Archive for June, 2013

Digital Radio is dead

June 25, 2013

Where do we listen to the radio? There are quite a few answers to this, we each have our own, but for me it is in the car. That is the only time for me. There are other sources of entertainment when I am not driving – but in the car there is no choice but to just listen. Radio is essential in the car.

The UK has a long history of government stifling radio with rigid government control proscribing what the BBC can broadcast to us and that for the most part only the BBC can broadcast to us. In answer to the question ‘Why can’t we have more choice?’ there was always the answer of a lack of available frequencies.

There have been a few little improvements over the years giving the odd local non-BBC station some limited local coverage on FM or the already obsolete AM, but there was never an even playing field. The BBC got a 12KW transmitter when the local competition got just 600W. Eventually we got a national non-BBC FM station playing the music we all wanted to hear, classical. The government really did their market research thoroughly when deciding that one at a time when 3% of the radio audience wanted to listen to classical. Marconi would be turning in his grave if he knew what was happening in the country that invented radio.

With the advent of DAB and a new commercial environment for radio, there was a golden opportunity to put things right. Loads of bandwidth was allocated internationally in Band III and L Band, every radio station had a chance. Our national network listening experience, pretty much the only thing suitable for listening to in the car if you are going further than popping to the shops, could be extended from government proscribed pop music, government proscribed MOR, government proscribed news, government proscribed classical and commercial classical. There was a chance that we could listen to something interesting in a country with a rich music culture.

It did happen for a short while. Driving around London there were around fifty radio stations available on DAB on the national and regional multiplexes, less so away from the capital, but still we had choice of rock music on the radio at last. That alone was worth buying a new radio for the car, even if it was a little expensive. I really loved my Woodstock 52. It still looks really good and mostly still works, although it is showing its age a bit. The CD drive won’t work, it is fussy about which SD cards I put in it and the volume control is a bit dicky, but it still sounds as good as the day I bought it – apart from one thing, most of the radio stations have gone, and most of those that are left are broadcasting at such low bandwidth that no one wants to listen any more. A mono MPEG1-layer-2 stream at 64kb/s or if you are lucky 80kb/s is not hi-fi by any stretch of the imagination.

What is one to do. As someone who loves radio, likes the variety and the commentary from good D.J.s that care about the music this is a very sad time. Planet Rock is so distorted now it is too hard on the ears to bear, The Storm has gone, The Arrow has gone, the regional multiplexes that carry Real XS are closing down in the next few weeks. It is a very sad time for radio.

Could it be revived? Of course. The government like having little surveys every now and then that tell us that everyone who tries listening to their normal FM bland crap on DAB thinks it sounds much better, so digital must be successful, but that hides the real story of OffCom fiddling while rome burns. All is not rosy, action is needed.

Commercial interests who do not care for the output of their radio stations will never set a quality threshold. That is the job of the regulator. In the beginning when the radio operators accepted that they were going to burn a bit of money at a time when only the wealthy could afford the radios the sound quality was good, with 128Kb/s being the minimum and some operators using higher bandwidth as much as 192Kb/s. Now alas competition and the regulator caving in to requests by the operators to use the available bandwidth for other non-radio activities has seen that eroded to joke levels of bandwidth.

Unfortunately we have a culture of left wing governments squeezing anything that they can regulate of tax until it is dead, and then squeezing some more. Government is forgetting that it is supposed to be working in the public interest and that broadcasting is a public service. Government should not be allowing, and especially should not be actively encouraging valuable broadcast spectrum to be used for other things just because it can be taxed, using the excuse that other countries are doing it, completely missing the point that their governments are corrupt and that they have no need for the spectrum themselves.

What should be happening now? Number one is to set a minimum standard of sound quality. We have had stereo for around half a century, it should be a given. 192Kb/s minimum (or the equivelent for non- MPEG1-layer-2 streams) should also be a minimum.

Number 2 is to provide a second national multiplex for the BBC. They already spend a vast amount of money making programmes in hi-fi stereo, so it will be only a small expense to broadcast them in reasonable quality so we, the public who have paid for them can actually get to listen to them. The BBC is a public service BROADCASTER, we should not be expected to download everything. Allowing the BBC to broadcast properly will at least set a standard. Unfortunately the BBC does not set the same standard in radio that it does in television, but it might put up a fight if it is allowed to compete as a quality broadcaster.

Number 3 is to stop the focus on local radio. Local broadcasters are never going to have sufficient revenue to provide top quality radio, even when there was just a single local station in each area outside big cities they did not make enough money to do a good job, so how are three or four going to compete on each of the local multiplexes, they are not. We need a good infrastructure for national broadcast, not the single monopoly multiplex we have at the moment that can charge an extortionate amount for a 64Kb/s mono broadcast because it is take it or leave it.

Number 4 it is time for satellite DAB on L Band. Unfortunately the government has cocked it all up here by delaying use of L Band such that few radios sold today can receive it, but it will be cheaper to broadcast from a single satellite transponder than from a national chain of transmitters on the ground.

Radio can be saved, and I am hopeful, but I suspect I might have to invest in an MP3 player soon and find a way to gather together some music that I like, and perhaps mutter to myself in between tracks – just like a D.J. Perhaps it is time to write to my MP again…