Sunday, 17 February 2008

The Digital Revolution - has it hit Radio yet?

I just came across this article by Ashley Highfield, the BBC director of Future Media and Technology, on the subject of DAB Radio and Radio in general. It makes for some interesting reading. I quote:

Given that DAB has quality and simplicity sorted, where does it go from here? The biggest benefit of DAB going forward should still be its ease of use, and range of stations, but also its clear benefits over FM. To make the most of these benefits, I want a DAB set with a big touch-screen, with a big on-screen programme guide, showing the stations, the shows on those stations, and the tracks currently playing on those shows. All possible on DAB (and indeed the first big screen DAB sets are starting to come on to the market).

I want this big screen to show me signal strength, news feeds, and the time. I want it to show me programmes coming up, to allow me to bookmark and record programmes, to set up simple searches (scan all stations, and record me any interviews with Goldfrapp, and perhaps provide information about release dates of her upcoming album).

I want DAB to show me weather, traffic and travel information graphically, on the same nice big screen, but unlike IP, reliably, simply, without installation and configuration. It's all possible: I've seen it working from our development teams and research engineers. I want DAB to use its metadata - the information about the programmes - to differentiate itself from FM, which is surely its biggest competitor, rather than from IP. I want DAB to look like a product of the future, not the past.
We can and should do more at the Beeb to work with the industry to innovate around DAB. And like DTT television, it is possible that hybrid boxes (DAB and IP), offering the simplicity and reliability of broadcast with the range and on-demand benefits of IP will become the standard (with the ability to track listening habits and personalise your experience).
Interesting views indeed. And I agree with them, for the most part. We live in an age where there is a great deal of choice; where all music tastes are catered for in some form or another. With and Pandora (or a combination of the two) you can pick exactly what you want to listen to. Sounds perfect, right? Well yes, but a major drawback of services such as this is the lack of "human contact" that we get on the Radio. Sure, we can listen to a song and enjoy it, but if there isn't a DJ talking to us about the music (or whatever the hell he feels like) then our enjoyment is lessened. Hence why radio, digital or otherwise, is still so popular today.

However, DAB Radio hasn't been the massive success we thought it would be. In the past few weeks, two UK DAB channels have stepped down. Most notable is theJazz, which was a brilliant concept, but perhaps a bit ahead of its time - it's the kind of thing that I meant to get into, but I never got round to it! The other is Oneword, a (perhaps rather badly named) Radio 4 competitor, which, as you may have heard, was quietly replaced with a looped recording of birdsong - amusingly, listening figures have increased exponentially since then! It would seem that the concept of DAB radio hasn't quite been perfected yet, since without those two the only things that are left (on a national basis) are the BBC offerings and stations that you can already get on FM radio anyway. Not very diverse, is it?

Despite its capabilities, DAB radio is not yet perfect, far from it. First of all, the availability of certain stations is patchy at best. For example, I can only get my favourite radio station on our DAB radio when we move it into certain rooms of the house. Otherwise the radio refuses to acknowledge its existence. Yet on FM radio the station is always there, at a fixed frequency; all I need to do is point the aerial in a specific direction, and I get near perfect signal.

Another less obvious drawback of DAB radios are their relative lack of energy efficiency compared to FM radios. Not really much of an issue if you have a plug-in radio, but the battery life of portable radios of each type simply does not compare.

Personally, I get my radio and streaming music from IP, DAB and FM sources. We have two DAB radios in our house, but just as many FM radios in bedrooms and our main living room. And we don't really listen to any of the BBC's digital-only stations, so the only real reason for having DAB radios is for better reception. Of course, I also listen to FM radio when driving; in all honesty, who has a DAB radio in their car?

As for Internet radio, I can't say I've ever bothered to use it. If I'm not listening to my own music, I'll be listening to a set "station" on, normally one which has tastes very similar to my own. Even more of a bonus is that I can now listen to from my iPod Touch as well. I used to listen to Pandora as well, but since they've now locked out all non-US users with an IP ban, it really isn't worth the trouble to circumvent this.

In the end, I think Digital Radio will succeed over Analogue. The advantages in terms of variety of content are obvious. But for that to happen, it needs to be just as convenient and widely available as FM/AM radio. DAB has an obvious advantage over Internet radio; it's free and portable. But the lack of variety currently available, and manufacturers' trend of making minimalist, retro devices, is doing the technology a disservice. But will DAB radio be the eventual winner? Only time will tell.

Now playing: We Are Scientists - Lousy Reputation
via FoxyTunes

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