The BBC plans to team up with commercial radio stations to provide an online Radioplayer to offer the output of every licensed radio station in the United Kingdom. The aim is to launch the UK Radioplayer in the first half of 2010, although the involvement of the BBC is subject to approval by its Trust. There are parallels with other projects, such as the proposed Canvas television platform, although in this case the radio industry appears more united behind the initiative.

The proposals were announced in a presentation at the Media Festival in Manchester by Tim Davie, the director of audio and music at the BBC.

The announcement follows an outline agreement between the BBC and the RadioCentre, which represents the majority of commercial radio stations in the country, together with Global Radio and Guardian Media Group, which own some of the leading commercial stations.

The planned Radioplayer would be available through the web sites of participating radio stations and would provide a consistent user experience, with a standard look and feel for each brand. Individual stations will be able to add their own elements, such as track listings, on-demand services, advertising or merchandising. Users will also be able to search across all participating station schedules.

Initially it would be provided as a web service for personal computers, although versions for mobile phones, set-top boxes and network connected televisions could follow in the future.

“I am clear that the future for radio is a combination of robust digital broadcast and IP technology delivered across every device and screen,” said the BBC executive.

The BBC remains committed to DAB digital radio, which may simply be branded as Digital Radio in the future. Although the Digital Britain report set a target date of 2015 to switch off FM analogue radio signals, this was seen by some as ambitious or impractical and the government has declined to set a hard date in its Digital Economy bill.

A new body, Digital Radio UK, has been established to promote a switch to digital radio, headed by Ford Ennals, who comes from Digital UK, the organisation responsible for managing the switch to digital television.

Almost 90% of adults listen to some form of radio in any week, according to Ofcom research. Weekly reach of BBC national and local radio is 66%, representing a 55% share of radio listening, which has increased slightly in recent years. The time spent listening to radio is down by 5% over the last five years, but on average people have the radio on for nearly 19 hours a week, ranging from under 16 hours for those aged 15-24 to 23 hours for those aged 65-74.

Recent research among 2,000 listeners suggests that radio still represents 85% of all audio listening, including other devices, like iPods. However, this falls to 66% among those aged 15-18. Young people have many more listening alternatives, particularly for music, in the form of digital downloads and streaming services such as Spotify.

Currently, only around 20% of radio listening in the United Kingdom is on digital platforms, and only 2% of radio is listened to live online.

Nevertheless, new forms of digital distribution clearly represent a threat to traditional broadcasting, particularly among younger listeners.

“Speak to a traditional media executive who isn’t mildly worried and you’re speaking to someone who is delusional,” warned Tim Davie.

The proposed Radioplayer is the response on which the public and commercial radio sector appear unusually united.

“The Radioplayer brings together all of the UK’s radio output in one online console,” said Andrew Harrison, the chief executive of the RadioCentre. “This is a breakthrough for listeners and an attractive new proposition for advertisers.”

The Radioplayer was welcomed by Ashley Tabor, the chief executive of Global Group, which now includes the Galaxy, Gold, Heart, Xfm, Capital, LBC and Classic FM stations. “Radioplayer has been developed with the listener in mind and is a big step forward for the radio industry as a whole, providing further cohesion between commercial radio and the BBC as we drive to Digital.”

Bauer Radio, formerly Emap Radio, which includes the Kiss and Magic networks, is as yet not party to the agreement.

It seems likely that the BBC will continue to promote its own radio stations through its web site and the BBC iPlayer.

The BBC has long been a leader in online radio and providing programmes for download. Its involvement in a combined player that includes commercial channels may surprise some. Commercial stations could benefit from the involvement of the BBC, but the public service broadcaster could also further extend its reach.

In some ways it is no different from having BBC services side by side with commercial networks on any digital platform and in theory all parties should benefit by making radio programming more accessible to a wider audience.

However, some have drawn parallels with project Kangaroo, the online video joint venture between the BBC and commercial television broadcasters, which was blocked by the Competition Commission, and with project Canvas, the proposed joint venture between the BBC, BT and other broadcasters.

In all these cases, the partnerships have been announced prior to the required approval of the BBC Trust. A decision on project Canvas is imminent and it is far from clear that it will go through as proposed.

Speaking at the same conference, Erik Huggers, the director of future media and technology at the BBC, conceded that unless the Trust provided provisional approval by the end of the year it may not be possible to launch a Canvas proposition until 2011. When first announced in October 2008, he had anticipated it being available within”a year to a year and a half” subject to approval.

The proposals for the radioplayer are superficially simple, but will still require approval from the Trust. The critical difference appears to be that many of the leading commercial radio stations are already on board.

That said, it has long been possible to receive thousands of radio services through various online players and aggregators. What has been lacking is a common platform for navigation, presentation, advertising and merchandising.

Significantly, it seems that this can be achieved without the need for the BBC to enter into a joint venture with commercial parties. In theory, it could be achieved by simply exposing appropriate application programming interfaces based on common standards. Which begs the question, could the same not be done for video as for audio?