame the DAB platform’s gone quiet and they’re having to start from Square One again, but at least they’re doing it.

Given the contractual and platform restrictions placed upon us, I think my team did a pretty good job of creating a relevant, informative yet listenable radio station. My biggest regret is that, despite all the investment in the programming, the station lacked the marketing it could have had, meaning that many people who may have used the service, missed out. Anecdotally a large number of people who used Traffic Radio found it by chance whilst scanning through their DAB station list. My tip for anyone offering an information service, on whatever platform, is that you need to make a big noise about it, which will build up the sort of following and loyalty to guard against incorrect allegations of “waste” – and these allegations can be treated the way they deserve.