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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

  Stuck in a digital radio daze

By Norman Lebrecht / May 14, 2002

On the edge of the digital disaster that imperils our media future stands a gorgeous, but painfully shy wallflower. Allow me to introduce DAB - Digital Audio Broadcasting - sister of benighted digital TV.

DAB is tomorrow's sound today, the pristine successor to crackle-and-pop wireless. Digital radio has been available free of charge in most British homes for seven years. So why can't you hear it? It's a sad old story.

Hark back to the dark ages. On 27 September 1995, with John Major still in Downing Street and Diana queen of our hearts, John Birt threw a switch at the BBC to usher in glitch-free radio. Digital delivery was, by definition, immaculate. Replacing Marconi's wobbly waves with binary zeros and ones, it eclipsed traditional radio in exactly the same way that digital compact disc overcame the noisy LP. It also portended a surge of new digital-only stations such as The Groove, BBC 6 Music, and an imminent BBC Asian community network.

The only hitch was that the BBC failed to clink glasses with British industry, so no sets were manufactured. Seven years on, little has changed. Ask for a digital radio on any high street and you'll still be sold a £9.99 numerical-faced alarm clock with John Humphrys's wakeup call and optional presets.

According to the Digital Radio Development Bureau, some 58,000 DAB sets have somehow come into circulation, but the BBC suggests the true figure is in "the thousands rather than tens of thousands" - and where those are being sold is anyone's guess. Dixons admits to having one model in stock at £179 and John Lewis thinks it has some, but is not quite sure.

Consumer appeal is non-existent. Receivers are squat, plain-faced boxes that plug into living-room hi-fis and cannot be carried into the kitchen or bathroom. A £129 portable is expected from Goodmans in September, and a Korean marque is promising to deliver the first DAB radio-alarm clock with "teasmade". But no UK car-maker has bothered to upgrade its dashboard sets, and most drivers will continue to suffer conventional radio's irritating reception blackouts for many years to come.

Even BBC bigwigs are on the blink. Gavyn Davies, the chairman, has had DAB installed in his car, but Greg Dyke, I'm told, can't get one. As for the common listener, a New Labour membership card, a brother-in-law in hi-fi and a supernatural resilience ought to be enough to set you up with a DAB set by Christmas.

Well, some of us cannot wait. Unable to contain years of impatience, I shamefully exploited my position and rang a top bloke at the BBC, demanding to be put in the loop. Three days later, a member of the Digital Development team turned up on my doorstep with something resembling a laboratory specimen that he linked, on loan, to my amplifier. After waving an aerial mystically around the upper bookshelves to get the best signal, he summoned me to stand back and be staggered.

My mind flashed back 21 years to my first exposure to CD, in a dingy Decca studio in West Hampstead. The immediacy of the sound was breathtaking, but the aural perspective was all wrong. It felt as if I could reach out and touch the orchestra, never an appetising prospect.

DAB was much more realistic. The news on Radio 4 crossed our living space, inviting interruption. Live piano trios on Radio 3, soul on Jazz FM and head-blasters from Ministry of Sound felt discreetly well adjusted. The World Service was carrying a play by RK Narayan with none of the usual interference.

Among digital-only channels, Oneword was a revelation. It had someone reading Episodes Seven to 11 (out of 20) of It's OK I'm Wearing Really Big Knickers by Louise Rennisonfollowed by Desdemona's death from Shakespeare's Othello.

Bloomberg Radio gave me closing prices at the touch of a remote control, Asian youth stations added heavy beat to Bollywood, all manner of rock start-ups beat the living daylights out of boring Radio 1. I found myself praying that I will never grow to love Saga Radio.

Altogether, some 30 stations came up in my area, many of them running a line of liquid text across the front of the set naming the current programme (a facility introduced on the latest FM sets). This information is mostly generic, but some BBC shows give veritable chapter and verse. A digital subtitler sits in on John Peel's show, devotedly tapping in the cover details of each scruffy old LP from the presenter's bottomless pile.

After a while, the portable urge recedes. If something good comes on DAB, you summon the family into the living room to sit around the set - just as our ancestors did in cat's whisker days, before television destroyed the participatory ethos of home entertainment. This may be the biggest boon of digital radio: it demands our full attention in the centre of the room, no longer hugging the walls. There are also the usual tech-wiz versatilities of time-shifting what you want to hear and burning a CD or MP3.

These are massive advantages for a medium that is recovering momentum on a rising ratings curve. Radio is getting younger as telly goes gaga. Jazz FM, long a loss-maker, is being wooed by the Guardian Media Group. DAB will help real radio see off virtual webcasters, whose signal remains unreliable.

Such positivism hinges, however, on price. Few people are passionate enough about Kiss FM or WLON to invest £129 in a receiver - let alone replace the five sets they keep around the house. To take off, DAB needs a £30 kitchen set and a Walkman model.

Meanwhile, things are hotting up abroad. In Canada, General Motors is fixing DABs in luxury cars. In the United States, GM and Honda are investing a fortune in XM, a 170-channel digital network for long-distance drivers. The impetus is rushing abroad.

Not for the first time, Britain has invented an idea and lost the race to exploit it. In radio we were first to Marconi's wire, first to a public broadcasting network and now first to DAB. Let's hope this is not to be another national tragedy, like the railways, a relentless decline from world's first to world's worst.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001