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.


  1. Grytpype-Thynne9:42 am

    I've also been mulling over this theory about government control. I'd considered posting it on The Word blog but held back because it's still perhaps a bit half-arsed.

    Yes those clowns broadcasting from a tower block are a royal pain and are of no use to anybody, but how much of a pain were Radio London and Radio Caroline I wonder? When there were only legally THREE radio stations and only one hour of pop music a week on British radio the pirates sailed into to fill that desire. It's before my time really, but if "The Who Sell Out" is anything to go by then by and large the myth is fairly close to the reality.

    Likewise we've all heard urgent broadcasts from Budapest or Prague as Soviet tanks rumble down the street. The radio beaming out unrestricted to an impotent world. Ah but, it's all different today what with Twitter & You Tube. Well yes but only just in totalitarian states, Iran is desperately trying to filter out anything which mentions its unrest and with only one aperture for all its international internet communication if things really kicked off I don't suppose they'd waste too much time agonising over weather to turn off the tap altogether.

    So, radio, primitive analogue radio, can out fox Wedgie Benn and Krustchev at least for while. Can digital? Where broadcasters surely have to be listed on the multiplex and the EPG before would-be listeners' radios will even countenance being able to tune in? I'm certain you couldn't just start beaming out a signal and have it picked up. It's a conformist's dream. Every staion licensed and having to toe the party line wrt "balance" and news on the hour even though, IMO, there's far too much news around - I can put Sky on anytime, why does Classic Gold or Planet Rock have to bother? I

    Where's the room for innovation in this controlled sterile environment I wonder? On the internet in podcasts and foreign streams I suppose.

  2. Aaron9:47 am

    I still don't see how DAB switchover can happen until someone solves the use case of people listening to commentary on a match that they're attending. Can you see cricket fans at Lords putting up with the 2-second delay when listening to Test Match Special?

    Unless of course the technology is going to improve to the point where the delay is removed...

  3. the only time the delay worked for me was the other night I got in while listening to some world music on my phone fm tuner, it was rythmic precussive stuff I turned on my roberts digital and the tune start up but out of phase with my phone and for the rest of the song I stood there with my coat half off listening to beautiful out of synch resonances.

  4. My current gripe with radio technology involves Radio 1 (Please forgive me for lowering the tone), who are currently trialling a live video stream of the Breakfast Show on t'internet.

    Why spend licence fee, time, effort, etc on adding pictures to radio? If I want to watch video I'll switch on my TV, thankyouverymuch.

  5. There are also 33 million cars on the road where radio is an essential aid to driving for most people and presumably about 33 DAB car radios.

    There is no element of joined up thinking, just expediency. I suspect the Government is still focussed on the massive 3G sell-off-stitch-up which provided millions of pounds for the equivalent of fresh air and hoping to repeat the trick.

    Long live Radio 4 in whatever form we consume it.

  6. The usual perceptive analysis from DH there, though my favourite part by some distance is: "This lowers my scene somewhat." FWIW I listen to Planet Rock almost exclusively and it gives me tremendous pleasure. I can hear records that I'd otherwise have to dig into my library to enjoy.

  7. Anonymous2:34 pm

    Other than a couple of DAB-only stations, it has so far been quite disappointing. the one thing in its favour is that when my O2 phone goes off, the DAB speakers don't make a horrendous kh-khkh-kher noise like the other hi-fo speakers do.

  8. It's the curse of digital 'never mind the quality feel the bandwidth' - it's not possible to populate a broad selection of listening options and make the majority work, we're not the US and simply don't have the headcount to make a low-level stations have a significant take-up..

    The fact that Birdsong and Traffic (the novelty turns in the DAB variety act) are being shoved onto to the platform to fill the silence smacks of desperate peddling..

  9. Have you considered getting an FM transmitter intended for in-car use to "broadcast" a DAB only channel - in your case Radio 4! - to the rest of the house? We use one plugged into the main hi-fi in the house which means we can listen to anything we like on a portable FM radio.