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Rant on UK radio

What is happening with radio in the UK? Until recently, radio was a cheap, universal medium. Receivers cost virtually nothing, and could pick up nearly all broadcast programmes. Everyone would have a radio in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the shed, in the bathroom, at work, in the car, whatever. Most homes would have several, if not many, and some would be small, battery-powered and easily portable. Now it's split up. New digital radios have appeared which partly duplicate the old stations and introduce digital-only stations. These are expensive, so become one-location only. Very few cars have them. There are also lots of other high-tech ways of getting radio, over the Internet, via Freeview or satellite TV; all of these are also (so far) fixed in location and rely on expensive equipment, bought for another purpose. To regain the same flexibility of listening costs a small fortune, with digital hi-fi tuner, digital portable, digital in the car.

When DAB was being developed, it was claimed to offer benefits in usability and "near CD" sound quality. The actual product does have some of the ease of use, with tuning by station name for example, but the sound quality has not materialised. It has been estimated that a bit rate of 224kbits/s would give "near CD" quality. But the temptation to get a commercial return has resulted in trading of bit rates towards lower sound quality and more channels. Most music channels get only 128kbits/s, and some, such as theJazz, scrape by just 96kbits/s in mono. Classic has 160kbits/s and the BBC keeps faith with Radio 3 at 192kbits/s. Though the BBC does switch things around, when Radio 5 Live Sports Xtra starts up, for example, the bit rates available for Radio 5 and Radio 4 go down, and Radio 4 is sometimes down to 80kbits/s mono. So for much of the time the quality of DAB is worse than FM, and sometimes much worse. There is lots of spare bandwidth, but it's expensive to use that rather than spread the bits thinner.

Another quality issue is in the behaviour when the signal gets weak. With FM, background hiss starts to build up, or bursts of other stations intrude. DAB suddenly breaks up from perfect to a horribly jarring burbling. This is a problem for portable receivers on rod aerials, and worse for personal receivers using the headphone lead as aerial.

There are ease-of-use issues too with the way DAB is implemented. Radios have a lot of complex software, which doesn't always handle the different ways the broadcasters try to use the fancy features. For example, the Pure One portable doesn't seem to let you set a pre-set to a programme that comes and goes such as BBC 5 Live Sports Xtra, it keeps reverting to BBC 5 Live from which 5LSX depends as a sub-channel. It's not at all clear to the user why this channel should come and go. The Pure Bug (2.2 Software) keeps losing theJazz, though it's there all the time; it needs an autotune every time. The Bug also tries to use the Electronic Programme Guide, a very useful system for setting its timer to record off-air, but it's been thro' several iterations of software, each of which works for a while until something in the signal gets "improved". I really don't want to have to keep up-issuing the software in my radio just to keep on using it.

2LO started on 857kHz in 1922, and if it were still going could be picked up by any modern radio (well nearly, 857 isn't a multiple of 9 for PLL tuners). Similarly a radio from then would have a go at modern medium-wave radio. There has been compatibility for nearly 100 years. VHF/FM started in 1955 and has remained compatible for 50 years. Stereo was introduced compatibly, so that mono receivers would continue to receive stereo programmes in mono, and stereo receivers would work in mono on mono signals. DAB will not do this. There are already moves to change the audio coding for a more efficient system, which will not be backward-compatible, so that new stations will appear which existing radios will not be capable of picking up, and, as the pursuit of efficiency will prevail eventually, all existing radios will become obsolete. Radio receivers are becoming as ephemeral as computer hardware and software, which they increasingly resemble.

Another annoyance to many people who use portables is the incredible power consumption of DAB radios. A small analogue-tuning portable will run for ages on a couple of AAs. A DAB will eat C cells as fast as you can put them in. All that high-speed digital stuff takes power, and it's not really feasibly to use dry batteries. Re-chargeable packs are essential.

Digital radio takes the construction of receivers way beyond the hobbyist level. It also makes it difficult to make pirate transmitters. This keeps control of broadcasting more firmly with the authorities. It's still possible to build a short-wave radio to listen to "unauthorised" broadcasts, but for how much longer. Your DAB certainly won't let you scan the world.

As for TV, radio is struggling with an explosion of technology without an equivalent increase in useful content.

©2007 Nigel Bromley - 2007-06-20 -> 2007-10-24
+44 7010 700642


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