Scrap The Poor Quality Before You Scrap The Radio Set


So, the BBC and Commercial Radio have launched an ‘old-radio’ scrappage scheme in advance of the eventual analogue switch-off which may or (more likely) may never happen in the near-future.  Here’s the link to the full BBC News story:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8693613.stm

I’m all for this, especially since most UK households have 5 or more analogue radio sets, and therefore the cost of replacing them like-for-like with DAB sets is cost-prohibitive.  I have an image in my mind of someone turning up at John Lewis with 10 analogue sets and demanding a free DAB set in return – how wonderful!

DAB radio sets are great, they do what they say on the tin.  You tune by name not frequency, you have more choice of stations and, if your DAB set allows it, you can do clever stuff like rewind and record.  Tech-tastic!

BUT…I’ve been a DAB listener since the very first sets came out, and while over those years, the technology built in to the sets has improved, and come down in price, what hasn’t changed is the general poor quality of the broadcasts.  DAB is advertised and sold to punters as the height of high-quality sound…CD-quality, etc…  I hate to be the one to tell you, but many radio stations do not even broadcast in stereo via DAB, and many of those that do don’t broadcast at 128kBps (CD-quality).  This is because of the amount of bandwidth that is allocated by the DAB network providers to each station.  Consider the BBC national networks…The main stations are well provided for with bandwidth as you would expect, but the ‘all-new’ services, those that are used to sell the concept of DAB e.g. Radio 7 is broadcast in mono.  Many commercial radio stations are not allocated a full 128kBps stereo bandwidth.  And be careful, because not all DAB radio sets have stereo speakers!

And then there is the issue of what stations you can receive on DAB.  Of course, all your favourite local and national stations are on there.  And then there are some new ones you’ve possibly never heard of.  These includes 80’s and rock and indie and classical and international stations.  Nearly all the music channels are mere ‘jukebox’ stations, a computer pumping out track after track with some pre-recorded DJ links thrown in.  However, some are truly excellent (may I direct you to Absolute 80s and Absolute Classic Rock?)  But beware of DAB’s promises…what if the BBC closes 6 Music and Asian Network?  We have already lost the finest example of original and popular programming when One Word Radio was unceremoniously shut down by Channel 4 Radio (which then failed to launch – why did Ofcom not require the relaunch of One Word, eh?).  DAB promises much, but the reality of running radio stations is that, eventually, you just get the same old stations you got on FM/AM.  Radio stations cost money to run, and there aren’t advertisers out there spending money on radio!

Now, don’t get me wrong…DAB is an inevitability (possibly!).  If any MPs grow the balls to pull the plug, we may actually switch over to full digital radio sometime in the next 10 years.  If we do, DAB coverage has to improve considerably, and PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don’t buy a portable DAB player if you value your hearing – the DAB signal does not travel well, especially in large towns and cities.  DAB may not have all the static of FM/AM but it does have digital noise, which in extreme cases could cause hearing damage!

One aside…even though the UK developed and pushed DAB technology, we are now lagging behind the rest of the world.  The Govt. and UK radio have put so much into DAB v1 that they are reluctant to make the move to the much improved DAB v2, which offers better bandwidth useage and sound quality.  The rest of the world is looking to move to DAB v2, and manufacturers are moving in that direction.  But will the UK?  Oh no, because that would mean punters who have already bought sets would have to…wait for it…scrap them and replace with new sets!

So..DAB has certainly brought benefits, but it hasn’t brought a revolution.  It’s ANOTHER way to consume the UK’s generally great radio output…yet many people are now listening to radio via their Digital TV services.  The biggest hurdle for DAB, apart from the problems with living up to expectations and delivering on promises, is getting the sets in to cars.  DAB needs Ford and Toyota and others to put DAB car radios in their vehicles as the default.  But to do that the UK and Europe and Asia and the US need to be using the same DAB system, that way the cost of installing such sets drops significantly.

I doubt whether any MP will have the balls to switch off analogue radio, so this is possibly a moot argument.  But then, who knows?  I would never suggest you don’t buy DAB, some of the sets are superb with great additional technology and fantastic sound.  All I would say is think first before investing…and don’t believe the hype!

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About hokusbloke
30-something radio producer/director/writer, owner & MD of Ladbroke Productions (the UK's oldest independent radio production company). Lover of far fetched fiction, scifi and fantasy, my cats and all thinks tech. I am also the Chair of the Radio Independents Group, a former Trustee of the Radio Academy, and a Fellow of the RSA. I co-wrote, produced and directed Robert Rankin's "The Brightonomicon" audio series, produce Dr Who audiobooks for the BBC, and directed several sci-fi radio plays for BBC Radio 4 in 2009. I am a strong advocate for more SF audio and radio...keep watching this space for upcoming news!

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