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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I love radio. Why doesn't it love me?

I love radio. If I was going to do away with all media but one it would be radio I'd hang on to. Over ten years ago in the vanished kingdom of more money than sense I felt I ought to get one of these new fangled digital radios. I went to John Lewis where they had a couple of tuners on sale. Things hadn't yet reached the stage of portables. I bought a Technics tuner for what I think was the best part of a thousand pounds. Yes, you read that correctly. I'm not a complete dolt when it comes to setting up audio equipment but I could never entirely get it working to my convenience. I quickly gained the impression that the stations had been clustered for the convenience of the media owners rather than the listener. Later on I realised that the government were flogging off so much "spectrum" that the signal was getting worse all the time. Many hi-fi people say it's now actually worse than FM. But just as they were going quiet on the subject of audio quality they were starting to talk up the range of radio services that were going to be offered. However no sooner had these stations opened up than they were cutting back or closing. There was not enough advertising around to finance niche services and so everybody had to cluster in the middle of the road or go out of business. The promised internet radio revolution never happened either because the more popular sites became the more they had to pay for bandwidth and music rights. Then the recession gave Channel Four an excuse to change their mind about launching a radio station and suddenly a medium which was positioning itself for dramatic advances was abandoning its weapons and tiptoeing away in the dead of night.

There are maybe ten radios in our house. That's not counting the devices we've got that are capable of receiving radio signals. Some are portable. Some are fixed. A handful are digital. Most are analogue. Because of the digital delay it is impossible to do what I'd like to do, which is listen to the same programme while moving from the kitchen to the dining room. The only solution to that is to switch the digital radio to analogue. Because some clown is promoting club nights on pirate radio from the top of a nearby tower block it's difficult to get proper FM reception on Radio Four in my area. To get round these problems, and to save my family anguish, I decided to listen to the Twenty20 World Cup Final on the internet via my iTouch. I fired it up and tuned it to Five Live only to be told that (presumably because of rights issues) this was one broadcast they were not able to bring me. Since last year we have been trying to turn off anything in the house that uses "stand-by" power overnight. This applies to digital radios. It means that every morning when I make my way downstairs in traditionally fragile state I have to bend down to the plug to turn on our very lovely digital radio at which point it emits a piercing "meee" sound to announce it is ready to be switched on. This lowers my scene somewhat.

I realise that the proposed "digital switchover" ought to save me at least some of those problems but there's a part of me that agrees with Libby Purves's scorching column in The Times in which she lays into the radio industry and the government for a succession of blunders, technological letdowns and high-handed digital decrees that have left people with the feeling that this is an industry that only enters their life in order to take something precious away. (I might also bundle into this battered parcel of discontent the fact that Simon Mayo will no longer be on Five Live because the latter is moving to Manchester, as perfect a case of tail wagging dog as I can call to mind right now.) I also agreed with my old friend Trevor Dann of the Radio Academy when he said on this week's Broadcasting House that the radio industry needs to come up with a product that adds something to people's enjoyment rather than curtailing it. How it's going to happen I have no idea. Identifying with the listener (make that "customer" for a while) might prove very difficult. What we don't wish to hear any more of are their problems.